London LOOP Stage 11: Enfield to Chigwell

Published 11 May 2016

Enfield Lock
Enfield Lock, in, err, Enfield

I stood on the towpath and stared at the River Lee Navigation, idly wondering how many waterways I’d visited whilst walking the LOOP.

There was the Lee of course, and the Turkey Brook whose concrete lined banks I’d followed to get here from the nearby railway station. The Thames. I couldn’t forget that now, could I? Oh and the Hogsmill, the Crane, the Grand Union Canal. The Dollis Brook I recalled well, and there was that one near the start whose name I had completely forgotten. And I’d probably missed some.

Not just rivers either. I’d walked past plenty of reservoirs, lakes and ponds. Yes the LOOP liked water all right. Well, why wouldn’t it? London’s growth came mostly due to a river, with the Thames aiding the city’s history, growth and acquisition of wealth over centuries. And, naturally, the capital could never have grown to the size it had had it not had an ample supply of drinking water.

As I contemplated all this, I got a rather wet reward. It began to rain, and with a shiver I huddled into my coat, and started walking, and continued my walk on the LOOP.

Sign saying "Lee Valley - Welcome to Sewardstone Marsh"
The rather fancy signage of Lee Valley Regional Park

From Enfield the LOOP was going to take me somewhere I’d been supporting through my council tax for the whole of the 16 years I’d lived in London, but had visited once: the Lee Valley Regional Park.

That probably sounds like an odd comment to make. The average council tax covers lots of activities that I have never used. Not once have I made use of the council’s adult education provision, used meals on wheels, or put a Christmas tree on my doorstep in order for it to be recycled. Yet I pay for them all in the wad of cash I hand over every month to Merton Council.

But then the money to pay for Lee Valley Regional Park comes not from the local council doesn’t come from Merton Council, but from a separate levy which has been added onto to the bill of every Council Tax payer in London, Hertfordshire and Essex since the park opened fifty years ago.

At 100,000 acres, and 26 miles long, the levy pays for the largest park in London, tucked up in the north east corner of the county. And that – realistically – means that much of the population who pay for it, never go near it. In fact in some parts of London, such as in the south, there have been campaigns for the levy to be reduced with the cash diverted to more local facilities such as the nascent Wandle Valley Regional Park. And you can see why when you learn that the Wandle Valley Park currently gets a tiny grant of £10,000 a year from Sutton Council, whilst Sutton’s residents pay twenty times that amount to the distant Lee Valley Regional Park.

A straight track in Sewardstone Marsh
Sewardstone Marsh

Sorry Lee Valley Regional Park but as someone who has lived near the Wandle Valley Regional Park for 11 years, it’s a compelling argument to me. It’s great that you exist, but does the combined population of London, Essex and Hertfordshire have to pay for you?

Still, it gave me a chance to see where my money was going and it certainly didn’t look like anything was being done on the cheap. The picnic benches were of a smart and stylish design that was a cut above the standard wooden picnic bench seen in most places. Even the directional signs were swanky, stylish and modern looking, although the style of the signs seemed more appropriate for an urban shopping mall than the meadowland I was now walking through. Still, I kept my eyes on them lest one try to direct me to the food court, or to the customer service desk.

No sooner had I entered the park, and I’d left it again. As it follows the river, the Lee Valley park is long and thin, and the LOOP simply cuts across it. It seemed I wasn’t destined to get much for my 16 years worth of Council Tax levies after all.

I came to a road where a bus stop informed me I had crossed into Essex, and I was at a mysterious sounding place called ‘Freddies’. There was no indication what ‘Freddies’ was, as all I could see were houses and flats.

Old pub sign at a long demolished pub
A lone pub sign swings forlornly in the breeze

And then I saw it. A signpost with a large wooden swinging sign next to a block of flats gave the answer. There’d been a pub here once.

There was no name on the sign, just a rather generic leaf-like symbol, and from the way the paint was peeling from it – and from the signpost – it had been painted many years earlier. It was hard to understand why it had remained when the pub had been demolished, but it was and it seems to be a trait with developers of the lazier disposition. When Tesco decided to buy and covert the Grove Tavern near my house, they decided to leave the pub’s external lamps in-situ, complete with the stylised G logo. And near Wimbledon Common I’d seen a shiny looking new block of flats, with a Co-op at the bottom, with a dilapidated sign at the front telling everyone that the site still held a South African theme bar named ‘Durbz in London’. Demolishing the pub itself was fine, but getting rid of the pub sign too was clearly just too much effort. And so, there, and here outside the place formerly known as ‘Freddies’, an unloved pub sign sits there, rotting and decaying; swinging forlornly in the breeze, providing a sad, neglected reminder of what once was.

Metal fence with sign displaying postcode and the words "It's here every Sunday!" underneath.
It’s here every Sunday!

A LOOP signpost pointed me across a field which was sodden, partly thanks to the rain that was now battering my face. A worn track went across the field, but was blocked in by a large, temporary metal fence onto which someone had attached a sign with emblazoned with the area’s postcode (E4 7RG if you’re wondering) and that someone was “here every Sunday”. It didn’t say who was there every Sunday, although as it was Sunday now, I assumed that if I could be bothered to hang around for long enough, I’d find out.

I couldn’t, so instead I skirted the fence and found that one corner of the enclosure contained a de-branded clothes recycling bank and a Portaloo, thus posing even further questions that would not be answered.

Cinder track going up Barn Hill
Barn Hill in the rain

A cinder track took me up Daws Hill, through a large patch of scrubland which was barely visible to me through my rain splattered glasses. I’d try to wipe them, giving me a few seconds of good visibility before they steamed up thus reducing visibility even further. After repeating the pattern several times, I gave up and resigned myself to being semi-blind and missing all the good views the hill offered. Views such as a power station and two vast reservoirs that, between them, supply over a quarter of London’s water supply. It was a serious loss.

Perhaps on a fine and pleasant day, there would be more to see. The skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and the City of London maybe, but there was no chance of that today; the cloud cover was just too dense and the rain too heavy. Even nearby Enfield was barely visible in the gloom.

At the top of the hill, the LOOP joined a road briefly and then, in a highly unusual move, decided NOT to walk over a golf course. Instead, it headed off in a different direction, through the grounds of Gilwell Park. This houses the headquarters of the Scout Association, and, as a member of 7th/8th Hyde in my youth, I mentally adjusted my woggle as I walked down the driveway.

The Leopard Gates at the entrance to Gilwell Park
The Leopard Gates at the headquarters of the Scout Association

My years as a cub and then a scout provided me with many memories such as a Wide Game where we had to wander round the top of a large hill, looking for a “bomb”. It seems unimaginable today, yet this was the eighties when the IRA was active. Just a few years later they’d go on to bomb the shopping area of Warrington, and would then follow that up with destroying a substantial amount of Manchester City Centre.

I eventually left the Scouts in my teens not long after a camp where I’d felt rather bullied by fellow scouts, and felt the whole thing was ceasing to be fun. Also, I never quite got to grips with the Sheep Shank knot and that was beginning to hold me back. Despite that I still have the uttermost admiration for the Scout movement, and the volunteers that power it.

Based on the shouts and cries, Gilwell Park’s facilities were being used by Scouts even during a cold and damp January weekend, however I was destined to explore other places as the LOOP took me into the edges of the former royal hunting ground of Epping Forest.

Nordic walkers stroll through the rain near Chingford
Nordic walkers stroll through the rain near Chingford

The forest’s muddier, squelchier paths seemed to be preferred by the LOOP’s designers and I slurped and slid my way towards the town of Chingford. I was soon joined by a merry parade of dog walkers, joggers (incidentally, does women’s exercise clothing actually come in any other colours than black and neon pink?) and even a group of Nordic walkers, who strode down the path purposefully, waving their walking poles around as they walked to the car park.

Despite the weather forecast promising that the days rain would be short-lived, it was now coming down like mad as I wandered towards the town. I was getting so wet that a part of me was considering abandoning the whole enterprise there and then, but I kept on going, taking the path past a grand Tudor-style hotel that now appeared to trade as a Premier Inn. Just next door was a 16th century building known as Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge where legend has it that Liz would watch the hunt in the forest below.

Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge, Chingford with deer statues outside.
Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, decked out with metallic deer

The rain was finally beginning to ease of a little, but the sticky muddy oath that took me to Buckhurst Hill ensured that I wouldn’t be getting dryer any time soon, and I arrived at the village with a covering of wet, grey mud.

“Not the best day for it,” called a fellow walker as I put all my effort into not falling into the mud head first; the avoidance of which I celebrated by partaking in an early lunch whilst huddled in a bus shelter; the location picked mainly for it being dry than appealing.

Sandwiches eaten, I walked to the centre of the village, only to be even more grateful that I’d brought food with me. I’d originally thought about stopping at the substantial Roebuck Hotel that was mentioned in my LOOP guidebook, but I was several years too late. It wasn’t the only local pub to have disappeared. A short walk away, the Mother Hubbard pub had also gone, also giving way to flats. Still, at least the developers at both had had the decency to remove the old pub signs.

A rainy road and patch of grass in Buckhurst Hill
Buckhurst Hill in the rain

In recent years London’s pubs have, sadly, been decimated by redevelopment, and looking round Buckhurst Hill, I could only guess where people went if they fancied socialising. The day before I’d found a news article from 2010 about nearby Chigwell where several locals were positively celebrating that a local pub was going to be demolished for flats. Comments included “Well I never went in there” and the classic “rather flats than something like Wetherspoons.” And this was the logical conclusion.

When, back home, I did a search on the local area, the most exciting place I could find in Buckhurst Hill was a betting shop. All the pubs were gone. There were plenty of places to live but there was bugger all to do. Still, rather live in a land with no social facilities at all, than a Wetherspoons, clearly.

Lake at Roding Valley Open Space
Roding Valley Open Space – existing purely because of the need for gravel

One place that hadn’t been demolished for housing was the nice lake at Roding Valley Open Space, although even that wouldn’t exist were it not for developers. It owes its existence to the building of the M11 in the 1970s. With a need for gravel, the diggers moved in, and the resulting hole was filled with water and the area opened up as a park.

It had been nicely done, and I took the opportunity to admire it from a bench, before following the River Roding along a path that was so muddy that it made everything else I’d encountered earlier look positively clean.

And then it was time to cross the motorway itself, and walk into Chigwell. The LOOP chose to do this by going down a road lined with grand houses, owned by people who presumably had copious amounts of money and, based on the contents of their driveways, an insane number of cars. Almost all of them had three cars parked up outside, and not a single one had any grass at the front of their property; everything was paved and suitable for the parking of an automobile.

Chigwell High Street
Shops and cafés ahoy at Chigwell

And that was that. Chigwell was where I’d be signing off for the day. But before I headed home I took a glance at the overview map of the LOOP on the back of my guidebook.

I’d almost done it all. Two more days to walk and I’d be back at the Thames once more, standing in the town of Purfleet, staring across the river at Erith where I’d kicked it all off a year and a half earlier.

It would be a momentous occasion. Although whether there was a pub there in which to celebrate, was another question entirely.

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