THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE WALKER
Walking around the edges of London is enjoyable and interesting.
Just don’t expect anyone to go with you.
A handy way to think about these two footpaths is to compare them with roads. The Capital Ring is, if you like, the equivalent of the North and South Circular Roads. Indeed, for some of its length it runs parallel to the North Circular. The London Loop, on the other hand, is like the M25, although it steadfastly remains within the radius of that motorway, though only by a few hundred yards at some points.
As with The Capital Ring, it is possible to begin the Loop at any point and walk it in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, or even a combination of both, so long as you cover the entire length. That’s if you wish to be awarded the certificate issued by Walk London. And, like The Capital Ring, The London Loop has a dedicated guidebook setting out the stages in great detail and talking about points of interest along the way. More usefully, some might argue, it also lists public houses to be encountered en-route. I will talk more about this important aspect of the guide book later. First, back to the walk.
I chose to begin at Cockfosters. Now there’s a name to conjure with, Cockfosters – not that there’s anything magical about the place. Except, of course, the station buildings, designed by the great pre-war architect, Charles Holden, a man responsible for many of the outlying Underground stations that were built in the 1930s.
I found myself gazing at Holden’s small, but perfectly formed, station building one afternoon late in 2011 as I set off on the first stage. My plan was to walk as far as Enfield Lock station, but I’d been chucked off the Piccadilly Line train at Arnos Grove due to an ‘incident’ at Oakwood, so I was forced to complete the journey to Cockfosters by bus. It was two in the afternoon by the time I set out, not really leaving me enough daylight to get to the end of the stage. So I stopped short at a place called Turkey Street, where there is a railway station. Turkey Street is named after Turkey Brook, a tributary of the River Lee and what you see in this small stream is astonishing. Of course, there are the abandoned supermarket trolleys, mandatory in all urban watercourses. But in amongst this rusting debris teems a huge population of fish. Don’t ask me what sort of fish they are; all fish look the same to me – except that is for a shoal of rather distinctive piscatorial creatures, drawn to my attention by a man lounging on a bridge closely studying the water.
‘Ere, mate, look at this”.
So I did. There, below the bridge, was a large number of goldfish, living happily amongst a recently abandoned Tesco trolley and what looked like a bag of cement. If the trolley and cement were in the sea they’d turn into a reef in no time. But here, in the London Borough of Enfield, that’s unlikely, more’s the pity.
Goldfish weren’t the only exotic creatures I saw as I walked. I don’t know if you are aware of it, but London is home to thousands of parakeets. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I saw these green birds and in how many places. But then, when you walk, instead of driving or taking a train, you see all sorts of things you missed before. For example, did you know that on the approach road to Heathrow Terminal Four, there’s a goat farm right next the road? I’d ridden along here hundreds of times and never seen the goats until I walked past them. (They’re on the opposite side of the road to Hatton Cross tube station.)
I saw horses, cows, sheep, pigs, foxes, herons, kingfishers, a giant pike, hundreds of rabbits, small animals I didn’t recognize, all within the Greater London boundary. What I didn’t see so often were human beings. In fact, throughout the entire London Loop I encountered only two other people walking the Loop, both men. One was walking clockwise; the other anti-clockwise, or as I-Photo has it, counter-clockwise.
Now I know what you’re thinking: who are these sad bastards who fill their waking hours tramping along little known urban footpaths, just to be awarded a certificate at the end? Well, of course, I am one of them, so if you know me you’ll get a good idea. But if you don’t, let me describe my fellow clockwise walker. Bespectacled, he had the Loop guidebook dangling from a lanyard around his neck in a clear plastic wallet, wore shorts, and carried a staff that would have done Little John proud. Even worse, his beard looked like it had once belonged to a sheep, while what hair he had appeared to have been styled by a wind tunnel. He wore heavy-duty boots that in my opinion would be more suited to the Himalayas than the gentle slopes of outer London on a sunny, autumn day. In short, he looked a right prat.
I spotted him the second he walked into a pub where I was taking a well-earned refreshment break. I’d seen the direction he’d come from, so knew he was walking the same way as me. With unseemly haste I gulped down what was left of my pint and set off at a gallop. The last thing I wanted to do was walk for miles in the company of a Rowan Williams lookalike in shorts.
The funny thing is, at the end of that stage, Chingford Station, he was sitting on the platform, waiting for the same train as me. How the Hell did he get there? I’d been walking flat out since I left the pub and hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him since. He certainly didn’t overtake me. Perhaps it was Rowan Williams, after all, and he’d summoned up divine intervention. Well if that isn’t cheating I don’t know what is. And shame on you God, for aiding and abetting such ambulatory dishonesty.
Anyway, going back to sad bastards, walking is a lonely business. That’s one of the best things about it. It’s just you and your thoughts and whatever you see along the way. But it’s also one of the worst. It’s almost impossible to get anyone to accompany you on these walks.
‘What, walk 14 miles? You’ve got to be joking’.
So, despite what Gerry and the Pacemakers tell you, you’ll always walk alone. Which is fine, until the time comes for refreshments. As I said, the London Loop guidebook is fulsome in the number of pubs it points out along the way. It would be churlish to eschew its recommendations, especially after a long, hot walk – a pint of beer is just what the doctor ordered. So, as well as walking alone, you drink alone. Now this is fine in some locations, where you are the only person in the pub. There’s nobody looking at you smirking, thinking you’re Billy No-Mates. But on some of the stages, there’s only one pub along the way and, sod’s law, this turns out to be the most popular place for miles around. At four o’clock on a Monday afternoon, the place is heaving.
Suddenly, self-esteem ebbs as you metamorphose from intrepid long-distance walker into an apparent socially inept misfit. Everybody seems to be surrounded by family and friends, while you share your life with a half-empty glass of Carlsberg and a dog-eared copy of ‘The London Loop’, by David Sharp. Talk about sad bastard and I’m not even wearing shorts.
This uncomfortable effect was most pronounced at a public house that goes by the name of The Case is Altered. An unusual name for a pub, to say the least, it’s said to have been founded at the time of the Peninsula War with the colloquial Spanish name of Case Desaltar, which roughly translated means jumping house. Successive sign writers gradually Anglified the name until it gained its present moniker. It’s a bit like Elephant and Castle, which was apparently called Infanta de Castille originally. Though why a grotty bit of South London should be named after a Spanish princess is beyond me – but back to the Case is Altered.
I can’t remember which day of the week I visited this lofty alehouse but I had trouble finding a seat. If the number of people eating the food is anything to go by, it must be good. They were wolfing it down in between pitying glances at my lonely pint and me. Time to get walking again.
From Enfield Lock, the Loop goes through Chingford, Chigwell, Harold Wood, Romford and down to Purfleet on the Thames. I reached this stage by early January. The weather was warm enough to sit outside The Royal Hotel enjoying a drink, watching the sun sink over a placid River Thames.
The next stage begins at Erith opposite The Royal Hotel and Purfleet. You walk first along the Thames in an easterly direction, make a right to turn South along the River Darent, then make another right to follow the River Cray for quite a few miles. This is the start of a huge loop around the south of London that reaches its most southerly point at Coulsdon, way below Croydon. Eventually, you follow another River, The Hogsmill, back to the Thames at Kingston.
For me, the most interesting part of this South London section was at Banstead, where the Loop takes you through a part of London that is forever Provence: a lavender farm, no less. I was so taken with this place that I returned months later with friends to have a picnic. (See, I am not so much of a sad bastard after all.) We thought we’d be the only ones there. How wrong we were. The place was packed with hundreds of people – every single one of them Chinese. Apparently, this lavender farm is posted on a Chinese website as the number one must visit place in England. Not so much forever Provence, then, as forever China.
Another unexpected sight on the South London stages was the source of a river that bubbled up into a circular basin, built to contain it. The only place I’ve seen anything remotely similar, though on a much grander scale, is in a village called Beze, near Dijon in France. The French one is simply known as ‘La Source’; the one in London looks like its younger and smaller English cousin.
And so from Kingston Bridge I started the long trek around North London, back towards Cockfosters. Like the South London section, the North London leg yields many surprises. The River Crane is a good example. This tree-lined watercourse meanders its way past Heathrow airport. Walking this is a bizarre experience, as you can’t see the airport. You hear it and, of course, see the planes flying towards it. However, in the one-minute intervals between planes it’s as peaceful as anywhere on earth, since trees and all manner of wildlife provide your surroundings.
From here, the Loop travels to Uxbridge, Moor Park, south of Watford, past Elstree and heads back to Cockfosters. By mid-May I had completed 14 of the 15 stages but had to wait several months to finish the walk due to the sodden 2012 summer. I finally completed the stretch to Cockfosters in early October, almost a year after I started.
As with the Capital Ring, I felt a terrible sense of loss when I’d finished. It sounds daft, but even something as mundane as tramping around London provides a huge sense of achievement when you’ve done it. And when I receive my certificate what a proud day that will prove to be – especially for a Billy No-Mates like me.
Copyright: Michael Everett, 2013.