London LOOP Stage 13 Part 1: Harold Wood to Rainham

Published 8 June 2016

The Ingrebourne River in Hornchurch Country Park
The meanderings of the Ingrebourne River in Hornchurch Country Park

The first in a two part series covering my final day walking on the London LOOP

So here I was. The last section of the London LOOP was about to begin. The journey around London was almost over, but not before I’d walked the fourteen miles from Harold Wood station, to its counterpart at Purfleet. And when I got there, well that would be it. I would have orbited London, seeing all manner of things. London’s outer reaches would have been thoroughly explored on a walk that had given me woods, fields, parks, aeroplanes, lakes, roads and golf courses. Oh so many golf courses.

Now I was setting forth on one last trip where I’d get to meet up once more with my old friend, the Thames, on whose banks I’d started this walk at Erith almost eighteen months earlier. What I’d see on my way there, well that I had absolutely no idea.

Harold Wood station sign
Construction in progress at Harold Wood station

In a few years time Harold Wood will be at the eastern end of London’s newest railway line, Crossrail. The multi-billion pound project will see high frequency railway services which will allow Harold Wood’s commuters to travel through Central London and all the way beyond to Reading without even changing trains. Should they want to. And that seems a little unlikely. From what I’d seen, most people were more interested in popping two stops down the line to the town of Romford more than anything else.

But with eyes firmly on the future, there was much going on already at Harold Wood. The railway station was getting a comprehensive refurbishment, and across the road new houses and flats were being built. A perfect home for anyone desiring to live in Zone 6 and travel to the West End on a daily basis.

Out on the side streets – the ones that the LOOP followed anyhow, things were more peaceful, with just the usual collection of suburban homes that could have been like any others I had passed on my LOOP journey. Similarly, the local recreation area, Harold Wood Park, looked like most of the other parks the trail had gone though, with the added addition of a community herb garden. At least it did initially. It was only at the park’s southern boundary that something highly unusual happened. For it was there that I entered a piece of woodland owned by the Forestry Commission.

Pages Wood Forestry Commission signs
Forestry Commission land in Greater London?!

Now if you’ve never heard of the Forestry Commission, they’re a government body whose role is predominately to manage forests. Set up in 1919 in order to rebuild the UK’s depleted stock of trees, over time it became the biggest manager of land in the country. 1.7 million acres of land are under its control, which is – because it is compulsory at such junctions to do this comparison – roughly the size of a million football pitches.

With a role in providing wood for commercial use, most of its land is in the countryside where it’s quite possible to grow huge plantations and not get in the way of anyone. And there’s exactly where I’d always come across their land before. Always out in the middle of nowhere, and certainly never tucked in an urban setting within the Greater London boundary.

And that just goes to show how wrong you can be for Pages Wood is one of many Forestry Commission sites in the area. It’s also quite new, only being established in 2002 as part of Community Woodland initiative in the Thames Chase area; one of twelve such schemes across the UK that were started in the 1990s and which have seen woods planted on old brownfield sites. The Thames Chase woodland consists of 47 sites in London and Essex, of which the Forestry Commission own ten.

Curved path in Pages Wood
The LOOP bends its way through Pages Wood

None of this is a massive plan to suddenly turn London into a massive exporter of tree trunks or anything. It’s just to create nice woods for local people to love and cherish, hence the LOOP’s journey through it, although the path kept a respectful distance from the trees, which were all fenced in, in any case, although accessible by stiles.

The woods appeared to be most popular with middle-aged women accompanied by large dogs. Indeed besides one male jogger, I appeared to be the only man in the area. And when I left the woods at the other end, I became one of the few people to venture out on foot at all.

The LOOP had brought me to the Southend Arterial Road, also known as the A127; an insanely busy dual carriageway that was taking people off to Southend of all places. But for once the LOOP didn’t require me to take a mega detour in order to cross the road, instead allowing me to use a simple bridge and then head off to the northern clutches of Hornchurch down a far less busy road.

Suburban street in Upminster
In the residential suburbia of Upminster

But this new road was no ordinary one. Well, okay, it was. But Hall Lane (for that was what it was called) had a certain claim to fame for it was served by the least frequent bus service in the whole of Greater London. It’s rare in London to find a bus service that doesn’t run at least two buses an hour, and most run many more than that. But not this one, for just four buses a day ply the 347 route which diligently connects Romford with Upminster and Ockonden, running between 9am and 4pm. Makes you wonder why they even bother, although the answer is probably related to the fact that Transport for London has a target to provide a bus service within 400m of everyone’s homes in the county. And up here, in a quiet part of the area with few houses, it does just that.

A part of me was tempted to hang around for a bit and give the bus a ride for the sheer novelty of it all, and if a 347 bus had pulled up there and then, I would no doubt have leapt on it and helped to increase the service’s usage figures, but as it happened I had just missed one. Well I say, “just” missed one. It had actually gone half an hour earlier, but it would be another ninety minutes before the next one would turn up and that’s a long time to hang around at a bus stop merely for a whim.

Sign for the Ingrebourne Valley Local Nature Reserve
Welcome to the Ingrebourne Valley

Following a series of muddy paths along field edges near to a secondary school, took me to a bustling high street and Upminster Bridge station where I could, should I wished, have jumped on a District Line train and gone to my house near Wimbledon. Was I going to do that? No way, not when there was walking to be done! So instead I passed under the railway, and followed the LOOP down a side street, went past a small football stadium, and found a river. This was the Ingrebourne, a waterway I’d met earlier in Pages Wood and which Paines Brook – encountered on my last LOOP stroll – had joined with.

In Ingrebourne would be my companion for several miles as I headed down an area that had been christened ‘the Ingrebourne Valley’. Initially this consisted of little more than a strip of parkland on either side of the water, helping to keep the houses at bay, but soon the buildings to fade away, and the meandering river began to be surrounded by green fields instead.

Spitfire model in a playground in Hornchurch Country Park
A ‘Spitfire’ in the children’s playground at Hornchurch Country Park

Not long after, the path took me into Hornchurch Country Park, known in a previous life as RAF Hornchurch. During World War I, this area of farmland had been converted into an RAF base. Extended during World War II, a number of Spitfires once roared off from this land; those flying machines accompanying bombers on missions to the continent. It was a major airfield, and one that even saw a young Ronnie Corbett based there for a time.

Reminders of military use are still dotted around the park, most notably in the form of pillboxes and Tett’s Turrets. That said the park’s most dominant features were far more modern: outdoor gym equipment. Every path was lined with the stuff, all spaced out at equipment, dotted around at regular intervals. It was designed so that people could jog around the park and stop off to use cross trainers and do bench presses along the way. On the day I went by though, there was more gym equipment than users, and none of the many joggers in the park appeared to be particularly interested in doing some pull ups, or even using the angled vault bars.

A Tett's Turret in Hornchurch Country Park
Remnants of World War II litter Hornchurch Country Park, including several Tett’s Turrets like this

I went through a phase of jogging myself many years back – I still have the Lycra jogging tights, which is an image you probably don’t want – and I could see the attraction of the park for those up for some running. The park had some great views to enjoy, including of the meandering river. In the winter the Ingrebourne floods as a matter of routine, creating an extensive collection of lakes and swamps. The result is London’s largest freshwater marsh, providing a hugely important nature reserve for the local wildlife. And something hugely enjoyable to stare at for a while until I realised it really was time to get going.

After RAF Hornchurch closed in the 1960s, the site was given over to quarrying, before later becoming a landfill site. When the LOOP first opened in the late nineties, the landfill site was in the process of converted into parkland, requiring the trail to follow a series of suburban roads nearby. But since the opening of ‘Ingrebourne Hill’, the LOOP had been re-routed over this land where once rubbish reigned supreme. It was hard to imagine that the lovely verdant space I was walking on once was a resting place for tin cans and potato peelings. Indeed, the rubbish is still there too, now covered over and hidden under paths and mountain biking trails.

View from the top of the Ingrebourne Hill of a path through parkland.
Once landfill, now a country park.

I climbed up the ‘hill’ (in reality rising less than 20m above sea level) and was greeted with a grand view of pylons and the two giant wind turbines that help power the Ford car plant at nearby Dagenham. Rainham was also visible in front of me, marking the point where it was time to leave the Ingrebourne and go to town.

In part two, Rainham is explored, the Thames is met and the LOOP makes a triumphant ending. One of those statements may not be true.


Matt Griffiths

2 July 2019 at 7:09 pm

Just walked this section, and several sections between the A127 and the Academy near the Ingrebourne River (including the footbridge) were heavily overgrown with large areas of 5-foot high stinging nettles. In my shorts and t-shirt I was forced to make several long and frustrating detours.

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