10♦ Hornchurch Hornchurch Urban District was formed in 1926, stretching from Harold Wood down to the Thames, and east to Upminster and far beyond. It currently forms the majority of the London borough of Havering, including some of the capital's most remote rural corners. You can gauge how remote a part of London is by its PTAL, or public transport accessibility level, on a scale which ranges from 6b down to 0. Central Upminster is the only part of Hornchurch which reaches 5, while (unusually) four large swathes earn a big fat zero, thanks to total lack of access to trains and buses. For today's post I've made a visit to the gaping public transport limbo south of Upminster and east of Rainham... on foot, of course. I suspect this makes me one of the tiny fraction of Londoners who've ever been to Hacton.
Across the Hacton Void
It's not hard to find the Hacton Lane estate. This grid of 1930s semis is only a short stroll from Hornchurch station, laid out across gently sloping former farmland, spreading down to a chippie and a dry cleaners. The 193 bus'll drop you off outside the convenience store, but that's as far as public transport nudges hereabouts. One former country lane survives, wiggling south past the community hall to the ancient crossing at Hacton Bridge. The river here is the Ingrebourne, the dividing line between suburbia and the back of beyond, and a constant companion during the penultimate section of the London Loop. A last wedge of housing rubs up alongside, fed and watered by the oddly-named OptimistTavern and its capacious car park. And while all of that could be described as modern-day Hacton, the original hamlet remains some distance off, surrounded by fields.
The country lane which veers off opposite the pub is not pedestrian-friendly. What counts as the pavement first becomes overgrown, is then blocked by bollards, and then fades away. I had to face the traffic and hope for the best, hoping for a narrow verge to step up onto rather than a tight hedge when an approaching vehicle came my way. The double bend didn't help. The entire lane was once lined by cottages, but in the 19th century most villagers moved away and now only a short row of replacements hugs the final bend. One has a palm tree outside, one has scaffolding, one has coachlamps, and the last house (painted pastel pink) used to be The White Hart pub until the taps dried up circa 2011. You couldn't live in this corner of London without a car, which is fine, because these five families don't.
Faced with a choice of two further country lanes I took the wider one, east, past ploughed fields and a large livery stables. A few less than pristine vehicles were parked up outside the big sheds of Lodge Farm. McDonalds cups and KFC cartons appeared intermittently in the hedgerow. Pylons drooped their wires overhead. A footpath led off through the Parklands Open Space to the last street in Corbets Tey, where the bus to Lakeside might drop you off. A team from Havering council, with Stop Go boards, were out in their truck repainting the rumble strips. A tributary of the Ingrebourne, essentially a ditch, crossed the lane on a wooded bend. And it was here that I saw my first Forestry Commission welcome sign, and so stepped through.
I was enticed into Bonnetts Wood by a fresh-looking map, and rapidly found myself in a fledgling woodland. The first trees were planted on this former farmland in 2003, along with a surfaced path weaving through to a footbridge over an occasional stream. Originally the only other exit was opposite the Gerpins Lane Recycling Centre, aka the Havering tip, but in 2012 an adjacent landfill site was opened up and the path now winds on. It's a very peculiar landscape, an expanse of filled-in brownfield topped by builders rubble (allegedly including spoil from the Shard), then grassed over. It's also slightly higher than its surroundings, so there's a half-decent view from the bench at the top, even if (I'm willing to bet) almost nobody ever comes up here.
A lot of outer Havering has been embraced by the Thames Chase Community Forest, a significant chain of woodland spaces, of which this is part. The landfill site across the road is in the process of being reclaimed to create another patch, which'll connect to Berwick Glades, which'll connect to Berwick Woods, but alas any sensible way of walking in from Rainham remains some years off. Little Gerpins Lane, along the southern edge, is so far-flung that miscreants regularly use it for fly-tipping. Some massive piles have been left here over the years, and a council truck was busy trying to scrape away another as I passed... that or attempting to block the lane off, it was hard to tell.
Retracing my steps through the 'wood' returned me to Aveley Road, the busiest road through this public transport desert. A decade ago the 373 bus ran this way every half hour, connecting Romford to Grays, but having walked the length of the road I can see why they scrapped it. A nursery to drive your toddler to. A farm shop fluttering a battered Union Jack, keen to specify it sells English Onions. A row of bungalows, called The Bungalows. Sporadic litter-strewn verges. The Upminster Paintball Centre. Stan's Gym, allegedly offering "more experience than any other gym", although it's located on a caravan park so I have my doubts. This is how the folk of almost-Essex make a living, along a back lane of unrefined opportunity.
Next up, blimey, an airfield! It's long been erased from the Ordnance Survey map, leaving contours hanging, but is more than obvious from the roadside thanks to big signs emphasising the cafe (visitors welcome). Damyns Hall Aerodrome has been around since 1969 and its two grass runways form Greater London's only privately owned airfield. Light aircraft and helicopters are based here, plus opportunities for flying lessons, biplane rides and wing-walking if you've ever fancied having a try. BestMate has long been tempted by the former, but the sheer faff of getting out here without a car has always put him off. I made do with spotting a couple of planes behind a hedge, with the towers of Canary Wharf sticking up far beyond, before being startled when a retired couple in a pony and trap clopped by.
Where four country lanes meet is where Havering starts to peter out. Because the boundary is doing peculiar things at this point, Thurrock lies to the west of the lane and London to the east, which is wholly counter-intuitive. A brief row of cottages intrudes on the London side, and a lorry park, then a cluster of small retail businesses keen to lure passing traffic inside. Plant Perfection caters for all your garden and pet needs, Karen's Wedding Studio additionally offers prom dresses, The Coffee Shop will throw in a cake with your caffeine for £3, and the shed out front has been temporarily tarted up as Santa's Grotto (weekends only). I got some odd looks from two blokes filling vans in the car park - I guess they hardly ever see anyone walking past, plus it had only just finished snowing.
My final target was Belhus Woods Country Park, another jewel of the Thames Chase Community Forest. Its extensive acres were once part of an 18th century country estate, landscaped by Capability Brown, but also contain several reclaimed gravel pits and chunks of ancient woodland. I was charmed, even in winter. There are lakes to promenade around (or fish in), open lawns for canine exercise and dense wooded quarters still harvested for thatching. Be sure to pop into the Visitor Centre for a map, else you might not find the Long Pond (sadly severed by the M25), or the outdoor track used by the Model Railway Club (next Open Day, probably Easter), or the path across the road to a vast additional area of virgin forest.
I was impressed that the Visitor Centre was open even on a weekday in winter, and serving up seasonal drinks to an audience of one. And I was surprised to see the name of Essex County Council proudly emblazoned across its gable, despite the building (and its associated vast car park) being incontrovertibly in Havering. The Greater London boundary runs 200m to the south, through the thickest part of the woods, following the line of the Running Water Brook. I stood on the footbridge over a static stream, littered with leaves, saddened that the only bus to these parts was scrapped ten years ago and that it would be hard to get back. But that's what a PTAL of zero looks like, in the uncompromising rural extremities of London, unexpectedly ripe for adventure.