Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Cray Riverway: Erith - Crayford - Foots Cray - Orpington

Source of the river Cray in Priory Gardens, Orpington. Not gardens, and never attached to a priory.

The river Cray connects the distinct environment of Crayford Marshes, where it joins the Darent just short of the Thames, with the source deep in suburbia in the grounds of Orpington Priory, via a string of historic villages in outer southeast London, most of them named after the river. The London Loop follows part of the Cray, but the earlier Cray Riverway tracks the entire length of the valley from mouth to source. And as Orpington is only a short step from the official route of the Loop via Crofton, the Riverway provides an interesting alternative.

The Riverway is 27 km long, rather too much for most walkers in a single helping, and if you’ve already walked the Loop, the first 11.5 km will be familiar. Crayford provides an alternative starting point for a more manageable 17.5 km walk with minimal duplication. Stations at Bexley and St Paul’s Cray and numerous bus stops along the way provide opportunities to create shorter walks.

River and Riverway

View over Crayford Pits and the Cray Valley from Sandy Lane, Ruxley.
The river Cray is a chalk stream, a river type encountered numerous times in London underfoot but internationally highly rare. Its name most likely means ‘the clean, fresh and clear river’, a fair description of the quality of such a stream, though it could also mean ‘the river that often floods’. Its source is in Priory Gardens, Orpington, a pond formed where permeable chalk meets impermeable London clay just below the surface.

From here it flows around 14 km north and slightly northeast, entirely inside Greater London and the boroughs of Bromley and Bexley. Near Hall Place, Bexley, it’s joined by a substantial tributary, the Shuttle, which rises at Avery Hill near Eltham. Below Barnes Cray and out into Crayford Marshes, the river becomes tidal and is known as Crayford Creek. It drains into the river Darent in the marshes east of Slade Green, just 1.5 km short of the latter’s confluence with the Thames.

As with its parent the Darent, the Cray’s valley is fertile and there’s considerable evidence of prehistoric settlement, particularly in the upper section around Orpington. There were Roman settlements here as well as further downstream at St Paul’s Cray and Crayford. Later, the river shaped industrial development: at one point, when the flow was much more vigorous than today, it powered 14 mills, and the purity of its water encouraged the development of the bleaching, paper making, cloth dyeing and printing industries. These mills were the predecessors of the heavy industry that emerged along the lower reaches in the 19th and early 20th centuries, like the Vickers plant at Crayford.

As often along London’s rivers, housing generally stays away from the river bank for flood management reasons, creating a chain of green strips intermittently broken by waterside industry. And as elsewhere in London, these green strips have been exploited as a resource for walkers. The London Borough of Bexley was one of the original four council partners in the Green Chain project, launched in the late 1970s to make better use of southeast London’s generous endowment of green space for recreation and conservation. The partnership’s most visible creation, the Green Chain Walk, is a pioneering path network that changed the mindset on urban walking and inspired countless similar projects. I’ll have much more to say about it in future blogs, but for the moment I’ll note that it prompted the council and local walking campaigners to create additional connecting trails.

Two signed river-based routes, the Cray Riverway and the Shuttle Riverway, resulted, both launched in the late 1980s. The Shuttle Riverway is essentially an extension of the Green Chain so I’ll talk it about then. The original Cray Riverway ran for about 16 km between Erith, where for part of its journey it accompanied the Thames and Darent, and Foots Cray, just short of the borough boundary with Bromley.

As there was a lengthy gap in riverside access between Hall Place and North Cray, the Riverway offered two alternative routes slightly away from the river. An inner, northwest branch went over the Black Prince Interchange on the A2 and along the road into Bexley Village, then through the slowly recovering gravel extraction site at Upper College Farm to the edge of the Albany Park estate, rejoining the riverside at Stable Meadow, North Cray. An outer, southeast branch ran past Churchfield Wood, skirted the edge of Bexley Village, climbed the slope of Mount Mascal below Joydens Wood then descended again to Loring Hall and on to Stable Meadow. This alternative included an inconvenient diversion to a safe crossing on the busy A223 road. The two routes formed a narrow waist on the map where they almost met, approaching within 250 m of each other in Bexley.

When the London Walking Forum began planning the London Loop in the early 1990s, the obvious way to start it off was to make use of the Cray Riverway. The Forum opted to mix and match the two branches, first following the southeast branch past Churchfield Wood, then hopping across to the northwest route past Bexley Station and through Upper College Farm. This cunningly avoided the higher proportion of road walking at the beginning of the northwest option, and the tricky crossing near the end of the southeast variant.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Bromley council incorporated a route based on its own section of the river in its portfolio of shorter green trails, largely developed in partnership with local voluntary organisation Environment Bromley, or EnBro. This was included in the council’s Circular Walks and Trails routecard pack issued in the early 2000s, and an updated version is now available to download.

The Bromley section has always been described in the downstream direction, from the source, and although the Bexley section was originally described in the opposite direction from the river’s mouth, the most recent official text runs from Foots Cray downstream too. This is arguably the most logical way of describing a riverside route, but I’ve opted to work from Erith towards the source, keeping the Riverway in line with the Loop. There’s an obvious alternative Loop route from Erith to Foots Cray in simply following the branches of the Riverway the Loop doesn’t use. But as the source of the Cray isn’t all that far from the Loop where it passes through Crofton, it’s straightforward to complete the whole of the Riverway then return to the Loop, as described here.

All things considered, the Riverway isn’t quite such an attractive option as the official London Loop. Riverside access isn’t continuous and there’s quite a bit of pavement pounding. The Loop’s creators cherry-picked the best bits of both Riverway branches, and you certainly shouldn’t omit Scadbury Park and Petts Wood on the official route from your round-London wanderings. But as an additional ‘bonus feature’, the Riverway offers plenty of interest, as well as giving the river a chance to complete its story for those who’ve enjoyed its company so far.

To minimise potential confusion, I’ve produced two route descriptions for the Riverway that align with those for the Loop. Cray Riverway 1 covers Erith to Bexley and is identical to London Loop 1 except for the very last bit. Cray Riverway 2 covers Bexley to Orpington station. Walkers who’ve already completed the Loop may well want to start the Riverway at Crayford, so will only need to use part of the first description. I’ve included the link between Orpington and the official Loop route in Darrick Wood in a revised description for London Loop 3. There are links to all of these at the end of the post.

Here’s an outline of the options:

1. Erith to Hall Place. For just over 11 km, the Cray Riverway and the London Loop share the same paths, which you’ll find described in both Cray Riverway 1 and London Loop 1.

2. Hall Place to Bexley. The northwestern branch of the Riverway, described in Cray Riverway 1, takes a more direct 1.8 km route with some road walking, though also with good views of Hall Place, a link to the Shuttle Riverway and some heritage buildings along Bourne Road. The Loop follows the southeastern branch on a slightly longer and greener 2 km route via Churchfields Wood as described in London Loop 1. Because the Riverway branches don’t quite meet in Bexley village, there’s a short stretch of the Loop that’s on neither, which you’ll walk in reverse at the start of Cray Riverway 2.

3. Bexley to Stable Meadow, North Cray. The southeastern branch of the Riverway, covered in Cray Riverway 2, follows quite a rural route past the Woodland Trust’s Joydens Wood and Mount Mascal stables then through fields to Loring Hall and back to the riverside. There’s a slightly tricky crossing of the A223 at North Cray which the Riverway solves rather unsatisfactorily by diverting you to the nearest controlled crossing, and if you follow this, it’s a 3.3 km walk. But the problem is less severe than it used to be and if you feel confident to use the more direct dropped kerb crossing instead, it’s only 2.1 km. As described in London Loop 2, the Loop follows the northwestern branch of the Riverway via Upper College Farm, pleasant enough with no dodgy crossings, and very slightly shorter at 2 km.

4. Stable Meadows to Foots Cray. The two branches of the Riverway and the Loop merge here to follow the picturesque path through Foots Cray Meadows, a distance of 2.4 km described in both Loop 2 and Riverway 2.

5. Foots Cray to Orpington Priory. From Foots Cray the Loop heads west on a completely different route via Petts Wood. As described in Cray Riverway 2, the Riverway continues to track the Cray valley via St Paul’s Cray and St Mary Cray, at first mainly along roads, though they are relatively quiet. There’s an historic village street at St Mary Cray then a riverside path nearly all the way from there to Priory Gardens. The Riverway officially ends (or starts) at Orpington Priory by the southern entrance to Priory Gardens, 5.7 km from Foots Cray.

6. Orpington Priory to Orpington Station. For additional transport options, you may well want to continue to Orpington War Memorial or the station, so I’ve included this in my description of Cray Riverway 2. It’s 1 km from priory to memorial, much of it on a good stretch of urban footpath, and trhe station is 700 m further.

7. Orpington Station to Darrick Wood. For those who want to walk on to rejoin the Loop, in London Loop 3 I’ve outlined a link from Orpington station to Darrick Wood. The surroundings are mainly roads and residential streets, so nothing special, but just after the station you’ll pass Crofton Roman Villa and then get a good view back from the top of the hill over the Cray valley. The link is 1.6 km, and the best transport option beyond this is the bus stop in Farnborough village, another 1 km further on. From Foots Cray to Farnborough via the Riverway is 9.9 km; via the Loop, it’s 12.2 km.

The Riverway in Bexley is signed on the ground with fingerposts and circular waymarks incorporating a logo showing a stylised tree within a wavy blue line. There are also London Loop waymarks where the two trails are coincident, and carved wooden obelisks at key points. As far as I know, it has never been signed in Bromley, presumably as so much of it is along roads. Don’t expect to rely on signing even in Bexley, though, as missing signs and vandalism are not unknown.

Erith to Bexley

Andy Scott's Propella takes flight at Crayford Town Hall Square

I’ve written about Erith, Crayford Marshes, Barnes Cray, Crayford, Hall Place and Bexley in more detail along section 1 of the London Loop so I won’t repeat myself here. But if you do start in Crayford, there’s now a more direct route from the station than the one in the official description. This cuts through Town Hall Square, a mixed development of housing association flats, private homes, retail units and a replacement library and community centre completed in 2015.

You’ll walk past two sculptures in welded galvanised mild steel, from designs chosen by locals and commemorating the former Vickers factory. Both are by Scottish public art specialist Andy Scott, best known for the Kelpies, the giant horse heads by the Forth & Clyde Canal in Falkirk. In the square itself is Propella, a female figure that homages a former Vickers logo, while on the corner of the supermarket car park is Captain Crayford, a young boy with a model aeroplane.

There’s also now more public art just off the station link to the right along London Road, in tiny Tannery Garden (this is also on the alternative station link and the main Loop route). Though as the name suggests a tannery once stood here, the designs commemorate a different local industry, Rutters brickworks. The steel screens add interest while also concealing an electricity substation.

You may already have visited Hall Place as a short detour off the official Loop route, but if not, the northwest branch of the Riverway runs right past the entrance, and I strongly recommend you look in. Otherwise the Riverway runs along the boundary wall and fence slightly away from Bourne Road, providing a view of the house with its delightfully mixed architectural styles and the bizarre topiary in the garden. It’s by the car park entrance to Hall Place that the trail links with the Shuttle Riverway mentioned above, which at first climbs the hillside on the other side of Bourne Road, the northern section of Hall Place park before joining the Shuttle near BETHS school.

As discussed on London Loop 1, Crayford straddled one of the most important highways out of London, heading for the Kent coast and the mainland. Originally a Celtic trackway and then a Roman road later known as Watling Street, it became a coaching route, a turnpike and, from the 1920s, a trunk motor road classified as the A2. Crayford takes its name from the ford where this road crossed the Cray, later a bridge.

The highway followed different alignments over the centuries from the west to the river crossing: in coaching days, it ran along London Road, a part of which is also followed by the Loop and the Riverway. In 1927, during the early phase of government-sponsored motor road building, it was diverted along a new stretch of road running between Hall Place and Bexley, known as Rochester Way, crossing the Cray right by its confluence with the Shuttle, a little way south of the hall.

Originally this stretch of Rochester Way was a single carriageway road with conventional flat junctions, but in 1972 it was widened and upgraded, among other things by the construction of the split-level junction known as Black Prince Interchange which still stands today.

Just after crossing the A2, you cross the river Shuttle: the confluence is in the far corner of the Old Dartfordians rugby field over on your left. To your right on the other side of the roundabout ahead is the Black Prince itself, a much-extended red brick mock-Edwardian roadhouse hotel built at the same time as the first iteration of Rochester Way and now a part of the Holiday Inn chain. It was named after Edward of Woodstock, the 14th century Black Prince and Duke of Cornwall, who is known to have stayed at Hall Place on his way to war in France. In the 1960s and 1970s this was a well-known music venue, hosting acts like Cream and Genesis.

Bexley National Schools, Bourne Road.
Past a public sports field, St Mary’s Recreation Ground, on the left, Bourne Road narrows to a residential street leading into Bexley Village, or Old Bexley as it’s often known. There are some buildings of interest here, notably the Old School House, on the right, a neo-Jacobean yellow brick building from 1824 now used as offices, its stucco highlights brightening a façade apparently designed to intimidate as many schoolchildren as possible. This was originally known as the Bexley National Schools, though the panel above the main entrance bearing this legend is probably a later addition covering a window.

Outside no 11 on the left, not long before the junction with the High Street, are two listed 1930s red K6 phone boxes, though no longer containing phones.

North Cray

View across the Cray Valley descending from Mount Mascal at North Cray.

From Bexley, our route switches to the outer branch of the Riverway, which climbs the hillside rising above the river Cray to the southeast. You’re now in the area known as North Cray, part of the extensive swathe of Kent given to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, by his half-brother William of Normandy following the conquest. We’ll be walking through Odo’s former territories for the rest of the Riverway, and I’ve said more about this surprisingly ferocious cleric at Crofton on London Loop 3.

North Cray was once a separate parish, but by the late 12th century it had fallen into the possession of the Rokesle family of nearby Ruxley parish, and in 1557 the two were amalgamated. By the 16th century, some of the land had been subdivided into smaller country estates, including a mansion known as Jackets Court on the slopes above the river. By the end of the 16th century, this has been replaced by a fine house known as Mount Mascal, on an “eminence”, as late 18th century historian Edward Hasted puts it, higher up. In the mid-18th century it was owned by a wealthy City of London porter brewer, William Calvert, also an MP. By Hasted’s time, an avenue of trees continued across the other side of North Cray Road to another house known as Vale Mascal, which overlooked a waterfall on the Cray.

These grand houses are long-gone, though the surroundings remain surprisingly rural and there are still fine views over the valley. Today the barns and farm buildings are devoted to the equestrian industry, and the fields are horse paddocks, though still divided by old hedgerows and rustic tracks. The ‘eminence’ is occupied by Mount Mascal Stables, a large riding school and livery service established in 1966 which advertises itself under the slogan ‘Horsemanship for all’.

Just before the stables, you’ll pass an access point into Joydens Wood, a 136-ha patch of ancient woodland that crowns the ridge. The woodland is just off the path but worth exploring if you have time, or returning to later. Its name derives from William Jordayne, who was granted ownership of the wood in 1556, though it had likely been continuously wooded for much longer than that. As well as wildlife and bluebells, it’s known for its ancient monuments, notably the remains of Iron Age roundhouses and the Fæsten Dic (‘strong dyke’), a ditch over 1 km long and several metres wide. It dates from the Saxon period but there’s some disagreement about exactly when: perhaps the 5th century, perhaps the 7th and 8th centuries during the conflicts between Kent, Wessex and Mercia.

The woodland was once more extensive but sections of it were levelled and developed from the 1930s, augmented by a post-World War II housing estate to create the residential area known as Joydens Wood to the east of the woodland. Most of this is on the Kent side of the London boundary, which runs through the wood, but a few streets form part of the continuously built-up connection between London and Dartford. The remaining woodland was taken on by the Forestry Commission in the 1950s, and since 1987 has been managed by the Woodland Trust.

The Riverway descends the slope again on a field path, emerging on North Cray Road, originally a modest lane but widened extensively in the late 1960s. Much of the historic fabric of North Cray village was demolished in the process, though a surviving 14th century timber-framed hall house, Woodbine Cottage, was dismantled and moved to an open-air museum near Chichester. This road is one reason why the Loop opts for the other branch of the Riverway, as the nearest controlled crossing involves a 1.2 km detour to the nearest roundabout and back. This is still the official Riverway route, but since then speed limits have slowed the traffic a little, and there’s a dropped kerb and a paved central reservation, so if you’re relatively nimble on your feet you shouldn’t have too much trouble crossing here.

On the other side, a little to the left is the White Cross pub, which originated as a roadside alehouse in 1729, although the present building is later. It was known as the Red Cross between 1730 and 1915, when the War Office instructed all pubs with that name to adopt a new one out of respect for the Geneva Convention. The Riverway then follows the drive past Loring Hall, the last remaining mansion in the area, discussed under Section 2 of the Loop, with which you’re soon reunited on the banks of the Cray. For more about the many delights of Foots Cray Meadows, see my earlier post.


Tudor Cottages, Foots Cray.
Where the trail leaves Foots Cray Meadows, it starts its longest section alongside roads, beginning with the main junction in Foots Cray itself where the Riverway definitively splits from the London Loop. I’ve covered Foots Cray in detail elsewhere, but you’ll see a bit more of it along the Riverway. Just along the High Street are some genuinely old buildings: the four timber-framed houses now known as Tudor Cottages on the right were adapted from what was originally a single high-ceilinged hall, perhaps dating from the late 15th century. The Seven Stars a little further on the left is that London rarity, a pub in a pre-Victorian building: the main part of this weatherboarded house has likely stood here since the 16th century.

You cross the Cray again on a relatively modern bridge, but on the alignment of a much older crossing, where the road from London to Maidstone crossed the river. This became part of the A20 in 1921, but lost this status with the opening of the Sidcup bypass the following year. The rest of the surroundings as you climb away from the valley are inescapably modern: an uninspiring parade of budget supermarkets, self-storage facilities and warehouse-based retailers. At the top is the big roundabout known as Ruxley Corner, where until the 1990s A20 traffic rejoined the historic Maidstone Road towards Swanley. A path on the right near the top briefly gets you away from the road, running between two massive car showrooms, to emerge on Edgington Way, the old link road between the bypass and the roundabout.

As well as once being a parish in its own right, Ruxley lends its name to one of the ancient subdivisions of Kent known as ‘hundreds’, broadly equivalent to today’s Bromley borough plus Bexley south of Watling Street. A little further east along the Maidstone road is the site of Ruxley Manor. This is now a garden centre but still contains the remains of the 13th century parish church, deconsecrated in 1557 when Ruxley was united with North Cray. But that’s a detour: our way is south along the grain of the valley. The Riverway follows Sandy Lane, immediately crossing the boundary into Bromley borough. This was once a continuation of the main road south from Erith and Bexley to Orpington and the south, but now it’s little more than a byway. The woodland on the left, Ruxley Wood, is mainly a post-war plantation, now used for paintball and laser games.

The lane then dips to pass under the current A20, which crosses the Cray on a viaduct built in the early 1990s as part of an upgrade in preparation for the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Now the slopes on the left are dedicated to an older form of outdoor recreation than paintball, in the form of the Orpington Golf Centre. On the right is an area of overgrown open space with wide views over the valley. Gravel was dug here between 1929 and 1951, leaving behind a series of flooded pits since colonised by wetland birds and other wildlife, where more than 500 plant species have been recorded. Ruxley Gravel Pits is now a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and Local Nature Reserve managed by the Kent Wildlife Trust, but sadly it’s not currently open to the public.

This section of the Cray Valley was traditionally popular with the travelling people who for many centuries provided itinerant labour for the hop gardens, orchards and farms of Kent. Soon after the gravel pit was decommissioned in the 1950s, it became known as an atchin tan or stopping place for travellers during the winter season when work was scarce. Another such location nearby was Corkes Pit in St Mary Cray, now the Murray Business Centre. As the economic basis of their lifestyle was eroded, and following patchily-implemented legislation in 1968 that obliged councils to provide permanent caravan sites, many travellers settled in the area, and St Paul’s Cray and St Mary Cray still have one of the largest populations of settled travellers and people of Romani origin in the UK.

Given the open surroundings, Sandy Lane still feels much like a country lane where you might even imagine encountering a traditional wooden caravan: the pavement even disappears for a while. With traffic calming measures in place, it’s not too much of a deterrent, but you’ll undoubtedly be relieved when a further stretch of pavement rises above the level of the carriageway to run between hedges, screened from the traffic. It’s not long after this ends that a scattering of houses begins, as the lane gently descends back to the riverside at St Paul’s Cray.

St Paul’s Cray

St Paulinus Church, St Paul's Cray.
One peculiarity of the Cray valley is the number of places incorporating the river’s name in theirs. Bexley and Orpington are the exceptions, but otherwise there are Barnes Cray, Crayford, North Cray, Foots Cray, St Paul’s Cray and St Mary Cray. Barnes and Foots were originally personal names, while St Paul and St Mary refer to the dedications of parish churches.

In the Domesday survey of 1086, the former is referred to simply as Craie and the latter as Sud Craie (South Cray), which must have been even more confusing, so it’s not surprising that the present names evolved. The Paul in question, incidentally, is not the famous biblical St Paul the Apostle but St Paulinus, an early missionary to England and colleague of Augustine’s who became the first archbishop of York before his death around 644.

In the late 13th century, St Paul's Cray was held by Simon de Cray, made Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports on the Kent and Sussex coast in 1275. It was always a small parish, strung out along the river and road, though busy with milling activity, which from the later 18th century increasingly focused on paper. “There is no village,” wrote Edward Hasted in 1797, “the houses in the parish, about fifty in number, standing dispersed throughout it. The church stands alone, half surrounded by tall elm trees, the shade of which casts a pleasing gloom, and makes a picturesque appearance to the building”.

The biggest changes followed in the 1950s when St Paul’s Cray became the site of one of the new out-of-town social housing estates developed by the London County Council in response to the post-World War II housing shortage: we’ve already encountered several similar estates on the main London Loop. 3,000 new homes were built, mainly houses and maisonettes with small back gardens, on the slopes of Paul’s Cray Hill to the east of the river. Within a decade or so, the area had become part of the London sprawl, though on the very edge of the metropolis: beyond the estate is a country park and then the fields of Kent.

There are several features of interest around the mini-roundabout at the bottom of Sandy Lane. The weatherboarded Bull pub to the right is Grade II listed, with an 18th century front and 19th century rear extension. The industrial area behind it and further right along Main Road is on the site of the former Ruxley Paper Mills. On the right side of Sandy Lane just before the junction are the red brick Ivy Cottages: the oldest is no 2, with an exposed timber frame, which dates from the 17th century: its neighbour is perhaps a century younger. There’s another listed K6 phone box too.

Riverside Gardens, St Paul's Cray.

Soon you'll catch sight of the Cray for the first time in a while, running over weirs and through channels in Riverside Gardens, a lush and pretty little park. The paths here look tempting but sadly there’s no continuous riverside route yet, so you’re better off keeping along Main Road. As its name suggests, like Sandy Lane this was part of the original main route along the valley from Bexley to Orpington. Since the 1920s, a parallel route, the A224 Sevenoaks Way, has run on the other side of the river, but as this passes through a lengthy US-style strip of boxy retail parks, car dealerships, self-storage facilities and wholesale warehouses, most walkers will prefer the route I’ve described.

Opposite the gardens is St Paulinus church, still set back slightly from the road within a tree-filled churchyard. Parts of the flint rubble building including the nave date back to the 11th century, and you can still see a small window from that period in the north wall. There are numerous later additions, including a late 12th century tower, 15th century windows and unsympathetic Victorian extensions. It hasn’t been a Church of England church since 1978 but it’s still in religious use, now occupied by the Nigerian-based Pentecostal movement the Redeemed Christian Church of God. The rest of Main Road is largely modern, with the modest brick houses of the LCC estate visible on the left.

St Mary Cray

St Mary at Cray church, St Mary Cray.
Crossing Station Road you’re over the old parish boundary and into St Mary Cray, and the first prominent building is the church. It’s not quite as old as its neighbour St Paulinus: the foundations are likely 12th century in origin, and the tower and some of the arcades in the nave are from the following century. Indoors are some notable 15th century screens. The building was also a target of Victorian church restorers, with three separate projects in 1863, 1876 and 1895, and the current flint-faced exterior largely dates from this period, though following some of the original designs.

A paper mill once stood on Station Road, beside the Cray immediately to the west of the church, expanded in the 1850s into a substantial factory by owner William Joynson. This was converted to produce vegetable parchment in the 1930s and closed by then-owners Wiggins Teape in 1967: it was demolished and modern industrial units and car dealerships now occupy the site. Some historic buildings still stand around the junction, however, including 18th century Lime Tree House on the north side of Station Road opposite the church, and the former Blue Anchor pub at the top of the High Street on the east side, part of which comprises the remaining two bays of a four-bay 15th century hall house.

By the 1240s, the manor had become attached to Orpington but, despite this connection, for most of its history St Mary Cray remained a separate and more important town. In 1246, it was granted the right to hold a weekly market, which lasted until 1703 when the market house was blown down in a storm. In the later 18th century and throughout the 19th, it was the venue for an annual toy fair. Unlike St Paul’s Cray, it has a proper centre which has been well-preserved enough to give a flavour of the past.

Cray Viaduct from the south: note concrete arches nearest camera.
The Riverway route follows the historic High Street, now a conservation area. Since 1860, it’s been dominated by one of the nine massive arches of the Cray railway viaduct carrying the Chatham Main Line across the valley. This was originally opened by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR) as part of its route from London Victoria to Dover.

Labourers working on the project founded what became Cray Wanderers FC, one of the world’s oldest surviving football clubs: there’s a little more about this in my commentary on London Loop 2. The track here was quadrupled in 1958 and the viaduct widened to the south: look up as you walk beneath and you’ll see that the southern half of the arch is concrete, but the facing of the extension was carefully finished in brick to match the north side.

The opening of the railway attracted new residents and most of the houses that now line the High Street are post-1860 at the earliest, but the L-shaped weatherboarded Mary Rose Inn overlooking a little courtyard on the right just before the traffic barrier is 17th century, with a shop front added in the Victorian era. Beyond this, the street opens out onto the old market place, now a small village green. The village sign was installed here by the St Mary Cray Action Group to mark its 21st anniversary in 1992: the centre shield shows the white horse of Kent, while the flanking shields bear the arms of ancient families linked to the parish.

Beyond the green, the Riverway at last becomes a riverside walk again, along an open grassy bank between the river and the High Street, the northernmost extremity of a public open space known as Riverside Gardens. Until World War II, this was the private back yards of shops and houses fronting the High Street. The riverside suffered badly from wartime bombing and after the war, rather than rebuilding, the land was allocated to provide badly-needed green space for the increasing local population. Across the bridge to the right and just off the route is the Nugent Shopping Centre, built on the site of the Morphy Richards electrical appliance factory, operating between 1936 and 1970: at its peak in the mid-1960s it produced 1,000 electric irons per hour.

The small waterfall a little further on is the only surviving remnant of Snelling Mill, a water-powered flour mill which ended its days serving ornamental fountains in the Rookery, a big house on the High Street which is also now demolished. The most prominent building on the High Street visible from here is the Temple United Reform Church, a 1950s replacement for what was originally a much more impressive non-conformist chapel, built in 1851 and demolished following bomb damage in 1954.

You pass an old paddling pool that’s been remade as a sand and water play ‘fun zone’, and now on the other side of the river, cross Kent Road. There was once a ford at this point and the area to the west, developed since late Victorian times, is still known as Fordcroft. Archaeological digs here have uncovered a Saxon cemetery and a Roman bathhouse. Beyond this is a 1950s model boating lake and then a pleasingly wilder and more overgrown area around a pond, formed by a spring that’s one of the sources of the Cray. South of here, the original course of the Cray has been covered over by more recent development, including the A224 road, so the path runs east, around allotments. It then crosses the yard of St Andrew’s Church, built as a chapel to serve the swelling population in 1893.

Ponds fed from springs near St Mary Cray - Orpington boundary.

Lower Road, which you now follow, once ran straight down onto Orpington High Street: the tangled junction ahead was created in the 1920s when the A224 Orpington bypass was driven through. A typical interwar parade of shops, Carlton Parade, is over the road on the right, on the site of the millpond serving Orpington Mill or Colgate’s Mill. This flour mill was the uppermost mill on the river, just below the source, and is recorded in the Domesday survey. It was converted to steam in the 1870s but soon ran into financial difficulties, and ended its days as a storehouse before being demolished in 1935.


Orpington Priory. Never a priory but now an Asset of Community Value.
Like St Mary Cray, Orpington was known to the compilers of the 1086 Domesday survey, and for much of their history the two neighbouring settlements competed to be the most important centre in the area. With its industry, market and fairs, St Mary Cray was the more significant of the two for much of the second millennium, but Orpington emerged triumphant in the 20th century and is now one of the biggest urban centres on the Greater London fringes.

The town first appears in the written record several decades before the Norman conquest in 1032, when Eadsy, treasurer to England’s Danish king, Cnut the Great, gave his lands at Orpedingetune (meaning ‘farmstead belong to Orped’) to Christ Church Canterbury. Following the Conquest and then the fall from grace of Bishop Odo, the monks of Canterbury claimed the manor back. In the 12th century it was largely leased to the Ruxley family, encountered above, and following the Dissolution passed into private hands. For a while it was in shared ownership with nearby Lullingstone in the Darent valley to the east, now over the boundary in Kent.

Some development followed the opening of Orpington station in 1868, but the transformation from a small country town into a suburb only really kicked off after the station was rebuilt and enlarged in 1904. The first big privately developed estate was the Knoll, on former hop gardens between the west side of the High Street and the railway. Development continued through the interwar years, with the Ramsden council estate added in the 1950s to the east of the bypass. Like the rest of the Cray valley, Orpington has a significant traveller population, and an inaugural international congress held here in 1971 led to the foundation of the Romano Internacionalno Jekhetanipe or International Romani Union, a member of the Council of Europe and with special consultative status at the United Nations.

The Riverway makes a grand entrance into Orpington through two imposing 18th century gates, originally at the High Elms estate (on London Loop 3). These give access to the park known as Priory Gardens, with its extensive ornamental lakes – or rather lake, as there is actually a single 1 ha body of water divided by an artificial cascade, originally a sluice to control the water level. The lake started life as a mediaeval fishpond, fed by the spring that provides the main source of the Cray, and was remodelled in the late 19th century as a feature of the private parkland attached to Orpington Priory, complete with artificial islands. It’s worth taking a brief pause here, congratulating yourself on having traced the river to its source.

The route onwards crosses the cascade and continues on a straight path through the park, known as Monk’s Walk. After walking through a grassy meadow, you pass formal gardens on the right – well worth a detour to explore – and then the building known as Orpington Priory, just short of the southern gate out of the park. The Riverway officially ends here, though my description continues.

The references to monks and priories are 19th century fancies, as this site never accommodated a religious order, though the small estate did remain in the hands of Christ Church Canterbury until the Dissolution. The core of the building dates from the 15th century, and was extended in the 17th century. It was originally used as a rectory, attached to nearby All Saints Church, which is a little off our route but visible from it, over on the left, and also worth a visit. Parts of the church predate the Conquest, with the nave likely built early in the 11th century, perhaps when the Canterbury monks first took over. It presents two contrasting exteriors: a mediaeval main section pierced by 13th century lancet windows and a large 1957 extension in simplified pseudo-Gothic style. Inside is an Anglo-Saxon sundial, discovered and reset during restoration work.

After the Dissolution, the rectory was leased to the Hart Dyke family of Lullingstone, and eventually, in 1865, passed into the hands of Dr Herbert Broom, a keen historian who is thought to have been responsible for creating the formal gardens, broadly in the Arts & Crafts style. Remodelling was continued from 1919 under the next owner, publisher and landscape painter Cecil Hughes, under the influence of renowned garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, a friend of Hughes and his wife. A particularly noteworthy feature added during this period is the Theatre Garden to the northwest of the house, designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe in 1927, with ranked platforms so it can be used both as a theatre and a garden. There’s also a monument to Ivy Millichamp, the last civilian victim of a World War II V2 rocket.

Orpington District Council, a predecessor of today’s London Borough of Bromley, leased the house as offices after Hughes’ death in 1940 and by 1959 had taken ownership of house and grounds. The present park, incorporating additional land to the north, opened in 1962. The house was turned into Orpington Museum, later Bromley Museum, but this fell victim to austerity in 2015 as the council voted to sell the building. Local protesters blocked a proposed conversion to private housing by registering it as an Asset of Community Value, and it’s since been bought by a contemporary art organisation, V22.

Continuing ahead, you arrive on Bark Hart Road, with the church to your left and the original centre of Orpington along Church Hill to your right. An old road, Lych Gate Road, now continues ahead as a footpath where Bark Hart Road curves away, and soon there’s a view of the Walnuts shopping, further education and leisure centre over on the right. In the 1970s it was this development that destroyed the few remaining pre-Victorian buildings in the town. Residential streets lined with identikit interwar detached houses now lead to the village sign, installed in 2000, and the Portland stone war memorial displaying the familiar white horse, tellingly now the only listed building on the High Street.

Orpington war memorial now marooned on a roundabout.

At the start of the 20th century, this part of town was still largely rural, the southern end of the street dwindling into a few scattered cottages. But as the main route from the station ran this way, the rustic surroundings were not to last. When the memorial was installed in 1921, it provided a proud and sombre municipal end-stop to a newly extended commercial strip. Today the effect isn’t quite so striking, as it’s marooned on a roundabout encircled by thick traffic, with an unsympathetically boxy glass curtain-walled Tesco Extra on the opposite corner.

It’s a shortish walk west from here along Station Road to the station itself. As stated above, this was opened in 1868 by the South Eastern Railway (SER, no relation to today’s Southeastern), established in the 1840s as the operators of the first rail route from London to Dover, with its ferry connections to Belgium and France. Originally, the SER used a circuitous route which headed south from London Bridge on the London & Croydon Railway to Reigate before cutting east via Tonbridge and Ashford. Following the opening of the competing LC&DR route encountered earlier, the SER built a cut-off line from New Cross via Orpington and Sevenoaks to Tonbridge, greatly reducing journey times. This line eventually came to be regarded as the South Eastern Main Line.

The station has entrances on both sides, though the main entrance has always been to the west of the line, on the Crofton side of the tracks. The current building dates from 1904, when the line was quadrupled and the platforms expanded from two to six in response to the increasing importance of commuter traffic. This hadn’t been a major consideration in the 1860s but in the early 20th century it stimulated a dramatic transformation of the area, as we have seen. Two further terminating platforms on the Crofton side were installed on old carriage sidings in 1992.

Main entrance to Orpington station, proudly flying the flag.


Crofton: well-tended lawns among the bungalows.
I’ve written about Crofton in a little more detail along London Loop Section 3, including its main attraction, a little off the official Loop route but right next to this alternative, adjacent to the main station entrance. This is Crofton Roman Villa, one of many that stood in this part of Kent in pre-Saxon times, and along with Lullingstone Villa not too far away (and on the Darent Valley Path), a fine reminder of the area’s pre-mediaeval past.

To connect back to the Loop from here, the best way is first to climb the hill ahead: undistinguished of itself, but look back for a sweeping view across the valley you’ve been following. The hill crests the watershed, with the Cray on one side, and the Kyd Brook or Quaggy, a tributary of the Ravensbourne, on the other.

Then you’ll need to take to more interwar residential streets, many of them lined with bungalows, though with plenty of trees and some patches of green. You rejoin the Loop in a small clearing in Darrick and Newstead Woods Local Nature Reserve, not far from the village of Farnborough and the very edge of London’s sprawl.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

London Loop alternative: Dartford Crossways - Crayford

Welcome to the Enchanted Woodland, actually a smallpox cemetery in disguise.

Completing my proposed alternative route of the London Loop using the public bus service across the Dartford Crossing, this is a moderately short and largely urban but pleasant and interesting walk linking the bus stop at Crossways in the suburbs of Dartford with Barnes Cray, back on the official route. Along the way, you can enjoy flooded gravel pits remodelled as landscape features of business parks, a closeup view of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, and a visit to an enchanted woodland. The final stretch sticks to riversides through Dartford Marshes followed by an optional extension along the official trail to Crayford station.

There are plenty of opportunities to split the walk by bus, including the frequent FastTrack dedicated busway services linking Dartford, Bluewater and Gravesend, although these don’t accept TfL cards. And you’ll pass close to Dartford station which although outside London is now conveniently in TfL’s Zone 8.

Since the Crossways bus stop is a short walk from the south bank of the river Thames, another obvious way of completing this walk would be to use the riverside paths more-or-less throughout, upstream along the Thames to Crayford Ness then upstream along the Darent to Bob Dunn Way Bridge to meet the route described below. This is a very good walk, and a little more straightforward, but it’s 2 km longer. At some point I plan to explore the Thames Path and its actual and possible extensions in more detail in these pages, so for the time being I’ve found a more varied and surprising route inland. For more about the issues of completing the Loop in the east and why I’ve proposed this alternative as a bonus feature to the official trail, see my previous post.

Dartford, Kent

It’s appropriate that the geographical area where our circuits of London start is named after a rim or border. The word ‘Kent’ most likely derives from a Celtic term with this meaning, Latinised by Julius Caesar as Cantium. Its people, whom Caesar described as “by far the most civilised” of the Britons, were known to the Romans as the Cantiaci.

As the closest part of England to the European mainland, Kent will always be border country. But borders are rarely entirely impermeable, and the county has long been the conduit for people, cultures and ideas. Caesar himself first landed in Walmer near Deal from Boulogne in 55 BCE, and the ancestors of the Belgic and Celtic people he encountered had likely reached England via that same shoreline. The force that finally annexed most of Britain to the Roman Empire during Augustus’ reign in 43 likely landed at Richborough. Where their march northwest was interrupted by the Thames, they created a river crossing on the line of the later London Bridge, and inadvertently founded London.

Following the withdrawal of Roman rule in the 5th century, Jutes from what’s now southern Denmark migrated to East Kent and Saxons from western Germany followed them to West Kent. By 597, the year the Italian Christian priest Augustine landed at Reculver, Kent was a stable Anglo-Saxon kingdom, under Æthelberht, the first reliably attested king, some of whose laws survive as the oldest-known written English texts. Augustine completed his mission to convert the king, and became the first archbishop of Canterbury. The next and, so far, most recent successful occupation of Britain, by William of Normandy in 1066, was an exception, beginning in Sussex rather than Kent. The fact that William’s troops marched through Kent without formally demanding a surrender is the explanation for the county’s traditional motto, Invicta, meaning ‘undefeated’.

There’s still an echo of that old split between Saxons and Jutes in numerous institutional divisions between east and west Kent, and in the folk distinction between the demonyms ‘Man/maid of Kent’ for the east and ‘Kentish man/maid’ for the west, with the boundary almost but not quite following the river Medway. As these pages don’t look much beyond the immediate hinterland of Greater London, Jutes and men and maids of Kent are beyond our area of interest.

From Roman times, London itself has formed part of this rim country, the first big metropolis where the flow from the southeast eddied and often settled. So the city became the greatest borderland of all, flourishing as a multicultural, polyglot melting pot and a laboratory of new ideas. It’s long maintained a Kentish foothold, with a royal palace at Greenwich since before 1300, and a later royal dockyard at Deptford, both effectively extending the capital downstream along the Thames. When the county of London was belatedly created in 1889, it formally incorporated those parts of Kent roughly equivalent to today’s Greenwich and Lewisham boroughs. London returned for more in 1965, absorbing Bexley and Bromley.

And as everywhere, that borderline status of both London and Kent has remained problematic, its permeability both desired and resented. You’re forcibly reminded of the border if you’re unlucky enough to get caught up on the M20 approaching Folkestone during Operation Stack, the periodic clampdown on vehicle passage through the Channel Tunnel. Sadly, the current trend is hard rather than soft: in the referendum that sparked the current self-harming process of the UK leaving the European Union in June 2016, while almost 60% of Londoners voted to remain, 59% of Kent voted to leave.

Dartford takes its name from the ford on the river Darent around which the original town grew in Roman times. It’s the easternmost of three ‘Ford’ towns where the Roman highway later known as Watling Street, and highly likely its Celtic predecessor, crossed Thames tributaries. The others, from west to east, are Deptford, the ‘deep ford’ on the river Ravensbourne, and Crayford, on the river Cray – the destination of today’s walk. I’ve said more about Watling Street when discussing the London Countryway, which crosses it between Gravesend and Sole Street.

In the Roman period, Dartford could well have been an important local centre, given the attested presence of several apparently prosperous villas in the fertile Darent valley. The road later became a pilgrim route to Canterbury, as made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer, and Dartford, which could be reached from London in a day by an energetic walker, was an important stop on the way.

By the 14th century the town boasted two priories and a weekly market, and was likely one of the key rallying points for the rebels from Essex and Kent who marched on London in 1381 during the ill-fated Peasants’ Revolt. Alongside Deptford and Maidstone, it’s a claimant to the birthplace of revolt leader Wat Tyler, though there’s no proof of this. I’ll have more to say about this incident in a later post, likely on a walk visiting Blackheath, much closer to London along Watling Street.

Dartford industrialised comparatively early, thanks to a convergence of geographical factors including the river and road links to London, the abundance of good water which also provided power for mills and, like Purfleet and Thurrock across the Thames, the presence of chalk deposits close to the surface. The first paper mill in England opened here in 1588 and more soon followed. There were chalk pits in mediaeval times, and more recently pharmaceuticals figured highly among the local produce, as we’ll see. Among Dartford's more recent exports is Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, who has a local arts centre named after him.

By the mid-20th century, Dartford had effectively become a commuter suburb and continuous urban sprawl connected it to London in several places. It was one of the areas reviewed by the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London in the late 1950s for possible inclusion in an enlarged capital. But the Commission’s final report stopped short of recommending this, presumably because the town was still relatively self-contained: unlike some places outside London encountered on the Loop, it wasn’t excluded at a later stage following local protest.

In 1974, the Victorian-era Municipal Borough was enlarged with the inclusion of the rural hinterland to create the present Borough of Dartford. A more recent proposal to create a unitary authority by merging it with Gravesend was also rejected, so it remains part of the two-tier local government system of Kent. Unsurprisingly, though, the idea of Dartford becoming part of London is still regularly discussed, and local opinion appears almost equally divided on the issue.

Like many other places just outside London, Dartford is dominated by the capital without being able to enjoy the benefits of belonging to it. Local identity and viability have been placed under enormous pressure from industrial decline and retail competition from the West End and closer by. The giant Bluewater shpping mall just downriver, is widely blamed for turning the once-flourishing town centre into a denuded parade of closed shutters, charity and pound shops. But today’s walk avoids the historic centre in favour of its post-industrial hinterland, so we’ll need to wait for a later post to test this judgement.


Former chalk pits at Crossways are now lakes enjoyed by local workers.

Observant walkers who have crossed the Dartford Crossing from the previous section will notice that the surroundings on both sides of the Thames here are telling essentially the same story. Both are the recently redeveloped sites of former chalk quarries.

Once across the river, the bus from Chafford Hundred stops at the Galleon Boulevard stop in the Crossways Business Park, right by a Campanile hotel set behind an attractive pond complete with a fountain. This area was once part of Stone, then the next parish downstream along the Thames from Dartford, and was known as Stone Marshes. As on the other side, the marshes were successfully drained in mediaeval times to create quality farmland. Then chalk was found in the late 1860s, and over the next few decades, fuelled by the demand for cement from the London building industry, no less than four quarries appeared, with associated cement works and other facilities, all linked by a private tramway. By the 1930s they had all been incorporated into one giant undertaking, the Dartford Portland Cement Works.

These works fell into progressive disuse after the war and were finally demolished in the 1970s, leaving a blasted landscape of pits and slag heaps. Regeneration began in 1988, with a big distribution depot for supermarket Asda soon opening on the riverside, and the former cement wharf next door becoming a freight shipping terminal. The 120-ha Crossways Business Park now houses over 50 businesses employing 5,000 people. Rather like Stockley Park on section 11 of the Loop, it just missed the change in planners’ thinking towards more mixed-use development, so it’s one of those places that feels oddly compartmentalised and lonely, although there are two hotels and a scattering of residential properties.

This may seem an unpromising environment to walk in but turns out to be more pleasant than expected, helped enormously by a network of off-road paths and numerous water features remodelled from chalk pits, like that Campanile pond. Soon, you’re walking beside another, rather larger example known as Cotton Lake. Until the late 19th century there was a farm here, Cotton Farm, later overwhelmed by the pit which forms the basis of today’s lake. North of the lake, an 1870s map shows watercress beds steadily being encroached by chalk workings.

Our route leads straight across the Littlebrook Interchange connecting Dartford and Crossways with the M25 and the Dartford Crossing. This was first opened as part of the initial construction of Crossways in 1988 and substantially enlarged in 1996. The main interest here is the view from the flyover end-on to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and down to the tunnel approaches. Try to imagine the scene in the 19th century when this was Littlebrook Farm: the only survivor from this era other than the name is the fragmented strip of woodland that surrounds the A282 to the southwest. There’s a lot more about the Dartford Crossing and the bridge in my previous post.

View from the Littlebrook Interchange: tunnel beneath, bridge below.

Joyce Green and Temple Hill

Repurposed fence posts in the Enchanted Woodland
The residential streets west of the interchange were built on farmland as social housing between 1951 and 1960 in response to the post-war housing crisis, and still comprise Dartford’s largest area of deprivation. The neighbourhood is known as Temple Hill, recalling the fact that this was once Temples Manor, gifted by Henry II to the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Temple Farm stood in the northwest corner until it was demolished to make way for housing during the original development.

The trail runs through another fragmentary strip of woodland surviving from Littlebrook Farm, before following streets named rather pompously after poets and authors: Wordsworth Way, Wodehouse Road, Chaucer Way. Another familiar name around here is Joyce Green, not after the experimental Irish novelist but another farm to the northwest, which still survives, unlike the hospital which borrowed the farm’s name in the 20th century.

Following the advance of epidemiology in the late 19th century, but before the perfection of effective vaccines and antibiotics, highly infectious diseases like smallpox, which spread rapidly in densely populated urban areas, were contained by isolating those already infected. In a grim echo of the prison hulks from the Napoleonic period, in 1881 two former Royal Navy wooden warships were pressed into service as offshore hospitals. At first, they were moored off Deptford but in 1883 were moved to Long Reach off Dartford where they were joined by a third vessel, a former cross-Channel paddle steamer.

But conditions on board were far from ideal for the purpose, and in 1901 the Metropolitan Asylums Board began work on a land-based isolation hospital at Joyce Green Farm, a little inland from the ships. Work had barely started when a new smallpox epidemic hit London, so two further hospitals were built originally on a temporary basis a little closer to the river, known as Long Reach and Orchard hospitals.

Joyce Green hospital opened with 940 beds in 1903, though the outbreak of the previous year turned out to be last major smallpox epidemic in London, so in 1910 the hospital was repurposed to handle fever cases. It remained largely empty for periods in the 1920s and 1930s before becoming a military hospital during World War II, at one point reserved for the Free Dutch Forces based in Britain. Later it was a general hospital, becoming part of the NHS in 1948. It finally closed in 2000, superseded by Darent Valley Hospital near Bluewater.

The site is currently undergoing redevelopment as a housing estate and science park known as the Bridge. The curious layout of the original hospital, so distinctive on contemporary maps with its 22 separate ward buildings arranged symmetrically in an echelon formation and originally connected by a horse-drawn tramway, has been completely obliterated by demolition.

One curious corner of the hospital does survive, though in a rather different form. In the early 20th century there was no effective treatment for smallpox and the mortality rate was high, so a corner of the grounds to the southeast was consecrated as a cemetery. The site was last used for burials in 1951, and gradually became overgrown. By the 1960s it was surrounded by new houses, and it became known locally as an informal open space, especially after 1993 when it was severed from the hospital site by the construction of the new A206 road. But it also suffered major problems with litter and fly tipping.

Following the closure of the hospital, a local campaign pushed for the creation of a community woodland on the cemetery site. It was bought from the Department of Health for £1 in 2009 and reopened under the management of charity the Temple Hill Trust as the Enchanted Woodland, remarkably the only substantial area of public woodland in Dartford. With little funding available, the restoration and maintenance of the site, including the removal of over 20 t of illegally dumped rubbish in 2013, has largely been a volunteer-supported project. Since 2016 it’s been managed by a local school, the Temple Hill Primary Academy, and students have embarked on a new programme of planting using saplings nurtured in the surrounding house gardens.

Visiting the woodland requires a horseshoe-shaped deflection of the route but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s worthwhile. It’s a dappled patchwork of mature trees planted when the hospital was first developed, ivy-carpeted secondary woodland, more recent saplings and patches of grass. In spring, it’s noted for violets, likely descended from some that were once planted on a grave. Dotted throughout are more recent and often quirky decorations, like hand-carved signs, and an old fence line turned into a decorative feature, lending a distinctive and intimate feel.

Only one headstone remains, commemorating a nurse, Ethel Chapman, who died in 1922. This, and the overgrown yew trees, are among the few on-site clues to the site’s origins. So it’s astonishing to learn that 1,039 bodies are buried here, of which 802 are from a single year, victims of the last great London smallpox epidemic in 1902. According to the official history compiled by the Trust, at the peak of the epidemic a new communal grave was dug each day, and filled with up to 14 corpses in sacks stuffed with straw and charcoal to absorb the bodily fluids. Most graves were marked with a simple numbered metal spear, none of which still stand, though some are preserved by the Trust. There are two military burials from World War I but, unusually for war graves, even these are unmarked. After 1936, there were no more burials until the final five in 1951.

The walk then threads through grassy strips that formed part of the original estate design, and suddenly you find yourself atop a modest cliff. A wide view opens north towards the Queen Elizabeth II bridge and the Thames, with the low hills of Essex visible on the other side. The cliff appears on mid-19th century maps and is likely a relic of chalk diggings, although from an earlier period than the large scale works of the 1870s and after. Today, a flight of steps leads down it to a children’s playground nestling in its shadow, known as the Joyce Green Lane Recreation Ground.

Clifftop view north over Joyce Green Lane Recreation Ground and the marshes.

A gate from the playground leads onto Joyce Green Lane itself, once an old farm track from Temple Hill into the marshes, and later the route travelled by hospital patients from the station. Then another grass patch, Wellcome Avenue Open Space, bridges the transition to an area of rather different character. The clue is in the name, for Wellcome Avenue commemorates one of Dartford’s most significant industries.

Industrial Dartford

This birch on the corner of  the former Wellcome North Site
overhangs the route of a cement works tramway.
The marshy area to the north of Dartford town centre, with the tidal river Darent close at hand for water, power and transport, has been an industrial zone since at least the 16th century. Back then, a tidal-powered steel slitting mill stood on the riverside near the northern end of the High Street. Over the centuries this grew into the biggest milling complex on the river, known as the Phoenix Mill and used at various times for timber, cotton, flour, mustard, linseed oil and paper. This last commodity is something of a local speciality, produced in the area since at least 1588 until early in the 21st century.

In 1889, the mills were sold to pioneering pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co, founded by two US-born pharmacists, Silas Burroughs and Henry Wellcome. This originated in Wandsworth, on another Thames tributary we’ll be visiting on later walks, in 1880 but soon outgrew its original site. If you break your walk at Dartford Station, you’ll be able to see the mill pond, remodelled by Burroughs Wellcome into a decorative lake with artificial islands, providing a suitably attractive frontage for what was intended to be a model factory. The station opened when the South East Railway extended its North Kent Line west from Gravesend towards London in 1849, improving the connectivity of the mill site still further.

Burroughs Wellcome played a lead role in establishing the pill as a form of medication, and is further noted for the emphasis it placed on research: among other things it made major advances in the production of antihistamines, insulin and, more recently, the antiviral drugs used to manage HIV infection. Its philanthropically-inclined co-founder wanted the profits spent on improving human health, and after his death in 1936, his legacy was used to set up the Wellcome Trust, still a major funder of medical research, as well as the owner of one of London’s most fascinating museums at its Euston Road headquarters. But the original company has subsequently been absorbed through mergers, and is now part of the world’s sixth largest pharma multinational, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

At first Wellcome occupied only part of the mill complex, with some of it leased to a flour miller, but in the early years of the 20th century the drug company expanded to fill the rest, and then beyond. Immediately to the north, and to your left as you begin to walk south along Central Road, was one of the late 19th century cement works, connected to a wharf on the Darent by a tramway which crossed your path through what are currently the locked gates on the right a few steps further south: an interpretation board marks the spot. Another tramway ran north-south along Central Road to the mills. The cement plant was disused by World War I when it housed German prisoners of war before being occupied by Wellcome.

The area on the right (west) side of Central Road, known as the North Site, was farmland attached to Temple Farm until as late as the 1980s, when it too became an extension of the Wellcome plant. This use proved relatively short-lived: GSK closed the entire plant in 2011, laying off 650 staff – equal to half the 1,300 who had worked at the site in its peak years. Unsurprisingly given its proximity to the station, the whole lot is being redeveloped as housing. At the time of writing, building has only just started on the North Site, but 400 homes on the older site opposite are nearing completion. Pleasingly, the new neighbourhood will be known as the Phoenix Quarter, reviving the old name of the mill.

The land between the North Site and a former paper mill close to the station is occupied by a later 20th century development of light industrial units: not especially attractive or distinguished, but providing a straightforward walk along the obviously named Riverside Way to the Darent and the more open surroundings of the final stage of the walk.

Dartford Marshes and the Darent

Boardwalk alongside the river Darent by Riverside Way Industrial Estate, looking upstream at low tide.

The river which gives Dartford its name rises from the Greensand ridge at Crockhamhill Common, south of Westerham, close to Kent’s western boundary with Surrey and only a few hundred metres from the route of the London Countryway through Kent Hatch. The Darent skims the northwestern edge of Sevenoaks and runs through Otford, Shoreham, Eynsford and Dartford to join the Thames on the marshes at Crayford Ness, a distance of 34 km. It’s a chalk stream, one of several encountered on these walks, and the exceptional purity of its water is one of the reasons its valley is associated with the paper and pharmaceutical industries.

A 31-km signed walking trail, the Darent Valley Path, traces the river’s course. Although this runs entirely outside London, it’s entirely within the London Countryway and therefore within the scope of this project, so I’ll discuss the river in more detail alongside the trail when I get around to it. This route follows a short section of the northernmost part of Darent Valley Path between Riverside Way and Bob Dunn Way Bridge.

The Darent is tidal below Mill Pond Road near Dartford station, where there’s a now-derelict lock that gave access to Phoenix Mills. As is the custom with Thames tributaries in the London area, the tidal section is known as a creek, Dartford Creek. Quite large boats could once sail this far at high tide, and a right of navigation still exists, although silting has made boating difficult. The recently formed Dartford and Crayford Creek Restoration Trust is currently working to remedy this.

From Riverside Way a decent riverside path, augmented by a newish stretch of boardwalk, leads downstream into the marshes, soon leaving the industry behind. With Crayford and Erith Marshes (section 1 of the Loop) further up the Thames and Rainham Marshes (section 24) on the Essex side, Dartford Marshes forms the largest surviving remnant of an environment that once stretched much further upriver, and is now a designated Site of Nature Conservation Interest. Managed and drained since mediaeval times, the marshes were traditionally used for grazing, though also for activities that require isolation, such as explosive storage and testing and, as previously discussed, the treatment of infectious diseases. We’re far enough down the estuary here that the section closest to the Thames is salt marsh, though we won’t get that far today.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the marshes are a unique environment in the London area, both in terms of their wildlife value and their special and rather curious sense of remoteness. Yet they are undervalued and underappreciated. Fragmented ownership, split between ten different landowners on the Dartford side including the council and private interests, makes coherent management difficult, and paths and access points are limited. For the confident walker, this can provide a surprising sense of escape – sometimes you seem to have the whole marsh to yourself – but it provides insufficient surveillance to deter the likes of fly tippers and illegal off-road motorcyclists and partly explains the local reputation for antisocial behaviour. Don’t let this put you off – you’re unlikely to be troubled and can enjoy the space and the bird life on the muddy creek.

When I first walked these paths in the very early 1990s, there were no crossings of the Darent below Mill Pond Road, so the only possible riverside route north from there was all the way to the confluence and downstream along the Thames towards Gravesend. But in 1993 they opened the new A206 bypass, the road which severed the hospital site, originally known as University Way, but later renamed when the planned university failed to appear as Bob Dunn Way. Dunn, who died in 2003, was the Conservative MP for Dartford throughout the Thatcher and Major years, from 1979 until the ascent of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997.

This fast and busy road crosses the Darent just south of the mouth of the Cray, and pedestrian access from the riverside to the bridge has thankfully been provided, so although the traffic is something of an intrusion, there’s at least the opportunity to nip across the river.

Looking towards Dartford Salt Marshes from just north of the Bob Dunn Way Bridge.

From here you follow the river wall around the triangle of marsh between the Darent and its lowest tributary the Cray, soon turning to walk upstream along the latter as you’ll continue to do for the rest of this section. This stretch of river is also tidal and therefore known as Crayford Creek. It forms the boundary between Kent and Greater London here and the official route of the London Loop from Erith lies within hailing distance, along the corresponding path on the other side. Nearing the industrial buildings of Barnes Cray, you cross a footbridge over a minor tributary, the Stanham River, or rather a straightened arm of it that was once served the industries in Crayford like the Vickers works.

Crossing the footbridge, you leave Kent and enter the London Borough of Bexley, but there’s still a good path following the river as it bends past the waste reception centre and under the 1849 brick rail viaduct that also provides a distinctive feature on the official Loop route nearby. On the opposite bank, a bicycle is hoisted improbably on a tall pole above a ramshackle collection of huts and old containers: perhaps a trophy captured by the locals on nearby National Cycle Network Route 1 and displayed here pour encourager les autres. The Cray’s appearance changes dramatically here: you can see how it’s been straightened, widened and culverted, with boat docks and a turning bay. This work was largely carried out in 1840 to improve access to the mills on the site.

Did the locals seize this bike from a hapless cyclist on NCN1? River Cray, Branes Cray.

And so our walk reaches Thames Road at Barnes Cray where it finally meets the official London Loop as well as the more local Cray Riverway trail. There are buses from here, but I’d recommend continuing at least a little further into Crayford, enjoying the river’s further change of character into a more rustic and verdant stream, as well as the satisfaction of having actually completed a circuit around London, even if a short part of it had to be by bus.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

London Loop Alternative: Upminster Bridge - Chafford Hundred

Stifford Pumping Station, above Davy Down. Engines not visible.

This alternative final section of the London Loop suggests a way of bridging the gap in the trail by crossing the river Thames in the east, albeit by bus on the Dartford Crossing. Diverging from the official route shortly after Upminster Bridge, you’ll traverse several noteworthy green spaces in Thames Chase Community Forest, including three Forestry Commission woodlands, the expansive Belhus Woods Country Park and richly verdant Davy Down with its historic water pumping station. The last stretch finds hidden ways through Chafford Hundred, a new town built in an old quarry, with unexpectedly spectacular views.

There are no bus options for quite a while after the routes diverge, and there’s also an unavoidable stretch of not especially pleasant road walking, though the Forest sites that bookend this are considerable compensation. You could then break the journey at Belhus using a non-TfL bus if you wish. Otherwise the walk ends at Chafford Hundred station, adjacent to the massive Lakeside shopping mall, where, as well as trains to London, an hourly bus (not on Sundays and non-TfL) will take you on a scenic ride across the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to the suburbs of Dartford. I’ll describe the shortish and pleasant walk that connects this point back to the official Section 1 of the London Loop at Barnes Cray in a later post.

Bridging the gap in the Loop

Charge notice for Dartford Crossing
As mentioned several times in these pages, the biggest disappointment of the London Loop is that, due to the lack of a convenient river crossing, it’s not a loop at all. The lowest point at which anyone can walk from the north to the south bank of the river Thames is Woolwich, where a foot tunnel forms an integral part of the Loop’s inner London sister trail the Capital Ring. Continuing downstream, the next and last opportunity to walk to the riverside and cross to the opposite bank is on the Tilbury to Gravesend ferry. This is too far outside the London boundary to be of any use to Loop walkers, though it does form a part of the London Countryway, the unofficial orbital route through the outlying countryside, described elsewhere in these pages.

Confronted with this issue, the London Walking Forum, original devisers of the Loop, opted simply to start and finish at two stations close to the river and to London’s eastern edge: Erith and Purfleet. Historically, a ferry linked Coldharbour Point at Rainham, a little upriver of Purfleet, with Erith, and both its former termini are beside the trail. This ferry has been defunct since Victorian times, but doubtless the Forum hoped that at some point a boat service might be revived.

With the area now designated for long term development as part of the Thames Gateway, and the advent of the successful Thames Clippers riverbus service which now reaches as far downriver as Woolwich Arsenal, that possibility is a little less remote than it once was, but is certainly not imminent. So, for the foreseeable future, anyone who wants to walk to Purfleet and continue to Erith faces a roundabout rail journey quite a long way back into London then out again, via c2c to West Ham, the DLR to Woolwich and Southeastern to Erith.

There is however one fixed river crossing at about the right point that’s all too visible from the Loop itself but is tantalisingly out of reach to walkers. This is the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, a high and graceful suspension bridge visible for miles around which since 1991 has taken southbound traffic across the river, while northbound drivers use the earlier tunnel crossing.

It’s enduringly frustrating that this expensive and beautiful bridge with its spectacular views of the estuary has always been off-limits to walkers, despite many other equally long and high bridges, both in the UK and around the world, operating safely with walking and cycling lanes. When the tunnel first opened in 1963, it was understandably considered a hostile environment for walkers, and too dangerous for cyclists. But cyclists successfully insisted on provision, and at first a small fleet of specially adapted buses was provided to ferry them through, and for free too, unlike motorists. The buses were soon phased out due to lack of demand, but the provision remained, provided by more conventional vehicles.

During the planning of the bridge, an attempt to cancel the cycle service was resisted by pro-cycling MPs, but nobody successfully argued the obvious point that the public should simply to be able to cross the bridge under their own power, on foot or by bike. The M25, lest we forget, was one of the pet projects of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a woman who allegedly held the opinion that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”.

Had the bridge been built just a few years later it’s likely the need for footways and cycleways would have been considered more seriously. As things stand, determined cyclists can still find their way via convoluted routes to assembly areas at each end, where yellow telephones are provided to summon a free lift in a dedicated 4x4 with a cycle rack. Waiting times extend up to 40 minutes, and cyclists friends tell me the people providing the service can be less than helpful, particularly when groups attempt to pre-book. But walkers don’t even have this opportunity.

Fortunately, there is still one way that people without vehicles or bikes can access the crossing, on the X80 bus. This is commercially operated by Thurrock-based private bus company Ensign Bus, so isn’t a public service obligation. Its primary purpose is to link Lakeside and Bluewater, two huge competing out-of-town shopping malls which nestle in former chalk quarries on each side of the estuary. It’s a limited stop route with stops that aren’t as close to the bridge as you might like, and it doesn’t run on Sundays, but it does help provide a viable alternative way of completing the Loop, and one way of doing this is suggested here.

If this is your first journey around the trail, my recommendation is to stick to the official route and enjoy the riverside walk through Rainham and Crayford marshes. But do consider this option as a bonus feature. Apart from an unwelcome stretch of road walking, it has much to recommend it: sites like Belhus Woods and Davy Down equal the highlights of the official trail, and even Chafford Hundred has pleasant surprises in store. Make sure you walk clockwise rather than anticlockwise so you cross via the bridge rather than the tunnel: the southbound bus ride is itself an experience, even if the views are brief and sometimes obstructed. Unless and until sense prevails in retrofitting walkways onto the bridge, it’s the closest you’ll get to what must be one of most exhilaratingly spectacular viewpoints on the river Thames.


Horse paddocks in rustic Upminster, Hacton Park Corner Farm

At first, the alternative route simply follows the official one, so I’ll leave you to refer to a previous post to find out more about Upminster Bridge and the Havering Parkways. It’s along Gaynes Parkway that the walk diverges, continuing on a grass path along the east side of the river Ingrebourne approaching Hacton Bridge, rather than crossing to the west side with the official Loop route and National Cycle Network 136.

In my post on Loop section 23 I introduced Hacton as a hamlet of Upminster that grew up beside the bridge around the early 14th century. Its original centre was to the south, at White Hart Corner – the pub of this name, opened in 1854, is still marked on maps though it closed in the 2000s. Hacton Lane, which runs north from the White Hart to cross the bridge, was once lined with cottages, but 19th century rural depopulation saw most of these disappear. The streets you walk down today were developed in the 1950s, and the Optimist on the corner of Hacton Lane and Little Gaynes Lane opened in 1956 as the first new pub in Upminster in the 20th century.

Opposite the pub and set back from the road is one of the remaining historic buildings in the area, the red brick Hacton House. It was built between 1762 and 1765 for William Braund, a successful merchant and financier and one of several well-off Londoners who bought country estates in Upminster around this time. After military use during World War II, it was converted somewhat unsympathetically into flats. Past the house, a footpath leads between playing fields and horse paddocks, the latter belonging to Hacton Park Corner Farm to the south. This once boasted a Jacobean farmhouse, destroyed during the war by bombs doubtless aimed at nearby RAF Hornchurch, though a 300-year-old Grade II-listed barn survived. It’s now a livery stable.

Pleasingly, the horse paddocks soon give way to a genuine fragment of London agriculture: arable fields now preserved as green belt, some of them still divided with the remnants of ancient hedgerows. Along these paths the Loop shares the way with the 16 km Upminster Circular Walk, originally developed by Hillingdon council in the 1980s, and well worth exploring. Though the leaflets are long out of print, the route is well-waymarked and easy to find out about online.

Suburban streets laid out in the 1930s loom ahead, but the path dodges them, stumbling instead into a delightful hidden corner known as Parklands Open Space, where mature trees tower over a stream, a tributary of the Ingrebourne, that has been dammed to create a rather sombre long, narrow lake. This is the only surviving remnant of Gaynes, which as previously mentioned was once the largest manor in the parish, named after the Engaine family who held it in the 13th century. In 1766, it was bought by James Esdaile, owner of a successful cooperage business and later a Lord Mayor of London. Esdaile already owned New Place and added several other local plots, knitting them together into a large estate. He rebuilt the modest manor house on a grand scale and had 40 ha of its surroundings landscaped into a park, with the lake as one of the features.

Last remnant of Gaynes Manor: The lake at Parklands Open Space
The estate was eventually divided up and in 1929 the last significant tranche was sold off for housing development, but Hornchurch Urban District Council, as it was then, bought the immediate surrounds of the lake as a public space. The area fell into neglect in the late 20th century, especially following the Great Storm of 1987 when fallen trees blocked many of the paths. Thankfully it’s been revived more recently with the help of an active Friends Group, formed in 2012. Our route crosses the water and soon leaves the site, but it’s worth a short detour a little further along the north bank of the lake for a view of the elegant Grade II-listed bridge at its opposite end, built in the 1780s by architect James Paine. The bridge is on Historic England’s ‘at risk’ register and in need of restoration, but so far funding for this hasn’t been forthcoming.

Bonnets Wood

Damyns Hall Aerodrome

A parish boundary once ran along Park Farm Road, onto which you emerge when leaving Parklands Open Space, dividing Upminster to the north from Rainham to the south. The trail now crosses onto the Rainham side to enter Bonnetts Wood, one of the first of several Forestry Commission sites on today’s walk. As the official Loop route runs right through Rainham village, I’ve said more about the old parish there.

For centuries, the land to the south of the road was farmland attached to the manor of Gerpins, its name derived from the Jarpeville family who held it from the later 12th century. By the early 20th century, the estate had been broken up, and these fields were farmed by the Bonnetts family, based at Central Farm on Aveley Road. In 2002, the land was sold to the Forestry Commission as one of the new woodland areas in Thames Chase Community Forest (see my post on the London Countryway between Brentwood and West Horndon). In common with several other Forest sites, like Pages Wood on section 22 of the Loop, it’s managed to create a varied environment with a more open aspect than you might expect. Woodland is interspersed with meadows, and paths are lined with wide grassy margins.

In 2012, the wood was doubled in size to 33.6 ha with the addition in the southwest of a former landfill, capped, so it’s said, with rubble left over from building the Shard at London Bridge. This has helped create a linked chain of green spaces westwards via Berwick Glades to Hornchurch Country Park on the official route of the Loop, soon to be improved further by the opening of a new road crossing. Unfortunately, though, there’s still rather a gap between Bonnetts and the next cluster of Forest sites to the south and east, the direction in which we now need to walk. So currently there’s no real alternative to an unappealing trek along Aveley Road.

Considering that it runs through the heart of a community forest, this is a disappointingly unfriendly stretch of road, narrow but straight enough that many drivers exceed the already generous 40 mph limit. There’s no continuous pavement, though there are occasional stretches of verge. The road, incidentally, once formed another part of the boundary between Rainham, to the west (right), and Upminster to the east. One feature of interest along the way is Damyns Hall Aerodrome, opened in 1969 on the site of the parkland surrounding 16th century Damyns Hall, which had burnt down four years earlier. It’s the only privately-owned general aviation aerodrome in Greater London, and is used by light aircraft, microlights and helicopters.

Once past the aerodrome drive there are various gaps in the hedge giving access to its large grass field, and nothing to discourage you from walking on the other side of the hedge parallel to the road, although this is strictly private property. An official permissive path around the aerodrome perimeter would be an improvement here. There’s also some hope that the former gravel pit behind the thick hedge on the right may eventually be reclaimed as part of the Forest.

As it is, the road walking is almost done at the junction with Bramble Lane. This was once the gateway to an important site known as Chafford Heath, the meeting point for the ancient hundred of Chafford, a pre-Norman geographical subdivision of Essex not to be confused with today’s Chafford Hundred where the walk ends. Three parish boundaries met here: Rainham to the west, Upminster to the east and Aveley to the south. One of these is still functional, as when Greater London was created in 1965, Aveley remained outside it. The boundary here doesn’t quite follow the road, so when you walk past the car park in Cely Woods and follow the track right, you’re leaving London, though not for the final time.

Cely Woods

Track through Cely Woods, showing the wide margins of the new Thames Chase woodlands.

Aveley was once a large and prosperous parish in Chafford Hundred, centred on a large village off the trail to the south. This was already in existence in Saxon times and is mentioned several times in the Domesday survey of 1086, its name likely derived from the personal name Ælfgyþ and a suffix meaning a woodland clearing. In 1929, Aveley was allocated to Purfleet Urban District, which became a part of Thurrock in 1936 – originally an urban district of Essex, then, from 1974, a borough and finally, in 1997, a unitary authority separate from both London and Essex.

Thurrock’s reputation is not a happy one – in 2012 it was the lowest-ranked of all council areas in England in the government’s Wellbeing survey, and I’ve said more about this and other issues in my writeup of the London Countryway alternative route via Tilbury Town. But I doubt you’ll feel unhappy in the modestly pretty Cely Woods, the second Forestry Commission site on today’s walk.

There were five manors in the parish in Norman times, with this northwest corner occupied by one known as Bretts after the Bret family who rented it from the Swein of Essex in the 13th century. It was bought in 1462 by London wool merchant Richard Cely, and he and his descendants occupied it for the next 70 or so years. During a legal dispute about the inheritance of the estate in the 1490s, the Court of Chancery seized a collection of family papers as potential evidence. This cache of letters, invoices and other business documents written between 1475 and 1488 ended up at the Public Records Office, where it was rediscovered in the late 19th century, and published in edited form in 1900 under the title The Cely Papers.

The papers turned out to be a goldmine for historians researching economics, politics and everyday life not only in England but Flanders, France and the Netherlands in the 15th century. Their importance is better appreciated if you understand that the wool trade accounted back then for much of the English economy: taxes on it contributed considerably to state income, and consequently it was heavily regulated, forcing its practitioners to play politics whether they liked it or not.

The Celys sourced wool largely from the Cotswolds and shipped it via Calais, then an English possession, to customers in the southern Low Countries. Their correspondence records them confronting piracy in the English Channel, sharp practice in the Flemish markets (they weren’t above a little dodgy dealing themselves), losses from constantly fluctuating exchange rates, and numerous wars as alliances shifted between England, Burgundy and France. All the same, they appear to have been among the more prosperous merchants of the day, at least under the guiding hand of Richard – his three sons proved less adept at running the business after his death.

Historian Henry Elliot Malden, who edited the papers for publication, summarised the Celys’ life in his introduction in a way that says as much about his society as theirs:
Taken for all in all, the life revealed is not worse in point of morality than that of the same class at other times. It is more vigorous and manly than commercial life is now. The modem young business man has his holidays devoted to sport. The Celys, besides occasional relaxations — and Richard rode down to buy in Gloucestershire hawk on fist, ready to let fly at heron or partridge as he journeyed — had a continual experience of roughing it in their working days. In peril of robbers by sea and land, in peril of bogs and stones on the English apologies for roads, among the contending troops in Flanders, tossing in smacks across the Channel, they probably became men, more natural and tougher-fibred than those who have to cultivate their manhood by sport and games in the intervals of business. There is very little sensibility about them, but plenty of sense.
In 1568, Bretts became one of numerous plots merged with the expanding Belhus estate, of which more later. When that estate was broken up in the 1920s, the area now comprising Cely Woods was separately farmed, until the early 2000s when the Forestry Commission bought it as part of the Thames Chase project, pleasingly reviving the Cely name.

The Commission’s land is newly wooded in the style of other Thames Chase sites, but also encloses two patches of ancient woodland now owned and managed as part of Belhus Woods Country Park, which very likely would have been known to the Celys, at least on the occasions when they were in Aveley rather than Ieper, Calais or Gloucester. To the west, and off our route, is Warwick Wood; to the east, and to your left before you leave the site, is White Post Wood, likely named after a parish boundary marker which once stood here.

Belhus Woods Country Park

Belhus Lakes, Belhus Country Park. Essex, not Essex.

By the end of the 17th century, Belhus was one of the biggest landed estates in Essex, comprising over 910 ha. It had begun as a smallish post-Conquest manor in Aveley parish, rented from the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem and variously known as Nortons, Manywares or Coppins Crouch. Its most enduring name is from the family who held it in the 1330s, derived from their original home in the village of Ramsden Bellhouse near Billericay, but the dynasty most responsible for its expansion are the Barretts. John Barrett acquired part of the manor through marriage in 1397 and his distant descendant Thomas Barrett-Lennard sold off the much-expanded estate bit by bit in the first half of the 20th century.

In its pomp, Belhus straddled not only Aveley but the adjoining parishes of Upminster, North Ockendon and Wennington. The manor house, to the south, was rebuilt in 1526 and expanded several times over the succeeding centuries. In 1618, a large tract of land nearby was converted into a deer park and from 1749 this was fashionably remodelled, partly to the designs of the ever-busy landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

The last family owner, Thomas Barrett-Lennard, preferred his clan’s other home at Horsford in Norfolk and neglected Belhus, selling a substantial tranche to Essex County Council in 1937 for preservation as Green Belt. During World War II, the house was badly damaged by bombs aimed at Hornchurch and the London docks, and was finally demolished in 1957. By then, most of the remaining land had been sold to the London County Council for housing.

Essex still owns an extensive portion of the estate. The northern section, including Warwick and White Post Woods, became public open space, designated in the late 1960s as a Country Park. The southern part, including the site of the house, is leased as a golf course. In between is Belhus Chase, which in the late 1990s was leased to the Woodland Trust. Essex’s ownership is now rather anomalous, as none of its holdings are within its current boundary. The Upminster segment became part of the London Borough of Havering in 1965, while the rest is in Thurrock, a unitary authority since 1997. But the county makes a decent job of running the country park.

As you cross Romford Road and enter Belhus Woods Country Park, you’re once again crossing the old Upminster parish boundary and returning to the London Borough of Havering. Much of the site is ancient woodland, though dotted with open grassland and meadows recalling the former deer park and shrubbery plantings from Brown’s day. There’s an excellent visitor centre right beside the route, with information boards and a decent café. A little past this, in a meadow off to the left, is the Belhus Woods Railway, actually two miniature railways at 184 mm (7¼”) and 127 mm (5”) gauge, built and operated by the volunteers of the Docklands and East London Model Engineering Society. It operates at least one afternoon a month except in winter, normally on a Sunday or bank holiday, and you can ride on it for a small charge.

The path runs through one of the largest patches of woodland, Running Water Wood, before the surroundings open out with Whitehall Wood on the left. A little further on is one of the most popular spots in the park, the grassy bank beside the first of several lakes, a legacy of gravel extraction. Turning south at the corner of the lake you’re following the London boundary again: the area to the east (left), though also part of the Belhus estate, was once another parish, North Ockendon. In 1936 it was divided, with this part allocated to Thurrock Urban District, and therefore remained outside London after 1965. You finally leave London for Thurrock when you cross the redundantly-named Running Water Brook, the south side of which was in the old Aveley parish.

The woodland to the north of the brook is known as Little Brick Kiln Wood; to the south you’re in Brick Kiln Wood. The names indicate these were, and still are, working woods. The brick kiln operated, with the occasional gap, between at least 1603 and the 1890s and bricks for the rebuilding of the mansion in the mid-18th century were likely made here. Some structures still survive among the trees. Hazel trees in the woods are still regularly coppiced and the timber used for thatching, fencing and hurdle making.

Over the brook, you’re officially out of the country park and into the Woodland Trust land of Belhus Chase. Much of this was grassland, but is now being replanted with trees in a layout intended to recall both the 17th century deer park and the 18th century landscaped version. The water channel to the left is artificial, a canal dug to supply water to the house. The original 18th century plans for the estate included a large lake, but the money ran out before this could be completed, and in 1770 engineer Richard Woods widened and expanded the canal to create this cheaper alternative, now known as the Long Pond. A little further on, the water expands into a broader pool, one of the more pleasant and secluded corners of the site.

The sense of seclusion is undermined by the nearby roar of traffic, and soon the trail climbs to cross the M25 orbital motorway. The official Loop route stays well within the motorway, but it’s encountered several times on the London Countryway and I’ve said more about it elsewhere, notably in my commentary on the walk between Oxted and Merstham. The road here, opened in 1982, bisects the Belhus estate, cutting straight across the line of the Long Pond. On the other side is a woodland known as the Ash Plantation. It’s a shame this is now severed from the rest of the site, but there’s the pleasing impression of a secret corner. Futher on, the trees end in a wide grass strip alongside the motorway, ushering you into the modern-day Belhus housing estate.


The curious wooden spiral in Dilkes Park, Belhus.

The Belhus estate once extended considerably beyond the Ash Plantation, but the tranche to the east was sold off to the London County Council (LCC) in the late 1940s. Along with an adjoining patch to the northeast in South Ockendon, this became another of the housing estates the LCC built on the London edge, well outside its own territory, as a solution to the capital’s postwar housing problems. The Loop runs through several similar estates, for example at South Oxhey (section 15) and Harold Hill (section 21).

The first house in Belhus was occupied in 1950, and there were 4,000 houses and 1,320 flats by 1959. The Greater London Council (GLC) inherited the estate in 1965, though it still lay just outside London. It’s been managed by Thurrock council since 1980, though retains the appearance of a typical LCC estate of the period. In line with the ‘garden city’ ethos of postwar planning, it incorporates considerable areas of green space which enliven otherwise unremarkable and sometimes rather bleak architecture: there’s a large patch of grass just to the left soon after you leave the Plantation, overlooked by a desultory shopping parade.

A slightly incongruous Regency-inspired street layout featuring a pair of crescents abuts a more extensive green space. The 6.3 ha Dilkes Park incorporates part of the former Dilkes Wood, an 18th century plantation attached to Belhus Park that included fragments of ancient woodland. It’s now owned by the charity Fields in Trust, though managed by Thurrock, and is a valued local amenity. It was singled out for praise by Play England for the way the children’s play equipment isn’t fenced off but “seamlessly integrated with its woodland setting and there is no sense of where the play space begins and ends”. I’ve drawn a blank, though, in trying to find out more about the spiral of small wooden posts that decorates the circular junction in the middle of the park.

Mardyke Woods and Davy Down

Belhus Woods, one of the oldest woodlands in Essex.

The old Belhus estate stretched as far south as the river Mardyke, and the slopes on the north side of its valley were thickly wooded. Like many of the other woods on the estate up until the later 19th century, these were important workplaces: trees were coppiced for timber used for building, firewood gathered and livestock grazed. The LCC bought the woods with the housing estate land after World War II but thankfully conserved a large wooded area as a public amenity. These woods, known as Mardyke Woods, are now managed by the Forestry Commission, and since 2012 have been improved with new paths, signing and woodland thinning with the help of a grant from the Veolia Trust, discussed in my commentary on the London Loop section 24.

Unlike the other Commission sites on today’s walk, these are delightfully thick and tangled ancient semi-natural woodland. Tree cover is classified as ancient in England if an area has been known to be continuously wooded since 1600 (see my commentary on the London Countryway between Welham Green and Broxbourne) but these woods are much older, and were likely well-established by Roman times. The site was once three adjacent woods, under separate ownership before being brought together by the Barretts, and the remains of mediaeval woodbanks still separate some of the portions. The oldest surviving document mentioning the largest portion, Brannett’s Wood, dates from 1339, making it the second-oldest recorded woodland in Essex.

The section of wood you first enter is known as Millards Garden, with a more open green space and playground beside it, then as the walk turns east you’re in Brannett’s Wood. The ruggedness of the paths here makes a pleasant change from the walk so far, and there are some surprising ups and downs, particularly as the path turns south and descends the steep river terrace of the Mardyke. You emerge into a contrasting scene, where the Mardyke itself has created a flat, marshy floodplain, a finger of the Thames marshes clutching its way inland.

The Mardyke rises between Great Warley and Little Warley on the outskirts of Brentford, and runs for roughly 18 km to join the river Thames at Purfleet, where the official London Loop crosses it just above the confluence. Its name means ‘boundary ditch’, as a stretch to the north once formed part of the boundary between Chafford and Barstaple, the next hundred east. Our route temporarily joins the Mardyke Way, an 11-km walking and cycling trail opened in 2007 alongside part of the river. Westwards this will take you to Aveley village itself where there’s an easy link to Purfleet and the official Loop; eastwards and northwards it links to Bulphan and the London Countryway.

You walk under a substantial brick viaduct carrying a railway across the Mardyke valley. Known locally as the Fourteen Arches, this was built in 1892-1893 by the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LT&SR) as part of a southern loop between the company’s stations at Romford and Grays. For much of its existence the line had only one intermediate station, Ockendon to the north of here, and it remains single track. An old parish boundary ran down to the Mardyke just the other side of the railway, dividing Aveley from South Ockendon parish, and the route ventures just a few steps beyond this before leaving the Mardyke Way to cross the reedy river on a new foot and cycle bridge.

The Mardyke between Davy Down and Mardyke Woods.

On the other side, the land between the Mardyke and the Thames was once part of another parish, West Thurrock, held before 1066 by the ill-fated King Harold. From mediaeval times this was a relatively prosperous patchwork of farms, market gardens and even vineyards with extensive marshes bordering the Thames. Fruit and vegetables grew well thanks to the chalky soil, and it was the presence of a thick ridge of chalk, the Purfleet Anticline, running through the area that determined its fate in the industrial age. Purfleet, beside the Thames to the southwest and at the end of the official London Loop, began as a hamlet of West Thurrock and is discussed in more detail elsewhere.

The chalk is linked to a longstanding puzzle of the Mardyke: how did an apparently minor river cut such a substantial valley between the chalk to the south and the higher ground to the north. Careful study of gravel deposits has led to the conclusion that, some 300,000 years ago, the Thames flowed this way, north of the chalk, before cutting through the narrow gap at Purfleet and continuing on its present course.

The footbridge delivers you into Davy Down, a delightful 6 ha green space with a verdant mix of grassland, wetland and woodland patches, overlooked by an imposing brick pumping station. In the early 18th century this was a farm, and later a market garden. Its name derives from the family that owned it, and the fact that part of the site was on a finger of chalk ridge. The site was severed when the A13 opened in 1982, becoming economically unviable and falling into dereliction, until rescued by a local trust with the support of the council and the water company, and opened as a green space in 1993. It’s now managed by the Land Trust with the help of local volunteers.

Following the path across the meadow, it’s well worth dodging left into the woodland known as Pilgrims Copse, where a footbridge crosses a pond from which a sculpture of a stork juts up, creating an attractive picture. The path then climbs up the ridge to pass the chapel-like Stifford Pumping Station, opened by the South Essex Waterworks Company in 1928 to pump water from a 42 m borehole into the chalk. Water is still pumped and treated here by successor company Essex & Suffolk Water, but much of the original structure has been made redundant by modern technology. The original massive Sulzer diesel engines are preserved in situ and can be viewed if you call at the right time: the waterworks and the adjacent modern visitor centre are open most Thursday afternoons and on intermittent other days.

The old track south through the farm is now blocked by the A11, so the drive swings back north to deposit you on Pilgrims Lane. Known further south as Mill Lane, this is a very old road linking Ockendon, North and South Stifford and the Thames, and does indeed have an historic association with pilgrims. A ferry ran from Stoneness on Thurrock Marshes across the river to Greenhithe from at least 1310 and, like its upstream counterpart between Rainham and Erith on the official Loop, formed part of a pilgrimage route through Essex to Canterbury. The ferry operated with some gaps until the 1860s.

The lane once formed the boundary between West Thurrock and the next parish east, Stifford, but our route follows this line without crossing it, remaining on the Thurrock side. It rises up onto a modern bridge across the early 1980s dual carriageway of the A13, the current iteration of the main road from London to Southend. Passing a travellers’ site on one side and the main coach park for Lakeside shopping centre on the other, you soon reach a roundabout at a junction with an earlier version of the A13, the West Thurrock Arterial Road, opened in 1925 and now numbered A1306. On the other side of this, the walk continues along Pilgrims Lane, now a footpath and cycleway through the much-redeveloped area of Chafford Hundred.

Chafford Hundred

Gorge-eous Thurrock. The view of Chafford Gorges Nature Park from Grifon Road Outlook.

Even more so than Purfleet on the official London Loop, the modern development of West Thurrock was determined by the existence of a large chalk outcrop so close to easy transport on the river Thames. Chalk is a component of cement, and demand for it rocketed in the 19th century as one of the key raw materials of the ever-expanding city. Gibbs & Co, later Associated Portland Cement, opened a large quarry and works in the area south of Mill Wood and immediately to the west of Mill Lane in 1872.

Two years later, the Lion Cement Works opened on the Stifford side of Mill Lane, with quarrying later extended almost as far north as where the Arterial Road now runs. The same year, the Tunnel Portland Cement Co began operations at Tunnel Farm, on what’s now the other side of the railway: by the early 1970s this was the largest such plant in Europe, producing over 1 million tonnes of cement annually and employing 1,200 people. Other industries then filled in many of the gaps between the quarries.

But chalk quarries have a habit of becoming exhausted, and by 1920s the Associated Portland works were already closed. Production on the other sites ceased in 1976, leaving behind a vast expanse of devastated and dangerous land. Regeneration began in the late 1980s, with the western part of Thurrock colonised by light industry, main roads and retail parks, and a new town emerging to the east, straddling the old parishes of West Thurrock and Stifford. The first new homes here were completed in 1989, and the site now includes some 5,300 houses and flats. The town bestowed itself with fake heritage by borrowing the name of the old Anglo-Saxon administrative division in which it was located, Chafford Hundred, although the original hundred covered a much larger area.

These “near-identikit houses…each one with a regulation rectangle of lawn, a name-plaque and at least one car in the driveway,” as the Evening Standard put in 2001, attracted young East Enders looking for starter homes that were cheaper and more spacious than their London equivalents but still with good transport connections. Property values rose rapidly in the 1990s, when the area became “the most coveted address in Britain”. Today, despite the obvious bland late 20th century look of the architecture, Chafford Hundred remains a relatively desirable address in otherwise-depressed Thurrock.

One of the town’s positive features is its green space, much of it imaginatively reshaped from the former quarries. And despite the Standard’s assertion that it’s “a place where everybody drives, unless they’re pushing a pram or pulling a dog”, there are numerous off-road paths, including the preserved alignment of Pilgrims Lane. Very little of our route through here uses residential streets.

Shortly you pass a lookout on the left with a birds-eye view of the Lion Cement Works, now transformed into the 81 ha Chafford Gorges Nature Park, managed by Essex Wildlife Trust and slightly off our route. In front of you, the ground drops sharply to a lush, sheltered landscape of lakes, meadows and woods, hidden away in an artificial pit like a suburban Shangri-La.

This part of the park is known as Warren Gorge, after a farm which in turn was named after a nearby rabbit warren. With a visitor centre on the other side of Warren Gorge, and two other gorges, Lion Gorge and Grays Gorge, to the south, the site is well worth exploring if you have time or make a return visit. As well as wildlife, it’s noted for geology and industrial heritage, with exposed layers of chalk and sands and the remains of an industrial railway in Lion Gorge. Parts are a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Continuing down Pilgrims Lane, the housing to the right, west of the nature park, was built not on reclaimed quarries but farmland. The path emerges by a more modest but well-used recreation ground, Chafford Hundred Park, on the corner of Warren Lane and Mill Lane. A school once stood on this site, and the surrounding quarries must have made it a dangerous location. You’re soon walking through Mill Wood, an area of woodland which somehow survived the quarrying and subsequent redevelopment and is now part of the nature park.

Mill Wood Sand Cliff: legacy of the Thames and Scottish beaches.
There’s another surprise as the trees to your left suddenly disappear and you find yourself striding along a clifftop: Mill Wood Sand Cliff. There’s a breath-taking view across the rooftops towards the industrial structures along the Thames, with the spindly geometry of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge close by to the right. Further south, the ridge of the North Downs rears up on the Kent side.

You’re now overlooking the oldest of the 19th century chalk workings, the Associated Portland Cement Works, also known as the Thames Works, Gibbs Pit or Mill Wood Pit – a significant site for industrial historians, as it was where the first rotary cement kiln was invented. The houses beneath are relatively recent, built in the mid-2000s, by which time the quarry had been disused for 80 years and had become something of a wildlife haven, noted for wild flowers and their associated invertebrates. But local efforts to save it failed, and now only this fragment is left.

As you descend the steps to street level and look back at the cliff, it’s worth studying the layers that comprise it. The bulk of it is yellow Thanet Sand, made from sands washed down over the millennia from the Scottish coast by coastal currents. But there’s an upper crown of gravel, stained distinctively reddish by iron. This is known as Orsett Heath Gravel, deposited by the wider river of about 380,000 years ago, and marks the oldest and highest of the Thames’ series of river terraces.

Finally, there’s a short stretch past the ‘identikit’ houses of the new town, to reach the uninspiring roundabout and square in front of Chafford Hundred station, or Chafford Hundred Lakeside to use its full name. Unsurprisingly, it’s the newest station on the line, opened only in 1993. There’s only a single platform on this single-track branch line at what’s now the busiest single platform station in the UK, serving not only the town but the massive Lakeside mall occupying the site of the old Tunnel works on the other side of the railway. The bus stop for Kent is located conveniently right outside the station door.

Looping the Loop by bus: the X80 waits outside Chafford Hundred station.

The Dartford Crossing

Snapped from the bus: the Thames from the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, looking downstream Note fragment of Kent sign right.

The area between Chafford Hundred and the Dartford Crossing is perhaps not quite as inhospitable now as it was in its quarrying days, but neither is it the most welcoming corner of the London region. Over the past few decades, large-scale industry has been supplanted by an environment more familiar in the environs of US cities, designed to optimise mass retail and travel by car, all big and ugly with no sense of human scale and thoroughly discouraging to anyone on foot.

It’s the sort of place where people drive to work in bleak business parks, drive to shop in hanger-like discount warehouses marooned among vast parade grounds of car parks, then drive to eat in drive-thru chain restaurants, perhaps stopping off to sleep in global-brand hotels. The absence of a sense of place is exacerbated by the knot of major highways that converges here: the A13, M25 and numerous feeder roads from other parts of Essex and East London. These fast roads connect a substantial portion of southeastern and eastern England into the homogenous retail and leisure experience that is Lakeside, the nucleus of a dispersed web of globalised culture.

It’s indicative of the way the place is designed that the bus follows such a convoluted route, up and down slipways, round multiple roundabouts and along service roads. Nobody except perhaps the most obsessive or masochistic psychogeographers would walk a route like this. The fact that such large areas of characterless late 20th century sprawl-scape are mercifully still relatively rare around London gives this one something of a gruesome fascination, but you will probably still be glad you’re whizzing through it on a bus.

The first stop is the small bus station tucked away rather embarrassedly on the edge of the main Lakeside shopping centre, or as it's recently been rebranded, Intu Lakeside. This is on the site of the quarry that once served the Tunnel Portland Cement works, named after Tunnel Farm which once stood nearby. The lake in question is a flooded pit, now the centrepiece of the shopping mall which, when it opened officially in 1990, was the biggest in the London area. It’s still the 11th biggest such centre in the UK, with 133,200 m2 of floorspace. The lake is admittedly well-used within the site, and the area known as the Boardwalk that surrounds it is a pleasant place to sit, at least on quieter days, but all the eating places surrounding it are branches of overfamiliar chains.

To the south of Lakeside, somewhere among the knot of access roads and motorway junctions, is the original parish centre of West Thurrock, but the bus avoids this. Instead it works its way up onto the Dartford Crossing approach, passing further retail parks that are much uglier than Lakeside. So that they can be used by non-motorway traffic, the crossing itself and its immediate approaches are not classified as part of the M25 but instead are numbered A282, running right through the site of the Tunnel Cement Works.

A road crossing at this point was first suggested in the 1920s, and preliminary boring began in the late 1930s before being interrupted by World War II. It was resumed in 1955 as part of the ambitious and later abandoned scheme to build concentric ringways around London, discussed elsewhere. Originally there was only a single carriageway tunnel, opened in 1963 and supplemented by a second tunnel in 1980. As plans for the orbital motorway took shape, it was clear that further capacity would be needed.

This was provided in 1991 by the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, which now conveys southbound traffic while northbound traffic uses the tunnels, so for Loop walkers the clockwise option is by far the best here. But the crossing is of course still regularly congested, as additional capacity only stimulates further demand. Drivers have always had to pay to cross the river here – at first the fee for a car was 6d (2.5p) – and the original promise that this was a temporary arrangement to recoup construction costs has since been abandoned. There’s now officially a ‘DART charge’ rather than a ‘toll’, currently £2.50 for a car, collected virtually and enforced using number plate recognition.

Galleon Boulevard bus stop, Crossways, Dartford:
Queen Elizabeth II bridge piers just visible.
For all the problems and issues, crossing the Thames on the bridge is still quite an experience, and I suggest you sit on the left for the best views. The German-designed structure cost £120 million, and when it was opened it had the largest cable-stayed span in Europe, at 450 m. It is still the lowest bridge across the Thames and the only one downstream of central London to be built since Tower Bridge in 1894.

The two main piers rise to a height of 137 m, embedded in caissons which are designed to withstand the impact of a 65,000-tonne ship. The deck is 65 m above the Thames, enough to allow cruise liners to pass beneath. It affords amazing views, though inevitably partially obscured by passing traffic, both upstream towards Crayford Ness, the Dartford Flood Barrier and the towers of Docklands and the City, and downstream to Swanscombe Marshes and Tilbury Docks. This alone is worth the bus fare, along with the satisfaction of having actually crossed the river.

On the Kent side there’s more convoluted navigation through the Crossways estate on the edge of Dartford, an area not too dissimilar to the jumble of Thurrock, perhaps because it too was built on the site of an abandoned cement works and quarry. The bus drops you on the corner of Galleon Boulevard, and the walk from here to the river Darent and on to reconnect with the main London Loop trail at Barnes Cray is a subject for another post.