diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 17, 2024

I said I wasn't going to make a habit of this, and I'm not, but I've ticked off two more.

This is the northeast corner of London, from Hainault Country Park round to North Ockendon, annotated with all the places you can cross the boundary by car, train or public footpath. Discounting the M25, which forms a lot of the boundary hereabouts, only nine of the crossings are roads. That's how successful the Green Belt has been.

The black ticks are all the crossings I've crossed and the latest two are the pair just northeast of Noak Hill. I walked out of one and back in via the other. In the middle were unexpected llamas and a rollercoaster.

All the exits from London +1: Chequers Road, Noak Hill

Noak Hill is London's northeasternmost village and not really on the way to anywhere, not unless you're going to Navestock, South Weald or Coxtie Green. I'd nearly walked out of it before but never quite got past the Orange Tree kennels and pigeon lofts on Church Road. This time I headed out northeast along Chequers Road, past where the Post Office used to be, aiming for the big bridge over the M25. The pavement gives out after Woodside Cottages, after which a stodgy verge suffices, but at least it's enough to keep you out of the road because this corner of London still has a 40mph speed limit. The road surface isn't good and is lightly potholed in places, which is either because Havering council have no interest in traffic heading into Essex or because we've had a budget-strangling government for the last 14 years. If you see a sick or injured deer, a poster advises, be sure to call Harold Wood Deer Aid on this mobile number.

Just before the motorway bridge are two farm gates. One is fronted by a black cruciform memorial commemorating Valeriu Catană (1975-2019), his tiny shrine bedecked with bright artificial flowers. The other is named 'Oakwood' and leads down to a long track which winds off into some woods. After I got home my research suggested Valeriu was a Romanian carpenter and confirmed that Oakwood is a naturist Sun Club offering a heated pool, boules, a croquet lawn and "dense foliage". Even a remote nondescript country lane has its secrets. The M25 is eight lanes wide at this point and on a bit of a climb, just north of the gantry which advises Chelmsford-bound traffic to join the inside lane. The entire motorway is inside the Greater London boundary, for sensible administrative reasons, but once the bridge touches down on the far side you've exited to Essex. Only Havering have put up a welcome sign.

I can't overemphasise how away-from-it-all this is, a world of horsey farms and scattered hamlets, and it was even quieter before the M25 turned up and carved straight across the fields. And yet there is a major tourist attraction here, one that charges £17.50 for admission, and that's Old Macdonald's Farm. As Brentwood's parents will know it's a petting zoo that's diversified into funfair rides and it fills a lengthy strip above the motorway. The easiest things to see from the car park are the Giant Snake Slide and the Doggy Dog Roller Coaster, although somewhere beyond are a Spider Tower, a JCB zone and The Thrilling Crazy Barn Ride. Top of the animal hierarchy are probably the horses, reindeer and llamas, but you also get pigs, goats, owls and walk-through wallabies for your money. Not being a toddler, or having one with me, I gave it a miss.

All the exits from London +2: Wrightsbridge Road

On the other side of Old Macdonald's Farm, which for me was a 5 minute walk, the road crosses Wright's Bridge. This is a crossing of the Weald Brook, a minor stream which flows south and eventually becomes the Ingrebourne, and which was once the boundary between Havering and Brentwood. But when the M25 came along it made sense to make that the boundary instead so you can no longer exit London simply by crossing the bridge. Instead you have to turn off down what looks like OMF's access road, and is barriered as such, but also has a sign saying Bridleway so I gave it a go. The only house, a short way down, is a heavily fortified detached monster called Angel Cottage which I assumed was another modern Essex hideaway. But no, it turns out to be an early 15th century timber framed hall with proper brick chimneystacks, admittedly much extended since, and was formerly an inn called the Old Angel. Another remote nondescript country lane, more secrets.

To cross back into London you first get a few glimpses of the Angel's back garden and then dip down between three bollards into a concrete subway beneath the motorway. Graffiti artists have ventured even this far, it appears, but their spraywork isn't up to much. Climbing back up the far side means following a footpath but very swiftly a stripe of tarmac swings in from the left and this definitely has a kerb. That's good, I thought, my journey back's not going to be the mudbath I'd originally feared. Instead it felt very much like walking down a slightly overgrown country lane with hedges to either side, and it turned out that's exactly what this used to be. Prior to the M25 two parallel roads bore off from Noak Hill but they only had money for one bridge so Chequers Lane (exit 1) got that and Wrightsbridge Road (exit 2) was sacrificed to become a public footpath instead. Old Macdonalds Farm has been slotted in beside the link road added on the Essex side.

The best part of this path was how quiet it was, occasional birdsong excepted. Normally I'm on my guard in this part of Havering for locals out walking lively dogs but I had confidence here I'd not be bumping into anyone, a feeling confirmed by the sight of several fallow deer in the adjacent fields. My passage repeatedly interrupted their grazing, first causing them to look up and then to scarper quietly towards the safety of some overhanging canopy. Deer often find their way onto outlying housing estates in these parts but rarely have I seen groups of ten, thirty and in one case over fifty quietly biding their time in plain sight.

The track eventually reaches a former crossroads where a moss-topped fingerpost points off down multiple paths. You could head back to Noak Hill but I plumped for footpath 278 to Dagnam Park, which is very much the backway into one of Havering's finest recreational spaces. This was once the estate of Dagnams, the manor house whose land was compulsory purchased in the 1940s to create the massive Harold Hill council estate, but this outlying chunk was preserved as parkland and it's delightful. Here I discovered the remains of the old stable block, an avenue of yew trees leading to two white gateposts, the footprint of the former mansion picked out on a lawn, a large pond once brimming with perch, multiple information boards, a Humphrey Repton landscape, a swathe of ancient woodland and of course several more deer.

Quite frankly I should have written about Dagnam Park instead because that's the most interesting thing out here, but alas I've already written multiple less relevant paragraphs and there isn't time. This is why I will never engage in a series called Exiting Greater London In Every Possible Location because it would be a truly irrelevant disappointment, but that's two more ticked off and if you're very unlucky I'll come back one day and do Noak Hill's other five.

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