London LOOP Stage 13 Part 2: Rainham to Purfleet

Published 15 June 2016

The exterior of St Margaret's Church, Rainham
St Margaret’s Church, Rainham

Completing the two-part epic of my final day walking on the London Outer Orbital Path.

My first impressions of Rainham were slightly tarred by a pub garishly painted bright orange, and was hardly improved by getting stuck trying to cross a roundabout. But once I’d finally got across, and had spent ten minutes walking past an oversized branch of Tesco, Rainham Village gave a far more favourable impression thanks to old pubs, an attractive late Norman-era church and the grand Rainham Hall, built in the 18th century by wealthy sea captain John Harle, and now opened to the public by the National Trust.

On the other side of the village stood Rainham’s railway station, featuring a large sign on the station roof directing people towards Rainham Marshes. And when I say large, I mean absolutely massive. You could see it a quarter of a mile away.

The marshes were where the LOOP would take me next, but as I headed there a voice spoke to me from a parked car.

Exterior of Rainham station, with a sign above giving directions to Rainham Marshes station.  A sign denotes that cycle parking is available.
Sorry, which is the way to Rainham Marshes again?

“Are you a cyclist?” it asked.

I turned to see a burly man in a camouflage jacket decorated with pseudo-militaristic insignia.

“No, I’m not,” I replied truthfully, unsure whether I was about to be offered the option to purchase hooky cycle helmets from the car boot, or be on the receiving end of a huge rant about Lycra-clad “menaces of the road.” Thankfully it was neither.

“Ah, right. Well there’s been a lot of bike thefts round here, so we’re telling everyone to be careful.”

Who are “we” I wondered, wondering if this meant Rainham had its own armed gang of vigilantes who patrolled the village centre in the evening looking for wrongdoers.

“That’s not good,” I replied, not entirely sure what I should be saying.

“No,” he went on. “They nicked mine.”

Ah. The crux of the problem. Although I didn’t want to think what would happen if said bike thief was apprehended by the local anti-crime mob. It didn’t bear thinking about. Naturally gave him my sympathies and scarpered away as quickly as I could whilst hoping no actions I made, made me look a bike-thief who had been thwarted in their task.

Overhead photograph of the platforms and tracks of Rainham railway station, taken from the station footbridge.
Rainham railway station. For all your railway in Rainham needs

There was a level crossing over the tracks at Rainham station which gave the impression of once being a major thoroughfare but now did little more than allow pedestrians to access the large bridge that crossed the adjacent High Speed One railway line which carries Eurostar trains off to Paris and Brussels.

The line had been built since my guidebook had been published in 2001. Such are the perils of not having the latest edition, although to be fair, it had stood me in good stead. Not much of the LOOP had altered since it opened. Well, until today anyway. The opening up of a former landfill site had obviously made a difference, as had the high-speed railway line opened in 2007.

Grassland and marshes, with the A13 road being just about visible in the distance.
The A13 adds a touch of glamour to proceedings in Rainham

The changes weren’t over once I’d crossed the bridge either, as the LOOP here had been moved away from a busy road and instead sent through nearby grassland instead. Lined with benches and stylised signposts with a rust effect, it might had been a far more pleasant experience if the path hadn’t been both running next to an industrial estate, and if the path hadn’t been absolutely covered in litter. With the path being on the edge of an industrial estate, it was clear that more people used the benches for post-work drinking than relaxing on during a walk.

After the morning mostly being spent in peaceful parkland, the switch to warehouses and factories came as bit of a shock.

This wasn’t quite the ending to the LOOP I’d dreamed of, although given the first few miles of the LOOP had been equally grim, perhaps it was appropriate. But then here, in the midst of grey box buildings and lorries, I turned a corner, climbed an embankment and met the Thames again and – for a few moments at least – all was forgiven. Behind me may have been the sound of several thousand tonnes of basmati being delivered to the Tilda rice factory, but in front of me was London’s premier waterway, shimmering wonderfully in the early-afternoon sun.

I stared out across the water. Somewhere over there was Erith where my LOOP journey had started, and it was almost over. Just a few more miles to Purfleet and my orbital walk of London would be over

Concrete barges moored on the side of the Thames.
Gently decaying concrete barges in the River Thames

Just beyond the rice factory can be found a graveyard; a resting place of war veterans. This isn’t a place where people, or even animals and birds are buried. No, nothing like that. No, this is the final resting place of a series of large, concrete barges that had been used to transport troops and equipment in the D-day landings in World War II; their unusual material of manufacture a consequence of the nation’s shortage of steel.

After the war, they found a new use, helping to shore up the Thames Estuary’s flood defences until they were towed to the edge of Rainham and left to gently decay, quietly and forgotten. Their demise is a slow one. Even seventy years after their creation, they remain in a fair condition, and quite probably will remain so for many years to come, doing little more than providing a platform for the local bird population to rest on.

Beyond the Tilda factory, the landscape started to change, with the industrial units being replaced by greenery, although the copious amount of littler around the path, and in the Thames itself, gave a clue that the surrounding land was yet another reclaimed landfill site. In 2018 a new country park will open up here, and the former landfill site appeared spruce and in good condition; the path between the soon-to-be country park and the river looking far less so.

Gate leading onto the former Rainham landfill site, now full of grass.
Beware the landfill operations

Plastic was the main speciality, and it was absolutely everywhere, with thousands of bottles in the grass or swimming in the murky waters near the barges. It was hardly an attractive site, although, and despite the mess, this was a popular spot. Bird watchers sat patiently on benches staring intently on the wading birds in mudflats of the Thames, revealed by the river’s low tide.

I can’t say birds have ever really interested me that much. It’s lovely to know they’re there, and to hear their song, and I’d had a moment of happiness on hearing a woodpecker early in the day, but sitting very still with a pair of binoculars, watching out for them, has never really appealed. Still, each to their own, and I left them to it, and left the litter and rubbish behind as the LOOP reached Coldharbour Point.

Navigational aid at the side of the Thames at Coldharbour Point.
Coldharbour Point – the original ending of the LOOP

Across the river, Erith’s pier was clearly visible, providing a link to the starting point all those miles earlier. Once you could have crossed the river and travelled from Rainham to Erith by ferry, on a service that ran for around 800 years, but that’s long gone. Rainham and Erith may just be a few miles apart as the crow flies, but to travel between them requires a ten mile drive by car. Want to go by public transport? Well that will require a bus, a DLR and a train, and take near an hour and a half. All of which means that whilst the LOOP circles London, it doesn’t do a complete circle. The river stops that.

When the trail first opened, it was at Coldharbour Point that the LOOP had ended, requiring any walker who had bothered to get there, to turn back and retrace their steps to Rainham. And surely there can have been few with enough motivation to do so. It was never the intention of the LOOP’s designers to finish the trail at Coldharbour Point though. Purfleet was always the intended destination. They just had to wait for a new path to be opened up, which it now had. So that was where I was heading, on a path that took me past former rifle ranges that now housed an RSPB reserve.

Rainham Marshes
Rainham Marshes RSPB reserve

And then, with the Darmouth road bridge just visible in the distance, I entered the outskirts of Purfleet, and the county of Essex. Yes, the London Outer Orbital Path doesn’t even finish in Greater London. It crosses the border instead and ends there instead. Rather strange but there you go.

Alas though there’s no pub at the end of the trail, but the Royal Hotel isn’t that far off so whilst I hadn’t quite finished the LOOP, I still popped in for a celebratory pint or two, admiring the river from the comfort of the bar.

A pint of Guinness on a bar mat, next to a copy of the London LOOP guidebook.
Celebrating at the bar, even if I wasn’t quite at the end of the LOOP yet.

Then it was time to get to the end, although it wasn’t abundantly clear where the LOOP actually finished. The LOOP directional signposts simply disappeared , and the trail just fizzled out near the railway station. There was no fancy obelisks, no signs and nothing to even indicate that I’d walked it all. With no better ideas, I drew my own finishing line at the town’s railway station; the bit near the takeaway pizza stand would have to do.

Well, whatever. I’d done it. So what if that wasn’t precisely the right spot? I’d walked round London. In a LOOP. 140 miles were under my belt and no one could take that away from me. Now it was over, and there was just one more thing to do. Now that I’d walked around the capital, it was time to say goodbye to it.

A couple of weeks later I packed up a van full of belongings, and moved to Manchester.

Posing outside Rainham railway station
Celebratory grimace in the bright sun outside Purfleet railway station



15 June 2016 at 8:35 pm

Congratulations! Finished the Loop. And finished with London after all these years too. Hope it all works out, whatever the plan is and thank you for the read: it’s been interesting to compare it with my own experiences.

Oh, and the world is full of wonderful stouts. Guinness isn’t one of them, alas. It’s a shame that hotel bars rarely have a decent choice of beer.


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