London LOOP Stage 8: Uxbridge to Hatch End

Published 6 April 2016

Denham Lock on the Grand Union Canal
Denham Lock on the Grand Union Canal

A few days earlier I’d spent a day alongside the sea walking part of the Fife Coastal Path; a 117 mile walking route whose name says pretty much what it does on the tin. Now I was stood next to a canal in the northwestern tip of Greater London about to spend another day walking the LOOP. To be honest, I knew where I’d rather have been.

That’s not a slight on Uxbridge; it’s a perfectly functional town. But fine as it is, the Grand Union Canal is no competition for the rugged coastline around St Andrews. Mind you, the canal towpath was significantly less muddy.

Uxbridge was far less rural too, although my walk to Hatch End would prove to be one of the least urban sections of the LOOP that I’d walk. That said, it did take the trail some time to escape the town. The offices and housing went soon enough, however the houseboats that lined the canal went on for some time. There were rows and rows of them all moored up, in a variety of states. Some appeared shiny and lovingly maintained, whilst others were more ramshackle, perhaps providing cheaper lodgings for those struggling to afford London’s insane housing costs.

Old bridge crossing the Grand Union Canal, with metal slats on the ramp.
Metal slats remain on this bridge over the Grand Union, presumably where there to give horses a good grip when using it.

The LOOP stuck rigidly to the canal’s towpath, following it as it switched from one side of the canal to the other on bridges had clearly been around for many years. Bridges like the narrow one at Denham Quarry, equipped with metal rods in the ground to provide grip to the packhorses as they climbed the steep slopes.

The bridge led to a large pond on the other side, where the old quarry had been opened up as a nature reserve; the kind of place where trees grow and birds tweet; that kind of thing. The lake had been formed by filling in the quarry with water, allowing ducks and geese to populate it and swim in the rain.

Ah yes. The rain. It had been soggy all morning, but at the quarry things got so bad that I even ended up putting on my waterproof trousers.

I’d known the weather wouldn’t be amazing before I went out; the forecast being a bit grim for the morning before brightening up later. In an ideal world I would have stayed at home and curled in front of the fire; not that my house actually has a fire, but we are talking about an ideal world here. However the day was one of those rare ones when I actually had the time to go out for a walk, and no way was a little rain going to stop me. But at Denham Quarry the promised light showers turned into a heavy downpour, and it was clear I’d need to dress accordingly, even if the notion of wearing waterproof trousers whilst still in Greater London seemed completely wrong.

Lake in the former Denham Quarry
Lake in the former Denham Quarry

Waterproofs on, I followed the LOOP along a car wide track, a respectful distance from the canal, idly watching the ducks bobbing on the lake surface, and at one point, moving to let two cars past. The track didn’t particularly look like a road, and didn’t seem to go anywhere useful, but I assumed the drivers knew more than me. That assumption was challenged a few minutes later when I discovered one had turned round and was now creeping up behind me.

I found a convenient spot to let them pass, only to see them pull over a short way along the road ahead of me. Now call me paranoid, but this seemed rather suspicious. I cast a cautious eye behind me, wondering if the other car would also creep up; did they want to get me in a pincer movement, trapping me between them for whatever reason.

The more rational part of me did counter this with the view that they were probably just answering a phone call or something, but it didn’t stop me nervously peering over my shoulder. And sure enough when the other car did finally pass some ten minutes later, the first car was long gone.

A drooping 'Stop HS2' banner near some tables
Every garden should feature a large protest banner as a backdrop for the table and chairs.

Someone at Denham Marina clearly wasn’t a happy bunny.

“HS2 crosses here,” screamed a worn and weather-beaten poster, whilst a large banner directed towards the marina’s users asked the question “Enjoy this view?”

I turned around to look at this apparent beauty spot and saw a rather mundane lake surrounded by trees, and contemplated that, if the design was good, a railway bridge might actually enhance the view a little.

The Grand Union towpath too had signs of disgruntlement. One house had a “Stop HS2” banner at the end of their garden fence, under which the owners had chosen to place a table and set of chairs. I had visions of an angry homeowner shouting “Come, Martha! We will drink our tea in the garden sitting under the sign telling the world we don’t want that railway! That will show those fat cats in Westminster we mean business!”

Of course the chances of the railway now being stopped is almost zero, and revised plans, lost legal battles and increased compensation packages mean most have abandoned their attempts to stop the HS2 railway line coming through the area. Not that everyone had got the memo though, that much was clear.

The irony too that those householders were protesting from the banks the Grand Union Canal, was also not lost on me. The idyllic waterway at the end of their garden was man-made, constructed with the hard work of hundreds of navies. It wasn’t built for recreation but to transport goods across the country; you could easily argue that building the canal in the 19th century was equivalent to building the railway that people were campaigning against now.

Teddy bear wearing a monocle, on the Barge pub sign
A bear with a monocle? Madness.

I’d returned to the canal by the ‘Bear on the Barge’ pub, which had a pub sign featuring a teddy bear with a monocle, holding a small narrowboat. Had the sign painter read the pub name as ‘Barge on a Bear’ I wondered? And if so, why had no one corrected them?

Shockingly the Bear on the Barge isn’t the pub’s original name; the pub was opened in 1937 with a far less cutesy, whimsical and (perhaps) annoying names. For most of its life it was called the Horse and Barge, far more in keeping with its canal-side location. But now it had been thoroughly re-branded, with a huge outdoor playground suggesting the pub was keener on families driving to the place, than canal users.

Relying on passing boating trade probably wouldn’t have the best of business moves though. I only saw one narrowboat actually going anywhere, which I encountered at Widewater Lock. Having left the lock, the boat seemed to follow me at a discrete distance, roughly matching my own walking speed. Were the occupants trying to keep my eye on me? Were they friends of the owners of the cars who had followed me near Denham? And if you think I’m losing it, consider this: when I stopped at a bench near some houses, the boat stopped a short distance away too. Well what would you think?

Narrowboat on the Grand Union Canal
Are you following me?

True, there are fundamental flaws with trying to stalk someone by narrowboat, the most obvious of which is that if the person you’re walking leaves the canal, you’re screwed. And at West Hyde, the LOOP did just that and all the boat could do was merrily chug along without me. I was now free, free, free I tell you! Free to wander through woods and along the edges of fields, squelching in mud, without getting this strange feeling that someone was watching me.

I’d lost my tail, and the LOOP was completely deserted. Even when I walked through Hill End, there was not a soul to be seen. So quiet was it that the village pub had long closed, and the nursery that then took over the building had also gone too; the only remnant being a series of brightly painted walls viewable through the windows.

More welcoming was the sight of the Rose and Crown on the edges of Rickmansworth, whose local customer based seemed to be a few houses and an industrial park that had been rather randomly placed there. It looked enticing; the inside all warm and cosy, whilst climbing plants made their way up the external walls and up over the roof. It gave every impression of being the kind of pub that if I went in, I’d never leave, and that wouldn’t help me get to Hatch End.

Instead I wistfully looked at the pub, and then wandered the damp fields of Bishop’s Wood Country Park where I sat on a log to eat a sandwich. And who can seriously say they’d rather choose a pub lunch and a pint, over that option.

Trees and a bench in Bishops Wood
A bench in Bishop’s Wood makes a lovely resting place

Initially the LOOP followed a wide path through this ancient piece of woodland, but soon gave up and diverted off along a series of winding, narrow narrower trails through the trees. A few weeks earlier and I would have been walking through a woodland whose floor would have been full of gold and red leaves, which would no doubt have been a splendid sight, but alas I was too late to enjoy it all. A few trees were still displaying their end-of-year finery, but most were on the ground and had faded to a murky brown as the woodland prepared for winter.

The path led me through the woods, , popping out of the trees on the outskirts of Moor Park near the substantially sized Ye Olde Greene Man public house, whose car park suggested a lot of people had driven there for Friday lunch. Another pub stood slightly further down the road. The Prince of Wales was in a fine looking 19th century building, with an impressive flint roof, but with curtains drawn over dusty looking windows, the door firmly bolted and a deserted car park, it gave the impression that the place had ceased to be. Only when I got near to the front door did I discover that the pub didn’t open until 2:30pm, which seemed a rather unusual opening time given it would miss the lunchtime rush. Although this was no foodie heaven as a small sing in the window announced. For the pub’s main attraction wasn’t food, and probably not even beer. No, it was “exotic dancing”.

It’s not a unique concept. There are other pubs out there going down this ‘niche’, but the location seemed frankly strange. Most appear to be located in slightly run-down town centres, not somewhere like this semi-rural location. In a news article about the place that I read later, the landlord proclaimed “we’ve tried everything else and this is the only thing that works.” It was a comment that barely seemed believable given how full its neighbours car park was, but then perhaps it was the Ye Olde Greene Manne that was missing a trick…

Barrier across the road at Moor Park
Moor Park – no cars please

I once watched a 1973 documentary by Sir John Betjeman called Metro-Land where the famous poet took a journey along London Underground’s Metropolitan Line, and looked at the houses that had been built alongside the railway. One of those included was Moor Park, a large estate of large suburban homes, unusually connected together by a network of private roads. I couldn’t tell you much else that Betjeman covered in that film, but I do recall it showing cars trying to enter to the Moor Park estate, and many being turned away by a hatted official whose role it was to only allow residents to enter, rather than those wanting to use it as a cut-through.

There was no official to be seen as the LOOP entered Moor Park, although a large red barrier had been placed over the road. Not that anyone was likely to be cutting through. I presumed that once there had been access to the estate from the busy Batchworth Lane, but now the ‘public’ side of the barrier was merely a small turning circle leaving the barrier looking rather redundant.

As I walked through, I stared at the array of Moor Park’s grand houses, which no doubt came with a substantial price tag. If you’ve a couple of million pounds to spend on a five-bedroom house in a rather exclusive development, this could be the place for you. After my eyes had popped out at all the sheer wealth I was seeing, the LOOP led me first along the edges of Sandy Lodge Golf Course, and then through the middle of it, along a well-marked path designed to ensure no stray walkers would end up on the fairway.

A tree lined path in Oxhey Wood
Oxhey Wood

Then it was into Oxhey Wood, another of those large historic woodlands that exist in surprisingly large quantities around the capital. Parts of it date back to the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. True, no trees would have lasted that long, but the woodland is a bit like the tale of Trigger’s broom from TV sitcom, Only Fools and Horses. The individual component trees have come and gone, but Oxhey Wood remains.

In the right weather, walking in woodland can be enchanting. Walking along as the sun shines brightly through the branches, admiring the wild flowers that line the floor is a fine way to spend an afternoon. And in such conditions, Oxhey Wood is no doubt a splendid place to be. Shame then that the weather made it dark and gloomy, that the ground was damp and muddy, and that the trees felt enclosing and oppressive. To me, on that day, Oxhey Wood felt rather dreary and depressing. I’m sorry Oxhey Woods. I wanted to like you more than I did, but sadly all I wanted to do was get out of there as quickly as possible. And I did my uttermost in order to do so.

And so to Hatch End, through a series of lush and verdant green looking fields. My mood instantly cheered now I was no longer was I trapped and encircled by trees; now that I could see the sky, and ahead of me.

Signpost in a field at Hatch End
The green fields of Hatch End

Then at the edge of a large housing estate, I came to the end of my day’s walking. Stamping my boots on the pavement in a vain attempt to dislodge the huge wodges of mud that clung to the soles, I headed towards Hatch End’s commercial district and up to the railway station from which I would be whisked to Central London and then back home.

Another day on the LOOP was done. A day with waterways, rain, and woods. Golf courses, housing estates and mud. All in all, a pretty standard day on the LOOP? Well in some respects, probably yes. Although the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this section of the LOOP did have something unique in all that I’d walked so far.

Yes, this had been the only part of the London LOOP I’d been on to offer me the option of exotic dancers with my pint.

I could only hope it would be the last.

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