Thursday, 27 August 2015

London Loop 1: Erith - Bexley

Crayford Saltings, where the remains of a Bronze Age forest are still visible at low tide.


THE LONDON LOOP STARTS OUT as it means to continue, with a remarkable and unexpected succession of contrasting environments. The flat, lonely expanse of the eastern marshes, demarcated by tidal rivers, is a habitat now rare in London and surprisingly remote. Then there are more intimate riverside surroundings, forgotten industrial heritage, a partly Tudor stately home with astonishing formal gardens, an ancient woodland and a village with a weatherboarded mill. This is an easygoing section sticking almost entirely to flat flood plains, and a fine encouragement to continue.
Erith station, start of the London Loop

Erith


The first thing to learn about the London Loop is that it’s not actually a loop. With no way for walkers to cross the Thames between the Woolwich foot tunnel and the Tilbury ferry, the trail is more like a giant letter C with its ends almost but not quite touching, kept tantalisingly apart by the broadening river. As such, it has a beginning and end, at Erith and Purfleet respectively. The two stations are 4 km apart as the crow flies, 240 km the long way round.

There were reasons for choosing Erith as the start point. It’s the closest significant riverside centre to the London boundary in the east on the London side and an extremity of two existing walking trails that predated the Loop: the Cray Riverway and the Green Chain Walk. And historically there was a cross-river connection here in the form of a ferry to Rainham. Doubtless the devisers of the Loop hoped this might one day be reinstated, a hope which now looks more realistic than it once did.

But it’s fair to say many walkers, myself included, would have found little reason to visit Erith if it wasn’t for the trails. Though the river is always compelling and there are a few intriguing fragments of waterside heritage left in the town, today it’s difficult to escape the impression of a neglected backwater of the Borough of Bexley, a dead-end for the displaced white working class of southeast London, inflicted with over-engineered roads and bland postwar architecture.

It’s actually improved a bit since I first visited in the 1980s, exploring the Green Chain Walk: traffic is better-managed, public art has been installed, river frontage opened up. The ghastly 1960s wind tunnel shopping precinct received a facelift in 2005, which has made it more hospitable but even more devoid of a sense of place. The other retail attraction is the massive supermarket opened in 1998 by Morrisons, then primarily a Northern-based chain, as its first outlet in the south of England.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1840s, a pleasure garden, arboretum and hotel lured Londoners onto pleasure steamers down the Thames. That same decade, in 1848, the station on the North Kent line opened, prompting local landowners to build country houses aimed at upmarket commuters on former farmland. It was then the town began to grow to its current size, but its history goes back much further. There are prehistoric traces and evidence of a Saxon settlement – the name likely derives from Old English and means ‘muddy harbour’. Likely the old village centre clustered further west and upriver, off our route and around St John’s church, before the station and the landing stage shifted the centre of gravity east

The church is likely a Saxon foundation with 13th century fabric, though a victim of excessively zealous Victorian restoration and now partly severed from its old hinterland by the railway and the parallel concrete scar of dual carriageway. In Henry VIII’s time a naval dockyard was established on the riverfront, complementing similar facilities upriver at Deptford and Woolwich: the king’s great vanity project Henri Grace à Dieu or The Great Harry, the biggest warship in Europe, was fitted out here in 1515.

A more noteworthy seafarer was Scottish sailor and privateer Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721), the original model for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, who landed in Erith in 1711 following his rescue from Más a Tierra, an uninhabited island off the coast of Chile, after a four-year stay, Industry expanded in the second half of the 20th century, with cable and armaments companies linked to the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, and an influx of workers bestowing a more proletarian atmosphere. The devastation of World War II bombing cleared the way for the obliteration of most of the rest of the historic fabric by 1960s developers.

The Loop starts from the station, still with its rustic-looking Victorian building, and heads to Riverside Gardens. A few paces off the route along Walnut Tree Road is a fine Grade II-listed example of a red brick Carnegie library from 1906, its cupola surmounted by a bronze weathervane, in the form, appropriately, of a sailing ship. This lovely building, originally gifted alongside over 2,500 others across the world by Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for the benefit of the local community, once also housed the modest but engrossing Erith Museum. Scandalously, the building fell victim to council cuts in 2009, and though the library has since been rehoused in a new facility in the town centre, the museum seems to have gone for good.

The gardens occupy the site of the Tudor dockyard, which at the height of late 19th century industry housed a massive flour mill. It’s been a public amenity since 1937, though was remodelled and extended in 1982. The colourful plantings are welcome, though the layout, in a raised rectangle, seems sterile and enclosed rather than pleasingly intimate. But the site has a commanding view of the river Thames, with the salty reek of mud at low tide.

Site of the Pilgrim Ferry at Erith:
The London Loop's missing link.
Upriver is the sweep of Erith Marshes that once formed part of the Arsenal site, and beyond it the piers of the Woolwich Free Ferry. Downriver the banks diverge perceptibly, with the spindly arc of the Dartford Crossing bridge in the distance. Opposite, so near and yet so far, is Veolia’s massive landfill site on Coldharbour Point: you’ll find yourself walking along this northern waterfront and on past the RSPB’s Rainham Marshes nature reserve in almost 250 km’s time.

From here the Loop sets off along the Thames for a while, sharing its path with National Cycle Network (NCN) Route 1 (the Thames Cycle Route) and the Thames Path extension, the latter signed with a Thames barge logo. This isn’t officially part of the Thames Path National Trail, which ends at the Thames Barrier in Charlton, but an extension created by Greenwich and Bexley boroughs in 2001. In future I plan on writing more fully about the Thames Path and the river it follows, so for the moment just enjoy the waterside scenes.

The official trail runs through the gardens but I’d recommend you use the riverside promenade beneath, known as the William Cory Promenade for reasons which will become clear. You’ll not only be closer to the water but see the mural commemorating Henri Grace à Dieu and pass the jetty on the site of the southern terminal of the Pilgrim Ferry, so-called as it was once used by pilgrims from Essex heading for Canterbury.

When the mayors of Bexley and Havering unveiled the plaque here and its counterpart on the opposite bank in 1999 to mark the 800th anniversary of this once-strategic link, I doubt they seriously thought there was a realistic chance of it being restored: after all, London had done without it since the 1850s.

But today, as planners puzzle about how to improve connectivity between the two sides of the ‘Thames Gateway’ development area, once-idealistic proposals are starting to make more sense. What if: projects, an ambitious architectural consultancy which is also promoting a London version of New York City’s High Line rail viaduct linear park, is gathering support for the idea online, specifically citing the objective of ‘closing the Loop’. One easy way of achieving this would be to extend the existing Thames Clippers riverbus service from Woolwich to call at both Rainham and Erith.

You’re forced away from the riverside temporarily along Erith High Street, passing some of the town’s few older buildings: an early 20th century police station, a pair of cottages from the 1790s and a recently lost late Victorian pub, the Cross Keys, now residential but recognisable from its engraved glass. The Erith Playhouse, meanwhile, is older than it looks: the 1973 frontage conceals a stage and auditorium that began life as a cinema in 1913. It was first converted to a theatre by an amateur dramatic group in 1947 and remains a non-professional venue run by volunteers.

Erith Deep Water Wharf, the longest pier in London.
The stretch of riverfront beyond this was industrial until the late 1990s, when the Morrisons redevelopment opened up new access, including to the Loop’s first star attractions, the Deep Water Wharf. At around 360 m, this is the longest pier in London, reaching far enough into the river to defy the tide before right-angling to parallel the bank. It originated as the pleasure steamer terminal in 1842, and was later converted to industrial use: it’s still sometimes known as Cory’s Wharf after the company that long used it for coal distribution. Cory’s was likely founded in 1605 by woodmonger William Cory and still operates other sites along the river today, but is now a waste recycling business.

The current concrete structure, now simply a public amenity, dates from a 1957 rebuild: the rustic wooden hut at the shore end houses a substantial gate for use when floods are threatened. The late walking writer and campaigner David Sharp, who wrote the first guide to the Loop, suggested that when standing on the end of the pier it’s possible to imagine you’re on a boat at sea, even at low tide, and I strongly recommend you test his theory at least once.

Multiple signing on Erith Manor Road near the Yacht Club.
The promenade ends all too briefly with a deflection along busy Manor Road, avoiding a stretch where the riverside is still industrial. Recycling facilities predominate: this is one of the places where those big yellow barges often seen being towed along the river are heading. It isn’t the most pleasant section of the Loop, but the pavements are broad, and walkers do better than cyclists on NCN 1, who are compelled to swap from one side of the road to the other several times. And it soon ends at a sign pointing back towards the Thames along the drive of Erith Yacht Club, returning us to the use of the river as a place to play which helped put the town on the London map.

The signing has long gone, but this was the original official start point of the aforementioned Cray Riverway, first established by Bexley council in the late 1980s under the inspiration of the Green Chain Walk. Though partly superseded by the Loop, the trail is still modestly promoted, and we’ll stumble across some dedicated signing further along.

Crayford Marshes

Darent Industrial Estate
From the yacht club drive a dead straight track on a raised flood embankment heads out into the wide, flat landscape of Crayford Marshes. It’s a sight that always fills me with the anticipation of a satisfyingly brisk stroll through some of the most unique and unexpected surroundings London has to offer. Maybe it’s my Dutch ancestry because there are plenty of people who disagree with me: I’ve read several write-ups of the Loop that carp sourly about the ugliness of this stretch. I think it’s a question of expectations: if you set out on the Loop expecting pretty rolling English countryside, this is certainly not what you get, at least not yet.

But the marshes are near-unique – only Rainham Marshes on the opposite side and the closing section of the Loop are comparable in London. The surroundings are historic and rich in wildlife, an invaluable part of the Green Belt and an Area of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation. Even the Darent Industrial Park nudging the river at Crayford Ness, with its mangled car wrecks and disintegrating shipping containers, adds to the atmosphere, contrasting with the wide open water, the windblown reeds, and seagulls swooping towards the always-visible arc of the Dartford Crossing. Approached with an open mind, the marshes have a desolate beauty and an unexpected sense of isolation that brings a genuine resonance to the phrase ‘urban fringe’.

Besides, the marshes are more honest to the ‘natural’ state of the tidal Thames. In Roman times these dank wetlands extended all the way up into central London, covering much of the flat land bounding the river including Lambeth and Southwark. Try picturing the Elephant and Castle in the middle of a scene like this.

In the 13th century, the land was drained and reclaimed for grazing by the monks of Lesnes Abbey, the ruins of which still overlook Thamesmead further upriver and on the Green Chain Walk. While most of the flood plain closer to central London was later built-up, this far-flung corner was remote enough largely to survive as rough grazing land into the 20th century, alongside other uses that required open, uninhabited sites, like the munitions factory that once stood on the industrial park site, and a World War II anti-aircraft battery to the west.

Depending on the tide, you can expect to look back even further in time. The 1 km stretch of foreshore known as the Saltings between the yacht club and Crayford Ness contains the remains of a forest dating from the Bronze Age which once stood on a now-inundated ait and is still visible at low tide. Archaeological investigations here have unearthed numerous fragments of pottery and flint tools.

The Thames Path Extension finally peters out at Crayford Ness where the river Darent joins the Thames as tidal Dartford Creek. This tributary rises on the Greensand ridge just south of Westerham and not far from Sevenoaks, and runs roughly north, largely as a chalk stream, for 34 km via Shoreham, Eynsford, Farningham and Dartford (‘Darent-ford’). The creek once formed part of an important transport connection to sites a little further along the Loop, and rights of navigation still exist, though in practice it’s been disused for this purpose since 1986 and has begun to silt up. There’s a local campaign to clear it again in the hope of promoting leisure use.

The Darent is a source of frustration to walkers and cyclists attempting to follow the Thames. While there are good rights of way along the flood defences on the other side, even more tantalisingly close than the other end of the Loop at Rainham, there is currently no way of crossing at this point, forcing a detour of over 10 km. This was one of the obstructions that influenced the decision to stop the Thames Path national trail at Charlton, and it was identified in a 2008 review of opportunities for extending the route as a major barrier to increased use of the riverside paths. A substantial new bridge in this far corner of London might once have seemed a remote prospect but again the Thames Gateway development plans now make it more likely.

Darent Flood Barrier
Even more frustrating is the fact there is already a structure straddling the Darent here, which has been looming ever larger in the field of vision for some time. This is the Environment Agency’s Darent Flood Barrier, built in 1982, and equipped with two 160 t drop-leaf gates that can be lowered to block off the waterway. But while there’s a gantry allowing engineers to cross from bank to bank, it’s unsuitable for public use. The barrier is so tall to avoid obstructing navigation, and any new bridge would have to match its 12 m clearance.

London Loop walkers have no need of frustration, however, as our way is in any case southwest along the Darent. Once past the industrial estate, the surroundings become increasingly green and open, with rough fields still used for their ancient purpose of grazing – though today largely by horses – on both sides of the deeply incised, muddy and reed-fringed creek, subdivided by brambly hedgerows and dotted with patches of scrub.

You’re right on the edge of London in another sense here, as since 1965 the Darent has formed the boundary between the London Borough of Bexley and Dartford borough in the county of Kent (before Greater London was created, the whole of Bexley borough was in Kent). You’re within hailing distance of walkers on the riverside footpath on the Kent side, part of the Darent Valley Path tracing the river to its source. For a general introduction to Kent, see the London Loop alternative route from Dartford Crossways to Crayford.

An old lane, Moat Lane, provides a break point with a link to the station at Slade Green, the easternmost settlement in London south of the Thames. If you head this way, a little north of the station, surrounded by a private field but visible from a footpath, you’ll find the remains of Howbury moated manor, now a scheduled ancient monument, and a 17th century tithe barn, which once stood on the southwest corner of the marsh. The main route, meanwhile, soon reaches the confluence of the Darent’s lowest tributary the Cray, where the trail is once more forced west, away from the Darent and further into London.

Confluence of the rivers Darent (running from right to left) and Cray (on the right) in Crayford Marshes, with Dartford Marshes in Kent on the opposite bank.

Barnes Cray


The Loop completes its journey across the marshes along a rather undistinguished lane through an industrial estate that is at least improved since I first walked it in the 1990s, when you had to dodge the mud thrown up by lorries on an unsurfaced track. To get those lorries through, they’ve had to dig out the carriageway underneath the low 1849 bridge that carries the North Kent Line, part of the same route that serves Erith.

You arrive at a roundabout on busy Thames Road, a far more desolate place than the marsh despite the surrounding buildings. It’s a non-place, like a chute down which vehicles tumble out of London. There used to be a run-down pub here, the Jolly Farmers, with a seafood stall in the car park but even that is gone. Yet although this side of the road is industrial, there are swathes of housing opposite, including new developments. A fenced meadow beside the river where locals walk their dogs, called the Jolly Farmers Recreation Ground after the lost pub, now seems the only amenity left.

The 14 km river Cray, which rises in a meadow in Orpington, is one of those rivers that has for some reason appended its name to many of the settlements on its banks. This is Barnes Cray, the lowest such example, which also bears the name of a prominent local family that owned a manor house on the riverbank nearby. The industrial area is known locally as the Sawmills although originally a Tudor iron mill stood on the site; a sawmill replaced it in 1765 and by 1819 had itself been replaced by a flour mill.

For centuries these installations relied on the Cray, then a much more vigorous river, for access as well as power, as narrow Iron Mill Lane, which ran through open ground from Crayford, was often impassable in winter. This changed when Thames Road opened in 1927 as the result of a government road building programming designed partly to provide employment. But water transport remained important for long afterwards: in 1977 around 400 t of grain a week arrived along the Darent and Cray. Today, like so much round here, the area is largely dedicated to recycling and landfill.

River Cray at Barnes Cray.
The Loop finally crosses the Cray and rejoins its banks by a carved wooden Cray Riverway post. The Thames Cycleway leaves our route here to follow the road; if you wanted to return to the Thames-side footpath, you’d need to head north again on the other side of the Cray back to the confluence, skip across the Darent on a road bridge and walk all the way back on its east bank to the Thames.

The surroundings that follow provide a striking contrast not only to Thames Road but to the previous stretches of waterside. The muddy tidal creek through open marshes has become a more intimate and more classically attractive stream enclosed by verdant banks with alders and willows. But only a constant battle against invasive giant hogweed preserves this sylvan scene. Barnes Cray Road, along which the trail temporarily diverts away from the river, once led to the manor house, Barnes Cray House.

This was demolished in the early 20th century to make way for the housing of Crayford Garden Suburb, built between 1914-16 as a model village to house workers at the massive Vickers factory on the other side of the river. David Sharp observes that the houses seem to turn their backs on the water. It seems unthinkable today, but there was a time when even good quality developments like the Garden Suburb failed to take advantage of pre-existing natural features.

Crayford


Waterside Gardens, the little park that now provides a focal point for Crayford’s town centre, presents a peaceful scene, but this has long been a town bustling with both transport and industry. It stands on Watling Street, once part of the Roman Iter II linking the north of England via St Albans and London to the Kent ports and thence to Rome. The derivation of the placename is obvious: this is where the road forded the Cray.

The road was a trackway long before the Romans arrived, and evidence of an Iron Age settlement from around 30-40 BCE has been discovered nearby. The site is likely the ‘Crecganford’ recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles where Hengist, leader of the Jutes, defeated the Britons in 457 after the Romans had deserted them. A church stood here when the settlement was recorded in the 1086 Domesday survey as Erhede, and the oldest parts of the present building date from 1100. It’s dedicated to St Paulinus, a saint once popular among pilgrims making their way between London and Canterbury along Watling Street.

The good road connections and the river’s water and power attracted industry, not just to Barnes Cray nearby but to the town itself. By the 1670s there were tanneries and linen bleachers, and by the early 18th century Crayford was known for its fabric printers. The last of these, David Evans Ltd, which closed as recently as 2001, was also the last business of this kind in London, and renowned for printing fine silks for clients like Liberty and Christian Dior.

The traditional local armaments industry was strengthened when the Maxim company began making machine guns here in 1888. Later Sheffield-based combine, Vickers, bought it out and built a giant plant, which at various times made petrol pumps, calculators, sewing machines, machine tools, cars and aircraft as well as guns. The Vickers Vimy which John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew on the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919 was most likely made here. But with the ending of Ministry of Defence work in the early 1970s the vast factory fell into disuse and was eventually demolished in 1998 to make way for a retail park.

Waterside Gardens, generously refurbished in 2009, repays a closer look. Not only is it a beautifully designed and landscaped small park, but it incorporates numerous references to the town’s past: look out for both the Liberty Paisley pattern and reminders of Maxim and Vickers used in some of the structures and paving. Something similar has been done for another smaller park, Tannery Gardens, across the road.

Stand facing the busy main road junction with your back to the park and the river under your feet and you’re pretty much on the site of the original ford. Watling Street ran from left to right here. In 1718 the road was turnpiked and in 1840 diverted along the newly built London Road, the road immediately ahead of you, to avoid the steep hill past the church on the right. The Vickers site is off-route to your left, on the left side of Crayford Road.

Nearby is a municipal clock tower which conceals a sewer vent, built in 1902 when the area was part of Dartford Rural District. This is also the way to another break point at the station, originally opened in 1866 on the Dartford Loop Line, constructed by the South Eastern Railway to relieve the North Kent Line. The current building is modern, but the footbridge dates from 1926.

Update May 2017: if you're joining or leaving the Loop at Crayford, there's a new route through the redeveloped Town Hall Square, with some interesting public art on show. For a few more details see my blog on the Cray Riverway.

The long, low red brick building on the corner as you turn into Bourne Road is a remnant of the David Evans works: unexpectedly, it was originally a cowshed, as cow dung was once used as an ingredient of the dyes. When the marshland adjoining this site was being redeveloped in the 1850s, workers unearthed a Roman galley, which rapidly collapsed.

And Crayford has one further quirky treat in store. Just before turning into Hall Place Park, look for the elaborate and colourfully painted lamp standards outside the Bourne Road Garage. Made in Glasgow, these are all that remains of the luxurious 1,000-seater Princess Theatre, built at Vickers’ expense for local workers in 1916 near what’s now Waterside Gardens. The garage owners rescued them when the theatre, by then a cinema, was demolished in 1960 and moved them here. They’re now Grade II listed, and happily well looked-after, a cheerful splash of exotic colour from the profits on instruments of destruction.

Hall Place


Well-off merchant and former Lord Mayor of London John Champneys (1495-1556) built Hall Place on the banks of the Cray between Bexley and Crayford as his country retreat in 1537, amid extensive gardens and grounds. Later owners included Francis Dashwood (1708-81) of Hellfire Club notoriety, whose most significant architectural legacy is at West Wycombe on the London Countryway. His descendants rented it out as both a private home and a boarding school, but it was sold in 1926 and acquired by Bexley council, then still in Kent, in 1935.

Hall Place, Bexley: A house of two halves.
The house served as a US Army communications base in World War II, from where signals were intercepted for decoding at Bletchley Park, but after this the council seemed uncertain what to do with it. Much of the surrounding land – a vast 65 ha site on both sides of Bourne Road and stretching down to the railway – became featureless football and cricket pitches, while the house served first as a girl’s school then as council offices. The council turned down an offer from its counterpart in Dartford to turn the place into a college in the mid-1960s, because, as a newly created London borough, it wanted to break its links with Kent.

Finally in 2000 the house, gardens and western section of the park were leased to an independent charity, the Bexley Heritage Trust, which also manages another historic council-owned property, Danson House, not far away. The Trust has done wonders, with the help of a £2 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, restoring the house and opening it up to visitors, improving the gardens and building a riverside café, visitor centre and art gallery. The result is one of the London Loop’s many gems.

The playing fields are still largely a dull expanse of grass, much appreciated by weekend footballers but less interesting for wildlife and walkers. Things improve when the trail returns to the riverside, which has been allowed to grow back into a more natural state. Reaching the big 2006 sports pavilion, the trail crosses the Cray again and heads through more playing fields towards the railway, but you’d be daft not to make a modest detour to the house and gardens.

This is also the route taken by another branch of the Cray Riverway, which as originally devised had both a northwestern and a southeastern option for navigating the lack of riverside accesss between here and Foots Cray Meadows. The London Loop hedges its bets by following first one branch, then the other. The northwestern alternative links to another Bexley council trail, the Shuttle Riverway, which follows Cray tributary the Shuttle upstream towards Eltham and the Green Chain Walk.

One curiosity of the house itself is that it’s so obviously in two halves. Champneys’ original building is unmistakably Tudor, arranged around a great hall, with walls in a delightful checkerboard of flint and rubble – some of it recycled from the ruins of Lesnes Abbey, a real sign of the times as secular wealth supplanted monastic power and influence. In 1649 a new owner, Robert Austen, near-doubled the size of the house but in a completely different red brick style, adding an intimate and elegant courtyard under a staircase tower as well as elaborate plasterwork in the interior. It’s the sort of thing that would never get planning permission today, but the effect is charming.

The most famous garden feature is a striking array of topiary depicting heraldic figures: this was begun in the 1920s by then-tenant, society hostess Lady Limerick, and completed in the 1950s to mark the coronation of Elizabeth II: ten figures known as the Queen’s Beasts are based on plaster statues sculpted for the coronation, replicas of which are displayed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Arguably even more beautiful and intriguing are the lavish plantings in the walled garden which now gives access to the house, including a series of ‘model gardens’ intended to demonstrate what can be achieved in a limited urban space.

Alongside the A2 at Bexley.
Back on the Loop, you’ll find yourself zigzagging to navigate the Dartford Loop railway and the trail’s first trunk road. Crossing the railway, the trail runs briefly right alongside the A2 East Rochester Way, the successor to Watling Street, first built in the early 1920s and much expanded in the early 1970s. Only a crash barrier separates walkers from three lanes of traffic with a much-ignored 50 mph speed limit. Then the path angles back on itself to follow the railway under the road.

Over the Loop’s first stile, the trail runs alongside the old woodbank of its first ancient woodland, Churchfield Wood, a remaining 2 km-long strip of what was once a much bigger wooded area. Trees include the rare field maple, and there are fine bluebell displays in spring. Your legs will tell you that at last you’re climbing modestly above the flat floodplain here, though not for long as the route soon descends again towards Bexley itself.

Old Bexley

Old Mill, Bexley: actually a contemporary pastiche.
It’s a cliché to talk about London ‘villages’, but one with some justification, for many of the city’s neighbourhood centres were originally independent villages, and sometimes substantial towns, that were later overwhelmed by sprawl. Few of these villages look quite as villagey as Bexley, or Old Bexley as it’s usually known, to distinguish it from both the wider borough and Bexleyheath, on the higher ground along Watling Street to the north, which later became the area’s major centre.

Bexley, likely meaning a clearing with box trees, stands where the ancient track between Eltham and Dartford crossed a path along the valley from Crayford to Orpington by a ford on the river Cray. It was established by 815 as a Saxon village held by Christ Church, Canterbury, with a church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, and is recorded in the Domesday survey as having three mills.

The village expanded significantly in the Victorian period, particularly with the arrival of the railway in 1866, but miraculously maintained much of its character and original layout and is now a conservation area. The railway line divides the scene into a more rural southern part and a bustling Victorian village street, albeit now rather blighted by traffic.

Bexley is where the Loop switches between the northwestern and southeastern variants of the Cray Riverway via the village itself. The latter heads off up the ridge above the river, passing the Woodland Trust’s Joydens Wood with its prehistoric earthworks, but that’s an adventure for another day. A small Victorian cemetery by the path junction, originally created as overspill from the churchyard, is now managed as a nature reserve.

Then there’s the church itself, dating from the end of the 12th century but much extended in the 13th and ‘restored’ in 1883: the curious spire with an octagonal cone apparently balanced atop a four-sided pyramid has an almost comical effect. Tucked away behind the church is a 16th century manor house, and High Street House just along from the church is the former home of historian John Thorpe (1715-92), whose note of a Roman pavement at Lullingstone in the Darent valley to the east led to the later uncovering of a complete Roman villa on the site.

The Loop crosses the Cray again at the site of the old ford. Straddling the river here is a weatherboarded millhouse, actually a late 20th century pastiche on the site of one of the Domesday mills. It replaces a similarly-styled 1779 flour mill which burned down in 1966. Even though it’s a fake it’s still a striking building, speaking to history, the regional building styles of rural Kent and the way natural features and the needs of industry shaped our built environment.

Bexley station.
Beyond the railway bridge, along the sinuous high street, are numerous buildings from the 18th century or earlier: the Kings Head pub has 16th and 17th century elements, and the 1884 Freemantle Hall has some attractive terracotta detailing. Dominating the view is the spire of St John’s church at the far end of the High Street, built in 1878 as a chapel of St Mary’s to serve the swelling population. The bulky building at no 34, on the corner of Station Approach, is an old workhouse, built in 1787, which now houses shops.

The first section of the Loop concludes at Bexley station, conveniently set just behind the High Street, its substantial forecourt originally designed to allow horse-drawn carriages to turn easily. Like Crayford this opened with the Dartford Loop line in 1866; unlike Crayford, it still retains its original rustic-looking clapboard building. It’s a good place to reflect on the variety of this first section of the Loop, and there’s much more to come.