diamond geezer

 Monday, August 28, 2017

The London Loop was born in a different era.

To prove the point, this is part of the information board on Hadley Common, at the top of the long climb up from New Barnet.

The dead giveaway to its age is the 0181 phone number, dating the board to before June 1999. The idea to create an official outer orbital walking route around the capital arose in 1990, and soon became the flagship project of the London Walking Forum. The first section to be officially opened was between Hamsey Green and Coulsdon, with a ceremony on Farthing Downs on 3rd May 1996. Other sections followed at a rate of two or three a year, it being no mean feat to fully waymark a path and provide written instructions on how to walk it. Section 16 via Hadley Common must have been one of the first to open, and it took almost ten years for the entire Loop to be fully complete.

The nationwide Walkers' Web mentioned on the board never came to fruition, but London's new administration took the Loop to heart and bundled it up with five other 'strategic walks'. Another was the Capital Ring, a medium-sized orbit in zones 3 and 4, plus the separately sourced Jubilee Walkway linking sights in the centre. Two others followed rivers - the Thames Path and the Lea Valley Walk - and the last was the Green Chain in southeast London, a leftover from the GLC. Only one strategic route has been added since - the Jubilee Greenway - and that's mainly cobbled together from existing sections of existing routes, plus a lot of Regents Canal towpath. Lack of cash means there's no expectation the official network will be expanding any time soon.

The idea of a free guide you can pick up in your local library or council offices now sounds very dated. Full colour fold out illustrated leaflets were provided in a pre-internet era, specifically to encourage Londoners out of their homes. But the money ran out in 2009, since when it's been pdfs only, or shelling out to buy the book for the entire circuit. I collected nearly all the leaflets before austerity kicked in, and when I walked section 16 last week it was definitely the leaflet I took with me to help guide me round, not some sanitised electronic version. Sure it's brilliant to have a map and all the instructions in your pocket on your phone, at basically no cost, but the tiny screen is no match for an expansive sheet of paper when you're trying to assimilate the route.

Funding for the Walk London website, on which all the strategic walks were hosted, disappeared at the end of 2014. Instead TfL were forced to take all the maps and directions in house, eventually (but not immediately) creating a full set of electronic instructions. These are in TfL house style with accurate but strangely vacant maps, more utilitarian than enticing... but at least they still exist. Meanwhile the Walk London website got wiped, and now only bursts into action three times a year to promote special weekends of guided walks. Again they're great, but TfL's commitment to promoting walking now feels somewhat lacklustre - merely keeping the old stuff on life support rather than branching out with something new.

As for the signs, it's no longer true that if you follow the LOOP waymarks you won't get lost. Obviously it's impossible to perfectly sign a walking route through deep country, but enough waymarks are missing that you won't find your way at certain key points without written instructions. Time was when people actually went out to check all the signs were in place, and if not affix a new one, indeed each section of the Loop and Capital Ring once had its own volunteer steward who watched over it. These days there are dozens of missing green circles, and several broken fingerposts, as an idea once high up the priority list slowly decays into obscurity.

The worst thing is you're probably nodding and saying, yes, that's how it is these days, so deeply is the philosophy of "we simply can't afford it" engrained on our public services. Now central government castrates local government spending, making provision for citizens taking a jolly walk is never going to be a priority. No matter that exercise might keep us fitter and keep us away from the NHS for longer, the realities of brutally-trimmed funding mean that today's available money always goes elsewhere. That said, Sadiq Khan did state in his Mayoral manifesto that he wanted to "Open up more walking routes around London, and work with local authorities and TfL to improve the London Loop and Capital Ring walks", but we haven't seen any sight of anything like that as yet.

So really this is just a plea to go out and enjoy the London Loop and the other strategic walks while they're still available. I've learned an absolutely huge amount about London by walking routes around and across it, carefully curated by people who knew what they were doing, and enjoyed myself thoroughly along the way. It doesn't matter if you only walk a single section, or like me take ten years to complete an entire circuit, the point is to give these official walks a try. Nobody's going to be funding the Santander Suburban Stroll any time soon, so best get out and make best use of what we've got.

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