London LOOP Stage 2: Slade Green to Petts Wood

Published 8 July 2015

Brick making at Crayford

There are days that don’t really go to plan. And there was every indication that this would be one of those days.

I had to leave the house an hour later than intended thanks to a small family drama; the rail replacement bus has vanished into thin air; and when I did finally make it to Slade Green, I found that my camera – less than a year old – was showing a cryptic message of “System Error (Focus)” whenever I wanted to take a photograph. This was not the best of starts, and to cap it all, within an hour a bird had managed to deposit a significant amount of poo on my head.

Muttering unpleasant things under my breath, I retraced my steps back to the River Darent, which hadn’t improved much since the last time I’d been there. Still trickling along at the bottom of a wide and deep channel, and still surrounded by steep banks of grey mud.


Here I was, about to deliberately walk a section of the LOOP. Not do it by accident, or complete a section as part of another walk as I had done with the bit from Erith. No, not this time. I’d actually deliberately travelled across London to stare at this oozing mud.

Looking at this, I was beginning to have doubts. And when you stand in a faintly depressing industrial landscape, under the shadow of scrapyards and pylons, a mere four miles into a 150 mile walk, that’s perhaps not massively surprising. There are nicer ways to start a walk, after all. There was a huge part of me that just hoped that this wasn’t representative of the whole of the LOOP. For if it was, I probably wouldn’t even last the day, yet alone the whole thing. Yes, I know that this kind of industrial landscape is representative of part of London, and that a walk that goes through London is probably going to have some dingy bits, but even Wainwright – who loved a good bit of old industry in his walks – would struggle with this.

A short way along the River Cray joins the Darent, and the LOOP heads off to follow the smaller river, as if it is desperately hoping this new river will lead to better pastures. And within minutes I found myself stood opposite a bin lorry depot, and besides a recycling complex obviously so dangerous that there were two fire engines stationed. Oh and it was obviously crime ridden, given the two slobbering Dobermanns who were patrolling, who as one slammed themselves against the wire fence and snarled fiercely at me. I gave them a good stern glare, and walked on to see what else the LOOP was going to throw at me.

Crayford on the London LOOP

Much of my day would be spent in the company of the Cray as it babbled on its nine-mile journey from Orpington, either next to it, or walking parallel to it. With it, I’d head through Crayford, Barnes Cray, North Cray, and Foot Cray, showing that the locals hadn’t looked far for inspiration in their place names.

At the point it joined with the Darent, the Cray was as ugly as the river it joined with, but as I walked along I watched it slowly morph from grey mulch to a gentle, bubbling waterway, although not always one that was well treated by the locals. At Barnes Cray it had been left to fester behind houses and large fences; properties that didn’t seem to particularly care about the Cray. And in Crayford itself, the river seemed to be rather forgotten, tucked away behind industrial units, and then lurking at the edge of the playing fields at Hall Place.

Hall Place featured football pitches as far as the eye could see, each one with its own game going on. Men in shorts ran, shouting at each other inspiring comments such as “Go for it!” and “Great save!” or whatever it is that footballers say to each other. Having absolutely zero interest in the game, I really had no idea what was going on.

Hall Place

I was far more interested in taking a short detour to see Hall Place itself. Well the outside anyway. The first part of the former stately home was built in the 16th century by Sir John Champneys; a merchant who became Lord Mayor of London in 1540. But it was another wealthy merchant, Sir Robert Austen, who made the house what it is today. Austen purchased the house in 1649 and set about building an extension in order to double the site of the property.

Most people, when aiming to extend a property that was 200 years old, would probably start by trying to make the new extension match the original style. Either that or re-work the original to match the new. Not Austen who instead simply shoved a new brick built style building at the end of the original 16th century stone structure. The result is a complete mish-mash of architectural styles that looks like it isn’t quite sure what it is.

Under the ownership of the local council, the hall’s gardens have been opened up to the public, with – more importantly for me – public toilets, which finally gave me the chance to wash the bird poo off. The gardens are apparently well known for topiary, the old art of training live plants to form shapes. In Hall Place that doesn’t mean cubes and pyramids, but heraldic animals, although I didn’t actually manage to find them so was denied the privilege of seeing a hedge bear with a shield, or whatever they have there. The rest of the gardens were – not surprisingly – looking rather plain on a cold March Sunday morning and the most I got to enjoy was a display of daffodils.

Football pitches at Hall Place

Back on the LOOP, there were even more football pitches to walk past – this group filled with children playing and being watched by doting parents, none of whom were showing any signs of “competitive Dad syndrome so weren’t shouting obscenities at the ref when their angelic George was sent off for pushing David on the floor. Perhaps they were all too cold to care.

At the A2 the LOOP did a funny little jig, heading up over the road bridge in order to cross the railway, before going down to a subway in order to get under the road itself. And in the middle of the subway sat a teenage girl with a box of fried chicken. It was an odd place to stop to eat. Was this her refuge from something (football perhaps), or all a ruse where she’d reach for her phone as I passed to send a secret message, which would result in me being set upon by two men in hoodies, and robbed of my wallet, phone and a broken camera.

Or perhaps, when it came down to it, she just liked eating fried chicken underneath roads. And who doesn’t? I certainly got under the bridge and into Churchfield Wood completely unmolested anyway.

Churchfield Wood, near Bexley, on the LOOP

After the rough from earlier in the day, the LOOP was now finally beginning to show its smooth side. Churchfield Wood was a tranquil spot, and surprisingly peaceful even with the thundering road noise of the A2. It did have a downside though, for the wood was obviously frequented by several believers in the Dog Poo Fairy.

There can’t have been anyone who hasn’t gone out on a walk who hasn’t seen a little tribute to those mythical creatures. They always take the same form: a small plastic bag, laden with dog poo and left to dangle from a tree branch. Obviously they’re an offering to some deity or other, as else why else would they be left there? After all, no one can be stupid enough to believe that someone is paid to wander round and collect such things to put in the bin, surely? I mean, only a moron would possibly believe that.

St Mary the Virgin Church, Bexley

Bexley was approaching, marked by my arrival outside St Mary’s Church, which notably has a spire that it is a square-based pyramid at the bottom, but switches to be octagonal at the top. Strange design, but it certainly had impact. The town itself appeared to be a pleasant looking spot, full of independent shops, boutiques and restaurants. Although given I spent only a few minutes on its high street, there could have been loads of giant Tescos and Asdas lurking out of view. I could have checked but to be honest, I really didn’t want to shatter my illusions.

There were more playing fields to pass as I headed out of Bexley, these ones owned by the local cricket and hockey clubs, so naturally I wasn’t surprised to see the grass occupied by a small child with a rugby ball. Beyond the sports clubs, the LOOP carried on over a long meadow; plain, suspiciously flat and rather featureless. Did this place have some past life, I wondered as I walked along? It had all the hallmarks – to me anyway – of reclaimed land, although it was hard to know for sure, and my guidebook was curiously silent on the matter.

The River Cray at Foots Cray Meadow

After a brief interlude of houses and a pumping station, I arrived at the gem of the day: the parkland of Foots Cray Meadow, where, for the first time all day, there was not a speck of litter to be seen. I had been shaking my head for most of the morning as I walked past hedges and verges positively stuffed full of cans, bottles and crisp packets. At one point there was a massive piece of fabric, and at another, an empty wrapper for oven chips of all things, which went well with the frozen pizza wrapper I saw a few miles later.

The amount of little in Britain – and London especially – just makes me despair. Have people never heard of bins? Forget Nigel Farage and his claim that immigration is the biggest problem Britain faces. That’s frankly nothing compared to the fact that huge swathes of the population seem to think it’s perfectly acceptable to chuck McDonalds wrappers out of their car window as they zoom along at 70mph. It’s not new of course – London has been pretty scruffy for all the 15 years I’ve lived here – but it’s certainly not getting any better.

Blissfully though, Foots Cray Meadow, was almost entirely litter free. And it was a lovely looking park, with a simple semi-rural look about the place. No fancy ornate gardens, just well maintained grassland with trees and bushes, and the Cray at its heart. To say I was enchanted by the place is perhaps an understatement. This was the complete polar opposite what had greeted me at the start of the day, and certainly made me happy I hadn’t abandoned the whole endeavour back at Slade Green. The LOOP could clearly be beautiful, and when I spotted a bench near the river, I sat down and felt like I was in another world. Only the sounds of children running around reminded me that this was the edge of a large city, rather than a rural idyll.

The Five Arch Bridge at Foots Cray Meadow

Of course, it was all sculpted by man. Foots Cray Meadow sat on the land formerly part of Foots Cray Place and North Cray Place estates, the grounds of latter being designed by one Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Whilst the grand houses of each estate have gone, many aspects of Brown’s work remain, with the most obvious of these is the Five Arch Bridge, a simple but elegant bridge which crosses the Cray and provided a link between the two estates. A local landmark, and the clear focal point of the park, scores of visitors – myself included – took a moment to photograph it, and admire its elegance.

Allotments in Foots Cray, Sidcup

Sidcup. As towns go, it’s one I knew very little about. Thank goodness that that would be rectified by the LOOP passing through the place. Or its outer edges, at least. If it hadn’t, I would never have known that Sidcup has a substantial Coca-Cola factory where 80 bottles a second are filled in a large, grey box-like building near a housing estate.

What other exciting things can be learned about Sidcup, I hear you ask? Well, hold on to your hats as I reveal exclusively here that Sidcup has some allotments. Lots of allotments. I know because the LOOP walked past the edge of them all on its way to another park, again created from the land of a former stately home, Sidcup Place.

The back of Sidcup Place – once a manor house and now a pub

The manor house has, however, managed to survive. First built in 1743, the building remained in residential use until the early 20th century, since when it’s had a mixed career. After several years housing schools, the building became home to Chislehurst and Sidcup Urban District Council, until the council’s area was split between the new boroughs of Bexley and Bromley in 1965. These days it houses a large pub. Well, if you can describe a branch of Brewer’s Fayre as a pub, that is.

The place looked packed; full of diners partaking in Sunday lunch menu, no doubt. My stomach rumbled slightly at the thought of it, but instead I meandered through the building’s former lawns, and off to Frognal Corner.

Now some readers who know London in great detail will, at this point, be pointing out that Frognal is in north London, near Hampstead. And, when push comes to shove, Hampstead is not, in any way, near Sidcup. And they’d be right. Hampstead really is nowhere near Sidcup. So how did they come to share the name? Well if you are looking for answer, you’ll have to head elsewhere because I’ve absolutely no idea. What I can tell you is that Frognal is a lot nicer than Frognal Corner which is, in essence, a large multi-level roundabout where the A20 and the A222 meet.

The A20 at Frognal Roundabout

And what do you do with walkers when you have a large multi-level roundabout where two big, busy roads meet? Why, you force them walk down a succession of ramps and steps, in order to use the network of subways that allow people to walk, or cycle, in relative safety. Down under the A222, back up again to cross over the A20, down again to go under a slip road, and then up once more to finally get where I needed to be. Now I do like a climb every now and then, but generally those on a hill are far more preferable.

Lurking on the other side was Scadbury Nature Reserve; a stretch of woodland with yet another odd name. And no, I don’t know the origins of that one either. All I can tell you is that the name was taken from the 13th century Scadbury Manor, a moated manor house that was finally demolished in the 18th century. There are some remains however, which I dutifully inspected by heading off on a short detour. It was rather difficult to work out exactly what was going on. There were some pillars standing to one side, a set of steps leading nowhere, and a large barn-like building that certainly wasn’t 800 years old. The old moat was there though, and there was even water in it, which also meant I wouldn’t be passing over to the remains for a closer inspection, and instead I headed back to squelch along the reserve’s muddy paths.

Monument in Petts Wood to William Willett, campaigner for the introduction of summer time

More mud, and a crossing of another busy road, and I found myself in the more sedate, less muddy, but rather beautiful Petts Wood, where another detour was in order. This time it was to a monument to William Willett, described as “the untiring advocate of summer time”. That doesn’t mean he really liked popping out and getting a sun tan, but that he was a leading campaigner for putting the clocks forward in the spring, and changing them back in autumn, in order to avoid wasting daylight.

Willet’s idea was not to actually advance by 60 minutes, but by 80, to be done (rather confusingly) in stages every Sunday in April. At the time he estimated the changes would save a whopping £2.5m in lighting costs alone. Willet started his campaign with the publication of an explanatory pamphlet in 1907, although it took until 1916 for the idea to be first implemented when the government implemented it in order to help save coal during the First World War. Willet himself never saw it finally happen as he died the previous year, but his work is remembered by the monument, which features a sundial permanently set to summer time. Oh and the fact that we’re still changing the clocks twice a year as well.

Monument to Francis Eldman and Robert and Francesca Hall, who owned Petts Wood, and who saw it donated to the National Trust.

Petts Wood, on the London LOOP.

The summertime monument wasn’t the only lump of stone lurking in the woods. A short stroll away sat another, dedicated to Francis Eldman and Robert and Francesca Hall, without whom the land wouldn’t have ended up being owned by the National Trust. And from there it was a mere hop, skip and a jump over the railway line and into the attractive 1920s built suburb which takes its name from the woodland; a name ultimately derived from the Pett family who leased the woodland in the 16th century, as a source of timber for their shipbuilding business.

With my day of walking at an end, I was heading to the railway station that is a structure at the heart of the area due to the fact that it was built first, with the housing following after. Not for this place was the railway station an after-thought, shoved in an accessible corner. Instead it’s right at the heart of the high street, just behind a carbuncle of a building from the 1960s that houses the local branch of Morrisons. An ugly start, a pretty ugly end. Well, thank goodness the middle was okay, eh?

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