There’s much to be said about the delightful scent of a rose, the stunning yellow of a flock of daffodils, or even the simple beauty of a red poppy growing in a meadow (or, as it happens, in the cracks of the tarmac of a former car park near the office I work in), but for me there can be no finer flower than the bluebell.
Perhaps it is the bold colour, or maybe the distinctive bell shape from which their common name is derived (hyacinthoides non-scripta hardly trips off the tongue.) Or perhaps it’s the fact that at a certain time of year, they are absolutely everywhere, resulting in an explosion of violets and blues on land that’s normally rather mundane.
Without doubt, the bluebell’s at its best when seen in woodland, however they can liven up any scene. Such as the bunch sitting in a small patch of soil next to the A232, near the edge of West Wickham Common. They were growing discretely, rain dripping off their petals, in the shadow of the cars that thundered by, but they looked fantastic.
Little did I know as I paused to admire them, that the flower would play a major part in the day’s walk on the LOOP; that London had so many of the things lurking around. But when I did find out, it was to be a more than pleasant surprise.
There was something almost Dalek like about the pillar in Coney Hall Recreation Ground, that marked the Greenwich Meridian. A squat square based monument, with a dome on top, all you’d have to do would be to add a sink plunger and a few semi-circles to it, and you’d have a representation of everyone’s favourite Doctor Who alien. An admittedly naff one, but at least recognisable.
For a moment I pondered leaping from one side of the meridian to the other, and then back again, as a way of marking the occasion. On the other hand there was an old guy walking his dog on the grass, probably already wondering why I was taking a photo of the olive green painted Dalek. I just felt too self-conscious. And besides, it was beginning to rain.
Instead I headed on to the church of St John the Baptist on the other side of the road. It’s bells were ringing as I approached its front door; sounding to call the faithful to their Sunday worship. Anyone watching from inside may have had a slight element of disappointment as I approached, as my path veered off just before the entrance way. Anyway, as an atheist, I probably wasn’t the kind of visitor they were really after.
Down a sloped field, over a road, and across several rugby pitches, the LOOP headed on; the latter filled more with dog walkers than the sporty type. And then it was into the Spring Park Woods, whose boundary was lined with grand, nay, ostentatious, wooden signs of marked the area as the property of the City of London Corporation. With their decorative borders and large representation of the city crest, such signs are a common sight across Greater London. The City itself consists of a mere 2.9km2 of land, yet the Corporation manages a whopping 42 km2 of woods, common land and parks outside its borders.
Of these woods though, it only owns half. Half way along the tree-lined path, I left its territory and crossed into the section known as Three Halfpenny Wood, owned and managed by the London Borough of Croydon. Not that there was much of a difference between the two neighbours. No fences, and if there was a sign to mark the crossing, I missed it. The trees looked the same in both, their bases surrounded by more of those bluebells. Although there were few people passing me on the LOOP, the shouts of children, and the occasional bark of a dog, rang through the trees.
Delightful as it was, it wouldn’t last. This is a walk in London after all, and soon the trees gave way to playing fields, and then the LOOP headed down a road and alleyways as it headed towards the village of Shirley. Yes, Shirley. And I am serious. And don’t call me surely. [Yeah, I’m not sure you’ve got the gag right there – Ed]
Had I opened it, a brief look at my map would have revealed that I was now barely metres away from Shirley Windmill, one of only four windmills open to the public in Greater London. Just a short detour would have enabled me to visit this 19th century tower mill sat in the middle of a housing estate, although it would have been closed. The place only opens on the first Sunday of the month, between June and October. Still, you’d think the LOOP would have paid it a visit, even if it was just to stand outside and gawp at it. But it doesn’t, and my map had remained unloved in my pocket. The windmill no doubt missed my presence.
There was the sound of shouts and grunts as I climbed Addington Hill, and as I reached the top, the source of it, was revealed. A group of teenagers, clad in karate-style uniforms, were being chased and cajoled up the hill by a bunch of sadistic looking instructors. Some of the lads, thinking themselves out of sight of their tormentors, slowed their pace for a minute. But the instructors had seen it all before, and the area soon rang with cries of “Come on! What are you stopping there for?”
Addington Hill is hardly a high, but such is the relative flatness of London that the viewpoint at the top can provide a fine view for miles around. The towers of Canary Wharf could just be seen, although more dominating on the skyline were the equivalent high-rise buildings of Croydon. But by far the most noticeable landmarks were the transmitter towers of Croydon and Crystal Palace. Both built in the 1950s, Croydon was erected for ITV and Crystal Palace for the BBC. These days, only the latter does TV, and the transmitter comes in at 219m in height, meaning it’s the fifth tallest structure in London.
The pair are a familiar sight to me, as they’re both visible from the back of my house. At night, the strip of red lights that act as a warning to aircraft, can be seen for miles around as they glow silently on the horizon. From the comfort of my sofa, they look extremely close together – like they are next door neighbours – but from up here the fact that they’re a mile apart was more than obvious.
On the other side of the hill came the sound of trams, and the LOOP crossed the tracks of the Tramlink which since May 2000 has provided a public transport connections across the south of London. Indeed, had I desired, I could have boarded a tram at Coombe Lane and head home. But where would the fun have been in that? And anyway, I would have missed out on Heathfield Gardens.
Another in the oeuvre of ‘mansion house whose grounds and buildings ended up in the hands of the local council and opened to the public’, the main buildings are now used as a training centre, but the gardens were always going to be the real star. With moss-covered paths and huge quantities of rhododendrons, the place was simply enchanting. The only real problem was that the park seemed too far too small. I was in and out of the place within 15 minutes, which just didn’t seem long enough, even if the LOOP did cover most of it.
Still, never mind. Littleheath Wood was not far away and that was another delightful place and one that greeted you with the words:
Whether you come in the snow, or at bluebell time, to pick blackberries in the summer or gather sweet chestnuts in the autumn, may you always find this a place of beauty and delight.
Okay, a little soppy and sentimental, but someone’s heart was in the right place. And there were plenty of bluebells to admire in amongst the trees as well.
Littleheath Wood was also where the LOOP joined up with the Vanguard Way. It sets off from that well-known walking mecca of Croydon, and takes the walkers on a 66 mile journey to the seaside at Newhaven in East Sussex. Don’t go looking for any particular local connection, or geographical link, with that name though. The trail was basically created in 1980 to celebrate 15 years of the Vanguards Rambling Club, and their name comes from the fact that the group was formed by a group of walkers who had all sat in the guard’s van of a particularly busy train.
The Vanguard Way’s sometimes used by those seeking a London to Paris route, with people starting off near Central London and following the River Wandle to Croydon. But there was no sign of any long distance travellers as the pair of trails left the woods and headed through the streets of Forestdale, before entering yet more woodland.
The LOOP often connects up with other trails, of varying degrees of heritage. The Tandridge Border Path was the next one to join our merry party, and as we did so, something momentous occurred. For the LOOP left Greater London.
Suddenly I was in Surrey; the borough of Tandridge to be more precise. And as if to prove I was in Surrey, like some sort of Surrey-based cliché in action – the LOOP came alongside a golf course.
There seems to be no concrete evidence that Mark Twain ever said the quote that is regularly attributed to him on the subject, but whoever did say that “golf is a good walk spoiled”, I’ve always been inclined to agree with the sentiment. Still, at least it didn’t cross the golf course, even if it did head down the access road for the club, where it joined a distinctly rural looking road.
This was the point where the Vanguard Way bade its farewells and continued on its way to the coast, and for me, it wasn’t long before I was back in Greater London again. Amongst the woods of Mossyhill Shaw, I spied a useful tree trunk lying on the ground that gave the impression that it would provide me with a fine picnic spot, and one with an idyllic view of fields. And indeed it did, at least for a few minutes. The cold wind that persuaded me to move on, did at least give me time to eat my butties before it decided I’d stayed long enough and that it was time I was moving.
Hamsey Green was a border village. As I walked down through the housing estates, the differences were clear. On one side of the road, the wheelie bins had the logos of Croydon Council whilst the ones on the other declared their allegiance to Surrey County Council. I wondered how it all worked in practice, especially when I passed several schools, all on the Surrey side and within metres of the boundary. No doubt school placement could be fun.
What the place didn’t have, was a pub. Where my elderly guidebook said the Good Companions should have been, was now just a pile of rubble surrounded by blue hoardings. The building had been razed to the ground by Lidl who decided it would be a perfect place for their new store; a store that they failed spectacularly to get planning approval for. The result? A giant patch of empty ground, and a community devoid of a useful asset. Well done Lidl.
At the other end of the village, I began to walk over the clunkily named ‘Sanderstead and Whyteleafe Countryside Area’. And if that’s not enough for you, the area also forms part of the ‘Riddlesdown and Whyteleafe Countryside Area’, which also includes neighbouring Riddlesdown Common.
A substantial amount of mostly flat grassland – not football pitches, not lawns, just grassland – there was something rather familiar about it all. And for the first time, the LOOP began to look recognisable.
The observant reader may have taken note to references to the ownership of an old guidebook. It was in 2001 that Aurum Press published its guide to the LOOP, and in that year a copy found its way into a flat in Ealing that I shared with my partner Catherine. Over several Saturdays and Sundays we began to explore the London Outer Orbital Path, mainly the sections in west London. According to our records – done by the sophisticated system of highlighting sections of the LOOP map that we’d completed in green pen – we’d covered about a third of the trail.
But having recently moved to the capital from towns surrounded by hills, doing walks around the periphery of the capital, with its reliance on suburban roads, seemed less appealing than what was beyond the M25. As we headed out to Kent, the Chilterns, the Sussex Downs and the golf-course covered Surrey, the LOOP slowly got forgotten about. But that was not before we moved to South West London, where we caught a tram and a bus in order to start one last section of the trail.
Where we walked to that day, I can’t for the life of me remember. What I do know is that we got off the bus at Hamsey Green, and these same flat fields were how the day started. Other than that, I could remember little more.
Those views from the top of Riddlesdown Common? Forgotten. The bit where we crossed the busy A22, and then the train tracks at Kenley? No idea. Turning around during the climb up New Barn Lane and seeing chalk hillside of Riddlesdown? Well that did ring a couple of bells, now I come to think of it.
Kenley Common – like Riddlesdown, another patch of land owned by the mighty City of London – drew a blank on me, although how I could ever have forgotten the small, run-down looking observatory at the edge of it, is beyond me.
It sat in a field neighbouring Kenley Aerodrome, which once went under the name of RAF Kenley. Opened in 1919, and extensively used during World War II, the airfield formally closed in 1959, although to this day it remains owned by the military and is the base for the 615 Volunteer Gliding Squadron. Yes, the RAF apparently have gliders. Never let it be said I don’t tell you anything here.
A tour of the edge of Old Coulsdon lead me slowly, but surely, to the grand finale of the day.
Originally purchased in 1937 by the local council, Happy Valley went for many years under the rather prosaic name of ‘Coulsdon Greenbelt Lands’, with the modern name only being adopted in 1970. At the time of purchase, it was described as “one of the most beautiful valleys in the whole neighbourhood.” And I can’t argue. The place is utterly spectacular; it’s chalk grasslands, and gentle tree covered slopes a delightful place to walk over and admire. I couldn’t get enough of it, and bounced up and down the hill-sides, whipping out my camera to snap every wonderful view.
Taken by itself, Happy Valley would have been a fine way to end the day, however the views weren’t over thanks to the Farthing Downs.
A long strip of raised grassland, the Downs sit next to Happy Valley, and its slopes provided across the houses of Coulsdon to each side. Officially the LOOP follows the road that crosses the top of the Downs, but with paths to each side, who would really want to walk along the tarmac?
For no particular reason, I chose the path on the western side of the road; closer to the edge where Chipstead could be seen in the distance. Coincidentally, this was also the side with one of Farthing Downs’s landmarks on it: the Folly. Not in this case an elaborate building with no purpose. Oh no. Instead the Folly is where a crown of seven beech trees were planted here in the 18th century, and first noted on a map in 1783. Who planted them is unknown, although one name linked was that of Edward Bangham MP. Who was an MP for Leominster and who died in 1712, so we can probably rule him out. Another name linked was Thomas Harley, who also had links with Leominster, but did at least have a residence at Hooley House, not far from where I now stood. Even better, he was alive at the time the trees were planted.
What is known for sure is that five of the seven trees died, although the City of London – who, and you may be astounded to learn this, own the Downs – did plant new ones to replace those that had passed away.
Whatever the story, the Downs gave a fine view and a grand climax for what had proved to be a spectacular day. And with that I headed down the town centre with a smile on my face, a head full of blue flowers, and a spring in my step, reluctant but ready for the bus ride home.