London LOOP Stage 3: Petts Wood to Hayes

Published 15 July 2015

Tal walking down Bogey Lane on the London LOOP

“I don’t think they should be allowed to sign on if they’re single. They’ve no children to support. They can just get a job. It’s easy. Lazy sods.”

“She’s all heart, isn’t she?” I muttered to Tal as we got off the train at Petts Wood, and watched as a rather loud and obnoxious middle-aged woman stormed past, shouting into her phone.

There was little doubt she had no time for ‘scroungers’ getting any of her tax money. I wondered how many times she’d had to “just get a job.” How easy she’d had it when unemployed with no one seemingly wanting your skills. Whether she’d ever looked at her bank account and seen next to nothing in it, with days to go before the next batch of Job Seekers Allowance was paid, knowing that her electricity bill was due and there was no money left to pay for it and something to eat. Somehow I had this feeling that she never had. I sometimes wonder those people who come out with such statements have ever had to spend three months living on next to no money – living in a squalid studio flat, and with no cash to spare – whether they’d still be so keen to demonise those on benefits. Sadly though, I had a feeling such views would barely change, even if they had.

It was depressing listening to her moan, demonise and insult people in such a way. And I couldn’t wait to get out of the station, and get us away from her. With relief I noted she was heading for the other station exit, and we wouldn’t be required to walk down the main street with her; that Petts Wood’s tranquillity would not be further spoiled.

“Great!” I said loudly, doing my best to put her out of my mind. “Right, we go this way!”

Road sign for Tent Peg Lane

We’d almost not made it to Petts Wood at all. We’d been discussing meeting up for a walk, but as the week went on, the weather forecast for the appointed day – Good Friday as it happened – changed slowly, progressing from sunny intervals, to showers, and all the way down to heavy rain. The night before we’d pretty much abandoned all thoughts of heading out, yet as I woke up, there was something about the sun shining through the bedroom window that made me reach for my mobile phone and check the weather forecast.

“Cloudy,” said BBC Weather. And that was good enough for me. Within minutes we’d arranged to meet up at the tube station, and not long after were wandering towards the curiously named ‘Tent Peg Lane’ where Tal would get his first, proper introduction to the LOOP, in the Jubilee Country Park

“It’s not all as green as this,” I explained, trying to set some expectations based on previous LOOP sections.

The LOOP took that moment to agree with me, sending us out of the park and down a suburban housing estate whose street names of Laburnum Way, Birch Row and Almond Close gave a hint of what may have occupied the land before with was covered with brick and tarmac.

Crofton Wood

And then the road ended, and the trees themselves appeared. There were no almonds, and probably no aburnum either, although as I wasn’t exactly sure what a laburnum looked like, it was hard to know for sure. There were trees though, and the woodlands of Sparrow Wood (and those of adjoining Crofton Wood) did offer plenty of mud as well. Whilst there was no rain forecast for us, it had been far from dry on the week before and the results were noticeable. We squelched and slurped our way along, seeking out what little bits of dry track could be found, all to a soundtrack of parakeets who were by far the wood’s most noisy inhabitants. The woods may have a name that links them to a small brown bird, however a flock of green ones had clearly adopted it as their home, just as they had done in countless parks and woods in London. Though their origins are unclear, the capital is now home to thousands of the things, and their squawking and squeaking would provide a familiar soundtrack for much of the day.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that there are hills in Greater London. True, they’re not as big and imposing as those in, say, the South Downs, or the Lake District. However they are there, lurking around and hidden in corners. On the edge of Farnborough we found one. That’s Farnborough in Bromley, and not the spot in Hampshire where they host an annual air show. We hadn’t walked that far, after all.

Whilst it may not be particularly suitable for watching aircraft from, Farnborough (London) does have a hill though. Indeed, that’s how the place got its name, with the modern version being ultimately derived from Fearnbiorginga, which basically means ‘village among the ferns on the hill.’ There weren’t many ferns to be seen, but from the top of a set of playing fields, we could certainly get a good view of the local area.

Farnborough village

Farnborough itself had a distinct village feel, almost rural in some respects, although the number of rural villages have businesses declaring themselves to be “Leaders in Personal Change” above their front door, is generally pretty small. Part of the reason for Farnborough feeling distinctly un-suburban is that is contained; bounded on the south side by fields, woods and parklands, amongst which you can even find the village church. As we followed the LOOP through the churchyard, parishioners streamed out of the Good Friday morning service, chatting happily to each other and the vicar, although notably ignoring two interlopers wearing hiking boots. There wasn’t much chance of us getting invited in for a hot cross bun given that reaction.

Just outside the village lay one of the reasons why the houses hadn’t spread south of the village; the 250 acres of High Elms Park. Telling a familiar story, repeated ever so often throughout London, the site had once been occupied by a manor house, which eventually found its way into council ownership. Whilst the house itself burned down in 1967, the land it sat on is now a park and nature reserve; an endearing mix of woodland, chalk meadows and formal gardens which the LOOP went straight through. An Easter Egg hunt was in full swing, and the mown grass lawns were filled by small children seeking egg shaped pieces of cardboard hidden in immaculately clipped bushes and hedges.

The gardens of High Elms Park

If they had ventured out of the park, I can’t imagine what they would have made of “Bogey Lane”. I’m sure it wouldn’t have caused any amusement now, just as I’m certainly not trying to resist a guffaw as I write these words now. Bogey, as I’m sure its friends call it, was a narrow dirt track next to some farmland. Yes, some farmland. Through the hedges we could peer through to see fields of crops.

“That’s still Greater London,” I remarked to Tal as we admired this green and pleasant land, several miles away from the county border. “And to think some people shout loudly that ‘Britain is full’.”

A few days later I posted a photograph of the view on Twitter, with a comment following pretty much the same sentiment. Someone politely replied to me that this was the green belt; a way of preventing urban sprawl. And there’s no denying that. But it didn’t really meet my point for if Britain was truly full – as is so often claimed – like some people proclaim very loudly that it is – greenbelt would have been sacrificed years ago by sheer necessity. If the country was struggling to cope with the number of people living in it, there would be simply be no choice. Greenbelt would be gone, paved over by tarmac and concrete. The land here would not be used for farming, but for the necessary housing, roads and railway lines. The growing of crops in several square miles of the Greater London county – the largest metropolis in the United Kingdom – would certainly not be allowed

Farmland near High Elms

In 2014 the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics released a report that stated that the greenbelt land in the county of Greater London alone would provide – if someone gave permission for them to be built – enough land for 1.6m houses built to an average population density. Not high-rises, but standard suburbs. The same report revealed that 2.65% of the county of Surrey – not far from where we were now standing – was dedicated to golf courses, and that these same golf courses occupied more land in the county, than housing did.

Yeah, Britain’s full all right.

Of course if all the land we surveyed had been built on, the Loop would be a rather different walk. When you live in London it’s often easy to think of the place as just being full of houses, traffic and people. Yet as the Loop was reminding me, there is plenty of greenery too. And amongst all these fields and woods, there’s even a bit of history.

The remains of the Wilberforce Oak tree

History such as the Wilberforce Oak; one of the few trees to have been host to a major historical event. It was under the tree’s branches in 1787, that one William Wilberforce had a conversation with then prime minister, William Pitt the Younger. The entry in his diary about it, reproduced on a stone bench at the spot, simply said:

“At length, I well remember after a conversation with Mr. Pitt in the open air at the root of an old tree at Holwood, just above the steep descent into the vale of Keston, I resolved to give notice on a fit occasion in the House of Commons of my intention to bring forward the abolition of the slave-trade.”

The world doesn’t always move as quickly as one man’s thoughts and resolutions and it would be another twenty years before Wilberforce’s act was finally passed in Parliament, and slavery itself wasn’t abolished until 1833, not long after Wilberforce died. But this was where the journey to abolish slavery began. The oak tree isn’t much to look at now; just the hollow remains of an old oak, stood near the remains of another tree which was struck by lightning. A replacement tree was planted in 1969 using acorns from the original, although storms put paid to it in 1987. However another sapling – a third generation as it were – was planted, and grows next to its relatives. And no doubt, there will continue to be an oak tree on the site for centuries to come.

A little way away was Keston Ponds. The two small lakes sit at the source of the River Ravensbourne, which bubbles up from a spot called Caesar’s Well a few metres away from one of the ponds. From that little spot, the river starts its eleven-mile river starts its journey towards the Thames, although if you didn’t know that, you’d probably think little of the place where it all begins.

Caesar’s Well – source of the River Ravensbourne

The source simply and silently arises out of the ground without fanfare, the water filling an area which has been neatly surrounded by a a circle of bricks, before flowing off down a small channel to the first pond. No dramatic bubbling, just water gently going about its business. Yet whilst it might not have been the world’s most visually amazing sight to see, there was something enticing about the place, and despite being hungry and ready for our lunches, we lingered around watching this little bit of nature, do its thing as it has no doubt be doing for millennia.

When it had come to pubs, the LOOP had so far been a bit of a disappointment. Several of the ones in my guidebook had been either converted to other uses, or simply demolished. Those that remained were mostly chain pubs with large car parks and screaming kids. Which is why I wasn’t holding out much hope of anything more than being handed a plastic menu for some plastic food in a plastic pub from our proposed lunch stop in the village of Keston.

Thankfully though, the Fox Inn proved to be an absolute gem of a place, and it wasn’t long after being handed the simple menu that we were absolutely drooling over its contents, and so good did it all sound that we swiftly decided a starter would be in order as well.

The Fox Inn pub in Keston

“The turkey and bacon burger special is amazing,” we were told by a member of staff, as I umm-ed and ahh-ed over my main course. I paused for a moment, slightly confused by the concept, before deciding to challenge their conviction. But I could not. It truly was awesome, swiftly leaving me wishing I had room for another one. And yes it was a proper burger; a patty made of turkey mince and bacon pieces.

The place was busy, the staff friendly, the food wonderful and the ale divine. We could easily have spent the entire afternoon there, if only we hadn’t a train station to walk to. With the bill paid, and the last dregs of beer hitting the lips, we reluctantly headed to the door.

The town of Hayes was our destination, barely two miles away along a path that took us on the edge of Hayes Common that covers 79 hectares, and is one of the largest areas of common land in Greater London. Much of it’s covered with trees, and crossed by a couple of main roads which provided a soundtrack to our walk as we crept through it. And then, there we were, stood at the edge of the common, and at the point where it was time to leave the trail and follow the link path to the station down alleyways behind houses and schools.

The entrance to Hayes station

A squat, single story railway station greeted us, as we entered what is officially known as “Hayes (Kent)” station, in order to prevent confusion with Hayes and Harlington station on the other side of the capital; the Kent suffix a hangover from the days when Kent’s borders were a little closer to the City of London than they are now. That era ended 50 years ago when the county of Greater London was created, yet some names die hard.

But whilst Kent had been forced to retreat, the day had been a reminder – if there ever was one – that London’s a mixed bag. Stations, like the one I stood at now, had enabled housing to creep out ever further from the centre, yet despite that there was still room for houses, for woods, plenty of commons, wildlife and even provide land for growing food as well.

London. It’s certainly one hell of a city.

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