THIS PENULTIMATE SECTION OF THE LONDON COUNTRYWAY is also the shortest, at a mere 9km, and nearly all of it is through a single magnificent park, Thorndon Country Park south of Brentwood, in Thames Chase Community Forest. Before that there are more fingers of woodland surviving surprisingly close to Brentwood town centre. Near the end, there’s a fine view towards the Thames estuary and a real sense, as the route descends from the ridge onto the flat, damp land between here and Tilbury, of drawing near to our final destination.
South of Brentwood station and through side streets, the surroundings quickly turn residential, but reminders of the Forest of Essex are surprisingly near the surface if you know where to look. My route finds an extra fragment that the original London Countryway either missed or couldn’t access – the little documented Hambden Wood. The area to the south of the railway was once part of the parish of Warley, and this northern stretch was common land until the 1880s. The streets we’ve been following were developed in the 1850s as homes for staff of a psychiatric hospital in South Weald, but the little patch of woodland has survived, and is now managed by Brentwood council. The paths show signs of recent improvement and are popular with local dog walkers. The route arrives at Woodman Road where, just a little to the right on the south side, a photographic factory stood from 1903 until the early 1980s, stimulating further house building. The factory was originally a branch of the Ilford company, named after the Essex town (now part of Greater London) in which it was founded; it was also known locally as the Selo factory as between 1921-46 it was home to a research and development consortium by that name operated by Ilford and several partners.
Thames Chase Community Forest
Thames Chase Community Forest, which the route doesn’t leave until well into the next section. This is one of two Community Forests in the London area and the second on the Countryway, following Watling Chase which the route passed through between Lemsford and Welham Green. Both also edge into London boroughs, creating green links into the capital itself – but this is the last such major managed green space on the route.
In deliberately evoking the area’s historic use as a hunting forest alongside the notion of ‘community’, the name ‘Thames Chase Community Forest’ suggests that this is the Forest of Essex reborn in a new role serving everyone’s needs, a multipurpose zone in which economic benefit, biodiversity and recreation coexist in a contemporary spirit of egalitarianism. It’s not just about trees, though trees are an important part of it, and it’s no surprise that one of the two founding partners of community forests back in the late 1980s was government agency the Forestry Commission – the other was the equally governmental Countryside Commission, now succeeded by Natural England. The period was the fag-end of Thatcherism but turned out to be the beginning of a brief golden age for outdoor access, which ended up giving us the Thames Path and three other new national trails, the Walk London network of strategic paths, Walking for Health, the National Cycle Network, four new national parks and rights of access to open country as well as community forests. State agencies were still funded and empowered to implement initiatives from the top down on a grand scale, but with a growing sensitivity to the need for accountability, consultation and user involvement. So it was that local environmental campaigner Ann Bartleet, now chair of the Thames Chase Trust, received a call from the Countryside Commission in 1989 “to ask if I would stop talking to landfill operators about planting a couple of dozen trees…[as] the Commission had in mind to plant five million trees!”
Thames Chase, one of 12 community forests in England, was designated in 1990 over almost 100 km2 of green belt, brownfield sites and derelict land in the London Boroughs of Barking & Dagenham, and Havering, and the Essex districts of Brentwood and Thurrock (the last now a unitary authority), with a remit to increase tree cover in the area from 4% to 30% over 40 years as well as improving access, recreation and conditions for wildlife. Looking at the map, you can see that one of the challenges it faced was the scattered shape of the forest area, which wraps around the sprawling east London suburb of Romford in a highly irregular spiral, with the sliver of green belt land along the Ingrebourne valley in the west, locked into London in the 1940s, curving by the thinnest of necks into the much fatter wedges of countryside and open spaces on the Essex side, then narrowing again in an attempt to peck apart Romford and Upminster. The position of Romford on forest maps suggests that popular cliché, ‘the elephant in the room’ – it’s a large and conspicuous absence right at the heart of the green space. The path that’s due to link all this up, the Forest Circle, somehow needs to bridge the top of this gap, so it’s perhaps not surprising that, over halfway through the intended lifecycle of the project, it remains uncompleted.
The Forest Circle is by no means the only uncompleted project. In the beginning there was central government money, staff, a new forest centre and glossy promotional materials. But even in the mid-2000s, under Tony Blair’s New Labour, government sentiments were starting to turn against such centrally resourced and directed projects and in favour of local decision making and ‘partnership’ with the voluntary and commercial sectors. That trend accelerated rapidly following the recession and the ‘age of austerity’, with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition promising to light the “bonfire of the quangos” and lecturing us all about the Big Society and all being in it together – fine sounding in theory but in practice, some would say, a cynical means of dumping the consequences of the failure of the banking system and cuts in public services onto councils, charities and volunteers. Even with a remit that included the promotion of commercial forestry, the community forests have faced major challenges in this new atmosphere, and some of the original dozen haven’t stayed the course.
The London pair have faced the additional challenge of changes in the capital’s governance. They were founded in the interregnum in London-wide government following Margaret Thatcher’s spiteful abolition of the Greater London Council, when national bodies were freer to intervene across a broad swathe of the city’s hinterland, as they had been in the post-1945 heyday of top down planning in the region. But since 2000, London boroughs have a new centre of gravity, and a source of funding, in the Mayor of London and other new cross-London institutions, and many of the objectives of the community forests have been absorbed by London-wide plans and strategies such as the Green Grid. This complicates partnership projects involving both London boroughs and extramural local authorities without those lines of support and accountability.
When the government money ran out, Thames Chase became dependent on its local councils both for funding and for implementation, and the result was the creation of the Thames Chase Trust, an independent charity that would be better placed to access other funds as well as to involve volunteers. But projects like this can’t be delivered by volunteers alone, and in 2011 the project was almost killed when the councils threatened to withdraw their funding. In the event, Essex County Council, Thurrock Council and the London Borough of Havering dipped into their pockets to keep things ticking over, but with a viciously slashed budget. The other councils, and the Forestry Commission, continue to support the Forest through planning and their management of some of its land, but the days of glossy leaflets are long gone, and the Trust is now managed almost entirely by volunteers. Over halfway through the projected life of the project, over 2million trees have been planted, and woodland cover has doubled to 8%, but still a long way short of the target 30%.
Nonetheless in 2013 the Trust boldly launched the third iteration of the Forest Plan, a document that bears some close reading between the lines. Bartleet notes in her foreword that the plan responds to changing circumstances, taking “account of climate change, the importance of ‘green growth’ to create new jobs, the notion of a civil society and smaller government, the emerging importance of exercise and time spent outdoors as part of a healthy lifestyle…none of [which] were as well understood nor promoted 20 years ago.” A disturbingly large number of individual projects identified in the document are labelled “not yet funded.” And I wonder too whether there’s a rueful subtext in the plan’s reminder of how the Forest area has often suffered as a result of London’s growth.
When the…project was first established…the land within its boundaries had suffered continuously over the last 200 years or so from the effects of being very close to a major conurbation. Ever since the 17th century, Essex, which then included modern day Havering and Barking and Dagenham, has been the repository of much that London did not want. From antisocial commercial activities, such as tanneries and slaughterhouses established as early as the 17th century to the dumping of London’s waste on the marshes, the countryside in this part of the world has been eroded to serve the needs of an ever growing urban population. Perhaps the most damaging activity of all in more recent times has been the extraction of gravel and subsequent use of the holes in the ground left behind as a repository for London’s waste (Thames Chase Trust 2013, The Thames Chase Plan: Consultation draft).
The message is that London owes this area much, yet with the exception of a measly few thousand from a single London borough, the debt repayments are now way behind. Meanwhile the impact of London, and the continuing need for breathing spaces, can only grow. Just south of the Forest area, a 70 km strip of land along the Thames from the Isle of Dogs to Southend has been designated since the late 1990s as the Thames Gateway regeneration area. Stratford, a short train ride from Brentwood, already has the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Stratford City developments – a new urban quarter on a scale, as London Mayor Boris Johnson is fond of saying, that hasn’t been seen in the capital since Georgian times. A massive new London Gateway port is being built on the site of the old Shell Haven in Thurrock, while the post-war new town of Basildon, not far away, is also expanding. Let’s hope that, as the economic dust of the last few years settles, the Forest project will get a second wind.
Thorndon Park is one of its jewels. As with Weald Park on the other side of Brentwood, it has its roots in an ancient manor, West Horndon – the modern town of this name is today’s destination, and the names are etymologically related. After the Norman conquest it was held by the Sweyn of Essex, Robert FiztWimarc, who occupied the first Thorndon Hall in the southern part of the current park. The first deer park was created during the reign of Henry V (1413-22). The longest standing occupants, with the most influence on the current layout of the park, were the Petre family, another rich and powerful family in the area who stayed loyal to Roman Catholicism. They bought the estate in 1573 and still retain an interest in part of it today.
Robert Petre (1713-42), the 8th baron, was a keen botanist and populated the grounds with exotic species, growing the first camellias in Britain, as well as cultivating pineapples, bananas, guavas and papayas under glass. His grand plans to remodel the house and grounds in Venetian style were aborted by a smallpox epidemic. His son abandoned the old hall and built a new one higher up the slope, designed in Palladian style by the architect James Paine, which still stands to the northeast of the public park. At the same time the grounds were remodelled by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the foremost landscape architect of his day, and some of his work is still visible.
By the 1920s the Petre family had fallen on hard times, and the house and grounds were leased to a golf club with the intention of converting it into a luxury resort, an ambition eventually thwarted by recession, war and the Green Belt. After World War II part of the grounds became the less grandiose golf course that still operates today, while most of the rest was designated as a public park. The house was converted to luxury flats in the late 1970s. The country park incorporates the adjoining woodland of Hartswood, an ancient woodland with records dating back to the 7th century when it was owned by Barking Abbey. Together with parts of the country park, the remaining sections of Warley Common and adjoining areas, this is now designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest thanks to its mix of environments and wildlife, including rare species of beetles and flowers like lily of the valley. There are various different managers across the site including Essex County Council, Brentwood Council, the Essex Wildlife Trust and the Woodland Trust.
Hartswood that the Countryway first enters the park, on very well defined footpaths, some of which are wheelchair accessible. The path emerges at one of the original grand entrances, the Lion Gate, with its stone leonine guardians now looking placidly on as the public at large wander in. This is one of two distinct sections of the park, Thorndon Park North, laid out around the later, 18th century house, and the route follows what was once the main drive for a while – the woodland on the right is a surviving part of Little Warley Common. Further along the drive is the Countryside Centre and café operated by the Wildlife Trust, well worth a look for its wood carvings as well as its refreshments and information.
Then the private grounds of the hall prevent further progress in the same direction, and the route bends right. A little further and slightly off the trail on the left is the Petre Chapel, a private chapel built in Gothic style from Kentish ragstone for the family in 1857 and sometimes misattributed to Augustus Pugin but actually designed by his friend William Wardell, best known for St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Australia. Following decades of neglect and vandalism, in 2010 it was donated by the family to the Historic Chapels Trust and is being slowly restored, but currently can only be viewed from a distance.
The Old Park, currently in the process of being rewooded by the Woodland Trust. The Countryway runs past the Menagerie Plantation, a site of previous woodland planting, and the original deer park to the placid Old Hall Pond, a remnant of Capability Brown’s remodelling. The pond is fed by a spring that’s also a source of one of the numerous streams that feed the Mardyke, the next important Thames tributary east, and there are several sources of another Mardyke stream off-route in the northwest of the park. I’ll have more to say about the river in the next section.
At the southwest corner of the pond, a gap in the hedge leads out into a field and just to the left is the site of the original house, and the church that stood nearby. From here you could continue directly south on a field edge path to West Horndon, making the section shorter still and avoiding the need to walk a length of the busy A127, but there are several features that justify my recommended route around three sides of a rectangle.
First, a little east of the pond, is another Brown legacy, Octagon Wood, a curiously small and fussy woodland interrupting the path. On the other side, walk to the south of the splendidly placed Pavilion Café, its shape echoing the woodland, for what is arguably the highlight of this section and the feature that above all underlines how close we now are to completing our circuit – a wide and uninterrupted view across the Thames estuary. The plain of London clay on which we’ve been walking since crossing the river Roding in the last section falls away to the flat expanse of an extensive flood plain, peppered with occasional hills. In the distance is the cluster of industry and dockland around Tilbury, then – though not clearly visible – the river itself, and beyond is Kent, with the North Downs a prominent smudge on the horizon. Take time to gaze, as this is your destination.
All Saints Church and the A127
Leaving the park through a car park, the Countryway arrives at what’s now a quiet country lane but was once the main A128 road linking Tilbury with Ongar. In the 1970s the road was diverted onto a wider stretch of carriageway further east, and you can see and hear the traffic on this as you emerge from the park. Marooned on a grassy hillock between the old and new roads is All Saints Church, East Horndon, an attractive little red brick building that largely dates from the period of the Wars of the Roses in the late 15th century, although there was an earlier church on the site. Following 19th century neglect and 20th century bomb damage, vandalism and looting, the church was declared redundant in 1970. A local campaign ensured it was taken over by the Redundant Churches Fund, now the Churches Conservation Trust, and restored – it’s now open for occasional music performances and weddings, and for viewing on summer Saturdays or by asking for the key at the Halfway House below. Approached along an alluring footpath, the overgrown churchyard is atmospheric and also offers a splendid view.
From near the church a rather neglected path winds down to the main road, a not especially glorious final descent to the flat lands. It emerges by the Halfway House itself, a pub-restaurant resplendent in Brewers’ Tudor beside the A127 Southend Arterial Road. The road dates from the earliest phase of the remodelling of Britain’s road network to suit the motor car – it was opened in 1924 as an alternative to the more southerly historic route from London to Southend via Tilbury, now the A13. Originally it was a single carriageway but was dualled very quickly afterwards, in the 1930s. The Halfway House is a typical roadhouse of the period, the sentimental echo of a vanished England intended to make the aggressive new motorised landscape more palatable, and has some original features inside including stained glass. The adjoining motel is one of the most conveniently placed accommodation providers for anyone attempting a continuous journey along the route, though a Travelodge by a dual carriageway is not most people’s idea of appropriate lodging for a country stroll. The road was ‘detrunked’ in 1997, though is still very busy, and the path crossing, involving a squeeze through the central crash barrier, is one of the worst on the whole route.
The short hop from here to the village of West Horndon is along a pleasant enough path that ends up running through the small but valuable West Horndon Park, done up in 2004 with Natural England funding as a ‘doorstep green’, one of the more modest improvement projects in the Community Forest. Though managed by the council, the land is owned by Fields in Trust, formerly the National Playing Fields Association.
The parish is mentioned in the Domesday survey though, as with some of the parishes on the other side of Brentwood, it was originally rather scattered. The current centre grew up after the opening of the rail station, on the London Tilbury and Southend Railway’s direct line from Barking to Pitsea, avoiding Tilbury, in 1886, as is evident from the architecture. Curiously, the station was originally known as East Horndon. The locality further expanded in the 1920s and 1930s and the best looking architecture is art deco. The smart white apartment block with the glassy, streamlined bowed front along Station Road is actually a very convincing 2000s pastiche but the real thing is visible at Clocktower House, a pre-World War II factory building opposite the station.
These buildings are on the link to the station so you’ll miss them if you continue straight on here, but they’re worth a look as their unexpected incongruity adds to their charm.
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