London LOOP Stage 1: Erith to Slade Green

Published 1 July 2015

An old, decaying pier near Erith

Where do you put the start and the end of a long distance trail that is circular? For the London LOOP is such a walk. The walking equivalent of the M25, it traverses the edge of Greater London in, funnily enough, a loop. It’s not actually called the London LOOP. Its official name is the “London Outer Orbital Path”, but it’s commonly known of as the London LOOP, and the fact that there’s a redundant acronym in there can be dammed. London Outer Orbital Path is a bit of a mouthful and LOOP is simply too generic, whilst London LOOP says what it is and has the benefit of rolling off the tongue.

Anyway, we should really get back to the question in hand. Just where do you start and end the LOOP?

Thankfully the answer is easy, for whilst the LOOP is orbital by name, it isn’t by nature. There’s a gap in it. A gap the size of the River Thames. On one side of the river is the town of Rainham, and on the other is Eirth. As the crow flies, they’re a mere two miles apart, but they have no road or rail connections. The river gets in the way, meaning that you need to drive 12 miles in your car, or sit on train for over an hour. As for walking, well let’s not even go there.

The Thames punches a hole in the LOOP. The LOOP is not whole; the circle is not complete. And that means that there’s a start, and there is an end. If you want to go anti-clockwise you start at Rainham. And if you want to go clockwise, it’s Erith. And if you don’t want to bother at all, then you go somewhere else instead.

So Erith then. Where the journey begins. For every journey has to start somewhere. Even a circular one.

Erith Pier

Erith is a town that owes its presence to the Thames. For years it was a small port; a place for boats to unload cargo in order to release some weight before going up the shallower water to the city. Then in the Victorian era it had a burst of life as a riverside resort. It even had a pleasure pier. It opened in 1842, and scores of daytrippers came to visit it and promenade along its length, as well as take in the nearby riverside gardens and hotel.

It didn’t last. Erith’s time as a resort was pretty short-lived, not helped but the opening of the Southern Outfall Works at Crossness, just a few miles away. Its role was to disgorge millions of gallons of London’s sewage out into the Thames at high tide. Up to 27 million gallons of the stuff, twice a day. And who wants a resort near that? The tourists went elsewhere, the hotel was converted into offices and and the wooden pier was adapted for the transport of coal, and was later replaced by a new concrete structure. In its new commercial role, Erith excelled. And so it remained until the 1990s when, following declines and changes in the coal market, the boats moored up for the final time.

And thus it may have remained. The Thames is littered with redundant piers, with little to do but rot away and provide a hangout for seagulls. But it didn’t, for someone had an idea. Erith’s pier was in the heart of the town. Why not refurbish it and return it to its original use as a place for pleasure and recreation? And that’s exactly what they did.

Mud at the foot of Erith Pier

It’s perhaps not the world’s greatest pleasure pier. There’s little on it besides benches and lampposts, and the the views it gives those that walk on it are those of scrapyards and rubbish dumps. And at low tide all you see is copious amounts of mud on the river bed. Don’t even contemplate trying to go out for a paddle for that stuff’s as gloopy as anything and will probably try and suck you in. Not for nothing is everywhere lined with signs warning people to stay firmly on the side of the river.

It’s hard to imagine anyone traveling from far and wide to visit it now. Still, it appeared to be particularly popular with local anglers who lined the walkway with their rods and shelters. And perhaps one or two London LOOP walkers setting off on their journey orbiting the capital.

I wasn’t actually in Erith to start the LOOP. I had absolutely no intention of walking it at all. I was in Erith other business; passing through as I walked the Thames Path Extension on a grey and windy autumn Sunday. The Extension passes through Erith before reaching its own terminus two miles further along the river at Crayford Ness. And it shares that final stretch with the start of the LOOP. And so it was that by chance I found myself walking part of the London Outer Orbital Path.

Industrial estate on the edges of Erith

It wasn’t exactly the most appealing start to a walk. The LOOP leaves Erith down a road lined with industrial units and run down looking buildings. Scrapyards, builders depots, a plot full of vans from a fresh chicken wholesaler. Only once Erith’s limits have been reached did things get a little better as the LOOP went down to join the Thames, running on an embankment adjacent to some muddy fields. It was a mere interlude though. A mile out of Erith I came across another industrial park, which seemed to be mostly filled with scrapyards and metal merchants. Old HGVs and scrap cars, that sort of thing. Several had burning fires in them. Why do scrapyard always have burning fires? It’s a mystery to me.

The Thames Path Extension ends in a distinctly unglamorous way, next to those burning fires, right at the edge of Greater London, here at Crayford Ness. Not that the LOOP walker need particularly care, nor worry, about that. The Outer Orbital Path’s merely getting into its stride here of course, although any first time LOOP walker getting here may well begin to wonder what they’ve let themselves in for. Of course, I wasn’t. It didn’t really matter to me either way at the time, as I passed by the large flood barrier that guarded the entrance to the River Darent. It’s the Darent that the LOOP now follows as it heads away from the Thames, with that mighty river not to be crossed again until the walker reaches Kingston-Upon-Thames.

The end of the Thames Path Extension, at Crayford Ness

At low tide, the Darent could hardly be described as an attractive river. It sits in the bottom of a wide channel, the sides of which are merely grey and murky looking mud. A swan was making its way along and I felt a need to cry out to it. “Is there not somewhere nicer you could go?” I wanted to ask it. Why had it chosen this faintly desolate spot, rather than some nice attractive looking park or something? But then perhaps swans are less picky than I am.

I only had a kilometre to go down the Darent before I could bid river and the LOOP farewell. An adjoining footpath would take me pretty all of the mile long journey to Slade Green station where I’d sit around and wait for ages for a rail replacement bus service, before spending well over an hour on it as it journeyed through the suburbs of south east London.

The River Darent at Crayford Ness

As it trundled along, I barely gave the LOOP a second thought. It had just been coincidental to my day, and I’d had next to zero interest in doing any more. But there was something about it that began to worm around in my mind. There was something about the idea that began to appeal. Helped by the realisation that despite having spent 16 years living in London, I really hadn’t seen that much of it. And then there was the fact that, as a family, we’d been having some conversations about the future. Our two-bedroom house was beginning to creak at the seams thanks to the recent addition of a small child. We’d need to move at some point, and if we did, would we stay in the capital? Or was it time to think about moving elsewhere? There was no immediate urgency to leave, but we’d have to bite the bullet sooner or later.

Slowly but surely it became obvious to me that I had to do the LOOP. I needed to explore more of London. And I needed to do it whilst I was still living there. A long walk, and a farewell tour all in one.

For me, the LOOP’s time had begun.