London LOOP Stage 12: Chigwell to Harold Wood

Published 25 May 2016

The road through Chigwell Village
Chigwell Village

Chigwell is a border town. The buses are all red and the bus stops all have roundels on them, whilst the town’s railway service is provided by the tube. Yet this little London suburb was never officially designated within Greater London, and to this day sits in the county of Essex.

Not that the London LOOP cares about such things. It had, after all, caused me to spend a fair amount of time in Hertfordshire earlier in the trip, and even some of Surrey. A bit of Essex? Yeah, whatever. Just because this was the London LOOP, didn’t actually mean it had to stay in Greater London after all.

Of course not. Essex would do me fine and I walked down Chigwell’s bustling high street rejoicing in this temporary escape from the capital.

The Olde King's Head in Chigwell - now a Turkish restaurant
The Olde King’s Head in Chigwell – owned by Alan Sugar and now a Turkish restaurant

Chigwell’s tube station is a fair stroll from Chigwell’s original village, which is marked by an ancient looking inn that is now a Turkish restaurant but which for many years went by the moniker of The Olde Kings Head. Curiously the building is also owned by the property empire of one Alan Sugar, which just goes to show.

But enough of this bustling suburbia. It was time to get out of the countryside; to head to forests, woods, fields and hills. And this particular section of the LOOP had all of these in abundance.

The first introduction to this new, rural LOOP came with a waterlogged gate and a puddle of icy cold water; the water’s temperature becoming obvious when I managed to put my foot in it and found it going over the top of my boots and right down inside.

I muttered my displeasure and set off through a farm’s fields and then along a lane where I found an abandoned JCB with its engine running. Thoughts of some digger based joyriding were swiftly forgotten about when I spotted a man taking an intense interest in a signpost a short way away. Perhaps it was broken, and he was working out how to repair it or something. Well I couldn’t think of any other reason why he’d be standing so still next to it. With a solution apparently discovered, we exchanged pleasantries and I took care to inspect the directions on the signpost from afar.

Admiring the view near Chigwell - mostly of a wide field with some trees in the background.
Admiring the view near Chigwell

The signpost told me to turn right and I did, admiring the view into the distance that the slight hill gave me. And there was more excitement further along as the LOOP took me past a waterworks before depositing me next to an austere looking chapel at the edge of an area known as Chigwell Row. It was there that I entered the first tree lined area of the day, Hainault Forest.

Like its neighbour at Epping, Hainault Forest was an old royal hunting forest (and boy did those monarchs like to kill things.) But unlike Epping it hadn’t had the same level of support when plans were made by Parliament to split it up and sell it off to the highest bidder. Yes, we think of state privatisation as being a modern thing, but it’s been going on for a very long time and after Parliament gave its blessing in 1858, over 100,000 trees were felled as the land was drained and parcelled off.

Tree lined path in Hainault Country Park
It wouldn’t be a section of the LOOP without a woodland walk somewhere

That any of the forest survived seems to be a minor miracle, but survive a small bit did and now forms part of Hainault Forest Country Park, although that also includes a large area of grassland that the LOOP appeared to spend its time in. And with a bright sun shining and barely any clouds in the sky, I wasn’t going to argue. This was March weather at its finest, and no mistake.

I dawdled and lolloped, basking in the sunlight and enjoying the grass and relative quietness of the place; one of the benefits of walking, as I was, on a Friday when most people would be tucked up at their place of employment. It’s always nice to be out there stamping around on the grass on a day of the week that I’d normally be sat at a desk typing away at a computer.

And it’s even better when you get to be outdoors and discover a load of wood carvings, which is exactly what happened when I diverted off the trail slightly and found ‘Woodhenge’. I’d gone there mainly as a signpost pointed me to it, without explaining just what ‘Woodhenge’ actually was. There wasn’t much to explain when I got there either, although the name gave away a clue.

Carved owl at Woodhenge
Toot toot.

Yes, this was a kind of Stonehenge but made of wood, featuring a series of individually carved tree trunks arranged in a circle. Each was very different, from one that looked like a hand, to another where a representation of a flying owl could be found. It was enchanting even if there was no indication of why it existed. In fact you could argue it was all the better for the fact that no one thought it was important enough to explain..

At the edge of the grassland, next to a golf course, my guidebook invited me to follow the LOOP uphill by tacking a track just inside the park boundary. This seemed on paper to be simple enough, yet when I got there I found two tracks parallel to each other. Both went uphill, but there was a fence between them and no obvious gaps to cross through from one to the other. I automatically assumed what anyone would: that the other side was related to the golf course, and the one that was on the side of the fence I was standing on, was the one inside the park boundary.

Cottages in Hainault Country Park
Cottages in Hainault Country Park

Had I paid any attention to my map – perhaps even by simply looking at it – I would have never had made that decision. But it wasn’t until I found myself dumped near the top of Cabin Hill with no idea where to go next, that I realised that I’d taken the wrong one of the two.

A myriad of paths led off in all manner of directions, whilst a signpost pointed me to a variety of places I’d never heard of. And not one of them was the LOOP.

This was not good, and with a sign I picked one at random and followed it, only to find myself at another confusing crossroads a few minutes later. And then another and another. And another.

All I knew was that I needed to head downhill towards Havering, and I took an educated guess that a sign pointing me to ‘Havering Park Farm’ might just take me there. Things looked promising too. I quickly left the trees and soon was walking downhill between fields. I even found somewhere where 13 trees had been planted in 2013 in order to celebrate the 2013 Mann Booker Prize, which appeared to be rather random, but yet a rather pleasing thing to find tucked in a remote corner of North East London.

A grass lined path somewhere near Havering
Nice path, but not on the LOOP

It was a nice path, and it didn’t take me long to quite forget that I wasn’t on the LOOP and had no real idea where I was actually going. I only remembered when the path I was following abruptly ended at a junction with a dirt track. With no signposts at all, I had absolutely no idea which way I should be going. I dragged my phone out of my picket and loaded up a handy app which, using a GPS signal, can provide you with an Ordnance Survey grid reference for the point on which you stand.

This it duly did, which was excellent as I now knew exactly where I was. Unfortunately, whilst I did know exactly where I was, I also didn’t actually know where I was. Knowing where you are is brilliant, but it is only any use if you can actually use the knowledge in some way to get where you want to go and, alas, the grid reference I’d been given was not shown on the section of Ordnance Survey map printed in my guidebook.

With a big sigh, I went for Plan B: my phone’s map application. It’s not something I particularly like doing at times like this as footpaths are rarely shown, leaving just a ‘You Are Here’ blob floating in a sea of grey, but this time I came out lucky. There they were: a series of tracks that, if followed, would take me to the edge of Havering Country Park, and back to the LOOP.

I traipsed down a series of waterlogged lanes, and as I came close to the park, I paused to admire a bird I could see hovering over a field. What it was, I couldn’t tell – I’m no twitcher – but it was sizeable and determined to get its pray. A kite, perhaps, I wondered as I attempted to grab a photograph of it using my camera’s telephoto lens. It seemed a little unlikely that a kite would be hovering on the edge of London, but you never knew.

As I got closer I found though that my cynicism was misplaced. What was hovering over that field really was a kite. I’d recognise one anyway! How did I know? Why, it had strings on it!

A bird scaring kite
It’s a kite!

Yes, I’d just spotted a piece of fabric attached to a pole that was gliding high above a field in an attempt to scare birds away. It had been coupled with a speaker which, all of a sudden, started emitting the sound of a horrible wail that was, presumably, supposed to sound like a bird going after its prey.

Painful enough for me to listen to at least, although the local birds seemed less fussed by it all as the adjoining field was positively full of birds all sitting back and watching the show.

Skyscrapers and towers of the City of London, seen from Havering
Views like this always make me think of sci-fi films where the protagonist has to get to a city from a desert.

“Do you know the local area?” asked a fellow walker, who looked ashen faced as a shook my head in reply. “Ah, I was looking for Hainault Forest,” he went on. “I know the forest itself, but not how to get there from here.”

“Well I can help you there,” I replied, and pointed him roughly towards the path that I’d incorrectly followed.

Well what are the changes of that happening? You get lost, find your way back to where you should be and then stumble upon someone else who needs help to find the exact path you just inadvertently followed in order to get to the place you just came from? Well it’s a bit of a coincidence.

Being glad to help, I sent him off in the right direction and a few minutes later was rewards by re-finding the LOOP once more as I headed into Havering Country Park.

Giant redwoods in Havering Country Park
Boy is that a big tree

I was back in woodland again, this time walking down an avenue of Wellingtonia trees, known to many as Giant Redwoods, that towered over the area. “Discovered” during the California Gold Rush, a hundred of the trees were planted along the driveway that led to the mansion of Havering Park, whose grounds the country park is based in. The mansion is long gone, having been outlasted by the trees.

With the sun streaming through the trees, the park looked absolutely beautiful, and never more so than at the eastern edge of the park where gaps in the trees provided stunning panoramic views to the north. This was truly an “edge of London” view, full of rolling hills and farmland. Was I really in Greater London? Well, yes I was, and had been for some time after passing out of Essex not that long after my day’s walk had begun.

Stocks and whipping post at Havering-atte-Bower
Stocks and whipping post at Havering-atte-Bower

The far end of the park brought me into the village of Havering-atte-Bower, which was one of those place names that instantly made you think added £100,000 onto the price of a house. The village itself appeared to be rather pleasant, with a parish church and a large green decked out with a historic set of stocks and a long disused whipping post. There was even a pub which appeared to double up as an Indian restaurant.

What the village didn’t have were fields that were easy to walk over when the LOOP came to leave. Mud had been a bit of a problem all day, but here things turned out to be especially bad, with the path having a gloopy sponge-like and very sticky texture.

I struggled on through, my boots getting sucked into the ground as I walked, down a path that was almost always penned in by fences as if the local landowner were worried that LOOP walkers would descend en-masse and trample over their crops. Still, at least the chances of getting lost were minimal.

A LOOP signpost in Widrington Farm that looks like it's falling down.
A slanted LOOP signpost

With several tonnes of mud on by boots, I arrived at the edge of Harold Hill, and was immediately re-introduced to suburbia. The pub I arrived next to was a prime indicator of this. This was no quaint village pub, but something decked out with multiple plastic signs proffering deals like “kids for a quid” and free desserts on Tuesdays. Although lest you think I’m snobbish, it appeared to be more upmarket than one establishment near my house which, until recently, was part of the classy sounding ‘Two for One’ pub company. Funnily enough, selling two meals for the price of one was its gimmick, thus alienating anyone who is a lone diner or who has an odd number of people in their party.

After most of the day being one of the most rural days that the LOOP can offer, the whole tone of the walk now changed. I was now firmly in a residential area, even if I was following a stream through it. Carter’s Brook would have a few name changes on its journey, but it would lead me to Harold Wood station, and on my next trip to the Thames.

Carter's Brook, seen in Harold Hill
Carter’s Brook at Harold Hill. But who was Carter?

Rather nicely, the houses kept a respectful distance away from the brook, providing a green corridor that was regularly filled with multiple playgrounds: I passed three for younger children, and one where teenagers could do base jumping. But it was early in my wandering through Harold Hill that the most surprising thing happened.

I had just joined a narrow, slippery and very muddy path next to Carter’s Brook. A path so slippery that I was continually concerned that I was about to slide straight down into the water on my left. It was hardly an attractive area. The brook appeared to be a dumping ground for all the stuff that local people didn’t want. Plastic bottles, fake designer handbags, a Lidl carrier bag, items of clothing, that sort of thing. But it was on that path, as I grasped onto a tree branch for stability, that I heard a rustle in the trees in front of me.

Looking ahead I could see something move. I looked around cautiously. And then it happened. A deer bolted out of the undergrowth and off towards the road. And another, and another, and another until about twenty of the creatures had rushed out of the trees, heading to the housing estate nearby.

Deer wandering around a suburban  housing estate.
Yes, those are deer. Yes, this is near a housing estate. Yes, this photograph is real.

If I’d been in a park, maybe this would have been easy to justify. But I wasn’t. This was a patch of mud next to rows and rows of semi-detached and terraced houses. This was not the kind of place you normally expect to find fallow deer running free. There was nowhere obvious they could have come from, yet there were a sizeable number and they were stomping off fast.

I rushed to pull out my camera and grabbed a photograph; determined to get some evidence that I wasn’t hallucinating or simply going mad. It all made no sense to me but it happened. Here, in a suburban setting, in the county of Greater London, I’d disrupted a group of wild deer. And that’s not something you can often say.

Playground near Harold Wood
Playground near Harold Wood

After that, the remaining two miles to Harold Wood station were positively mundane. Even more so when I boarded a train back to central London. But the LOOP had genuinely surprised me. And it wouldn’t be able to do that for much longer. My journey around London was almost done. There was just one more stretch of the London Outer Orbital Path to do before I’d be able to say that I’d walked the whole thing.

And the chances of deer featuring in any way on that final day were pretty slim indeed.



25 April 2022 at 4:56 pm

The deer are still there. Hard was about 100 yesterday

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