|Englishmen's castles: Moor Park estate.|
THE LONDON LOOP NOW CLIMBS OUT OF THE COLNE VALLEY and through the rolling fields of Hertfordshire on its most genuinely rural stretch since passing through Farleigh in Surrey in section 4. It runs through three substantial public woodlands (Park Wood, Bishops Wood, Oxhey Woods), across a fragment of heath and through the exclusive 1920s garden village of Moor Park. The trail then returns to London through the soggy fields of a stud farm and past an ancient farmhouse to finish at suburban Hatch End.
Another double helping of Loop sections, this walk is best split if required at the official break point of Moor Park Tube. There are a few other bus options, but some of these are outside the Transport for London (TfL) zone so Travelcards, Oyster and contactless might not be valid.
Old Park Wood
Both the Loop and the Hillingdon Trail climb away from the Colne along an old lane that’s now a rather tucked away residential street, Summerhouse Lane. From here there’s a good view of redeveloped Royal Quay, on the site of the old Harefield mill, and one last glimpse of the Grand Union Canal and the river at Coppermill Lock. Look at the map and you’ll see that further north, the valley curves eastwards, forming a corner, with the promontory of high ground you’re now ascending to its southeast.
Then the path itself turns east, through Old Park Wood. This ancient woodland with hazel coppices, mentioned in the Domesday Survey, was once part of Harefield Park, centred on the mansion that’s now the site of Harefield Hospital. It’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest managed as a nature reserve by Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, particularly prized for its bluebells and other spring flowers including celandine and yellow archangel. To the south, off the route, is a pond with an observation platform, noted for dragonflies and damselflies. According to the Trust, it’s one of the most diverse nature sites in former Middlesex.
Hill End, where the path emerges onto the road again past allotments, may be named after a person rather than its geography. This outlying hamlet of Harefield, strung out along a country lane, is a relatively recent development, built largely in the second half of the 19th century as accommodation for workers in the nearby brickfields and quarries. The Hillingdon Trail diverges again here, heading northwest to end on the canalside again at Springwell Lock, while the Loop sets out across the fields of Cripps House Farm, transforming briefly into a classic English lowland ramble alongside hedgerows and across stiles. Nowadays, of course, there’s little genuine agriculture going on – the farm, and the next one along, are both equestrian centres.
|Looking into Hertfordshire at Fieldways Farm|
The county was consolidated within something like its present boundaries in the 970s. Several main roads from London run north through it and its fate has been tied to the development of the capital – with generally rich soils, it was an important source of grain for Londoners, and in the 19th century parts of it became intensively industrialised, particularly noted for brewing and papermaking and, more recently, for pharmaceuticals. Hertfordshire is still a shire county with a two-tier system, subdivided into districts, and the one we now enter is Three Rivers, created in 1974 and referencing the Colne and its tributaries the Chess and the Gade in its name.
|The Rose and Crown at Woodcock Hill|
A permissive path behind the houses, avoiding the need to walk along Harefield Road, takes you to a pretty but rather isolated pub, the Rose and Crown on Woodcock Hill, which, unexpectedly, is still open (at least when I visited). The core of this is a modest two-storey timber-framed 17th century building which qualifies it for a Grade II listing, although like most pubs it’s been much altered and extended. The bus stops nearby are outside the warm embrace of Transport for London, as you might realise when you check the timetable to find there isn’t even a daily service.
Crossing the road at Woodcock Hill, the Loop finally leaves the Colne Valley Regional Park, although there's plenty of attractive countryside still ahead.
|Bishops Wood Country Park|
After another couple of fields, the trail grazes the edge of Long Spring Wood, a smallish 4 ha fragment of semi-natural ancient woodland with sweet chestnut coppices, birch, cherry and field maple trees, roamed by muntjac deer. It’s managed by Three Rivers council, and separated from a much bigger 38.4 ha area of council-owned woodland by a strip of open grass. The Loop now plunges through this, into the valley of a stream that rises at the ‘long spring’ of the previous wood.
This is Bishops Wood Country Park, a site the council bought in 1960, and initially started replanting with fast-growing conifers, as was the fashion of the time. Such trees form a much thicker canopy than the native broadleaved oak, ash and hazel that have grown on the site for centuries, reducing biodiversity. The wood later fell into neglect, but in 2014 a restoration project began with the help of a Forestry Commission grant. Most of the conifers are being progressively removed, clearings and fragments of heathland opened up, and coppicing resumed. Loop walkers are already benefitting from this work as paths and cycleways through the site were significantly improved in 2014.
There are several sections of the wood known by different names. To the north, where the Loop first enters, is Park Wood; the area around the main junction in the middle of the wood is Poorfield; while the eastern strip is Lockwell Wood. The path continues through a separate but adjoining woodland known as White Hill and emerges on the open grass of Batchworth Heath.
|Pond and cottages at Batchworth Heath|
Batchworth is part of the former common land of the ancient Manor of the More. From pre-Norman times until the Dissolution this was itself part of a larger stretch of land in and around the valley that ultimately fell under the authority of St Albans Abbey, though was at various times leased to others. It’s said King Offa granted the land to the monks in 780, which is likely why, despite being south of the natural boundary of the river Colne, this area has always been part of Hertfordshire rather than Middlesex. The high ground above the river, formed of glacial sands and gravels, was likely used for rough pasture since at least Offa’s day. The combination of intense grazing and rather poor soils resulted in its current appearance, with its distinctive heath-like vegetation.
Sometime in the mid-18th century the heath gained a new function as a traveller’s rest when the Pinner turnpike, now the A404, opened across it from Harrow and Pinner to Rickmansworth, forming part of a route from Amersham to London. The road, which most likely followed an earlier ancient trackway, had an important junction here with lanes to Harefield and Oxhey.
The Green Man pub, which dates back to the late 16th or early 17th century, now became a coaching inn and the surrounding heathland grazing for resting horses. By this stage the heath was already reduced in extent, and the transport links encouraged housing development, but thankfully the sprawl of London hadn’t quite reached this far by the time development controls were introduced towards the mid-20th century. The remaining open areas are now protected Green Belt and the locality is also a Conservation Area, reflecting the way in which the particular configuration of historic buildings, green space and highway gives the place a particular, and very varied, character.
Just to your left soon after you emerge on the open grass, look out for a pond and, beyond it, a quaint red brick cottage and a roof like an oversized comedy hat. The cottage is one of the oldest on the heath, dating back to the 17th century though with numerous later alterations. The pond, which would once have watered horses and cattle, is now much smaller than it was even as late as the 1930s, but still provides a pleasant visual focus. A little further along, across the green to your left, is a fine 18th century red brick mansion, Batchworth Heath House.
Ahead, on the other side of the turnpike, in its own generous plot, stands the pub. The current faux-archaic form of its name, Ye Olde Greene Manne, was doubtless the affectation of a brewery marketing department, perhaps when it was refurbished in the 1930s. But parts of the buildings are genuinely old: one bay of the original late 16th or early 17th century timber-framed hall building survives, with extensions from the first half of the 18th century.
The Loop follows the turnpike briefly east, passing a bus stop reassuringly bearing a TfL roundel even though it’s just outside the London boundary. Soon, across the heath to your left, is a massive Portland stone entrance gate supported by Doric columns, with flanking lodges, built in 1765 by Robert Adam as the grand entrance to the manorial park. Then the road swings south towards London, passing the Prince of Wales, a rather more modest pub though with a handsome flint façade, dating from the 1860s. If you look carefully, the building appears to be part-missing: half was felled by a V1 flying bomb that fell on the heath in 1944.
|Coal post at Batchworth Heath where Hertfordshire and|
London still meet today, as road surface seam indicates.
Emerging on Kewferry Road, a very brief detour of a few paces right into Northwood in the borough of Hillingdon takes you to the corner of Ebury Road. The detached house at no 55 might look familiar to fans of classic British sitcoms. Between 1975-78 it was used as the main exterior location for The Good Life, starring Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal as middle class suburbanites trying to become self-sufficient, and Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington as their snobby neighbours.
Every year during the series run, according to the Daily Telegraph in a piece written when the house went on the market in 2001, the BBC “arrived with pitchforks and Rotovaters to dig up the garden, erect pig pens and chicken runs and cause general chaos,” re-landscaping once filming had wrapped. “The goats and chickens would be standing in the road when you got up,” recalled a neighbour. “It was all rather fun.”
The Manor of the More
The ‘more’ after which the manor is named doesn’t refer to a ‘moor’ in the modern sense but is from the Old English mor meaning marshland, the ancestor of the word ‘mere’: the area was well-watered by tributary streams of the Colne draining from the high plateau. There’s evidence of human habitation going back at least to the Bronze Age here, and the remains of a Roman villa dating from around 130 CE now lie under Moor Park golf course, to the north of the heath.
The manor was occupied by numerous powerful figures over the centuries, including monarchs Edward IV and Richard III, and George Neville (1432-76), Archbishop of York and Chancellor of England. By 1520 it was back with St Albans Abbey, and so came into the hands of Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530), the influential advisor to Henry VIII, who was made abbot that year. As we’ve already discovered at Bushy Park near Hampton Court Palace, Wolsey was a keen palace builder: he extended the manor house along the model of Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex. Henry himself briefly occupied it following Wolsey’s fall, and gave it to Anne of Cleves on their divorce. But following long periods of neglect in the later Tudor period, the house was demolished for safety reasons in 1661.
The site of the house, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, lies some way to the north of the Loop, under the playing fields of Northwood Preparatory School. It’s been excavated twice, once in 1952-55 for a project instigated by the neighbouring Merchant Taylors independent school, and again in 2012 for Channel 4’s Time Team programme, with the assistance of the prep school students. Both found extensive evidence of the various buildings on the site, and the 2012 dig found further remains of Wolsey’s palace, though some of the features mentioned in contemporary accounts couldn’t be identified.
The estate was broken up in 1630, with the deer park to the southwest sold as a separate property. A new mansion had been built on higher ground there sometime in the 1620s, and this was subsequently rebuilt twice, first in 1678 for James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, and again in Palladian style in 1720.
Both parts of the estate eventually passed into the hands of the Grosvenor family. Robert Grosvenor, 1st Baron Ebury (1801-93), was a Whig politician, homeopathy advocate and railway speculator who in 1862 worked with the Great Western Railway (GWR) to open the 7.2 km Watford and Rickmansworth Railway (W&RR) connecting the two towns, with the intention of extending it to the GWR’s line at Uxbridge. The line wasn’t a success and was left incomplete – it finally closed in 1960, and is now largely a walking and cycling trail called the Ebury Way which we’ll explore at a later date. But it did indirectly inspire the Metropolitan Railway to extend to the area.
|Under the Metropolitan Line at Moor Park|
Meanwhile, in 1868 the Aylesbury and Buckingham Railway (A&BR) opened its line from Aylesbury to Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire, with long and convoluted connections to Oxford and London via the Great Western. The A&BR originally got permission to create a London link from Aylesbury to Rickmansworth and then to Euston via Watford, but in 1875 it agreed with the Met to continue south to Harrow, and the line straight through the Manor of the More opened in 1887. The Met eventually took over the A&BR completely, but it never did complete its main line before it was nationalised along with the rest of the London Underground in 1933.
In 1908, a keen golfer and former mining engineer called James Markes persuaded the second Lord Ebury to lease the northeast part of the estate around Sandy Lodge Farm as a golf course, taking advantage of deposits of sand which lay just below the surface. Opened in 1910, the course was promoted for its supposed seaside character, easily accessed from London via the new Sandy Lodge Halt on the Met.
When Ebury died in 1919, the estate was sold to the Bolton-born soap magnate William Lever, Viscount Leverhulme (1851-1925), co-founder of Lever Brothers, now the multinational Unilever. He also saw it as a golfing destination, creating two further courses from the land to the west of the railway line, now Moor Park Golf Club, with the mansion as the clubhouse, a function it still serves today. During World War II the house was commandeered as a headquarters of the British Army’s 1st Airborne Division, and was used to plan Operation Market Garden, the disastrous Allied attempt to push across the river Rhine in 1944.
Today Moor Park is probably best known as an exclusive, upmarket housing estate, and it’s this part of the old manor through which the Loop now turns, past neat white gates and along grassy verges lined with fine mature trees. Massive detached houses set back from the streets on generous plots are largely in the typical Tudorbethan style of the 1920s-30s, with fake half-timbering, half-hipped roofs, mullioned windows and prominent fancy red brick chimneys. Amid all this stands an electricity pylon, fenced off in its own little square utilitarian ghetto.
It’s one of the most fully-formed domestic expressions of the architecture that arose from the suburban expansion of the early 20th century, when London’s middle classes, and even its better-off skilled working classes, were encouraged to become commuting property owners, grabbing their own patch of a promised rural idyll on the urban fringe.
It’s no accident that the style nostalgically recalls an England of pre-industrial times, just as the pace of social change, urbanisation, industrial expansion and mobility accelerated to unprecedented levels, and the spread of suburbia engulfed much of London’s countryside. The Good Life, in its gentle BBC way, poked fun at the same ideology, as its protagonists took suburbia’s promise at its word by attempting to create a rural idyll in their own Englishman’s castle, only to find out that their neighbours didn’t quite share the same conception.
|Section 13 of the London Loop ends at this|
fingerpost in the corner of Sandy Lodge golf course.
But this isn’t strictly speaking correct. Although the Met helped facilitate the development by expanding the golf club halt into a fully-fledged station, which was renamed Moor Park and Sandy Lodge, the initiative was Lever’s. He transferred 117 ha of land to a subsidiary of Lever Brothers, Moor Park Ltd, which began work in 1922. Building was interrupted by the war, but continued between 1954-58: some houses in modernist style date from this period. Today the site, which was designated a Conservation Area in 1995, is managed jointly by the residents, through a successor company, Moor Park (1958) Ltd, which has no connection to Unilever. And if Moor Park was exclusive then, it’s even more so now: some of those five-bedroom Tudorbethan castles currently top £3 million.
Section 13 of the Loop ends at the corner of a rough meadow in the southwest extremity of Sandy Lodge golf course, only a short walk south of the station. This has been known simply as Moor Park since 1950, a name change which apparently infuriated the golf club committee of the day. The current station is the result of a 1959 rebuilding but still has echoes of a rural halt. If you continue on the route at this point, you’ll find yourself heading northeast across the golf course itself, though I doubt you’ll feel you’re on a seaside links these days.
|Pond in Oxhey Woods|
At Sandy Lane, the Loop leaves the old Manor of the More and enters what was once the next manor, Oxhey, from Oxangehaege, ‘fenced enclosure for oxen’. This was also part of the land supposedly gifted to St Albans Abbey by Offa, but has a separate history. For much of the early mediaeval period it was worked as a ‘grange’ supplying the abbey – it’s said the monks built the first bridge over the Colne in Watford to transport the estate’s produce home more easily.
The manor was later subdivided and passed through several hands, but remained an almost completely rural area until very recently, with only a small settlement around the manor house towards the south. The first part to be developed was to the north, as essentially a suburb of Watford, in the second half of the 19th century, spurred by the opening of the railway in 1838 (of which more later). This portion is still known as Oxhey today. The southern portion, round the old manorial core, wasn’t developed until much later, and in a rather different way, as we shall shortly see.
Crossing the lane, you’re only just above the Colne, a short distance downhill to the left (north). The riverside here was the site of mediaeval Oxhey Mill, renamed Hamper Mill after the Dissolution. Most recently it operated as a paper mill, closing in 1908, and several historic buildings still stand, including a late 18th century clock tower. The woodland the Loop enters on the other side is still known as Hampermill Wood.
The wood forms part of a strip of council-owned Green Belt land known as South Oxhey Playing Fields, a name that really doesn’t do it justice, as besides formal sports fields there are notable areas of meadow, woodland and scrub in quite an attractive patchwork. Some of the woodland is ancient: Hampermill has oak, ash, wild cherry and coppiced hornbeam, with bluebells in season. Emerging from the wood, the view of the undulating site might give away its past history as yet another golf course, from 1912-52.
The high open prospect also reveals what happened to the rest of Oxhey manor in the second half of the 20th century: it was developed as a single vast housing estate, South Oxhey. The neatly laid-out streets of brick detached houses, densely concentrated but surrounded by swathes of grass and woodland, provide an interesting counterpoint to the luxury of Moor Park. And, even more so than Moor Park, its history is inextricably linked to London, as a Hertfordshire outpost of the London County Council (LCC).
In 1877, this land, by now known as Oxhey Place after the manor house, was bought by Thomas Blackwell (1804-79). In a classic Victorian rags-to-riches story, he began his career as a humble apprentice at food manufacturer West & Wyatt in Soho Square. In 1829 he took over the firm in partnership with another former apprentice, Edmund Crosse, renaming it Crosse & Blackwell. Blackwell’s descendants were effectively the last lords of the manor, selling their holdings to the LCC in 1944.
As explained several times previously, the LCC’s own territory was notably smaller than the current Greater London and certainly didn’t stretch out this far, but there was nothing to stop it buying and managing land anywhere as any private landowner would. State intervention in housing in London dates back to 1875 when the LCC’s forerunner the Metropolitan Board of Works began tackling some of the worst slums, and the LCC started building its own housing estates in 1890.
This activity ramped up after World War I in response to pressure to provide returning servicemen with ‘homes fit for heroes’, and was given further impetus in the period of rebuilding after the next war. Quite a few big LCC developments were on greenfield sites outside its own area, partly because land was more readily available, partly because of the belief that working class people would benefit just as the middle classes did by migrating from the inner city to greener, healthier environments further out.
Over 4,000 homes were built here between 1946 and 1953, swelling the population from a handful to a peak of 17,000. Curiously, when the capital’s boundaries were expanded in 1964, the boundary commissioners considered whether South Oxhey, which was only separated from the rest of the built-up area by the thinnest of buffers, should be absorbed, but concluded it “looked to Hertfordshire” rather than to London, despite its history. It remained part of what was then Watford Rural District, though the Greater London Council (GLC) inherited the housing.
With local government reorganisation outside London in 1974, the rural district was abolished and South Oxhey became part of the new Three Rivers district council area, separating it from Oxhey to the north, which was placed in Watford borough along lines surprisingly similar to the old manorial bounds. The civil parish retains the name Watford Rural, despite being neither rural nor part of Watford.
The GLC finally passed the housing on to Three Rivers in 1980, by which time many of the residents were exercising their ‘right to buy’, introduced that year. Today, South Oxhey is a model of the home-owning democracy foreseen by Margaret Thatcher, with around 70% of the houses privately owned, and the rest offloaded to a housing association, Thrive Homes. Meanwhile some of the locals are petitioning for the area to become part of London, saying they’d enjoy better public transport and lower council taxes if transferred to Hillingdon.
|Primroses in Oxhey Woods|
The trail enters at an area known as Old Furze Field, where gorse once would have been grown as fodder. It almost leaves the woods soon after this near a bend in Gosforth Lane, one of the main streets through the estate. The old manorial centre and the current shopping and community centre are about a kilometre east along the lane.
The manor house, by then much rebuilt, burnt down in 1960, and the only historic building still standing is Oxhey Chapel, a modest knapped flint and red brick structure built as a private chapel for the house in 1612, probably on the site of a much earlier church that once would have been attached to St Albans Abbey. Close by is the modern All Saints Church and community centre, opened in 2000 to replace the first church built on the new estate in 1953, which had to be demolished as it contained dangerous quantities of asbestos.
The Loop crosses two roads that now divide the woods, then a stream, then a track known as Rhododendron Walk, an old route through the woods which was planted with rhododendrons as a decorative feature in the mid-19th century. Diverting west (right) here along the track will take you to the easy access sculpture trail, installed when the whole site was refurbished in the early 2000s. But the Loop continues south then east, through an area known as Nanscot Wood, leaving Oxhey and its woods to return to London.
In mediaeval times, Harrow was a large and sprawling parish stretching from the Hertfordshire boundary here right down to the river Brent in the south, including places like Wembley which are now in the London Borough of Brent. It was a dispersed parish, with multiple small agricultural hamlets linked by paths and tracks, and a centre of sorts where the main church was, on top of the tall hill to the south where Harrow School now stands. It’s likely that a pre-Christian temple, or hearg in Old English, preceded the church, thus the place name. I’ll have more to say about this hill when I finally tackle the Capital Ring.
One of Harrow’s hamlets, in the high and gravelly northwest, was Pinner, with a name likely derived from the personal name of a local landowning family – the name of the river Pinn, the tributary of the Frays and Colne that runs close by, is probably a back-formation. Pinner was an important place in its own right by 1336 when it gained a weekly market and annual fair. This part of the area was once wooded and managed for hunting, an extension into Middlesex of Oxhey Woods, and even in the late 18th century much of it was still hilly and woody. The fields here were likely cleared by then, and attached as they still are to Pinnerwood Farm.
Look behind you as you leave the woods and walk through the fields and you'll see a big white mansion up on the hill. This is Pinner Hill House, built in the 1780s on the site of a house belonging to a former Lord Mayor of London and prominent member of the East India Company, Christopher Clitherow (1578-1641). Today it's yet another golf course clubhouse, though the surrounding greens do encompass fragments of ancient woodland.
The farm, inevitably, is now an equestrian business: as Pinnerwood Arabian Stud, it has bred show and racehorses since 1964. Be warned: wet weather, sticky London clay and churning hooves can turn the last stretch of field path towards the farmyard into a marsh. There’s an interesting group of buildings among the fields here, including a 19th century farmhouse and a cottage from 1867, but the most attractive is Pinnerwood House, which presents a picturesque scene from across a pond as you leave the farm along a track. This is a timber-framed building dating from around 1600, with a tall original chimney and some 17th century panelling inside. It was once rather bigger than it is today.
The trail finally runs along the backs of houses to a stile onto the street. Like a pinball from a flipper, the main route of the Loop bounces away from the built-up area here, northwards towards Hertfordshire again along another field edge. But to end your walk here, you’ll need to venture into the suburbia of Hatch End.
|Hatch End station, a miniature masterpiece.|
Hatch End was originally a small hamlet on Headstone Lane just south of the Uxbridge road: its name suggests a gateway through a boundary, perhaps into the former deer park at Pinner Park. As development spread out from the nearby station, the name spread with it, and what most people now think of as the ‘centre’ of Hatch End is the 1950s commercial strip of the Broadway, some way west of the original hamlet and to your left as you emerge on Uxbridge Road.
The railway is actually one of the earliest in London, and the capital’s first intercity line, the London and Birmingham Railway. This stretch was first operational in 1837 when trains ran through without stopping on their way between London Euston and Boxmoor (now Hemel Hempstead), extending to Birmingham the following year. In 1846 the line became part of the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) and is now the southern section of the West Coast Main Line.
Initially, the railway focused on longer-distance traffic rather than commuting. The station at Hatch End, originally named Pinner, opened in 1844, but with few services calling, and even fewer that took third class passengers, it initially prompted the construction of only a few big houses for well-off people who didn’t have to be in the city every day. Large villas were built on Woodridings Farm (its name indicating a clearing in the wood) to the south of Uxbridge Road from 1855, and the area was developed more intensively from the 1880s as rail services improved and better water supplies were installed.
In 1897 the station was renamed Pinner and Hatch End to distinguish it from the Metropolitan Railway’s Pinner station closer to the village, then Hatch End (for Pinner) in 1920 and finally simply Hatch End in 1956. Connections to the Underground were improved in 1915 when the Bakerloo line was extended to Queens Park, further up the line towards Euston, and in 1922, a new pair of electrified tracks between Euston and Watford improved commuter services, some of them now direct Bakerloo Line trains. These days the Tube stops short at Harrow & Wealdstone, and local trains beyond are operated as part of TfL’s London Overground network.
The station building itself, a 1911 rebuild, surprises as arguably the most beautiful such structure on the trail. The main entrance is through a compact, near-square red brick building in a vaguely French-looking Romanesque style, festooned with white stone reliefs of roses, thistles and shamrocks symbolising the countries served by the LNWR. A slate roof is surmounted by a cupola and clock.
Michael McNay in Hidden Treasures of London suggests it may be “the prettiest station in England…a more expressive railway station than the Gothic monster in St Pancras”. It’s one of the few major works of Gerald Callcott Horsley (1862-1917), son of the watercolour artist John Callcott Horsley, and one of the artists who set up the Art Workers’ Guild in opposition to the Royal Academy. While I’m quite a fan of the aforementioned Gothic monster, I’d agree that with its modest elegance, this little gem of a building provides a fine conclusion to a fascinating walk.