Tuesday, 29 November 2016

London Loop 20/21: Chigwell - Havering-atte-Bower - Harold Wood


Wide views west from the edge of Havering Country Park, 100 m up.

Although it’s mainly within London, this walk includes some of the most rural stretches of the London Loop, along paths and tracks through rolling fields. On the way are two notable country parks: Hainault Forest, a surviving remnant of the old Forest of Essex; and Havering with its spectacular avenue of giant redwood trees. The walk continues past vanished royal estates via the pretty village of Havering-atte-Bower and through the fields to Harold Hill where the surroundings become more suburban as the trail begins its final journey back towards the river Thames.

Once again I’ve combined two shorter sections of the Loop to create a longer walk. Between Chigwell Row and the official break point at Havering-atte-Bower is on one of the longest stretches without a convenient transport option. Havering is one of the only three Loop start/end points at a bus stop rather than a station, but buses are sporadic, with no Sunday service. You may want to continue at least to Noak Hill Road, which has a much more frequent bus service, and combine the rest of this walk with the very short following section instead.

You're fired: the Kings Head at Chigwell

Chigwell


As mentioned in the previous section, Chigwell is an example of a village that grew a second centre following its connection to the rail network. The stretch around the station is a more recent development on the lower ground favoured by the railway, while the historic village centre is on top of the hill, further north along the High Road. There has been a settlement of some kind in this commanding position beside the old road from London to Abridge and Epping, which closely follows an old Roman route, since at least Saxon times. The name likely indicates a well belonging to someone called Cicca, though the traditionally claimed site for the well itself is some way east, off Brocket Way near Grange Hill station.

The Loop climbs the hill, through what’s now a conservation area, passing several significant buildings. On the left is the drive to Chigwell Hall. This isn’t the original manor house, which was beside the river Roding on a site that later became an RAF base: the Loop passed close by in the last section. The old manor had fallen into disuse by the 17th century and the current Hall, an 1876 Grade II-listed red brick mansion by architect R Norman Shaw, is the second of two replacements. Since 1967 the site has been occupied by the Metropolitan Police sports and social club, though the house is rented out as an events venue and has a public restaurant.

Near the top of the hill, set back in its own grounds on the right, the elaborate but handsome neoclassical mansion known as Grange Court is the first of four listed buildings in the village meriting the superior Grade II* classification. It was first built in the 17th century, but its current appearance dates from a rebuild in 1774. After 1946 it was a boarding house for Chigwell School but has recently been sold for conversion to flats.

St Mary the Virgin Church, at the top of the hill on the left, is a pleasingly attractive building with its cement-rendered white walls, red roof tiles and timber-framed bell turret surmounted by an elegant spire. Much of the south aisle and chancel survives from the 12th century, with 15th century extensions including the turret and uncharacteristically sensitive and restrained Victorian additions.

The buildings of Chigwell School, just along from the church, include the original red brick school house, dating from 1619 when it was founded as a grammar school for ‘poor scholars’: it’s now an independent school for rather richer ones. Among its ex-pupils are William Penn (1644-1718), founder of the US state of Pennsylvania; native American ‘Prince George’, son of a chief of the Yamasee Confederation of South Carolina, who was sent here by missionaries to learn English in 1713; and the actor Ian Holm.

The fourth Grade II*, opposite the church, is the most celebrated building in the village. This is the Kings Head, a massive coaching inn with an exposed timber frame and a delightfully untidy array of overhanging jetties and angular gable ends. The oldest part, with a projecting oriel window on the second floor, dates from the 1620s, though there are numerous later additions, including the window itself which is a 19th century pastiche of Tudor style. The pub’s current appearance is the result of more recent intervention: photos from the early 20th century show the building was once fully rendered, and it appears the frame was only exposed in the late 1940s or early 1950s, presumably to increase its ‘olde worlde’ appeal.

Like the Leather Bottle at Cobham near Gravesend on the London Countryway, the Kings Head is one of several real-life pubs that feature in novels by Charles Dickens. It’s a major setting in Barnaby Rudge (1841), where it symbolises both the good and the bad of English tradition in a story that unfolds in Chigwell and London in the 1780s. Near the end of the novel, the pub is sacked by anti-Catholic rioters, but rises again. Dickens renames it the Maypole, but it’s still clearly recognisable:
The Maypole was an old building, with more gable ends than a lazy man would care to count on a sunny day; huge zig-zag chimneys, out of which it seemed as though even smoke could not choose but come in more than naturally fantastic shapes, imparted to it in its tortuous progress; and vast stables, gloomy, ruinous, and empty. The place was said to have been built in the days of King Henry the Eighth; and there was a legend…that Queen Elizabeth had slept there one night while upon a hunting excursion, to wit, in a certain oak-panelled room with a deep bay window…With its overhanging stories, drowsy little panes of glass, and front bulging out and projecting over the pathway, the old house looked as if it were nodding in its sleep. Indeed, it needed no great stretch of fancy to detect in it other resemblances to humanity.
It’s a sign of our own times that since 2009 the Kings Head has been owned by celebrity businessman Alan Sugar, and turned into an upmarket ‘smart dress only’ Turkish restaurant, entertainment venue and cocktail bar called Sheesh. Sugar is the most famous of the well-heeled Londoners and ‘Essex wives’ who have turned Chigwell into one point of the so-called ‘golden triangle’ in recent years, alongside Loughton and Buckhurst Hill.

Three Forests Way and London Loop
waymarks near Chigwell
Just past the pub, a footpath takes you almost immediately into meadows, emerging on Vicarage Lane. A short detour to the left here will bring you to the Dickens Tree, a wide-girthed veteran oak, perhaps 500 years old, sprouting improbably from the edge of a pavement.

The Loop takes to field paths and farm tracks on the other side of the lane, briefly joining the Three Forests Way. This sporadically signed 96 km circular trail connects the remaining patches of the Forest of Essex: Epping, Hainault and Hatfield Forests, the last to the north near Bishops Stortford and Stansted Airport. Like the Epping Forest Centenary Walk encountered in the previous section, it’s largely the work of the late Fred Matthews of Essex Ramblers, who originally devised it as the route of a walking event held in 1977 to mark the Queen’s silver jubilee. An annual challenge walk continues to this day, though now organised by the Long Distance Walkers Association using a revised route.

Chigwell Row


Round reservoir at Chigwell Water Works, glimpsed through a fence.

Chigwell Row has long been an outlying hamlet of Chigwell in an even loftier location, on a ridge to the southeast that rises to 86 m. Originally surrounded by thick forest, it began to grow from the end of the 18th century, first when medicinal springs were found in the area, and then when a new road suitable for coaches was opened to Romford, today’s A1112. The first of its landmarks encountered on the Loop is Chigwell Row waterworks, built in 1967 and now operated by Essex & Suffolk Water. The trail tracks part of the fence around this large site, with a view of a circular concrete reservoir; elsewhere, there are 18 filter beds and a bigger, kidney-shaped reservoir. Most of the water is pumped up from the Chingford reservoirs in the Lea Valley (encountered on the last section), before being distributed over a wide area of east London and southwest Essex.

Chigwell Row Chapel
Along Chapel Lane you pass the eponymous chapel, a spare but rather elegant building with neo-classical flourishes. It was built as an independent nonconformist chapel allied to the Essex Congregational Union in 1804 but shows signs of extensive alteration from later in that century. It’s now administered by the United Reform Church.

Opposite the chapel, the trail winds through Chigwell Row Recreation Ground. The land here was originally part of Hainault Forest, and allocated as common land following disafforestation in the 1850s. In 1863, much of this common was inclosed and awarded to various private landowners, but a 20 ha plot was subject to the condition it was kept as a public recreation ground. This has since passed to a charitable trust of which Epping Forest District Council is now the trustee. The trail rounds but doesn’t quite enter an area of woodland immediately to the southeast which is also part of the public space, though managed separately by the council as Chigwell Row Wood Local Nature Reserve (LNR). It’s one of the few surviving fragments of the Forest that still preserves its old wooded appearance.

Rearing up ahead is All Saints Church, built on former Forest land to a design by J P Seddon in 1867, the year Chigwell Row became a separate ecclesiastical parish in response to its growing population. Though it’s not obvious from a distance, the tower is a separate building, added in 1903 – there were insufficient funds to include a tower in the original church. Developments on former forest and farmland continued apace into the 20th century, given a further boost by the 1903 Fairlop Loop railway, the same line that serves Chigwell and is now part of the London Underground Central Line – Grange Hill station is a little to the west here. Doubtless the housing would have spread over the fields along the Loop today but for the Green Belt.

The trail carefully tiptoes here around a major post-war infill development: just on the other side of Chigwell Row Wood, and now just inside London, is the vast Hainault Estate. This was one of the big post-war housing estates built outside its own territory by the London County Council, about which I’ll have a lot more to say later when we reach Harold Hill.

Hainault Forest


The Essex-London boundary runs left-right through Hainault Forest Country Park

The earliest vague reference to Hainault Forest as a separate section of the Forest of Essex dates from the year 1130, with more definite mentions in the 1220s and 1230s. Back then it was known as Henehout or Hyneholt, meaning ‘wood belonging to a religious community’ and referring to its attachment to Barking Abbey. The current spelling derives from a 17th century misapprehension that there was some connection to Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainault (1310?-1369), from the mediaeval county of Hainaut in the southern Low Countries, now part of both Belgium and France.

Following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the land passed to the Crown, and in 1544, a perambulation of its boundaries ordered by Henry found it encompassed 12 km2, stretching from Leytonstone to Havering-atte-Bower in the east, and from Aldborough Hatch to Theydon Bois in the north. Its main function was to provide venison for the royal household, but local people also exercised certain seasonal common rights such as grazing and lopping wood.

As usual with mediaeval forests, by no means all the land was wooded, with numerous open rough grassland areas punctuated by stands of trees. There were various unofficial and strictly speaking illegal encroachments over the succeeding centuries, and mounting pressure to put the remaining ‘waste’ to more productive use. Agriculture expert and campaigner Arthur Young suggested in his 1807 General View of Agriculture in Essex that the forest lands would be ten times more profitable if cleared and cultivated, echoing the opinions of the various local landowners he had spoken to, including the lord of the manor of Chigwell.

In 1851, Hainualt was disafforested by act of parliament and 90% of the woodland was cleared almost immediately. As we have seen, some sections were originally reserved as commons but it wasn’t long before these too were apportioned to private owners. The rapid near-complete destruction of the forest shocked the fledgling conservation movement of the day, and helped inform the successful campaign in the 1870s to preserve significant stretches of nearby Epping Forest, which the Loop traversed in the previous section.

A belated preservation campaign led by early environmentalist and Liberal MP Edward North Buxton resulted in 324 ha of the remaining forest land being bought for public use by the London County Council (LCC), with contributions from other local authorities, for £21,000. Parliament had to pass a further act enabling the land to be sold, with 213 ha of both woodland and grassland opened as a public green space in 1906. This land, plus some additional areas acquired since, now forms Hainault Forest Country Park.

The old forest spread over numerous parish boundaries, and one of these still runs northeast-southwest through today’s park. It separated Chigwell, in the ancient Essex hundred of Ongar, to the northwest, from Barking and later Ilford in Becontree Hundred, to the southeast. The original plan for the LCC’s replacement with a new and much bigger Greater London Council (GLC) in 1965 proposed to incorporate the whole of Chigwell into the capital, which met furious local resistance. So today the boundary has been preserved, with the northwest of the park in Essex, and the southeast in the London Borough of Redbridge.

Like its predecessor, the GLC managed the Country Park as a single unit, but when it was abolished in 1986, the ownership was split between Essex County Council and Redbridge borough. Since then, the county has leased its holding on a long-term basis to the Woodland Trust, and the Trust has bought several adjoining fields on its own account, including land that was cleared after 1851 and is gradually being restored to woodland again. Both sides work together to ensure a relatively seamless visitor experience.

Almost all the surviving ancient woodland is on the Essex side, and after crossing a rough meadow, the Loop plunges into it. This woodland area is now a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). With its traditionally pollarded hornbeams and oaks, it’s regarded as one of the best surviving examples of a mediaeval forest despite its much-reduced extent, giving, according to the current management plan, “a better impression of the structure and management of a forest than Epping…not having suffered so much from well-meaning attempts to turn it into ‘ordinary’ woodland.”

At a junction, well-marked with recently-installed fingerposts, the Loop crosses the prominent footpath which follows the old boundary, leaving the current county of Essex for the last time and returning to London not only for the rest of this section but for almost all the rest of the trail. You’re now in the London Borough of Redbridge, and the entire length of the Loop through this borough is within the forest land.

Canada geese love Hainault Forest lake, originally dug as a 1909 job creation scheme.

The trail soon emerges into the more open southern area of the country park, on the shores of the artificial lake dug in 1909 as part of a job creation scheme for unemployed men from the East End. Originally it was intended for boating and fishing and, while the latter activity still goes on, it’s also now much favoured by waterfowl. This is the best point to divert to the park café, just a little uphill on the other side of the lake. Climbing this way, there’s the sudden surprise of the view westwards towards London, a reminder of how high up we are. The multiplying high rises of Canary Wharf and the City, along with the Shard at London Bridge, now make central London seem much closer than it is in reality.

High rise London from Hainault Forest Country Park

Leaving the lakeside, the Loop runs alongside the woodland edge along the perimeter of a vast, gently sloping open green space. This is another area cleared of tree cover after 1851, and for many decades it was used for sports pitches, but these have been replaced with less rigorously managed grassland to encourage species diversity, and the space now does a good imitation of a traditional forest plain. The cluster of buildings to the south is Foxburrows Farm, part of the original 1906 purchase, and now a popular visitor centre and ‘community zoo’ where meerkats and llamas rub shoulders with rare breed sheep and chickens.

Beyond the plain, the Loop finds a woodland track uphill, almost rejoining the Three Forests Way, which has found a different route through the forest. But instead, our trail heads off east across Hainault Forest Golf Course. This land, too, is part of the public space bought in 1906, although the golf club, founded in 1912, now leases and manages it. Loop walkers will probably be pleased to know that this is the very last golf course the trail crosses.

Take care here: if you attempt to follow the route exactly as shown on the Ordnance Survey map you could easily get lost. What looks like a nice straight public right of way on the map turns out to be near-impossible to trace through the golf course landscaping, and the route that’s physically signed with often rather eroded waymarks is rather easier and safer. It runs through a strip of woodland known as the Mile Plantation which also marks an ancient boundary that now separates the London Boroughs of Redbridge and Hillingdon. When you finally leave the trees, at a point further south than the one shown on the OS map, you end your brief sojourn in the former and enter the latter, the very last London borough on the London Loop.

The Royal Liberty of Havering


The rollling fields of Havering, just east of Havering-atte-Bower

Havering is the third largest of the London boroughs, after Bromley and Hillingdon, and like these it includes extensive areas of green space. More than half the borough is parkland, with some genuine agricultural countryside. It’s the only London borough to extend beyond the M25, with a rough square of farmland and marsh around North Ockendon. As with the other more rural boroughs, this mixed complexion is the result of modern boundaries following much older divisions, in this case of considerable historic significance. For Havering once had a special status, with connections to royal privilege stretching back much further than any other London authority. Today, practically every trace of these connections has vanished.

The high ridge the Loop treads has been settled since at least Roman times, with archaeological evidence of a villa and industrial activities. In the later Saxon period, much of the current borough was covered by a large parish and manor known as Hornchurch, in the ancient hundred of Becontree. The parish stretched from the wooded northern heights, south through Romford and Hornchurch and all the way to the Thames at Hornchurch Marshes. Though Romford later developed into a major market town and is now the administrative centre, the original manorial nucleus was on the hilly ground in the north, by the village of Havering, its name derived from an Anglo-Saxon personal name, Hæfer.

There’s a strong tradition that the first English king to hold the manor was the penultimate Anglo-Saxon monarch Edward the Confessor or Ēadweard Andettere (reigned 1042-1066). He is commemorated as such in mediaeval stained glass at Hornchurch and Romford, though there’s no known confirmation of this from primary sources. What is known is that by Edward’s death, the manor was held by his successor, Harold Godwinson, Earl of East Anglia, who reigned briefly during 1066 before his death at the Battle of Hastings, which secured the Norman invasion of England.

The victor of Hastings, William of Normandy, who became the first Norman king, decided to keep the manor for himself. It became the Royal Liberty of Havering, a liberty being an autonomous area exempt from surrounding authorities, with its own laws and courts. For example, residents of Havering were exempt from many taxes, and the market at Romford was the direct result of royal privilege. The special status of the Liberty was confirmed in a charter of 1465.

Numerous royals stayed at the palace which developed on the site of the manor house. Henry III began a tradition of granting the property to the queen consort or dowager when he passed it to Queen Eleanor in 1262. The tradition was broken by Henry VIII, who kept it himself rather than passing it to his fourth wife Anne of Cleves. But by this time the palace was already deteriorating, and James I was the last king to use it regularly. In 1619, he granted it to Prince Charles, later Charles I, who became the last monarch to rest at the palace in 1638. During the Civil War period the building was abandoned and by 1816 there was no trace of it above ground.

By then, the manor had long since fragmented through a succession of tenants and the creation of sub-manors, and in 1652 these tenants clubbed together to buy out many of the manorial rights. Finally in 1828, the Crown sold out the remaining rights and property, including the site of the palace and its surrounding park, to a private buyer. Though no longer royal, Havering’s anomalous status as a liberty persisted until 1892 when it was finally reunited with Essex. Two years later it was split between Romford Rural and Romford Urban District Councils, with other areas originally outside the parish like Upminster included in the rural district. Later, Romford became a municipal borough and the rest became Hornchurch Urban District, which, with a few minor adjustments, combined again to form the London Borough of Havering in 1965.

The river Rom just east of Hainault Forest.

The fields beyond the golf course are under Havering council’s ownership. They were once part of the extensive park around the palace, thus the name of the farm you pass, Lower Park Farm. Just past here you cross the river Rom, which rises as Bourne Brook over the Essex boundary in Stapleford Abbots. Like several other river names encountered on the Loop, this is a back formation arising from the fact that the river flows through Romford, which originally simply meant ‘wide ford’. The lower section of the river is known as the Beam, which joins the Thames in the Dagenham Industrial Estate.

From the Rom, the path climbs along the edge of the woodlands of Havering Country Park to reveal another sudden and surprising view back towards the central London. Take your time to enjoy it, as it’s the last such view on the Loop. Then it’s into the trees of the country park and another encounter with history.

The new lord of Havering in 1828 was Hugh McIntosh, a successful building contractor responsible for several of the London docks. His family had a new house built, also later demolished, and gardens and pleasure grounds were laid out in what was left of the old estate. In 1909 the site included extensive gardens, four vineyards, orchards and glasshouses and conservatories with roses, carnations, ferns and palms. In 1924, following the death of Hugh’s daughter-in-law Charlotte McIntosh, the property was sold off. A few portions went for development but, in 1938, Essex County Council bought substantial amounts, including much of the farmland, to preserve as Green Belt. Some of the land was sold in tiny 1 acre (0.4 ha) portions to better-off East Enders as country retreats, known as plotlands.

When London expanded in 1965, the Greater London Council (GLC) inherited the publicly-owned land. Belatedly implementing proposals in Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944, the council planned a new Country Park. From 1970, amid considerable local opposition, it began buying back the plotlands by compulsory purchase, gradually reassembling the estate, and Havering Country Park first opened in 1976. Following the GLC’s abolition in 1986, the site passed to Havering council, who developed it further into today’s 67 ha park.

Giant sequoias lining Wellingtonia Avenue, Havering
The Loop crosses the park along Wellingtonia Avenue, one of the most spectacular lengths of path on the whole trail. Lining it are around 100 giant sequoias or redwood trees, the second biggest such plantation in the UK, created in the 1860s when this conifer species, known scientifically as Sequoiadendron giganteum, had been brought to the European public’s attention during the California gold rush. The term ‘Wellingtonia’ was used in Britain in honour of the Duke of Wellington. The world’s tallest and some of its thickest and oldest trees are giant sequoias. They don’t get quite so big here as in their native Sierra Nevada, but they’re still awe-inspiring, with some of them approaching 50 m in height. The avenue is sometimes compared to a cathedral aisle, but no cathedral column towers quite this high, and the vivid colours of red bark contrasting with dark green foliage add to the effect.

Around two thirds of the way along the avenue is the junction known as Five Ways, a good place to set off exploring the rest of the park if you have time. There are pine plantations, more traditional broadleaved woodlands, grassy meadows with rolling views, and an easy access trail. Very little evidence of the site’s lengthy history survives except the various plantations, exotic specimen trees and fragments of boundary wall and terrace from the McIntosh period, and a plotlands bungalow now used as a park office. The site of the old palace, and the later McIntosh house, is under modern houses to the right, after the avenue passes a traffic barrier and becomes a roughly surfaced drive. A plan made in 1576 shows an extensive complex including guest apartments and a royal bathhouse, but a survey of Royal property in 1650, after the Civil War, found only “a confused heap of ruinous decayed buildings,” barely worth the costs of salvage.

Havering-atte-Bower


Water tower, Havering-atte-Bower
The avenue emerges on North Road, the main street of Havering-atte-Bower, right next to the village green. Havering today is that rarity in London, a genuine rural village surrounded by green space. Its curious suffix, pronounced locally ‘atty bower’, refers to the tradition of its being held by the queen or dowager. But though the village is picturesque enough, there are no mediaeval remnants left standing, and precious little from before Victorian times.

The green itself is part of the land acquired by local councils in the 1930s, and the row of horse chestnut trees across it was planted to mark the coronation in 1953. It’s said a depression on the green was formerly a pond used for ducking suspected witches, and on the south end there’s another reminder of less enlightened attitudes to crime and punishment in the form of a set of stocks and a whipping post. Although some of the metalwork on these is very old, the woodwork is from 1966: somewhat ironically, the originals were destroyed by vandals. The village sign was only added in 2010, unveiled by then Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

Across Orange Tree Hill from these relics is Blue Boar Hall, a former pub that could be the oldest building in the village, perhaps from the early 17th century, but its timber frame is now fronted by Victorian brickwork. Completing a pretty scene is the Church of St John the Evangelist, which overlooks the green. Its history goes back to the original palace chapel, which may well have stood on this site before the Norman conquest, but the present building with its flint facing was built in 1878 to a design by Basil Champneys in the popular Decorated style of the day.

All this rural charm has its downside: the 375 is the 10th least frequent bus route in London, and the only one to operate on a 90-minute cycle, except on Sundays when it doesn’t operate on any cycle at all. This is also one of only three official loop sections that ends at a bus stop rather than a rail station. If you just miss a bus, exploring the village could keep you occupied: the best pub recommendation is probably the Orange Tree a little down Orange Tree Hill on the other side of the green.

Otherwise you may decide to push on to Noak Hill where services are more frequent. The trail now turns along North Road to find a footpath right next to another pre-Victorian building, the Grade II-listed Rose Cottage, timber-framed and weatherboarded with an external brick chimney stack. It likely dates from before 1750, though was altered in the next century to create a now-closed shop front.

From the fields behind the cottage you should spot two of the village’s other remarkable buildings off to the right, although as both are round and white, they’re easily confused. The squatter, fatter one, just glimpsed through the trees, is the Round House, a three-storey villa built in 1794 for tea merchant William Sheldon. Its unusual elliptical shape, so it’s said, was designed to resemble a tea caddy. A little further along, taller, slenderer and much more prominent, is an elegant water tower that faintly resembles the tower of a Spanish castle. It was built in 1934, taking advantage of the elevation in ensuring sufficient water pressure for the householders of Romford. The base of the tower is 104 m above sea level, and on a good day you can see its tip from the London Eye, 27 km away.

Pyrgo Park


Decorative iron gatepost at Pyrgo Park
Across the fields from Havering, rusted and leaning precariously amid a strip of rough grass along the edge of a wood, is a curious decorative wrought iron 19th century gatepost. This is one of the few surviving reminders of the second great aristocratic park in Havering, Pyrgo Park. The place name probably means ‘triangle of land where pear trees grow’ and has been spelt in various ways over the centuries, including Pergore, Portegore and Pergo. The park here was created in 1536 by Brian Tuke, steward to Henry VIII, but, in typical style, the king took a liking to the site and claimed it for himself, developing it into an extension of Havering Park nearby.

Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I gave Pyrgo to a courtier, John Grey, uncle of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, and it passed through several subsequent aristocratic and, later, bourgeois hands. The old house was demolished in 1814, and a new one built in 1852 for stockbroker Robert Field, though this too was demolished in 1940, by which time the park had become part of Essex’s green belt holdings.

Most of the buildings you can see through a gap in the trees to the left as you round the site are recent, though an 18th century farmhouse still stands, and a stable block, garden terraces and two lodges remain from the Victorian period. Pyrgo is the fourth of Henry VIII’s palaces on or near the Loop, after Nonsuch (section 7), Hampton Court (section 9) and Forty Hall (section 17). All but Hampton Court have now completely vanished from sight.

Now in notably rustic surroundings, the Loop tracks the edges of fields. It’s easy to miss a footbridge along this stretch which skips across a field edge: often overgrown, it’s one of the more precarious pieces of infrastructure on the trail. But soon you’re on more solid ground, following a track lined by scattered housing, known as Paternoster Row.

It’s not immediately obvious, but the right turn along Paternoster Row is also a major turning point for the London Loop as it approaches its final stages. A stream, Carters Brook, rises just to the east of this junction, and the track turns south to parallel its valley. From now on, the Loop will follow the water south and southwest, first along the Carters Brook and Paines Brook, then along the river Ingrebourne to the Thames, continuing downstream alongside the main flow to its finishing point at Purfleet. I’d like to say it’s downhill all the way, but that’s not entirely true, as lack of waterside access sometimes forces the trail back of the side of the valley a little. Certainly, though, the walking is much easier from now on.

Where Paternoster Row ends at the gate of Widdrington Farm, and the Loop takes to field paths again, you enter the old chapelry of Romford, a historic subdivision of Havering Liberty. A small stream from a pond on the right feeds the brook. To the east, the land rises from the Carters Brook to the village of Noak Hill. To the south and immediately ahead lies the old estate of Harold Wood and a return to suburbia.

Harold Hill


The Loop reaches Noak Hill Road, which clearly marks the boundary between country and town. On its northwestern side you’ll see only scattered houses and other buildings, but the opposite side is intensively developed. At one point, of course, all this land was countryside. By the 14th century, there were two separate estates to the southeast of the road: Gooshayes, ‘goose enclosure’, to the west and Dagenhams or Dagnams to the east. The latter had itself originally been two estates, Dagenhams and Cockerels, named after former owners.

Richard Neave, a well-off merchant with the West India company, bought Dagnams in 1772, and his descendants extended it in 1829 by buying neighbouring Gooshayes too. The resulting estate remained intact until well in the 20th century, unthreatened by housing development thanks to its remote location, and was protected as Green Belt in the 1930s. Today’s swathes of housing are the work not of a private developer, but of the London County Council (LCC), in response to the housing crisis in London after World War II, when residential property in inner London, and particularly the East End, had been devastated by air raids.

Inspired by the ‘garden city’ movement of the 1920s and 1930s, the view adopted in Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan was that it was better in any case to shift populations out of the polluted and congested inner city to greener, more spacious and healthier surroundings on the periphery. As we now know, that approach ultimately brought its own problems of social and economic dislocation, but today’s reclamation of the inner city as a pleasant and desirable place to live must have seemed unthinkable to 1940s decision makers. The LCC was given special dispensation to build new housing on Green Belt outside its own territory, which at the time covered only Inner London.

The Loop has already encountered one of the resulting housing estates, at South Oxhey on section 14, and skirted around another at Hainault earlier in this section. The Neave family’s estate of Dagnams and Gooshayes was among the other sites chosen. It was not only of sufficient size, but had the advantage of being well-defined and integrated, which planners hoped would help give a sense of place to the new community.

In 1946 the LCC compulsorily purchased the main estate, plus some additional plots that had originally been part of it but had been sold off in 1919. The following year, 605 prefab houses were built as a temporary measure, and in 1948, construction commenced on 7,631 new homes. The work was finally completed in 1961. The name chosen for the new neighbourhood was Harold Hill, as it stood overlooking Harold Wood. Like several estates of this vintage, it’s now the subject of a long-term regeneration scheme, Harold Hill Ambitions.

The ‘garden city’ influence ensured that extensive areas of open space were preserved among the houses and flats, and the Loop makes good use of these as it crosses the area, particularly the green strips alongside the brook, which also provide a margin for flooding. Our first site of the brook itself is where it crosses Priory Road by its junction with Tees Drive. It runs here in a steeply cut channel surrounded by trees and shrubs, so attempting to reach the water’s edge is an uncomfortably twiggy experience. You’re better off walking on the grass above. Just before Whitchurch Road, another small stream joins from the left, rising from a series of ponds in Dagnam Park a little to the east. From here, the combined streams are known as Paines Brook, although the watercourse is often designated by the joint name Paines and Carters Brook.

The green strip continues to Dagnam Park Road, once a path linking Gooshayes and Dagnams but now one of the main roads through the housing estate. On the other side, the stream enters Central Park, one of two major public parks on former farmland and parkland built into the original design (the other is Dagnam Park to the east, around the former site of the now-demolished manor house). The mediaeval nucleus of Gooshayes once stood on the other side of the brook to the right here, and Gooshayes House itself stood until 1961 when it was demolished to make way for a community centre. It’s clear from old photographs and maps that the unusually angular kinks in the brook here were deliberate diversions to create more conveniently-shaped fields and farmyards.

Central Park became rather neglected, but received a boost in 2014 with funding from the Veolia North Thames Trust. Veolia is the big French-based utilities company which among other things operates a massive landfill site on Rainham Marshes, further along the Loop. The Trust, which has since been merged with another nationally-based trust, was a vehicle for ensuring that some of the profits from this were invested for public benefit. The cash paid for the state-of-the-art BMX track and skate park on the right as you enter the park, the play area further on, new plantings and other improvements.

The Portrait Bench in Central Park, Harold Hill.

Just past the play area is a roundabout of paths where the Ingrebourne Way, part of National Cycle Network route 136, joins from the left. We’ll be sharing much of the rest of the trail with this route, which has long been in the planning stages and was completed in 2014 as a partnership between Havering council and active travel charity Sustrans. It runs for 21 km from Noak Hill, not far from where the Loop met Noak Hill Road, to the Thames at Rainham Marshes, and indeed you could simply follow it all the way, as it’s more prominently signed than the Loop. But as it’s a multi-user route also suitable for cyclists, there are stretches along the valley where it’s forced to follow roads, while the Loop takes more interesting paths suitable only for walkers.

On the roundabout is a simple park bench surrounded by three shadow puppet-style metal sculptures, the Portrait Bench, installed in 2011 as part of the Ingrebourne Way improvements. You’ll surely recognise Henry VIII and appreciate his connection to the area, but the other two subjects, chosen following a public call for nominations, are rather more obscure. To Henry’s left, and maintaining a respectful distance, is Harry Norman Ecclestone, a Bank of England employee who lived locally, and designed the D series banknotes familiar from the 1970s to the 1990s. Next to him is Dick Bouchard, founder of the Romford Drum and Trumpet Corps, who was still alive when the sculptures were unveiled and attended the ceremony. The wood just off to the left, Long Wood, survives from the Gooshayes estate, as does another patch of woodland, Sale Wood, further along.

The Loop leaves Central Park past the ground of Ardleigh Green Cricket Club, founded in 1940, on the left, and continues along the brook through another green strip on the other side of Petersfield Avenue. It runs here between Paines Brook Way and Amersham Road, a street which has a tale to tell about housing policy over the decades.

As at South Oxhey, most of the properties at Harold Hill are now privately owned. The process of selling them to their occupiers began in the 1970s under the Greater London Council, but accelerated significantly under the Right to Buy policy for council tenants, introduced in 1980 as a flagship policy of the Conservative government of the day.

One of the earliest properties sold under this scheme was 39 Amersham Road. In an obligingly media-friendly photocall, prime minister Margaret Thatcher personally sealed the sale and handed over the keys to the Patterson family, who had lived there as tenants since 1962. They paid only £8,315 for the three-bedroomed house, but after the marriage broke up, Maureen Patterson struggled with mortgage repayments and ended up selling it and moving to a mobile home.

The house has since passed through several other hands and its value is now approaching £220,000. Today, the proportion of houses owned by their occupiers in the UK is 61%, exactly the same proportion as in the 1980s, as many of the people who exercised their right to buy ended up selling to private landlords who were buying to rent. Yet in the face of a major housing crisis in London, the current government is intent on extending the right to buy to housing association tenants.

The path along the brook continues through another, smaller, green area, St Neots Road Open Space, to arrive at the A12 Colchester Road close to where it crosses the watercourse at Paines Bridge. The road is the modern incarnation of Iter V, the old highway that linked London northeast with Colchester, the first capital of Roman Britain, via Mile End, Stratford, Ilford, Romford, Brentwood and Chelmsford. By the mid-17th century this road had been turnpiked and, as the A12, it was one of the first British trunk routes designated in 1922. West towards London, the A12 has subsequently been diverted along more recently built roads and the old route renumbered A118. But at this point, though widened to a dual carriageway in the 1940s, it’s likely close to the old Roman route.

This is another point where the Loop is severed by a busy main road, and the official option is to divert to the next light-controlled crossing west, which isn’t too far away though still annoyingly off the desire line. But here you also have the option of an uncontrolled crossing straight ahead, which makes use of the central reservation. As the road is straight with good visibility and the flow of traffic is often interrupted by nearby lights, you should have no trouble using this if you’re quick on your feet and take special care.

Harold Wood


Harold Wood station: before its time.

The A12 marks the southern boundary of Harold Hill: the neighbourhood on the other side is now known as Harold Wood, although the scope of that name has changed over the centuries. In mediaeval times, the area to the north of the Colchester Road, where Harold Hill now stands, was known as Harold Wood, and attached to the Romford chapelry. The area to the south was North End, attached to the Hornchurch chapelry. The Harold in question was Harold Godwinson, the ill-fated last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who as mentioned above once held all of Havering.

The area that’s now Harold Wood developed rather earlier than Harold Hill, although it was still rural in 1840 when the Eastern Counties Railway (ECR) cut through it. In 1866, a development company bought land at Gubbins Farm to turn into a new town, served by a new station to be opened by the ECR’s successor the Great Eastern Railway. Even though the site was technically in North End, the developers adopted the more picturesque name Harold Wood, also used as the name for the station when it opened in 1868.

Demand for housing in the area at first proved lower than expected: the planned new town never happened, and the development of Harold Wood didn’t take off until after World War I. Residential development avoided the watercourses, so once again the Loop has a green strip to follow into the area, although the waterside is soon blocked by an industrial estate. This is the site of Harold Wood Brickworks, established in 1878, which once had its own extensive railway sidings. It was closed in 1902 and the land used for grazing and light industry. The present Bates Industrial Estate was built in the late 1940s, and named after the building firm that developed it.

The trail runs along streets dating from the 1920s and 1930s, and then past the distinctive modernist building of Harold Wood Library, opened in 1960: the Christmas tree in front was planted to mark the 50th anniversary in 2010. The King Harold pub, in contrast, is an 1868 survivor of the aborted Victorian new town scheme. The main station building, perched above the tracks along Gubbins Lane, is from the same year.

This section of the Great Eastern Main Line originally linked the old Bishopsgate station on the edge of the City of London with Brentwood, extending in stages to Colchester and Ipswich and reaching Norwich by 1851. Its London terminal was superseded by Liverpool Street station in 1875, and in 1883 it became an international link to the Netherlands and northern Europe with the opening of a branch to a ferry terminal at Harwich. In 1932 the line was quadrupled, and today express services run non-stop through Harold Wood on the central pair of lines.

From 2019, the station will stand on only the second main line-sized railway to run through central London and out the other side. Services on the Elizabeth Line, formerly known as Crossrail, will run from Shenfield through new underground tunnels linking Liverpool Street and Paddington, passing through Hayes and Harlington at the end of Loop section 10, on their way to Slough and Reading. Since 2015 the local stopping trains from Liverpool Street to Shenfield have been overseen by Transport for London under the brand name TfL Rail in preparation for the new service.

Meanwhile, hidden in the industrial estate, the Paines Brook has joined the main flow of the river Ingrebourne. In the next section, the London Loop meets this river for the first but by no means the last time as it continues its final journey back towards the river Thames.

No comments: