Friday 17 February 2017

London Loop 23/24: Upminster Bridge - Rainham - Purfleet

Yes, concrete can float. World War II concrete barges dumped by the Thames at Rainham.

The London Loop ends in style, with one of its most interesting and rewarding sections. It continues to track the river Ingrebourne, first along a succession of green strips south of Upminster, then through Hornchurch Country Park, a former airbase that’s now one of the best open spaces on the trail. The green space now extends nearly all the way to pretty Rainham with its handsome 18th century Hall. A stride across Rainham Marshes in the footsteps of pilgrims takes you to the final stretch along the Thames, passing wartime concrete barges, a large but easily ignored landfill site and the RSPB’s Rainham Marshes reserve to finish at Count Dracula’s former home of Purfleet, just outside the London boundary.

For one last time, I’ve combined two Loop sections to create a longer walk. The official break point is at Rainham, but note that other transport options are surprisingly sparse, with only a couple of bus stops within easy reach between Upminster Bridge and Rainham. The stretch from there to Purfleet is the longest on the Loop without a convenient break point, so be prepared to walk the full distance: 8.5 km on the official route, though it’s all on easy paths and there’s an option to shorten the walk a little while missing some of the riverside features.

Update November 2017. Although I'd recommend first-time walkers follow the official London Loop route as described here, there is an unofficial option of branching off just before Hacton Bridge towards Chafford Hundred for the bus across the Dartford Crossing, currently the best available option for connecting the two ends of the Loop. Read more here.

The Ingrebourne Parkways

Rural past: Upminster windmill under repair.
Upminster today is deep suburbia, but that’s a 20th century phenomenon. The best way to imagine its rural past is to look at the geography. 200 or so years ago, Upminster Road was a country lane crossing a river valley between two ancient settlements, both crowned with hilltop churches so typical of this part of Essex.

To the west, on your left as you leave the Tube station, was Hornchurch, longstanding commercial centre of the Royal Liberty of Havering, discussed in the previous section, which stretched as far east as the river Ingrebourne. Overlooking the eastern slope of the valley was the parish centre of Upminster. On the Upminster side, the road is named St Marys Lane, after the parish church, but was originally known as Cranham Road, after its next destination.

The river has been bridged at this point at least since 1375, though for most of its history the bridge was pedestrian only, with horses and vehicles using an adjacent ford. One of the privileges of living in the Liberty was not having to pay for the upkeep of the bridge, which was entirely the responsibility of Upminster parish. The current stone and brick structure was installed, complete with time capsule, in 1892 as the most recent of a succession of bridges here. The river banks have been straightened and culverted but the water runs as it always did, from the hills north of Harold Wood down to the Thames.

The Loop heads off the road a little past the bridge, but for a more visible reminder of the area’s rural past, it’s worth a detour up the hill to view Upminster Windmill, one of the seven intact windmills surviving in London (another, Shirley Windmill, is just off section 4 of the Loop). The Grade II*- listed smock mill was built in 1803 to serve a new bakery on Hunt’s Farm, which once covered the site. Wind power was supplemented in 1811 with a steam engine, and at its peak, in the 1860s, the surviving mill building was the centre of an extensive complex with six pairs of millstones driven by both wind and steam.

It’s also known as Abraham’s Mill, after the family who owned it between 1857 and 1934, when it ceased commercial operations. Three years later, it was bought by Essex County Council, and was almost demolished but for a public outcry that eventually resulted in its being listed. The mill has enjoyed mixed fortunes since, though it’s currently leased on a long-term basis to a charity, the Friends of Upminster Windmill, who intend to return it to full working order, including an expanded visitor centre. When I last visited, the sails had been removed for restoration, giving the remaining smock a curiously naked look, but they shouldn’t be gone for long.

The Loop regains the Ingrebourne behind Hornchurch Stadium, which despite its name stands not in historic Hornchurch but on the Upminster side of the river. This council-built football and athletics venue has been here since 1956, on the site of the old Bridge House that once guarded the bridge. It’s home to a non-League football club, AFC Hornchurch, successors to the old Hornchurch FC, who play in the Isthmian League, as well as to West Ham United’s ladies’ team.

River Ingrebourne approaching Hacton Bridge.

As we have seen many times before on the trail, rivers passing through outer London tend to paint green strips through suburbia, thanks to their tendency to flood. The open margins of the Ingrebourne between the stadium and Hornchurch Country Park were improved by the council in the early 1960s to create a pioneering 2.5 km riverside walkway. It’s known as a ‘parkway’, a term that’s sometimes employed by planners to mean a motor highway with landscaped surrounds, but the Havering version is blissfully traffic-free. In fact there are officially three successive parkways: Gaynes Parkway as far as Hacton Bridge, Hacton Parkway to the edge of the old St George’s Hospital site, and Sutton Parkway on to the country park.

All three borrow well-established local place names. Gaynes was once the biggest manor in Upminster parish, deriving its name from the Engaine family, who held it in the 13th century. Hacton is still known today as a distinct locality, and we’ll have a lot more to say about Suttons shortly.

Today the parkways and other land alongside the river are part of the designated area of Thames Chase Community Forest, introduced in the previous section. They also serve as cycle routes, and not long after the Loop rejoins the riverside, it shares its path once more with the Ingrebourne Way, National Cycle Network 136, which has followed a more easterly route via Upminster town centre. Then the trail swaps from the Upminster to the Hornchurch side to arrive at Hacton Bridge.

Hacton likely developed around 1300 as an outlying hamlet of Upminster, to the east of the bridge, which has existed from about the same time. The river bends southwest here, so the route across the bridge runs roughly north-south, linking the Harold Wood area with Aveley and the Thames at Purfleet. It was also important as part of a route to Romford Market from the south.

On the other side of the bridge, the green space opens out a little, becoming wilder and more natural, though the housing estates of Hornchurch are never far away, sometimes pressing on the path which remains on the west side of the Ingrebourne. Soon visible on the right is the site of St George’s Hospital, founded in 1939 as Suttons Institution, originally to treat airmen from RAF Hornchurch. It became an NHS hospital in 1948 but was closed in 2012 and is being redeveloped as housing.

Hornchurch Country Park

The wetlands of Hornchurch Country Park.

Suttons was one of two manors granted by Henry II to Hornchurch Priory in the 1150s, and when the priory was dissolved in 1391, the Bishop of Winchester used the property to endow New College, Oxford. Remarkably, the college still owned Suttons Farm in 1915, during World War I, when the War Ministry leased part of it for a Royal Flying Corps airfield. This original airfield covered only a small part of the site, to the north, and was at first a rather improvised affair. ‘Flightways’, as they were known, were marked out on the grass with flaming torches when needed, and pilots were billeted in a nearby pub. But it later grew into one of the most important military airbases in the UK.

The site was chosen as the Ingrebourne’s flood plain here provided a large, flat, open area strategically close to the Thames estuary. For centuries, the wide-open highway of the Thames had been both a key factor in London’s success and one of the biggest weak spots in Britain’s defences. Much effort had been made over those centuries to protect it from potential seaborne belligerents, from the Spanish Armada to Napoléon Bonaparte, as seen on previous walks such as the London Countryway past Tilbury Fort.

This riparian vulnerability persisted into the new age of aerial combat: before radar, let alone GPS, navigation was one of the many challenges of flying, but the Thames was clearly visible from above even at night and pointed the way to some of the most strategic targets in the country. The first pilots based at Suttons Farm were tasked with intercepting and repelling or destroying any aircraft that tried to take advantage of this.

Initially the threat came not from aeroplanes, which still had limited range, but from airships, the famous German Zeppelins. Although these were essentially huge bags of potentially explosive hydrogen, they initially proved resistant to the unreliable canvas and wood biplanes flown by British pilots, until one night in September 1916 when Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, based at Suttons Farm, shot down an SL11 airship, which crashed in flames on a field in Cuffley, Hertfordshire, with the loss of all hands. A few nights later, another Suttons Farm flyer, Lieutenant Frederick Sowery, downed a second airship near Billericay, Essex.

These and subsequent incidents were widely publicised and celebrated, helping establish the idea of the air ace as a modern folk hero. The popular image of daring Biggles types with elaborate moustaches intensified in the later years of the war as aerial dogfights became commonplace, and more sophisticated aircraft flew from Suttons Farm to combat a new threat to London from Gotha bombers. Despite this, not long after the armistice that ended the war in 1918, the air base was deemed surplus to requirements, and the following year the land returned to farming.

This pastoral interlude was not to last. In 1922, as part of a major expansion of the newly-formed Royal Air Force (RAF), aviation returned to the Ingrebourne valley, over a much larger swathe of Suttons bought outright from New College. At first the base was known as RAF Suttons Farm but was renamed RAF Hornchurch in 1928 to make it easier to find by public transport.

World War II pillbox from RAF Hornchurch todays surviving in Hornchurch Country Park.

During World War II, Hornchurch flyers played a major role in supporting the withdrawal of Allied troops from Dunkirk in 1940, and in the subsequent Battle of Britain, which, as I noted when the Loop passed the former RAF command post at Bentley Priory in section 15, was the first significant military defeat for Nazi Germany. It was hard won, with Hornchurch alone losing 144 planes in the process of destroying 205 German aircraft. In total 2,662 German and well over 1,500 lives on the British side were lost. The crews at Hornchurch at this time, incidentally, included not just Brits but personnel from the USA, Canada, Australasia, South Africa, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

Hornchurch continued to defend the estuary in the years following the Battle of Britain, but by 1944 the planes had been relocated to the mainland, closer to the front, and the site’s history as an operational base ended. After the war, it was used for training and occasionally as a mobilisation depot. During a series of bitter strikes in the London docks and elsewhere in 1948-50, service personnel gathered at Hornchurch in readiness to take over essential services at the command of the Labour government, though these plans were never implemented. The base was also used as a centre for military support following the floods of 1954.

RAF Hornchurch was officially closed in 1962, with most of the structures demolished in 1966. The eastern part of the site, closest to the river, was used for gravel extraction in the 1970s. The western part became a housing estate, and the footprints of flightways, hangers and auxiliary buildings now lie under streets with names like Robinson Close, Sowrey Avenue, Deere Avenue and Tuck Road in honour of the flyers of two world wars.

The gravel workings exposed evidence of a much longer history of human habitation and use of the valley, unearthing artefacts from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages and Roman times. In 1980, with the gravel exhausted, the site was restored as the 104.5 ha Hornchurch Country Park. Much was then designated as the Ingrebourne Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest and the Ingrebourne Valley Local Nature Reserve. And though the original layout of the airbase has been obscured by digging and development, a few remnants have survived as reminders of less peaceful times, several of them visible from the Loop.

The main biological interest is in the wetlands bounding on the river, the heart of the SSSI, with their patchwork of reed beds dominated by two different species of reeds, tall fen and wet grassland. According to the official SSSI citation, they form “the largest and one of the most diverse coherent areas of freshwater marshland in Greater London…nowhere else in London do these habitats occur on such a large scale or in such intimate juxtaposition.” They support a rich population of invertebrates, including rare damselflies and hoverflies, and 61 species of breeding birds, including kingfishers, reed warblers and redshank. Elsewhere there are patches of planted woodland, rough grazed meadows and ponds.

The park is owned and managed by Havering council but has benefitted enormously since 2005 from a partnership with the Essex Wildlife Trust, which has set up a Friends group and helped raise additional funds from the National Lottery and sources such as the Veolia North Thames Trust, of which more later. Some of that cash has gone on the Wildlife Trust’s outstanding Ingrebourne Valley Visitor Centre, opened in 2015 with fascinating displays on both wildlife and wartime heritage. With a decent café too, it’s the first of three tempting pit stops along this section of the trail.

The Spitfire that never got off the ground.
Before reaching the visitor centre, it’s worth pausing at the playground to observe the item of play equipment roughly based on a Spitfire, the most famous model of fighter plane to fly from here in World War II. There’s something oddly cheering about the way children clamber obliviously over this tribute to an efficient instrument of death and destruction on sunny weekends and holidays. The car park beyond, only a little further off the trail, is on the site of a former aircraft dispersal bay, and a red brick E-shaped blast pen, like those noted at Kenley aerodrome on section 5 of the Loop, still stands here.

Not far past the visitor centre, a viewpoint on the right gives a fine view of the reed beds and river, and a little further, down a dip, is a half-sunken hexagonal concrete pillbox, one of the surviving installations from World War II. Still further are two much smaller and rather rarer conical structures known as Tett Turrets, actually the tops of submerged concrete cylinders just about big enough to shelter a single gunner in what must have been a very cramped and claustrophobic environment. Just past the turrets, the woodland to the right covers the southeastern end of what was once the longest of two flightways, which ran northeast as far as what’s now Deere Avenue.

Tett Turret at Hornchurch Country Park
The trail then turns away from the river, passing another pillbox right beside the path, to reach Albyns Farm Lake, created from gravel diggings in the 1980s and now a popular fishing spot. The name indicates that this part of the site lay within the bounds of another farm, but still within the airfield. A second, shorter, flightway ran roughly north from the northern corner of the lake, almost to today’s Scotts Primary School, crossing the longer one.

As you round the lake and follow the surfaced lane, you’re walking along what was once the airfield perimeter. You soon pass the farmhouse of Albyns Farm, now an upmarket walled residence in an unusual setting. During wartime, its occupants must have been regularly deafened by aircraft movements – and under constant threat of stray bombs and bullets from attacks on the base.

At the farmhouse, the Loop was originally forced into a frustrating detour through streets, but in recent years a field edge path has opened, connecting directly to a welcome extension of the green spaces along the valley. Ingrebourne Hill is the second of the major Thames Chase Forestry Commission sites along the Loop, a 57 ha area which, like Hornchurch Country Park, was quarried for gravel, until it was restored and gradually reopened between 1998 and 2008.

Like the Commission’s Pages Wood in the previous section, it’s designed to mix areas of tree cover with broad paths and grassland, so will retain a relatively open aspect even as it matures. A major feature is a state-of-the-art 2 km mountain bike course, so watch out for fast and muddy bikers crossing your path. There’s also a viewpoint atop an artificial hill with a line of sight to central London’s high rises, but since this is about 300 m off the trail to the east, I haven’t counted it among my views from the Loop.

The swathe of reed beds continues into Ingrebourne Hill, past the viewpoint, providing a backdrop in the southern part of the site to a landscaped lake, named Stillwell Lake after Squadron Leader Ronnie Stillwell, one of the Spitfire pilots based at RAF Hornchurch. Another aviation reference is the grassy mock-flightway that terminates near the car park at a sculpture inspired by runway approach lighting. One of the Loop’s best stretches of continuous off-road walking ends here as you leave the environs of Thames Chase Community Forest, heading for Rainham along busy South End Road.

Flightway sculpture at Ingrebourne Hill.


Rainham Hall
Rainham is an ancient parish and village, recorded in the 1086 Domesday survey, its Saxon name meaning a settlement associated with someone called Regna (the other Rainham, on the Kent side of the estuary near the mouth of the Medway, is thought to have a slightly different derivation, from a tribal name). Like Upminster to the north, it was once part of Essex’s Chafford Hundred. It stands on the northern rim of the Thames marshes, on several significant transport routes.

Two roads, Upminster Road and Wennington Road, merged here to cross the Ingrebourne, before splitting off again as South End Road towards Hornchurch and Rainham Road towards Dagenham. The main route between London, Tilbury and Southend followed Rainham and Wennington Roads, passing through the village. Rainham Creek, the navigable tidal lower section of the Ingrebourne, connected a wharf at the west end of the village to the Thames. Another road, Ferry Lane, led down to the Thames itself, where the Pilgrim Ferry crossed the river to Kent and the ‘long ferry’ from Gravesend to London also called by.

A simple plank bridge crossed the Ingrebourne in 1356 when Edward III used it regularly on hunting expeditions. He granted local landowner Thomas de Hoggeshawe special protection when de Hoggeshawe undertook to repair it. The current bridge, known as Red Bridge, dates from 1898 when it was rebuilt by Essex County Council. By then, the tiny hamlet on the east bank had grown into a relatively prosperous village, boosted by proximity to the Thames, with several grand houses appearing in the 18th century. The railway from Fenchurch Street arrived in 1854, and from the 1920s, upwardly mobile East Enders built houses and smallholdings on plots which were said to be cheaper per square yard than linoleum.

Just before the bridge, the Loop crosses New Road, built in 1926 so the Tilbury road, by now numbered A13, could bypass the village centre. It’s since been superseded as a through route by a much bigger road we’ll walk under later. After the bridge, the Loop follows Bridge Road around another roundabout, beside which is a curious garden stocked with Australasian plants, created as a legacy of London 2012. The trail now finally bends with Bridge Road away from the creek, as there’s no convenient way of following this to its mouth. Then it reaches a triangular space on the left, the old village green, at the point where the Wennington and Upminster Roads meet.

Two buildings dominate the scene here. The Grade I listed Church of St Helen and St Giles is the only remaining mediaeval building in the village and the only church in the British Isles dedicated to these two saints. Much of the structure, built partly from clay eroded from the cliffs of the Essex coast, dates from around 1170. Until 1327 it was administered by Lesnes Abbey, across the river near present-day Thamesmead, the ruins of which we’ll encounter on the Green Chain Walk. The stumpy Grade II-listed red brick clock tower and war memorial topped with an unlikely Portland stone balustrade, as if waiting for someone to preach from the top of it, dates from 1920.

Despite its dearth of truly old buildings, Bridge Street retains a quiet and pleasant character, with several 18th and 19th century buildings. The most significant of these, and arguably Rainham’s greatest architectural gem, is Rainham Hall, a little further on the left. This fine three storey brick townhouse in Dutch Queen Anne style was built in 1729 for former sea captain John Harle, then the owner of Rainham Wharf. A later owner, Colonel Herbert Hall Mulliner, used it to house his collection of furniture and pottery. The colonel gave the house to the National Trust in 1949, but for many years it wasn’t fully open to the public. That finally changed in 2015 following Lottery-funded refurbishment and the opening of a café and reception centre in the adjoining coach house.

Even if the café doesn’t tempt you, it’s worth a slight detour to view the opposite side of the house, which presents its back to the street. The front façade is especially handsome, framed by original wrought iron railings featuring the intertwining initials of Harle and his wife Mary. It’s thought they were created by Jean Tijou, who also provided ironwork for Hampton Court Palace. You can wander freely in the large and charming garden, which includes vases listed in their own right and a recently replanted orchard that’s now one of the largest in London.

Much newer, but still incorporating elements of traditional vernacular architecture such as red brick and pitched roofs with end gables, is Rainham Library, opened in 2015. The building incorporates residential flats, shops and a café and is supposed to be highly sustainable. The design, by Maccreanor Lavington, does a good job of fitting into the street scene without seeming fake or nostalgic.

Rainham station, right by the library, was opened in 1854 on the original stretch of the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LT&SR) between Forest Gate and Tilbury: originally trains followed existing lines from Forest Gate to London Fenchurch Street until a more direct route into the City opened in 1858. The current buildings, though, are much more recent. Then, running parallel to the LT&SR here, is High Speed 1 (HS1), at the time of writing Britain’s only modern high speed railway line, linking London St Pancras International, Ashford and the Channel Tunnel portal. This stretch was part of the second phase of the line, opened between London and Ebbsfleet, on the Kent side of the Thames, in 2007.

The Loop crosses HS1 on a massive foot and cycle bridge, opened in 2006 as a fine entrance to Rainham Marshes. From the top, there are wide views across the flat, wet land, down to the Thames and across to the Kent side, with the North Downs rising up in the distance. A lengthy ramp supported on timber columns, designed by architect Peter Beard, majestically descends on a gentle slope to deposit you in the unique environment of the marshes, ready to enjoy a network of paths that were also improved as part of the construction of the railway.

Rainham Marshes

View across Rainham Marshes from the ramp across HS1.

The very first section of the London Loop, from Erith, spends most of its time in the Crayford Marshes to the south of the Thames, so it’s fitting that the trail ends with a lengthy stride through their counterparts on the north bank. As explained in section 1, large parts even of central London were once marshes, though much was drained in mediaeval times. Thankfully, the marshes survive here on the fringe, and Rainham’s now comprise the largest area of marshland in the upper part of the estuary. Not only are Rainham Marshes larger than Crayford Marshes, they’re also comparatively less developed. There are patches of industry, in big blocky buildings close to the river, as well as a massive landfill site. But surrounding these are vast tracts of wetland more-or-less unchanged since mediaeval times.

How this will be affected now that Rainham is part of the massive Thames Gateway development area remains to be seen, although the wildlife and amenity value of the marshes is well-recognised and protected. Since 1986, the marshes between Rainham and Purfleet have been included in the 479 ha Inner Thames Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), as “the largest remaining expanse of wetland bordering the upper reaches of the Thames Estuary…of particular note for its diverse ornithological interest and especially for the variety of breeding birds and the numbers of wintering wildfowl, waders, finches and birds of prey, with wintering teal populations reaching levels of international importance.”

The marshes are a largely natural landscape, protected from the worst of storms and floods by the way the river bends around Coldharbour Point. It’s thought only a small part of today’s land area, to the southeast, was artificially reclaimed from the Thames during the 17th century. The marshes were long used for grazing sheep and cattle, with some market gardening for both local and London markets.

This latter use increased in the 18th century when Captain Harle improved Rainham Wharf, using it not only to ship produce to the capital but for the decidedly unglamorous purpose of importing London’s horse muck to fertilise the expanding fields and gardens. At one point Rainham was notorious for its unpleasant odours rather than renowned for its riverside charms, although a small resort, with pubs and pleasure grounds, did develop by the mouth of the creek in the 19th century, catering to day trippers from upriver. This has long since vanished beneath industry.

Originally the Loop followed Ferry Lane here but now a new path continues ahead from the foot of the HS1 ramp through open grassland. It carries not only the Loop but National Cycle Network route 13, which will eventually connect Tower Bridge with Fakenham in Norfolk, and the prosaically named Rainham to Purfleet Walk. This last is rather obsessively waymarked, with posts every 100 m counting the distances between the two ends.

The trail passes under the A13 flyover, between the two Thames Gateway roundabouts with their unlikely public art welcoming you to the Ferry Lane industrial zone. The most recent incarnation of the Tilbury and Southend road, roaring above your head, was opened in 1997 as part of a new raised causeway across the marshes. It’s the last radial trunk road from London, and indeed the last A road, crossed by the Loop.

Re-entering the marshland on the other side of the A13, you have a choice of paths. The official Loop line is still shown on many maps as simply following Ferry Lane from here, but it now takes a narrow off-road path that’s sometimes slightly overgrown, continuing to track the lane but at a pleasant distance from the heavy traffic heading for the industrial estate. This route isn’t entirely accessible, so NCN13 and the Rainham to Purfleet Walk follow a broader path across a particularly verdant and lonely stretch of marsh, which rejoins the Loop at Rainham riverside, though is slightly longer and misses out a couple of riverside features.

A third alternative, also part of NCN13, branches off from this second route at the entrance to the riverside car park to rejoin at Aveley Bay: I don’t particularly recommend this as it misses out much of the riverside stretch, though it’s considerably shorter overall.

I’ll restrict my description to the official Loop route, which crosses Coldharbour Lane and nips down a green strip between buildings on the Easter Industrial Estate to cross Ferry Lane. Straight ahead is a slope surmounted by a wall, and on the other side of the wall, at last, is the river Thames. The Loop has almost completed its journey.

Along the Thames

The lighthouse at Coldharbour Point, with Erith Deep Wharf and the start of the Loop visible across the Thames.

This is the same broad and slightly briny stretch of the Thames, widening towards the estuary, that we enjoyed in section 1, but seen from the other side. And once again it’s worth pausing to note the contrast with the last time we saw the river, much narrower, non-tidal and more genteel, at Kingston on section 8. There, the passing traffic consisted of narrowboats and pleasure cruisers. Here, you might spot substantial ocean-going freighters on their way to and from the various commercial terminals upriver.

A plaque on the river wall, corresponding to the one we noted at Erith riverside, commemorates the Pilgrim Ferry, which operated between 1199 and the 1850s. The Erith plaque is on the actual site of the former ferry pier, but for some reason, this one is a long way off, as the ferry served Coldharbour Point further downstream. It was also known as the ‘Short Ferry’, to distinguish it from the Long Ferry mentioned above. This wasn’t a ferry in the modern sense at all, but more like a riverbus service that ran between Gravesend and the City of London, calling at several points along the way, including a pier by the mouth of Rainham Creek, a little upstream. It’s first recorded in 1279, and was withdrawn in the face of railway competition probably in the 1860s.

The trail now turns to follow the river downstream, though when I last walked this way the path along the very top of the river wall was overgrown with buddleia. This improves past the Tilda Rice Factory, the self-proclaimed “home of genuine basmati rice”. The company began in 1970 to serve the UK’s South Asian community, and claims to be the first importer of the fine basmati variety of rice into Europe. It’s since grown into a familiar supermarket brand, and its success is attested by the size of this plant, opened in the late 1980s. You walk between the factory itself and its private jetty, where bulk brown rice arrives by boat to be processed and packed. Some finished products are exported from the jetty too: the company, now owned by a US-based group, is active in 50 countries.

The trail soon reaches a riverside car park, where it’s rejoined by the first alternative route described above. This is a popular spot for river watching, with a couple of curious features close by. First is Rainham’s celebrated collection of abandoned concrete barges. If you think that the notion of a concrete barge must be a wind-up or a conceptual joke, here’s the proof that they exist, in the form of 16 substantial vessels, each one around 25 m long and 7 m wide, some of them half-submerged in mud. They were made in the early 1940s by the building firm Wates, at a time when more traditional boatbuilding materials were scarce due to the war effort, using the same precast concrete techniques as prefabricated buildings. As they’re reinforced with steel mesh, they’re technically known as ferro-concrete barges, with the model number PB200.

The barges, which were unpowered and designed to be towed by another vessel, were used for transporting bulk liquids, particularly fuel and drinking water. The frequently repeated claim that they were used as part of the temporary Mulberry harbours during the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 has been called into question, though the harbours were made using similar techniques, and some of the barges may have helped to supply the operation. These examples have apparently languished here since the high tides of 1953, when they were used as improvised flood defences.

The sometimes submerged Diver sculpture at Rainham.
Just beyond the barges and likewise mired in the Thames mud is one of London’s quirkiest and most playful pieces of public art. It’s sometimes hard to spot, though, as it’s regularly partly and sometimes completely submerged at high tide. This is The Diver: Regeneration, a 4.6 m-tall galvanised steel cage in the shape of a figure wearing an old-fashioned ‘copper hat’ diving suit, placed here in 2000. It was created by self-taught local sculptor John Kaufman (1941-2002), inspired by his grandfather who was a diver in the London docks. The piece is both melancholy and comical, particularly when a gull chooses it as a convenient perch.

If you’ve a good memory of the first section, the surroundings may now start to look a little familiar, although viewed from a different angle. There are glimpses of the central London high rises upriver behind you. Ahead, a large grey and drab green hanger-like structure extends over the river. There’s an urban myth that the ubiquitous yellow barges full of rubbish towed down the river by tugs are taking their cargo out to sea for dumping, but in fact quite a lot of it is heading here, to the Veolia Waste Management Terminal jetty, for processing and, often, for landfill on the adjacent marshland.

Veolia, a multinational descended from a French water company that once also owned Universal Studios, states on its website that a landfill site has existed here for 150 years. Today, the facility has swelled to 177 ha, and currently accepts 1.5 million tonnes of waste every year, some of which is recycled at the onsite materials recovery facility, the rest buried. Note the plastic pipes sprouting from the grassy hills, to release the methane and carbon dioxide generated by decomposing waste: some of the gas is captured onsite and used to generate up to 15 MW of electricity for sale to the National Grid. There’s also a ‘leachate processing plant’ for dealing with the large quantities of foul liquid drained from waste.

The landfill was due to close in 2018, but Veolia successfully applied to the council for an extension and it will now be operational until 2024. After this, it’s due to be re-landscaped and opened as a further significant extension to the riverside public space. With those forbidding plastic tubes and the succession of smelly lorries coming and going, it’s hard to imagine the peaceful place this will eventually become, but there are other places on the Loop with a similar history, including just beyond Bexley on section 2 and at Stockley Park on section 11.

Meanwhile at least some of the company’s profits are diverted to public benefit, including through various charitable trusts, now united as the Veolia Environmental Trust. This has helped fund improvements along the Loop, including at Central Park in Harold Hill (on section 21), the Ingrebourne Valley Visitor Centre and the RSPB reserve a little further along. The riverside walkway itself was secured partly as a condition of Veolia’s operation of the site, and the company has been made to fund extra mitigation measures at the RSPB site, as landfill attracts predators like foxes and gulls, creating a disproportionate threat to breeding birds.

A little past the waste jetty, the river bends sharply left. The corner here is known as Coldharbour Point, and is marked by a small automatic lighthouse, one of only nine remaining along the Thames, to warn shipping of the change of direction. The spindly 12 m-tall steel gantry remains more-or-less as it was when installed by Trinity House in 1885, and is now the responsibility of the Port of London Authority (PLA). When I last visited, it was undergoing maintenance and sheathed in a protective cover which made it look more substantial than it actually is.

If you’ve walked section 1, you should be able to identify several landmarks on the opposite bank. Right opposite, seemingly reaching out towards the lighthouse, is the long pier of Erith Deep Wharf. To its right are the riverside gardens where the London Loop first encountered the Thames, and a way over to the left is the rectangular outline of Dartford Creek Flood Barrier, straddling the mouth of the river Darent. In the distance, downriver, is the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, the southbound section of the Dartford Crossing on the M25. Coldharbour Point was the location of the northern pier of the Pilgrim Ferry, and standing here you may well ponder how wonderful it would be to hop on a boat or stride across a bridge here to complete your journey back where it started. But for the time being at least, the Erith side remains frustratingly out of reach.

Round the bend, the path passes a cluster of industry known as the Freightmaster Industrial Estate, on the site of an old freight depot, but this is soon left behind on one of the loneliest stretches of the whole trail, as you thread between the river and the area of marshland known as Wennington Marshes. After a while, the trail turns slightly inland, temporarily losing sight of the river to follow the landward side of the river wall across Aveley Bay, once a much more watery inlet. It’s here that the second alternative route rejoins, having followed Coldharbour Lane.

About 100 m or so along Aveley Bay, the Loop crosses the Greater London boundary for the last time, leaving Havering and entering the Borough of Thurrock, once also part of Essex but since 1998 a separate unitary authority. There’s no obvious sign on the ground, although on the left, to the north, the boundary follows one of the ditches across Aveley Marsh. You might well spot Eurostars and other high speed trains whizzing across the marshes on HS1 to your left here.

Then a substantial fence marches towards you from the left, although the panels that once blocked the path have been removed. This is a reminder of an even less appealing former use than landfill. In 1906, the War Office bought the swathe of land downriver of the fence as a rifle range. Gun emplacements here were used to defend against Zeppelin raids during World War I, and beacon fires lit as decoys. Some of the structures from these times are still visible, with the site of an old gun emplacement off to the left soon after the fence. But after World War II the site was little used. As in several other places with a similar history, the military occupation had the side effect of leaving the natural environment relatively undisturbed, and in 2000 the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) took advantage of this by acquiring the former defence lands as its Rainham Marshes nature reserve.

RSPB visitor centre, Rainham Marshes.
The reserve opened to the public in 2008, and you’ll soon see its rather unobtrusive infrastructure of boardwalks and hides appearing on the landward side. The star species here are avocet, lapwing, little egret, peregrine and ringed plover, and the wetlands also support water voles, grass snakes and dragonflies. There’s an admission charge if you’re not an RSPB member, but you have a good view from the trail. This now runs back alongside the river for a while then splits again: the official route is along the lower path on the left, closer to the reserve, and there are notices deterring you from the upper path, but no actual blockages, so you may prefer to spend more time closer to the Thames.

Soon visible ahead, although well-camouflaged, is the reserve visitor centre, designed by van Heyningen & Haward architects to be as sustainable as possible. The distinctive conical structures on the roof are part of a natural light and ventilation system, and the design also features solar cells, rainwater collection and a ground source heat pump. Open free to the public, this is a third highly recommended stop on today’s walk: inside you’ll find extensive information and displays, an inviting volunteer-staffed café and massive windows providing a fine view over the marshes.

The trail turns away from the river to pass the visitor centre entrance and cross one final Thames tributary. This is the Mardyke, which rises in Holden’s Wood between Great and Little Warley, and flows for around 18 km. Its name means ‘boundary ditch’, and for much of its length it formed parish boundaries. Until 2010, it was something of a barrier here, necessitating a diversion further inland to get across, but now there’s a convenient cycle- and footbridge, funded by the Veolia Trust and known as the Veolia Mardyke Bridge. Crossing this, you’ll pass through the Sun Arch which, together with the adjacent wave-themed seats, was designed by artist Edward Allington.

There are paths along much of the Mardyke, and a partially-completed project to upgrade them into a walking and cycling trail, the Mardyke Way, which links with the London Countryway at Orsett. If you try following the Mardyke from here, though, you won’t get very far before the way is blocked, so if you want to explore this option, it’s best to continue along the Loop a little further into Purfleet.


Gumpowder Magazine No 5, now the Purfleet Heritage and Military Centre.

In Bram Stoker’s seminal Gothic novel Dracula, first published in 1897, estate agent Jonathan Harker describes a potential property of interest to his mysterious client, the Transylvanian Count Dracula, who unbeknown to him is a bloodsucking immortal vampire:

“At Purfleet, on a byroad, I came across just such a place as seemed to be required, and where was displayed a dilapidated notice that the place was for sale. It was surrounded by a high wall, of ancient structure, built of heavy stones, and has not been repaired for a large number of years. The closed gates are of heavy old oak and iron, all eaten with rust. The estate is called Carfax, no doubt a corruption of the old Quatre Face, as the house is four sided, agreeing with the cardinal points of the compass…The house is very large and of all periods back, I should say, to mediaeval times, for one part is of stone immensely thick, with only a few windows high up and heavily barred with iron. It looks like part of a keep, and is close to an old chapel or church…There are but few houses close at hand, one being a very large house only recently added to and formed into a private lunatic asylum."

Dracula buys the house, and has 50 large boxes delivered to it, which he then distributes to several other properties he has discreetly acquired around London. The boxes are coffins of Transylvanian soil to be used as refuges for the vampire as he proceeds to infiltrate the Victorian establishment. The driver who collects the boxes from Carfax is astonished at the Count’s vigour:

“There was the old party what engaged me a waitin’ in the ‘ouse at Purfleet. He ‘elped me to lift the boxes and put them in the dray. Curse me, but he was the strongest chap I ever struck, an’ him a old feller, with a white moustache, one that thin you would think he couldn’t throw a shadder…Why, ‘e took up ‘is end o’ the boxes like they was pounds of tea, and me a puffin’ an’ a blowin’ afore I could upend mine anyhow, an’ I’m no chicken, neither.”
Dracula recruits Renfield, one of the patients in the adjacent asylum, as his thrall. The doctor in charge of Renfield's case, John Seward, is a would-be suitor of one of the vampire's victims, Lucy Westenra, and teams with his former mentor Professor Abraham van Helsing and with Harker in an attempt to save her.

The house, which for added Gothic atmosphere became Carfax Abbey in the famous 1931 Universal film and in several subsequent adaptations, turns out to be fictitious, though Stoker drew on fact. Local historian Jonathan Catton, of Thurrock Museum, says (in ‘Purfleet’s Dracula Connection’, a fascinating piece on the Thurrock website from 1997), a house known as Carfax stood in Purfleet until 1980, though it wasn’t built until 1900 and didn’t match the description in the novel.

Instead, Catton identifies the original inspiration for the vampire’s lair as Purfleet House, not mediaeval in origin but built in 1791 for brewing magnate Samuel Whitbread, who at that time owned extensive property in the village. The house was sited in a former chalk quarry, secluded from surrounding streets, and the philanthropically-inclined Whitbread built a chapel and school next door. By the 1890s the site was a minor visitor attraction for day trippers, who could obtain the key from the caretaker and explore the winding paths and grottoes in the grounds.

Catton suggests Stoker may have been among the visitors, on a day off from his duties as acting manager at the Lyceum Theatre. He identifies the asylum with Ordnance House, a secure building nearby which was the residence of the Clerk of the Royal Gunpowder Magazines. Purfleet House was demolished in stages in the 1920s and 1950s, Ordnance House in the 1960s, although the chapel and school buildings, now private homes, still stand and are Grade II-listed.

The above account touches on several important aspects of Purfleet’s history: chalk, gunpowder, the Victorian leisure industry and the presence of the Whitbreads. In mediaeval times, it was a small riverside hamlet and manor of West Thurrock parish in the Chafford hundred of Essex. The parish centre was further east, under what’s now the suburban sprawl on the other side of the M25. The economy then was largely based on grazing and market gardening on the marshes, but from at least the 15th century chalk was dug from the large deposit that rises here as a cliff to the immediate north of the marshes, and kilned to produce lime for agricultural and building use. The convenience of transport on the nearby river encouraged this industrial development, and by the end of the 19th century there were major concrete works in the area.

In 1760, the government also took advantage of the river to build the Royal Gunpowder Magazine at the mouth of the Mardyke on its east bank, a storage facility replacing one at Greenwich. When the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey (on the London Countryway) were opened in 1787, powder was shipped down the rivers Lea and Thames for storage here. Later it arrived by rail, with a private rail system connected to the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LT&SR). At its height in the 1890s, the 10 ha site housed around 3,200 tonnes of gunpowder and cordite in seven magazines, with more in disused ships moored in the river. Remarkably, it suffered no serious accidents before its closure in 1962.

The railway facilitated not only industry but leisure, with cheap excursion tickets sold at weekends bringing Londoners to the various local watering holes and to the pleasure gardens, also operated by Whitbread, that now covered another part of the old chalk quarry.

All this is hard to imagine today, as Purfleet suffers from the same malaise that affects many other parts of Thurrock, named the most miserable local authority area in England following a government survey in 2012. The modern-day bloodsuckers that cast their pall over the place are economic and political. I noted at Tilbury, on an alternative section of the London Countryway, the woes of a deindustrialised zone that misses the benefit of being part of London by lying just outside it. There have been attempts to cheer the area up, notably by the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, which in 2010 established a scenery production facility on the edge of town, since evolved into the flourishing High House Production Park. Purfleet isn’t as dilapidated as Tilbury, and most of the Loop’s route is through a conservation area, but there are still signs of boarded-up neglect.

The trail rounds the worn-looking 1970s Garrison Estate that replaced the gunpowder magazine, soon passing one of the surviving red brick heritage buildings. This is Magazine No 5, built in 1759, which was kept for storage when the estate was built, and saved following a local campaign in the 1990s. It opened in 1994 as the Purfleet Heritage and Military Centre, and survives in this role today, with an old shell casing and other exhibits on display outside. It’s open on Thursday and Sundays, staffed entirely by volunteers, and contains displays not only on the Gunpowder Magazines but on other aspects of local history, including the rifle range, Whitbread and the Dracula connection.

A little past this, near the beacon in Riverside Gardens, you have one last opportunity to admire the Thames before turning your back on it. The trail winds past the Royal Hotel, rebuilt in grand style with a stucco façade on the site of an earlier pub by Whitbread in the early 19th century, and still in use as a hotel today.

Opposite where you emerge on the High Street beside the hotel is a war memorial and open space, and beyond it St Stephen’s Church. This was built in the 1920s by the Whitbread family, from masonry largely recycled from partially demolishing Purfleet House. So the church is now the epicentre of the Dracula connection, somewhat ironically given the traditional vampire aversion to Christianity. There’s the opportunity for a detour not only to the church but to the historic Whitbread buildings in Church Hollow behind it. If you want to follow the Mardyke, it’s best to leave the riverside a little earlier, following Tank Hill Road and Tank Lane.

And finally, the London Loop reaches its conclusion rather anti-climatically, at Purfleet station a little further along London Road. The station was opened in 1854 as the next stop down from Rainham on the same stretch of the LT&SR, though the current rather undistinguished single storey yellow brick building, with large rectangles of forbidding grey shutters, is from the 1960s. It’s quite a schlep to link the two ends of the trail by public transport from here, though not quite as bad as it once was, thanks to the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). You’ll need to take a c2c National Rail train to West Ham, the DLR under the river to Woolwich Arsenal, then Southeastern National Rail to Erith, where, if you wish, you can start all over again.

Purfleet station, the rather unimpressive end point of the London Loop.

Looping the Loop

To write these posts, I walked the London Loop for the third time. Strictly speaking, though, the Loop didn’t yet exist on my first time round.

In the early 1990s, I stumbled on a leaflet published by the London Walking Forum, the pioneering partnership between local authorities and volunteer bodies that championed a coordinated approach to walking in London at a time when coordinated government in the capital had been abolished by Thatcherite spite. The leaflet included a map illustrating the Forum’s plans for a network of green London trails, some already in existence, some planned, some aspirational. That map was a revelation, and I set about walking all the existing routes shown on it that hadn’t already passed beneath my feet.

At that stage, the Loop and its sister trail the Capital Ring were merely gleams in the Forum members’ eyes, still known by the rather more prosaic titles Outer Orbital Path and Inner Orbital Path respectively. The map was certainly not a practical walking guide: it fitted the whole of Greater London onto an A4 sheet, and the only additional details besides the route lines were a few place names, the Thames and the borough boundaries.

But it was clear that the orbital routes were planned largely to make use of paths and access that already existed: indeed, sections of them followed already recognised trails like the Cray Riverway and the Green Chain Walk, and obvious features like rivers, canals and the ‘Greenway’ sewer. By carefully comparing the route map with more detailed street atlases and Ordnance Survey maps, it was possible to work out with some degree of accuracy where they were intended to go. And this is how I became one of the first people outside the London Walking Forum to walk the London Loop.

I walked the trail again in the early 2000s when the first edition of David Sharp’s guidebook was published, and then completed sections of it yet again over the years, sometimes because I was leading walks along it for Walk London. The only section, incidentally, completely new to me this time round was the final riverside one between Rainham and Purfleet, which was inaccessible until 2009 or so.

Based on these excursions, I developed a View of the London Loop which I expressed in print on a couple of occasions. My View was that the Loop was fine, but the Ring was much better. The Ring, I reasoned, was an unavoidably and unashamedly urban walk, constantly challenging expectations about urban walking by revealing London’s surprisingly extensive reserves of green space and a succession of ‘I never knew this existed’ features that you’d only ever find on foot. But the Loop, with its mix of large green urban fringe spaces, genuine countryside and inevitable built-up areas, seemed neither one thing nor the other.

People who liked country walking would enjoy the more rural bits, then carp about lengths of waterside tarmac and complain bitterly about streets and industrial estates. Less prepared walkers meanwhile found themselves grappling with muddy paths, rickety stiles, absent waymarks, ferocious nettle patches and all the other dubious pleasures of a classic English ramble. And to the would-be flaneur, the urban bits were not the multi-layered and vibrant streets of the inner city, but the apparently undifferentiated sprawl of boring old middle class suburbia.

Having walked the Loop again, this time digging into the background of the areas it passes through in considerable detail as I went, I can say I enjoyed it much more than I expected to. Yes, there are still issues, particularly where golf courses and interwar residential streets lap across the desire line or major roads sever paths. The sections between Banstead Downs and Warren Farm, between Bushy Park and Hospital Bridge, and up and down the A1 are a particular drudge in this respect.

On the other hand, if you find yourself sinking ankle deep into the mud at Pinnerwood, you may recall the kilometres of identikit semis with fondness. But such issues only trouble a minority of the Loop’s total length, and elsewhere there’s so much to enjoy, in terms of views, wildlife, natural beauty, landscaping or often-overlooked heritage. It’s still gobsmacking that environments like Rainham Marshes, Farthing Down and the Wellingtonia avenue in Havering Country Park can be found within the bounds of London.

And in the end London’s fascination is surely in its variety. Suburbia is as much a part of this great city’s story as its Roman and mediaeval core and its inner Victorian ‘villages’ and post-industrial zones. Seeing the way that the streets simply stop just north of Cockfosters, the result of the conjunction of historical circumstances that locked the built-up area into its current envelope while simultaneously preserving the magnificent adjoining country park, itself the result of successive waves of world history overlaying the natural endowment of the Forest of Middlesex, is surely as instructive as stumbling on urban woodlands and commons or tracing the industrial footprint of the East End on the Ring. All environments have something to teach the observant walker, and those on the Loop are no exception.

I concluded my writeup of the London Countryway with a rather lengthy reflection on the stories and places visited. If I did the same thing here, I might easily find myself writing an alternative version of the entire past 16 posts. So, to indulge a personal preference, I’ve picked out a dozen places along the way which I quite likely would never have found without the Loop, and which I’m delighted to revisit again and again, as they’re just so surprising, and so beautiful.

1. Hall Place, Bexley (section 1), a haphazard but delightful building, well- refurbished in a riverside setting, with bizarre topiary to enjoy.

2. Scadbury Park moated manor (section 2), a pile of very significant old stones in surely one of the most rural parts of Zone 5, with links to Christopher Marlowe and Elizabethan intrigue.

3. The Wilberforce Oak (section 3), a significant site in the development of civilisation, tucked away in Bromley’s countryside and only reachable on foot.

4. Farthing Down (section 5), London’s very own chalk down, with prehistoric heritage. Adjacent Happy Valley lives up to its name too.

5. The Lavender Farm (section 6), because where else would you expect to find fields full of commercially-grown lavender but in the London Borough of Sutton?

6. St Dunstan’s, Cranford Park (section 10), where the lad himself, Tony Hancock’s ashes are scattered close to the river Crane, a Georgian coach house, and the roaring M4.

7. Hatch End Station (sections 14/15), a miniature Romanesque masterpiece that’s all the more impressive for being so unexpected, thought by some the most attractive station in England.

8. The Obelisk, Trent Park (section 17): its setting, with a keyhole view of the house across sweeping parkland, is a monument to the tasteful flamboyance of a previous owner.

9. Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge (section 19), one of London’s most historic buildings, effectively evoking a Tudor past against the backdrop of Epping Forest.

10. Wellingtonia Avenue, Havering Country Park (section 20), lined with towering giant sequoias, one of the most awe-inspiring walkways in London and indeed the UK.

11. Hornchurch Country Park (section 23 above), combining intriguing fragments from its days as a wartime RAF base with a generous and rich expanse of wetland and marsh.

12. Rainham Riverside (section 24 above), for its improbable and unexpected collection of concrete barges and tidally-revealed public art, and its magnificent views of the Thames.

The Loop’s major flaw remains the fact that, owing to the lack of a convenient river crossing in the east, it isn’t a loop at all. On my first circuit, I was so frustrated by this that I attempted to find a way of linking the two ends via the Dartford Crossing, and I’ve revisited this idea again recently. As walkers aren’t allowed on the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, the only viable way of crossing the river here involves a bus ride, using a service that’s primarily intended to link the two massive shopping malls at Lakeside and Bluewater. There’s a good walk to be had from Hacton Bridge via several improving sites in Thames Chase Community Forest to the nearest convenient bus stop at Chafford Hundred station, and at least a couple of pleasant options from the first bus stop on the Kent side through the outskirts of Dartford to rejoin the Loop at Barnes Cray. I’d certainly recommend walking the official route first, or you’ll miss the highlights of the Thames Estuary. But for the benefit of those who understandably can’t get enough of the Loop, I’ll give more details of this alternative in future posts.

More about the unofficial alternative.


Unknown said...

Completing the Loop

I’m currently walking the London Loop and plan to complete it with two additional stages.

Stage 25 Purfleet to the Tilbury Ferry
Ferry to Gravesend
Stage 26 Gravesend to Erith

It’s possible to walk by the riverside from Purfleet to Tilbury Docks, and the Tilbury Ferry is the other side of the docks.

The Thames path can be followed from Gravesend to Erith.

Des de Moor said...

Thanks for the above comment -- hope you're enjoying the Loop. Yes, that is another possible way of completing it but it's quite a long way out. That's how the London Countryway crosses and I'm also planning in future to cover all the riverside paths as far as Tilbury and Gravesend so didn't include it in my pieces on the Loop. It's not actually the Thames Path downstream of Crayford Marshes but there are some decent riverside paths which are due to become part of the England Coast Path. There's a long detour between Dartford and Erith as the nearest crossing of the Darent and Cray is some way inland, and you'll end up retracing a good stretch of path from the first section of the Loop but in the opposite direction. Still, it's always fun to walk alongside the river.