London LOOP Stage 9 Part 1: Hatch End to Elstree

Published 13 April 2016

LOOP sign in trees, on Harrow Weald Common

There are occasions when you get to the end of a walk, look back at what you’ve done, and wonder why you bothered doing it in the first place. And I’m sorry to say that walking the LOOP from Hatch End to High Barnet, was one of those days.

Now I don’t want to denigrate the LOOP here, but I suspect most people who walk the whole thing will come to the same conclusion I have: that the trail is a bit of a mixed bag. There are many lovely bits, some reasonable bits, and some tedious bits. That’s true of most long distance walking routes. There’s no trail I have done that’s been perfect all the way through. But the LOOP has perhaps more of its fair share of tedious bits; an inevitable consequence of a walking trail that circles the UK’s largest urban conurbation. You have to set your expectations here, and really all you can ask from the LOOP is that there will be a good balance; that most of the walk will be either lovely or reasonable, and the bits that aren’t will be in the minority.

For the most part the LOOP achieves this balance well, but alas somewhere between Hatch End and High Barnet, the needle went off completely in the wrong direction. All the wrong pieces were there in large quantities. There was too much road walking. Too much time spent in alleyways. Too many dreary, insanely muddy woods. Too many motorways and dual carriageways. Too many paths that were not maintained properly. And far too many places to get lost thanks to the route being over-complicated and with poor signage.

Of course there were some nice parts to the day. There were, really. I don’t want to sound like the entire walk was a dull drudge, or make you think I’m overly negative about things. But if I was to write something entitled ‘The Bits of the London LOOP You Really MUST walk’, I’d be hard pushed to find any part of Hatch End to High Barnet that I’d want to include. Not one. And that’s a sad thing to say.

Tree blocking path near Hatch End
There’s paths blocked by trees, and there’s paths blocked by trees.

The start of the day gave an excellent indicator of how things were going to be when I got lost in housing estate thanks to a LOOP’s signpost pointing in completely the wrong direction. I then walked down a narrow track besides some houses, where I found a tree completely blocking the path. It hadn’t fallen down or anything. It was just that the tree trunk had decided to start growing off to the side rather than the usual upwards. And, based on the circumference of the tree trunk, it had been doing this for years.

Thick branches meant I couldn’t go over it and fences stopped me going round it. In fact the only way to get past the offending tree was to crawl, on all fours, under it. This was not a remote wilderness where perhaps these things could be expected, but a path next to a housing estate in Greater London. No one should need to crawl on all fours in order to use a footpath in Greater London, especially one that is overlooked by the windows of multiple semi-detached houses.

Icicles on a tree branch
Icicles. Get your icicles!

It wasn’t the best possible start to the day, but if the rest of the day had been fine, it could have easily been forgotten. Alas though the LOOP decided to follow this extravaganza with a dreary drudge down the B4542 where the only highlight was a single bush on the roadside whose branches were inexplicably covered in icicles. Good, nice and interesting, but not enough to make up for the field I entered next where I discovered where all clearly people came from miles around in order to fly tip, and where I was slightly unnerved to find a fenced off area with big signs saying “DANGER! ASBESTOS!”

I’d certainly hit the big time with this one.

Grims Dyke Golf Course
If you are going to walk through a golf course, might as well make it a nice one.

Two miles down in and I finally entered somewhere reasonably nice. In comparison to what had gone before anyway. Although as golf courses go, it was pleasant. It sat on a slight hillside, and with a very worn sign at the entrance to the course informing where the footpath went in a friendly and polite way. All I needed to do, it told me, was follow the row of white posts up the course to the “cottage”. And it wasn’t the golf course’s fault that the morning sun was so dazzling that it was completely impossible to see any posts, yet alone any white ones. Given I couldn’t see a piece of white painted wood, how anyone could see a golf ball, I couldn’t tell.

What I could see was someone ahead of me waving at me.

“Walking the LOOP?” asked a friendly golfer as I got within communication distance. I nodded the affirmative. “You just follow the line of the ditch there, and then turn off at the track.”

I thanked him, and after being cheerily invited to “Have a good walk!” I headed up along side of the golf course where I found a track and the “cottage” although the latter turned out to be large utilitarian building where they presumably kept the lawn mowers and things.

The track led to the road. Which it turned out wasn’t where I wanted to go. I should have instead been wandering round some woodland although I’d seen no signs pointing me off in the right direction, and nor was my guidebook giving me much of a clue. An access road to a telecoms mast got me vaguely in the right area but not actually on the LOOP itself. And so it was that instead of the morbid sight of the lake where William Schwenck Gilbert died, I got to enjoy muddy puddles, and a confusing tangle of paths that led goodness knows where, until I finally arrived at the back of the Grims Dyke Hotel.

The Grim's Dyke Hotel
The Grim’s Dyke Hotel

The hotel had once been a manor house, built in 1872 for artist Frederick Goodall. By 1890 though it was in the hands of Gilbert, who is perhaps better known for his collaborations with one Arthur Sullivan, than for the way he died. Gilbert lived in Grims Dyke for 21 years, until he suffered a fatal heart attack whilst in the middle of the lake and subsequently died.

There was one benefit to my unintended diversion, and this was a chance to walk over Grim’s Ditch, the actual ditch that lent its name to the house. The earthworks were one of many sharing the same name, constructed around 300BC. There’s Grim’s Ditches and Dykes spreading from Hampshire to Essex, although no one’s particularly sure who or what Grim was. Some attribute it to Grimr, the Norse god of War and Magic. Others instead reckon it’s related to the Celtic word ‘grin’, signifying a sun god. But no one is really sure. Nor does anyone know what the ditch was built for. It’s too small for military use, and the best guess is that the various ditches were built to mark territorial boundaries.

What it wasn’t, was particularly interesting to look at it. After all, a ditch may be thousands of years old, but when it boils down to it, a ditch really is just a ditch.

Woodland of Harrow Weald Common
The enchanting Harrow Weald Common

In this midst of all this negativity, let me just say that Harrow Weald Common was lovely. It’s an attractive area to walk through and is a fine piece of woodland. Wide paths led me through the trees, which had been spaced out well. And on the floor, a covering of brown and golden leaves, all nice and dry and perfect for rustling your feet through. Brilliant. This was autumn walking at its best, and with not a muddy puddle in sight, I spent a happy half hour wandering through, kicking the leaves with my feet. If only it had been representative of the whole day.

Indeed the only flaw Harrow Weald Common had was that the LOOP barely spent any time in it. It was over far too soon, after crossing the busy A409, I could at least walk through the verdant grounds of Bentley Priory Nature Reserve.

Despite the name, there hasn’t been a priory here since the 1530s, and the building that bears the name today is a former manor house designed by Sir John Soane in 1775. It remained in residential use until 1882 when it was converted to a hotel with owner Frederick Gordon even stumping up the cash to build a railway line from Harrow and Wealdstone station so that the hotel’s customers could have easy access to London.

Passenger railway services from ‘nearby’ Stanmore Village station (actually two miles away) lasted until 1952, however the hotel didn’t last anywhere near as long. Gordon tried to sell the building in 1895, before making it his family home until his death in 1908.

A stint as a girls school followed, but that too closed at the end of 1924 at which point the grounds were sold off to Middlesex Council, in time becoming the nature reserve I was now walking through. The house itself was destined for a different future in the ownership of the RAF, and it was inside its walls that RAF Fighter Command was based, and where the Battle of Britain was commanded and coordinated.

Bentley Priory, behind a chainlink fence
Hidden behind multiple layers of chainlink fences is Bentley Priory

Bentley Priory remained with the RAF until 2007, when it was sold for residential development. But any hope that the LOOP walker may get a good view of the grand buildings are swiftly dashed, as I found out. Two rows of chain-link fencing separated the residential development from the parkland, and a mixture of trees and brambles conspired with each other to help prevent unwanted gazes. From the LOOP, it was almost invisible.

Throughout my walks on the LOOP, I’d wondered on how it had been designed, and by whom. It frequently gave the impression that it was a group effort, with a different person being responsible for the detail of each section, rather than being designed as a cohesive whole.

Sometimes it simply linked together a series of local walking trails in sensible and clearly logical ways. But at other times – like now on Stanmore Common – everything seemed far more random. On Stanmore Common it followed a clear, well made path for a bit, before darting along a narrow, winding side track before abruptly turning onto a road, before dashing off down the side of a football field five seconds later. No sooner had it left the football field and it had darted off to the right to go next to a lake, following it round anti-clockwise for a minute, before double backing and going somewhere else.

A tree blocking a path
What do you mean you want to be able to walk this way?

The sheer number of twists and turns meant it impossible to follow the route on a map, which was exactly what I was trying to do as – just when I needed it the most – there was a sudden absence of LOOP signposts.

For most part, the LOOP is pretty well signposted. There’s the odd wobble here and there where a sign’s been vandalised, or has fallen down, but in general it’s pretty good. But at the point since I’d crossed in the London Borough of Harrow things had gone down hill. Signs were mostly absent, and when they did exist, were pointing in the wrong direction. It was like the local council simply didn’t care about the LOOP one bit, and didn’t even want it there in the first place. And nowhere was the lack of love for the LOOP in Harrow clearer than on Stanmore Common. In the space of a mile I got lost five times, and I spent more time trying to re-find the LOOP than I actually did on the proper path.

After spending about 20 minutes wandering around in circles – where I’d almost ended up heading in walking through a housing estate in completely the wrong direction I came alongside a sports pitch where a group of teenagers where being punished by being forced to play rugby. Amongst them was Harry. I didn’t know who Harry was, but I knew he was there, all thanks to his dad.

A lake at Stanmore
The LOOP offers a change from fallen trees and blocked paths

Most of the spectators where respectful and supportive, providing good natured cheers and groans every now and then. But not Harry’s dad. As far as Harry’s dad was concerned, Harry was the only important person on the pitch. This could be told by the extremely frequent and extraordinarily loud and angry sounding shouts of “Come on Harry!” every time anything happened. A pigeon has landed on the pitch? “Come on Harry!” Someone’s picked up the magic sponge? “Come on HARRY”. The ref’s blown his whistle? “COME… ON… HARRY…”

No other parent was being as loud and overbearing as Harry’s dad, who was clearly living his dreams through his son, and who had quickly taken the title of ‘Most annoying person within ten miles of my current location.’ But most of his antics were ultimately eclipsed by the disgusted sounding yell of “Oh Harry, you’re BETTER than that,” after which I was mentally willing Harry to come off the pitch and lamp his dad one. I probably would have gone up to help him. Harry that is. Not his dad.

Walking away from the sports ground as quickly as possible before provoked into some kind of action that would lead to the boys in blue heading in my direction, I walked off down a road that led me to the gates of the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, and then turned a corner and followed a LOOP sign through the grounds of a riding school.

At least, it looked like it went through the school’s grounds. It was certainly pointing directly down their drive, which was why I walked straight through the riding school’s grounds.

“Are you a walker?” a woman politely asked.

I replied that I was.

“So you know for next time, the path’s actually to the side of our drive.”

It sounded like she’d had this conversation a few times but having seen absolutely no visible path anywhere other than her drive, I apologised and blamed the signs. Well I was still in Harrow.

Overgrown path near Stanmore
This is the way you’re supposed to walk…

The woman pointed me through the riding school to the point where I’d meet up with the LOOP again and as I walked I peered to my right to see if I could spot the official route, which I found lurking behind a chain-link fence. It was everything I expected it to be: narrow and horrendously overgrown, and completely unusable. It was no wonder everyone went through the riding school.

The LOOP followed the side of the M1, and then darted underneath as the trail started several miles of tedious road waking. Oh yes, the LOOP was really spoiling me.

True, there were a few diversions, like a quick visit to the park next to Aldenhan Reservoir, but ultimately tarmac reigned supreme. And yes too, I did actually skip a bit of the proper route when it went up Allum Lane, because its diversion would do little more than see me traipse through some muddy fields and over a golf course, before depositing me back on the main road; a pointless detour nearly three times as long as the direct route.

Besides, I was hungry. And thirsty. And totally fed up. With the exception of Harrow Weald Common it had been a thoroughly tedious morning. And now I wanted refreshment and revitalisation. Which was handy given I was now on the road to Elstree.

What will there be to eat? Find out in part two for the thrilling conclusion of my walk to High Barnet.


Alexander Cameron Kirkwood

18 July 2021 at 3:13 pm

It is a pity we didn’t read your report on this walk before we attempted it yesterday, July 17th 2021. We found this a very complicated walk and it was not helped by the lack of way markers at various sections, particularly the approach to Grims Dyke Hotel. In forty years of walking I cannot remember a time when we got so confused as to where we were supposed to be going. The early stage close to houses and a fence were impossible to walk along, they had not been cleared for a long time, and so we had to turn back and walk along the side of the field.
By the time we got to Stanmore, wandering around Stanmore Common looking for where we were supposed to be going, we had had enough and decided that the Underground beckoned and to call it a day. A real shame, but somebody, probably Harrow Council need to decide if they are going to support this Loop section or not. At the moment there is little sign that they do care about this.

Lindsay Williams

30 September 2021 at 5:14 pm

I jogged the section from Hatch End to Elstree a couple of weeks ago and also encountered the same narrow overgrown nettle and bramble path running beside houses just outside Hatch End (not a great start to the day). The “highlights” of this section were a “lawn cemetery” (which I’d never heard of before) the viewpoint in a car park opposite the former Grimsdyke hotel, Harrow Weald woods, a rope swing which I failed miserably to get onto on Stanmore Common (where I actually didn’t get lost), a Shia Islamic centre in Stanmore, crossing under the M1 and some nice open country on the Allum Lane “pointles detour” …. meagre pickings indeed but got me one step closer to finishing the LOOP which I will complete this Sunday 🍾🍾

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