Thursday, 22 October 2015

London Loop 3: Petts Wood - Hayes

A view to inspire thoughts of freedom: the Wilberforce Oak at Holmwood, Keston.

REJECTING DIRECTNESS IN FAVOUR OF SCENIC INTEREST, this London Loop section meanders through suburban parks and fragments of ancient woodland on a U-shaped route out into the countryside of London’s greenest borough, Bromley. You’ll be walking in the footsteps of giants: Charles Darwin and William Wilberforce trod these ways as they pondered ideas that changed the world. You’ll walk through a ghost house, discover the source of an important Thames tributary and encounter the first of the Loop’s far-flung outposts of the City of London as it slowly winds back into suburbia.

Update May 2017: For walkers who want to incorporate the full length of the Cray valley into a tour of the Loop, I've included a link from Orpington station in the route description, which joins the main route of the Loop in Darrick Wood. For more details see my post on the Cray Riverway.

Looking towards the former anti-aircraft gun
site, Jubilee Country Park.

Jubilee Country Park

Jubilee Country Park Local Nature Reserve is the last in the chain of large adjacent green spaces along this stretch of the loop (after Scadbury Park, St Pauls Cray Common and Petts Wood in the previous section) and, from a visual point of view at least, its irregularly-shaped 25 ha of open grass and oak and birch woodlands seem the least interesting. But as well as the woodland there are remnants of agricultural land here too, and from a nature conservation point of view there’s much to spot. And to be fair, the Loop only skims around the edge of the space: the nature trail leaflet downloadable from the Bromley website will help you get to know the rest. A keen Friends Group helps keep things in good order.

Once, of course, all this land was wooded, and at the time of the Domesday survey it belonged to the Bishop of Rochester, who knew it as Thornet Wood. Over the succeeding centuries some of the woods were cleared for pasture, though a remnant of ancient woodland remains. Like neighbouring Petts Wood, and for obvious reasons, it was owned at one point by shipbuilders, in this case the wealthy Wells family from Deptford who incorporated it into their Bickley Hall country estate to the north and west in 1780, managing the woods but renting out the pastures to tenants.

Following the family’s bankruptcy, from the 1860s Bickley Park was gradually developed as housing, but this never reached the area of Jubilee Park, which in 1916 was converted to a golf course. In 1940 the clubhouse was badly bombed; shortly afterwards the site became an army base with four massive anti-aircraft gun emplacements maintained by the Home Guard. After the war the golf club moved to High Elms (see below). The land, now protected as Green Belt, was used for grazing until in 1977, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee, it was bought by Bromley council as a public park. This opened in 1981, at first simply as Jubilee Park – ‘country’ was added two years later to avoid the expectation of a more formal park. The Local Nature Reserve (LNR) designation followed in 1996.

The woodland where you enter the park, either from Petts Wood village or the previous section of the Loop, is secondary woodland, growing spontaneously in the last few decades on abandoned allotments. Nature trail post 15, along the path from the village, marks an ancient oak tree that once stood on a wood boundary. The wide grassy space soon passed to your right is where the anti-aircraft guns once stood: the infrastructure has been thoroughly grassed over and there’s little evidence visible on the ground but a quick glance at Google Earth clearly reveals the sites of the circular concrete bases on which the guns stood. On the other side of the grass is what remains of Thornet Wood.

The Loop has now run out of green space for a while and embarks on its first lengthy stretch of residential street. The Loop’s creators, the London Walking Forum, had a hope that unavoidable lengths of road along the route would be progressively greened with additional trees and vegetation. And while there’s little evidence of this along Oxhawth Crescent and Faringdon Avenue, they’re both quiet and pleasant enough, at first with bungalows then with bigger and now very expensive houses dating from when this part of Bromley, known as Southborough, was developed in the 1920s.

The Kyd Brook (river Quaggy) in Crofton Wood

Crofton and Darrick Wood

Faringdon Avenue reaches what’s normally referred to as a ‘dead end’, running out at an old hedge and ditch with a field beyond. But it’s certainly not dead for walkers, as the Loop squeezes through to join a footpath into the trees of Sparrow Wood. This is another patch of ancient woodland which, with the adjoining heathland of Crofton Heath to the south, somehow managed to avoid development. This patch remained in private ownership until 1973 when a developer proposed to build housing, but a coalition of numerous local groups resisted and 60 ha ended up in council care, with parts now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation.

The woodland is still managed by traditional coppicing but seems wilder and less interpreted than the other woods we’ve encountered so far. The streams the Loop crosses feed the Kyd Brook: on the other side of them, the woodland is known as Roundabout Wood, and then the Loop runs briefly along the brook itself, known in its lower reaches as the river Quaggy, for the second and last time. A couple of gaps in the fence give access to the brook, one of them tempting you to a gurgling waterfall.

Crofton village sign
Crofton is now essentially that part of the interwar sprawl of Orpington that lies west of the South Eastern main railway line but was once a manor in its own right, centred on a hamlet roughly where the Loop now emerges by the village sign. This sign dates from 1995 and commemorates a few historical facts. Between the years 140-400 this was a Roman farming estate, thus the image of the emperor Hadrian on the sign. Also depicted is Archbishop Odo, the bishop of Bayeux who commissioned the famous tapestry and owned the manor here after the conquest.

Odo’s episcopal title may give a misleading impression of the man: he was William of Normandy (the Conqueror)’s half-brother, Earl of Kent and a ruthless warrior, statesman and accumulator of wealth, depicted on the tapestry in full armour wielding a club (there’s a probably spurious story that his holy vows prohibited him from carrying a sword). He was imprisoned twice, once for defrauding the crown and the diocese of Canterbury, and once for organising an abortive and unauthorised invasion of Italy, perhaps with the aim of making himself Pope.

The manor later passed to one of Henry VIII’s Chief Justices, Robert Reid, who donated it to the Savoy Hospital, succeeded by St Thomas’ hospital in Southwark. The railway arrived at Orpington in 1868 and St Paul’s church, a little left on the other side of the road, was built as a chapel of ease of All Saints, Orpington, in 1887 to serve a growing population

Following the main road east (left) from here for just over a kilometre will take you not just to Orpington station but to the remains of the villa that commanded the Roman estate. It was partly destroyed when the railway was built, and rediscovered in 1925 when the newly created Orpington council, then in Kent, excavated the site with the intention of building council offices. The site is now preserved under a modern building and open to the public several days a week in summer: there are parts of the foundations of ten rooms, fragments of tiled floors and the remains of the customary underfloor heating system.

Further on is a second swathe of ancient woodland, Darrick Wood, which for centuries continued to be owned by St Thomas’s Hospital. The hospital gradually sold off its holdings – a glance at the map reveals obvious encroachments for a school playing field and a tennis centre as well as housing – but significant areas of woodland and meadow remained until 1957 when they were finally sold to Kent county council, later succeeded by the London Borough of Bromley. The land now forms part of the 25 ha Darrick and Newstead Woods Local Nature Reserve, which also benefits from a keen Friends Group.

The reserve straddles a ridge that marks the watershed between the Ravensbourne (and its tributary the Kyd Brook) to the northwest and the Cray to the southeast, and the Loop temporarily treads back into the Cray’s catchment. The ridge provides one of the most striking views along the way, as you emerge from the trees to the top of a fine grassy slope that drops away beneath you, Tubbenden Meadow, now managed as a wildflower meadow and bursting with colour in season. The busy A21 Hastings Road, which runs in the valley, is fortuitously obscured by the treeline, while the pyramidal spire of Farnborough Church, our next destination, is easily spotted, nestling under the ridge of the North Downs in the distance.


Looking back at Farnborough church...
from yer actual countryside.
Farnborough is arguably the first old village on the London Loop that genuinely still looks and feels like an old village. It’s not mentioned in the Domesday survey, but there was certainly a settlement here by 862 when Ethelbert, King of Wessex, gave away some of the lands of Fearnbiorginga, the village among the ferns on the hill. Crusader Simon de Montfort the elder, earl of Leicester, held the manor in the 13th century.

This was once an important roadside village, standing on the ancient road from Rotherhithe to Hastings on the Sussex coast, which crossed Watling Street at New Cross and was therefore also the main route from Sussex to London. This road originally ran right past church, with coaching inns clustered nearby from at least the 16th century. The road was turnpiked in 1749 and diverted onto the current bypass, which the Loop crosses on its way down, in the 1930s, by which time it was known as the A21.

Farnborough today is a quiet place, centred on a little green at the junction of Church Road and the High Street. The inns are now nearly all gone: the most prominent, the George and Dragon, stood on the southeast corner of the junction, but its last incarnation, a 1930s rebuild, was demolished in the early 2000s for housing. A plaque marks the spot. Further along the High Street, the Change of Horses, originally known as the New Inn, remains open for now. Several cottages along Church Road are genuinely old: the most distinctive, number five, with its overhanging weatherboarded upper storey, is 18th century but the oldest is actually number 20 opposite, which is 17th century.

The church stands atop a modest hill, and the road originally climbed to this level, but in 1823 it was widened and levelled to ease the passage of coaches, thus the current drop of several metres between pavement and carriageway. Little is known of the early history of the Church of St Giles the Abbot but there may have been a wooden church here before the Domesday survey. The current building has a 12th century nave, a 14th century font, a mediaeval tower, much 19th and 20th century alteration and rebuilding and stained glass from 1869 designed by William Morris.

Urania 'Gypsy Lee' Boswell's grave
Farnborough churchyard
The trail runs south through both the original churchyard and the ‘New Graveyard’ added in 1885, where it passes what was once the church’s best-known burial. Fortune teller Urania Boswell, nee Lee (1851-1933) is buried alongside her husband Levi. She was the last queen of the Kent Romanies and the daughter of the original Gypsy Lee of Brighton who reputedly told the fortune of Queen Victoria (not to be confused with the US entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee upon whose life the musical Gypsy was based). Hundreds turned out for her funeral and, naturally, she’s said to have foretold her own death.

High Elms and Bromley’s countryside

All the green spaces along the trail so far have been islands among brick and concrete. The field you walk into at the bottom of St Giles’ churchyard, in contrast, actually does mark the point where, in terms of development at least, the city ends and the countryside begins. If you could walk due south from here, you wouldn’t encounter an urban area of any significance, with the exception of the small town of Uckfield, East Sussex, until you reached the south coast. Yet politically this whole area remains well within the London Borough of Bromley.

Perhaps contrary to expectation, the official boundary of Greater London is far from coincident with the actual edge of the built-up area. Bromley, London’s largest borough at 153 sq km, also claims to be its greenest: over half its area – some 7,700 ha – is Green Belt and 30% is farmland. Several other boroughs, as we’ll see further along the Loop, also embrace substantial swathes of countryside. But elsewhere the boundary runs down streets and cuts through housing estates. You’ll look in vain to find a meaningful gap between London and numerous sprawling towns outside the boundary, like Caterham, or Dartford, or Waltham Cross.

In my commentary on the London Countryway to Broxbourne I explained in detail how London existed as a single metropolis in practice long before it did in theory. By the time the first fully functional London-wide local authority, the London County Council (LCC), was created in 1889, ongoing development had already pushed beyond its boundaries. The massive upgrading and expansion of the LCC into the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1965 provided an opportunity finally to align the physical and formal limits of the capital, as postwar planning and the Green Belt had by then long since halted the sprawl. But this chance was missed thanks to lobbying from local interest groups keen to be either inside or outside London. The final GLC boundary, which give or take a few tweaks is still in use as the Greater London boundary today, erred on the side of caution largely by adhering to existing divisions, many of them derived from mediaeval parish bounds that bore little relation to contemporary land use.

Prior to 1965, Bromley (and in fact all the territory traversed by the London Loop) was outside London, and subject to arrangements introduced in 1894 when parts of England outside big cities first got a recognisably modern system of local government. This was a ‘two-tier’ system with the traditional counties, in this case Kent, as the top tier, subdivided into a patchwork of urban and rural district councils, generally pieced together from centuries-old parishes. By then Bromley itself was already a substantial town, supplementing its ancient role as a market town with a new one as a commuter suburb. But the surrounding areas were still predominantly rural, particularly to the south where increasingly rolling countryside swept towards the North Downs. So the town became an urban district, while the country areas, which had traditionally looked to the town as their urban and market centre, fell under Bromley Rural District Council.

Such fine distinctions didn’t matter to the developers, however, and in the first few years of the new century, Chislehurst and Sidcup left the rural district to become urban districts in their own right. By the 1930s several other newly urbanised zones were clamouring to become urban districts, and it was clear that the remaining rural areas were no longer extensive enough to sustain their own council. So in 1934 the whole rural district was abolished. Most of the land along this section of the Loop was assigned to Orpington Urban District. And when Orpington was stitched together with several other urban districts to create the new London Borough of Bromley in 1965, its countryside, now firmly protected within the Green Belt, came with it.

Spot the house: the site of High Elms House, with tiles indicating the position of a bay window.

One of the gems of this countryside is the High Elms estate, only a short walk from the church, which occupies a wooded chalk ridge projecting from the main line of the North Downs to overlook the dry valley of Cudham on the other side. This was also once part of Archbishop Odo’s extensive holdings, and atthough parts were cleared and farmed, some was preserved as woodland for timber and firewood. The estate owes its modern form to the Lubbocks, a rich London banking family, who bought it in the early 19th century. John William Lubbock (1803-65), also a keen mathematician and astronomer, remodelled the estate and rebuilt the house as a massive Italianate mansion.

It’s here that Charles Darwin (1809-82) crosses our path. Born in Shropshire and educated at Cambridge, Darwin moved to London in 1837. This was shortly after returning from his lengthy travels around the Southern hemisphere on HMS Beagle, his notebooks stuffed with the observations of plants and animals that were later to support his world-shattering theories of natural selection and evolution. In 1842, partly to improve his chronically poor health, Charles and his wife Emma moved to Down House, on the edge of Downe village, just to the southeast of High Elms. Darwin was already a well-known and well-respected naturalist in scientific circles: he already knew Lubbock but now the two families were neighbours they became even closer. Lubbock’s son, another John, also befriended Darwin, who encouraged his scientific interests and later rented some of the High Elms woodland from him.

It was at Downe that Darwin drew his ideas together into On the Origin of Species (1859), one of the books that helped form the modern scientific worldview, and young John Lubbock was among the champions of evolutionary theory. Naturally, both families were keen walkers, and Darwin published copious observations of the local wildlife besides his notes on more exotic species. Lubbock became a Liberal MP, and campaigned on working hours, bank holidays, electoral reform and heritage protection: he bought the site of Avebury stone circle to save it from development and took the title Baron Avebury when made a peer.

High Elms was sold to Kent County Council in 1938 and initially used as a girl’s school. Some of the estate was later leased to the Forestry Commission who planted pines, and parts were opened to the public. In 1967 the Lubbocks’ grand mansion burnt to the ground, and a year later the land passed to Bromley council, who eventually opened it fully as a Country Park and Site of Special Scientific Interest (see also the Friends Group website). It’s long been a flagship public space and a base for the park rangers, and got a further makeover in 2008 with the addition of a new state-of-the-art green-roofed sustainable visitor and education centre and café known as BEECHE (Bromley Environment Education Centre at High Elms).

The trail mainly sticks to the formal gardens and parkland close to the house site, passing within a few paces of BEECHE, which is well worth the short detour, not just for its facilities but for the extensive displays about the site and its wildlife, including much historical information about the Lubbocks and Darwin. It’s also a good place to pick up information about other sites and walking opportunities. Since the 1980s, bolstered both by its green resources and keen local supporters and campaigners, the council has created a network of signed circular green walks, now quite extensive and an excellent supplement to the LOOP, which connects with several of them.

The Clockhouse, High Elms. Note also the pagoda-like
roof of the former granary on the left.
A few steps off the Loop in front of BEECHE is an ice well from the 1850s, and a little further along the trail itself there's an Eton fives court from about the same period: small three-walled courts like these were once common on country estates but this particular variant of handball is now rarely played. Then you have the curious experience of walking directly across the site of the house itself. It’s now simply a flat grass area with views of terraces and formal gardens at each side, so look out for the tiling underfoot that indicates corners here and there and gives some idea of the scale, and imagine yourself passing like a ghost through the elegant rooms where not only Darwin but luminaries like Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (Emperor Napoleon III) and Salvation Army founder William Booth were once received.

Further on, across High Elms Road, you pass through the site of an orchard that once served the estate, long neglected but restored in the 1990s with some of the original trees and newer plantings. Kent’s reputation as the Garden of England rests partly on its historic wealth of orchards, but many have gone, including almost all in the parts of the old county that are now in London, so enjoy the rare treat of the Loop’s only genuine Kentish orchard.

Its current name, Clockhouse Community Orchard, is explained with a quick glance over the wall, where the clock tower on the former stables of the estate farm is clearly visible. The tower and clock were added in 1826 to regulate the working hours of the farm labourers and perhaps inspired the younger Lubbock’s interest in the issue. This group of buildings, long converted to private housing, also includes a former granary with the remains of a horse-powered gin used to pump well water.

Leaving the orchard, a junction with Bromley’s Cudham circular walk would, if you wished, take you to Cudham and, via the Berrys Green circular walk, onto the main ridge of the North Downs and the North Downs Way National Trail at Bombers Farm above Westerham. Down House, which remained Charles Darwin’s home until his death, is now in the care of Historic England and is open at least at weekends and daily over the warmer months. It’s a significant diversion but not too onerous diversion from the Loop, just over 2 km by country lane and footpath from the Clockhouse, and on Bromley’s Downe circular walk. One option is to end the section at Downe village nearby which has roughly hourly buses to Orpington or Bromley.

Holwood and the Wilberforce Oak

An atypical example of a London highway: Bogey Lane.

The golf course the Loop now crosses was built on part of the former estate in 1925. One of the fairways actually backs on to the grounds of Darwin’s house and his son Bernard wrote the first course handbook. Neglected during the war years, it was taken on and restored in 1947 by the West Kent Golf Club following the loss of its previous home in what’s now Jubilee Country Park at the start of this section. The footpath across it is largely shielded by hedgerows and roughs, while chalk and flints underfoot, and the occasional glimpses of springy-turfed hillsides, confirm the trail is now well within the ambit of the North Downs.

Then there’s an ancient sunken way known as Bogey Lane, nowhere near as unattractive as its name, though prone to mud and, in the past, to fly tipping and churning by off-road vehicles. Technically it’s an ‘unclassified county road’ and part of the regular local authority road network, but has never been maintained to modern road standards. Its use is now restricted with steps in the surface, but for quite a large stretch of it walkers are encouraged to divert along the field edge on the other side of the hedge. Then there’s a similar field-edge diversion alongside Shire Lane, a tarmac road without a pavement. There are a number of such arrangements along the Loop to help walkers avoid road walking, and very welcome they are.

Look up the slope from this path and you’ll glimpse a Greek Revival mansion in prime position at the top of the hill. This is Holwood House, a Grade I-listed 1826 building designed by Decimus Burton for John Ward, MP and sometime Sherriff of Kent. It’s still privately owned, though with recently built additional luxury apartments in the grounds. At the time of writing the house itself was on the market with a guideline price of £12 million.

The current house replaced an earlier, smaller one with a much more interesting history. This was the home of politician and reformist William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), born not far away in Hayes, who in 1783 became to date Britain’s youngest ever prime minister at the age of 24. To the north of the house is an Iron Age hill fort and scheduled ancient monument, much of which was destroyed by Pitt when he had the grounds relandscaped.

While at university in Cambridge, Pitt struck up a lifelong friendship with fellow student William Wilberforce (1759-1833), with whom he shared a keen interest in politics. Wilberforce, originally from Hull, first entered Parliament in 1780, and by the mid-1780s had converted to evangelical Anglicanism, inspiring him to advocate for humanitarian causes, including the campaign to abolish slavery, which came to dominate his life and legacy.

Opposition to slavery had been developing for over a century, and the organised campaign against it was at first largely led by Quakers. Initially Wilberforce was hesitant when asked to lead its parliamentary arm. Then, on 12 May 1787, he went for a walk around Holbrook House with Pitt. While the pair were resting under an oak tree on a hilltop, Pitt suggested his friend should raise a motion in parliament abolishing the slave trade. Wilberforce resolved there and then to do so.

Climb the hill ahead and you’ll find yourself at what’s believed to be that very spot – although of course no-one marked it at the time, as it was one of those moments that only seems important in retrospect. The original Wilberforce Oak, as it became known, stood for over two centuries more, although a new sapling from one of its acorns was planted beside it in 1969 as an eventual successor. The ‘Great Storm’ hurricane of October 1987 felled both the ancient tree, by now little more than a hollow trunk, and the sapling. What you see today, protected by a wooden fence, is a third young tree, grown from the second oak, surrounded by fragments of the original. The stone memorial seat installed in 1862 is now also fenced off, though there’s a more modest bench for those who wish to pause for contemplation.

Wilberforce memorial bench, Holwood. Not free to be sat upon.
Wilberforce must have had no idea when sitting under that tree how protracted the struggle would turn out to be. There was tough opposition and vested interest to overcome. Although slaves were almost unknown in Britain itself, the country was heavily involved in the ‘triangle trade’ transporting enslaved human beings from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean, where they grew commodities like sugar, cotton and tobacco which were taken back to Europe, and exchanged for manufactured goods shipped to Africa in exchange for more slaves. This trade then accounted for 80% of the UK’s overseas income. It’s estimated that in total 11 million kidnapped Africans were transported across the Atlantic, in conditions so appalling that about 1.4 million of them died on the voyage. But Wilberforce’s attempts to win Parliamentary support for abolition failed again and again, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution when abolitionists were vulnerable to smears about Jacobin sympathies. He finally succeeded in steering through an act to ban the trade in 1806. Slavery itself was finally abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834, a month after Wilberforce’s death.

Wilberforce is in many other respects an unlikely progressive hero. Influenced by his religious beliefs, he was deeply conservative in many ways: he objected to women’s public involvement in the anti-slavery campaign, opposed workers’ rights and trade unions, and advocated prosecution for swearing on Sundays. And of course many other people contributed to the fight against slavery, both inside and outside the political sphere, including slaves themselves and ex-slaves like Olaudah Equiano who could draw on their own personal experience. The spread of industrialisation and the free market eventually undermined the economic foundations of slave labour. But even so, the decision William Wilberforce took at the site where you’re standing, and his dogged persistence in pursuing it, is something well worth commemorating.

Keston ponds and commons

The river Ravensbourne flowing into Keston Ponds just a few steps from its source.

Since Holwood Farm at the foot of the hill below the big house, the trail has been working its way north again through the old parish of Keston. This was another of the holdings acquired by Archbishop Odo following the conquest, although he shortly lost it again following his fraud prosecution and it passed through several hands including the Duchy of Lancaster. It’s one of those parishes where the church, unusual in not being dedicated to a saint, is some way outside the village centre, closer to the old manor house. Nearby is a windmill, a post mill dating from 1776, though both this and the church are off our route.

Keston is largely on relatively high ground with poor soils, partly the result of earlier deforestation that resulted unintentionally in nutrients being flushed away through the gravelly Blackheath beds just below the surface. So much of the surroundings were managed as common, and much of the common has been preserved, accounting for the area’s character today.

Although Keston is surrounded by green and still has some of its village character, you soon get the impression, once you’ve left the Holwood estate and crossed to Keston Common, that you’re leaving the countryside and heading back into suburbia. The open spaces are well-used and closely managed, peninsulas of housing digging into the trees rub their back fences along the paths, and busy roads crisscross the area.

The truth is Londoners claimed Keston long before London itself did. The Hays Fair on Hayes Common to the north of the village was already pulling the crowds by the beginning of the 19th century, and the rest of the area gradually became, like Epping Forest and Box Hill, an airy resort for working class urbanites. Well into the 20th century, thousands from the East End and Docklands flocked to the commons, ponds and woods on bank holidays and summer weekends. You can still just catch something of this demotic flavour on the busiest parts of Keston Ponds and in the pubs surrounding Hayes Common at the northern end of the village. In earlier times, Charles Darwin was a regular visitor, and carried out much of his research on earthworms on the commons.

First the Loop runs along the side of Keston Common (which also has a keen Friends Group), with steep earth banks to the left. Above you is evidence of much earlier occupation with Iron Age earthworks and areas where flint tools have been found. To the south, further down the slope from Holwood and off the route, are the remains of a large Roman villa and mausoleum.

Descending on steps into a shallow valley you’ll encounter a neat little spring encircled by brick, its waters cascading into a series of ponds. This is the source of the river Ravensbourne, which flows for 17 km northwards via Bromley, Catford and Lewisham to join the Thames as tidal Deptford Creek between Greenwich and Deptford. It’s an important Thames tributary, and the closest one to central London that hasn’t been covered over.

The spring is known as Caesar’s Well, and the story goes that when Ceasar and his legions were marching on London, they ran dangerously short on water, and were saved when ravens led them to this spot. The story doesn’t stand much scrutiny. Ceasar himself never marched on London: he barely established a beachhead on the Kent coast, and the successful Roman occupation of Britain happened after his death. It’s also unlikely that an army could run low on water in the damp surroundings of Kent. In the past, structures of ancient but unknown origin were often mistakenly attributed to the Romans and Caesar – the country is scattered with pre-Roman earthworks dubbed ‘Caesar’s camp’ and it was once thought the embankments at Keston were Roman remains, thus the connection to the spring.

The whole scene also looks just a little too neat and orchestrated to be entirely natural. In fact several springs rise in the area, some of which feed a rare bog not far away. What you see today is largely the legacy, since much restored, of landscaping commissioned by London merchant John Ward, then owner of Holbrook House, in the 1820s when the common was part of the estate. Ward built the upper three ponds, the two uppermost on the site of old gravel pits, not only as an amenity but as a water supply for the house. A fourth pond, further downstream, is the only natural one.

Nonetheless, with its large, still ponds, each at a different level, their damp and darkly verdant margins dotted with the occasional angler, this is still a charming site with its own special atmosphere. The areas closer to Fishponds Road, which cuts between the second and third ponds, tends to be busier – it’s particularly popular with local families. The lower ponds are more secluded, set amid overgrown parkland occasionally bursting with rhodedendrons, but the Loop draws away from these and heads for Keston village.


The trail crosses the village’s most characterful end, where several roads meet amid an open green overlooked by pubs and a post office. The village sign here was installed in 2013 after the local residents’ association discovered that Keston was the only one of Bromley’s villages not to have one. If you’ve read this far you should recognise some of the features depicted: the windmill, the Wilberforce Oak, and the well. Also featured are the church, the parish cross, and the Roman mausoleum.

The green space here is actually a part of Hayes Common, once site of the aforementioned fair. This was the first common protected under the Metropolitan Commons Act 1866, mentioned in the previous section, following concerns that John Lennard, who then owned both this and neighbouring West Wickham common, a little further along our route, was preparing to sell it off for development. The land has been in local authority hands since 1937, and like Jubilee Park hosted anti-aircraft guns during World War II. Now parts of both this and Keston Common are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The walk continues through a strip of roadside green, also part of Hayes Common. Look to your left and you’ll see by the occasional glimpse that you’re walking along the southwestern side of a steep drop, and the trail now follows this edge for the rest of the section. First trees and later houses obscure the view, but the commons occupy the plateau which falls away just below your feet to Addington Valley, a dry valley typical of the downlands. Forced back to the road for a while you cross a drive to the site of Baston Manor, originally the manor house of Hayes Village, first recorded in 1301 in the possession of John de Bastane. A little further is Hast Hill, a large and superbly sited Grade I-listed red brick Victorian mansion that’s now converted to flats. During World War I it was used as an auxiliary army hospital, particularly for Canadian troops.

West Wickham Common

View southeast from West Wickham Common
The logo on the notices in the small car park at West Wickham Common might be a little unexpected. Actually it’s a heraldic emblem: a white shield with a red cross and an upturned sword in the top left quarter (or in heraldry-speak, argent, a cross gules in the first quarter a sword in pale point upwards of the last), part of the arms of the City of London. Now, one of the first things people learn about how London works is that the City, with a capital C, is a specific and rather small fraction of the metropolis, the ‘one square mile’ centred on the original Roman site which is now largely a business district. So why is it represented out here, over 17 km as the crow flies from the Bank of England?

The answer lies partly in what I was saying earlier about London’s lateness in developing an adequate system of governance. The City of London, or more correctly its administrative body, the Mayor and Commonalty and Citizens of the City of London (sometimes called the Corporation of London, although that term is avoided in contemporary branding), is Britain’s, and arguably the world’s, continuously existing recognisably modern local authority. Its goes back to before the Norman Conquest, and its first surviving royal charter dates from the year afterwards, 1067.

Unlike some comparable urban authorities that expanded and modernised with their cities, the City preserved its original mediaeval bounds and resisted suggestions that it take on a wider responsibility for the growing capital. But as the only civic body with significant power and resources in the patchwork of parish vestries, counties and ad-hoc boards that governed London prior to 1889, it inevitably exercised some additional powers, including imposing taxes on coal and sometimes other commodities within a 20-mile (32 km) radius, thus the ‘coal posts’ still encountered by walkers on the London periphery. One way the City was persuaded to give something back to its codependent hinterland was by taking on the management of green space saved by campaigners.

The movement to protect green space grew in line with the growth of the urban areas that threatened it, given new urgency by the need to address public health concerns. Cities were becoming overcrowded and polluted places where most of the population laboured at equally unhealthy and sometimes dangerous jobs. Open spaces could provide ‘green lungs’ for rest, relaxation, healthy exercise and fresh air. Urbanites already used the nearby countryside for this very reason, but this countryside was rapidly disappearing as landowners cashed in on the development potential of land increasingly well-connected with the growing public transport network.

Historic commons, and other areas with traditional rights like Epping Forest, were particularly targeted by campaigners. Under the mediaeval system, commons were areas of usually poorer land unsuitable for intensive cultivation, where local people, the ‘commoners’, traditionally exercised certain rights, for example grazing livestock or gathering firewood. This meant in practice they were generally open to public access for walking and recreation. But commons were still part of manors, leading many of the successors to the manorial lords to claim them as their own private property, inclose them and sell them off. Much common land was lost this way, but where there was local resistance, the existence of commoners’ rights could form the basis of a legal challenge.

The 1866 act already mentioned strengthened protection for commons by giving local authorities the power to buy and manage them. But local councils weren’t always up to this, so where there was a clear wider benefit for Londoners, the City sometimes stepped in. Today, the City owns and manages almost 4,500 ha of countryside and green space outside its own boundary, and some of this, like Burnham Beeches and the greater part of Epping Forest, is even outside Greater London. Many of these are now run by their own charitable trusts funded by the City. That red cross on a white shield is about to become a familiar sight.

West Wickham Common is part of a cluster of City-run green spaces, most of them on the Loop, known as the Kent and Surrey Commons. It was saved by a local campaign in 1892 when manor owner John Lennard started to inclose it in preparation for sale and development. In this case there was no legal action: instead a public subscription paid for the City to buy it outright.

The opening ceremony on 12 November must have been quite a sight: Lord Mayor of London arrived from Bromley station in his state coach, escorted by the City Marshal on horseback, City sheriffs in chariots, a fire engine and band. Today it’s an informal mix of ancient pollarded woodland, secondary woodland that grew as grazing began to decline around 150 years ago, ponds and fragments of heath. The last habitat has been encouraged by recent management: much of the heather seen in the heathland clearing you pass along the way was seeded in the early 21st century.

City of London noticeboard where the Loop leaves West Wickham Common


The next section of the Loop carries straight on from West Wickham Common but many walkers break their journey here by following the signed link route to Hayes station. This is an interesting walk in itself, mainly along an urban footpath following an old route across Hayes Common, with numerous ups and downs. It passes Nash College, a specialist college for people with learning disabilities, follows an unadopted road with posh private housing, and skims the edge of another section of common before descending into suburban Hayes.

Despite the obvious Tudorbethan and art deco-lite interwar architecture around the station, including a massive roadhouse pub called the New Inn, Hayes can claim an ancient history, first recorded in 1177. The old village centre is off our route, northeast of the station at the junction of Hayes Lane and Pickhurst Lane, where there’s a part-mediaeval church heavily restored by George Gilbert Scott in late Victorian times. As mentioned above, William Pitt the Younger was born here; his father William Pitt the Elder, also a Prime Minister, lived at Hayes Place.

The railway arrived as a terminating branch from the Mid-Kent Line in 1882, originally built by the West Wickham & Hayes Railway but sold to the South Eastern Railway (SER) on the day it opened. As often, the presence of the station began to shift the centre of gravity away from the historic centre, a process accelerated when the original small clapboard building was replaced with the current 1933 structure incorporating retail units. The line is still part of the National Rail network and there have been various proposals to make more use of it. The latest of these is to incorporate it into a southern extension of the Bakerloo Line. But it might be a while before this section of the Loop ends at one of the extremities of the London Underground: the current indicative completion date is 2040.