London LOOP Stage 7: Hatton Cross to Uxbridge

Published 23 March 2016

LOOP waymark sign attached to a Grand Union Canal bridge
LOOP waymark on the Grand Union Canal

The Ulster Way is a circular walking trail that takes you around Northern Ireland. But it’s a bit different to your normal walking route for it’s not a continuous route, but a series of individual walks connected by “link” sections which you’re encouraged to do by public transport. The creators of the trail had recognised that when a walk is based purely on borders and boundaries, there will be some bits that will be a bit naff, and therefore best skipped.

There are times you wish someone had taken a similar approach with the LOOP. After all, London’s public transport network is the best in the country, and could easily be used to connect a series of orbital walks. Gone would be those bits where you have to trudge wearily through housing estates, or along busy main roads where there’s little to see unless you like watching cars hurtling along as fast as you could. Instead you could spend more your time enjoying London’s highlights; the hidden woodlands, the cracking hilltops, the canals, the rivers.

It might even mean you’d never have to go near Hatton Cross.

Alas though the LOOP wasn’t designed like that. And that means you do have to go Hatton Cross, even if, like me, you really don’t want to. Well who would? It’s merely a dual carriageway which is surrounded by bland buildings containing offices, hotels and other airport related stuff As far as I could see, the only redeeming feature about the place is that it’s well served by public transport, so is easy to leave.

But return I needed to do. To do the LOOP you can’t escape it. I had little choice but to start my day marching once more down the A30 so I could up the LOOP back up alongside the River Crane at Crane Bank Water Meadows; a park whose entrance was hidden near a bored looking security guard casually guarding a road barrier on a completely deserted side road.

A bench in Crane Bank Water Meadows
A place to relax in Crane Bank Water Meadows

Being so close to Heathrow, I wasn’t really expecting much from it, so I was pleasantly surprised when Crane Bank Water Meadows proved to be a clean and rather lovely park. There was no litter, the grass was freshly mowed, and there were wild apples and blackberries growing all over the place.

There were also a surprising number of benches, although it wasn’t particularly obvious who sat on them. Perhaps the workers of the nearby British Airways hanger came here for their lunch or something, although I saw no one in the park until I reached its edge at the foot of a suburban housing estate in Cranford.

Now don’t get visions of a BBC One costume drama. This Cranford was a bog standard looking piece of suburbia; roads lined with semi-detached houses with cars parked outside. That kind of thing. The only interesting point came when a lady asked me to help her load a large and heavy metal oxygen canister into the back of her convertible sports car. That was how Cranford rolled.

Glass clad office building overlooks the suburban houses of a road in Cranford.
Cranford’s sinister overlord watches

Despite its location, Cranford managed to escape most of the airport noise, and if there had been a nearby railway station, you could imagine it being a dormitory town for office workers. Although they’d have to get rid of Heathrow House, an incredibly oversized glass class office building that sat on another dual carriageway and that towered over the housing estate, rather ruining the image of quiet suburbia.

It jutted out like a sore thumb, but other parts of Cranford more than made up for it, especially the grassy wilderness of Cranford Park which sits on the former family seat of the Berkeley family. The mansion house, occupied by the family until 1918, is long gone, with the only remains being a stable block and a walled garden. The edge of the park also included the small St Dunstan’s Church, sitting close to the M4, which had split the church off from most of its parishioners when it was built in the 1960s. The planners were, at least, considerate enough to build a subway between them, enabling the locals to get to their place of worship.

Old stable block buildings at Cranford Park
The old stable block – all that remains of the manor house that used to be at Cranford Park

I may have been following the Crane most of the morning, but I hadn’t seen much of it, so there was little mourning when it was time to leave its company. Anyway, one waterway was going to be replaced by another, as the LOOP joined the towpath of the Grand Union Canal.

Running for 137 miles between London and Birmingham, the Grand Union is the longest canal in the country. As its name suggests, it was built as several smaller canals that were later merged together. The section I was now walking alongside was originally the Grand Junction Canal, fully opened in 1805 and combined into the new Grand Union 124 years later

Whilst originally built for the transportation of goods, bicycles now seemed to be the lifeblood of the Grand Union, as shown by the huge, multi-level ramp that allowed cyclists – and me – to go down from the main road to the towpath. No sooner was I stood on it, I was almost immediately passed by a parade of cyclists, impatiently ringing their bells and conveniently forgetting that on towpaths it’s always pedestrians that have priority.

The Grand Union canal near Hayes
Joining the Grand Union at Hayes

Still it was too nice a day to moan. The sun glistened on the water which was mostly untroubled by any vessels, and it wasn’t until I arrived at the town of Hayes that I spotted a narrowboat, with its engine chugging along.

It was gloriously relaxing, and I could have walked along the canal all day, although the LOOP had other ideas. After a mile and a half, it abruptly turned off and went into Stockley Park.

With a name like that you might think it would be a welcome detour, but alas Stockley Park is not a pleasant area of greenery but a a completely different kind of park. For Stockley Park is a business park containing not trees but a plethora of steel and glass clad buildings.

Yes, the LOOP had taken me into office land.

A bus drives through Stockley Park business park.
It’s got a good bus service, but Stockley Park wasn’t quite what I had in mind for the day

There seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason for the visit. My guidebook did its best, but still didn’t really explain. It told me all about the clean-up work that had seen the area converted from a brick works, and later a landfill site, into something clean and sparkly; that companies like Sharp, Marks and Spencer and Apple had opened up offices, attracted by reasonable rents, excellent road links, and frequent bus services. But one fundamental fact remained: I was walking through a business park. And who really wants to do that? True, the LOOP was taking me past ponds and down tree lined paths, however the whole thing was man-made and very artificial.

And to add to it all, I got lost in the place, right next to a golf course. Yes, this business park included a golf club, no doubt so that all the executives have somewhere to meet up on a Friday afternoon to play a few holes whilst their minions slave away in the office.

The LOOP had led me to the foot of the golf course but gave me no indication of where to go next. There was no obvious path over the fairway, and my map gave few clues either. After standing dumbfounded for a few minutes, I took the only possible option and went down the road that led to the clubhouse, and led me right out of the park to a large roundabout and a dual carriageway.

This wasn’t the LOOP, but it was at least recognisable on my map, although with a sigh I realised I was about a quarter of a mile south of the LOOP. Looking at the map, it seemed the LOOP crossed the dual carriageway on a bridge, however gave no indication of the path was accessible from the road. But with no better idea I strolled up to see if someone had included some handy steps into the bridge design.

Stockley Park's large pedestrian bridge over a dual carriageway
The insanely large megabridge of Stockley Park

Had they? Had they bugger. The massive, insanely oversized pedestrian bridge in front of me was completely inaccessible from the pavement on the road. There wasn’t even some unofficial way to get to it, like squeezing through a gap in a hedge. In fact that was completely impossible, as someone had seen fit to erect a six-foot high protective fence around the base of it. Because preventing a lost walker from getting to a bridge from the road below, was clearly that important.

There was just no way to get there. The fences blocked any access, on both sides of the road, as I found out after crossing the road to investigate. There was no way in, and no way out. Someone had clearly spent a lot of time and money making sure people could only access the bridge and the business park by officially sanctioned entry points. And woe betide you if you tried otherwise.

The other side of the road had no pavement, but the rate of the traffic gave me no opportunity to cross back, so I was required to storm angrily down a grass verge instead. At one point the grass verge completely disappeared, giving me little choice but to walk in the road and wrath of impatient motorists. Even when a pavement did appear, I had to climb over to a barrier to get to it.

The irony was that if I had crossed the road on the bridge properly, like the LOOP had intended (by crossing over the golf course I later learned), I would have been taken on a short trip round the more worthwhile part of Stockley Park – a country park area that was devoid of offices and golfers. But thanks to my navigational errors, I’d had to endure all the bad points of the area with absolutely none of the benefits.

I could have tried to find it again, but given my failure so far I took a side street that met up with the LOOP after it had finished swanking around in greenery. Naturally this was also provided me with a lovely tour of industrial units and warehouses. Well, when you’re down, they might as well keep on kicking you.

The former Brickmakers Pub
The Brickmakers pub near Yiewsley – an ex-pub

Still there was something to bring joy to my face as I spotted a pub on a side street. The sturdy looking Brickmakers Arms was mentioned in my guidebook, although that tome was 14 years old and a substantial number of the pubs it mentioned had now closed down. To be honest, I had expected the Brickmakers to be one of them. A small pub tucked in the edge of an industrial park was a prime candidate to be boarded up and empty; even the nearby greasy spoon was closed up with dusty windows and a small ‘To Let’ sign. But from afar the pub appeared to be in reasonable condition, and I decided to cheer myself up with a beer and perhaps some food.

It wasn’t to be. Through its dusty windows I could see that the furniture had been removed, and the bar empty. The pub had indeed ceased to be. And my disappointment was complete.

Still at least this section of the LOOP was leading me marvellous; that detour through office land had all been for something special. Hadn’t it?

Why yes. The towpath of the Grand Union Canal. Those roads, offices, industrial units and – of course – that golf course were all completely unnecessary, adding added little to the proceedings than frustration and tedium. If it had taken me somewhere interesting, then I could have understood. But a detour that merely returned me to the towpath a mile further on from where I’d left it earlier, well that was just plain annoying.

Flats on the side of the Grand Union Canal in Yiewsley
Flats on the side of the Grand Union Canal in Yiewsley

The canal passes by one end of Yiewsley’s high street, and I headed off the LOOP in search for something for lunch; a nice café or a pub that could serve me the pint that the Brickmakers hadn’t been able to. What I found was mostly supermarkets and chicken shops, meaning that I ended up sat on a bench watching a parade of cars and buses go by whilst eating a sandwich from a Greggs-esque bakery called Wenzels which seemed to be the best of the handful of options that Yiewsley could offer.

With little to detail me, it wasn’t long before I rejoined the canal, and then followed the LOOP as it diverted off onto the Grand Union’s branch to Slough. Cut in 1882, this five mile stretch of waterway was one of the last canals to be built in the country, and dug so that bricks could be conveyed easily from nearby brickworks in Langley, for use in the never ending building projects of London.

People fishing on the Slough branch of the Grand Union Canal
Anyone for fishing?

Of course the brickmakers are long gone, but this short branch appeared to have been taken over by anglers. The towpath was full of them. Indeed whole families seemed to have come out for the day to go fishing. Several groups had set up trestle tables and picnic chairs, and two parties had even brought barbecues with them, which filled the canal-side with smoke. What they were cooking I didn’t find out, although it presumably wasn’t a friend of the large and very dead looking fish I spotted floating on the water.

Naturally the LOOP soon bored of canal life, and when an aqueduct carried the canal over the River Colne, it took the opportunity to use it to head along the river instead. This headed past the hidden gem of Little Britain Lakes, before going to the town of Uxbridge, tucked in the North Western corner of Greater London. It was mostly idyllic, tranquil and relaxing, although naturally the highlight was a stretch next to an industrial park where the LOOP was squeezed in between the river and a substantial metal fence.

The River Colne in Cowley
A tree leans enchantingly over the River Colne

The LOOP obviously couldn’t stay away from the canal for too long though, and on the edges of Uxbridge it re-joined the towpath, which was lined with houseboats, mostly moored opposite glass-clad office blocks. I tried to imagine the office workers looking down from their desks at the boats below, perhaps contemplating the freedom of the waterways as they emailed a report to a colleague. And then, for no good reason, I suddenly became fixated with the subject of houseboat water supplies. Here the residents were, surrounded by water they couldn’t use, so where did they get theirs? Did they have to chug their boat up the canal and fill it up, or did someone do deliveries? I simply had no idea.

There wasn’t much time to contemplate this though, as I’d reached the Swan and Bottle pub, which marked the turn off for Uxbridge station.

A look at my watch informed me it was half two; an insane time to be heading home from a walk. But the next railway station on the LOOP was ten miles away; too far to walk. Similarly though, it was a tad too early to go home. So what to do instead? I thought for a moment, and decided. It seemed I was long overdue a beer. The Swan and Bottle seemed to be heaving, but on Uxbridge High Street I came alongside a quieter looking Wetherspoons and went inside.

It was finally time to have that pint.

Narrowboats on the Grand Union Canal at Uxbridge
Canalside living on the Grand Union at Uxbridge

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