Thursday, 27 April 2017

London Loop Alternative: Upminster Bridge - Chafford Hundred

Stifford Pumping Station, above Davy Down. Engines not visible.

This alternative final section of the London Loop suggests a way of bridging the gap in the trail by crossing the river Thames in the east, albeit by bus on the Dartford Crossing. Diverging from the official route shortly after Upminster Bridge, you’ll traverse several noteworthy green spaces in Thames Chase Community Forest, including three Forestry Commission woodlands, the expansive Belhus Woods Country Park and richly verdant Davy Down with its historic water pumping station. The last stretch finds hidden ways through Chafford Hundred, a new town built in an old quarry, with unexpectedly spectacular views.

There are no bus options for quite a while after the routes diverge, and there’s also an unavoidable stretch of not especially pleasant road walking, though the Forest sites that bookend this are considerable compensation. You could then break the journey at Belhus using a non-TfL bus if you wish. Otherwise the walk ends at Chafford Hundred station, adjacent to the massive Lakeside shopping mall, where, as well as trains to London, an hourly bus (not on Sundays and non-TfL) will take you on a scenic ride across the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to the suburbs of Dartford. I’ll describe the shortish and pleasant walk that connects this point back to the official Section 1 of the London Loop at Barnes Cray in a later post.

Bridging the gap in the Loop

Charge notice for Dartford Crossing
As mentioned several times in these pages, the biggest disappointment of the London Loop is that, due to the lack of a convenient river crossing, it’s not a loop at all. The lowest point at which anyone can walk from the north to the south bank of the river Thames is Woolwich, where a foot tunnel forms an integral part of the Loop’s inner London sister trail the Capital Ring. Continuing downstream, the next and last opportunity to walk to the riverside and cross to the opposite bank is on the Tilbury to Gravesend ferry. This is too far outside the London boundary to be of any use to Loop walkers, though it does form a part of the London Countryway, the unofficial orbital route through the outlying countryside, described elsewhere in these pages.

Confronted with this issue, the London Walking Forum, original devisers of the Loop, opted simply to start and finish at two stations close to the river and to London’s eastern edge: Erith and Purfleet. Historically, a ferry linked Coldharbour Point at Rainham, a little upriver of Purfleet, with Erith, and both its former termini are beside the trail. This ferry has been defunct since Victorian times, but doubtless the Forum hoped that at some point a boat service might be revived.

With the area now designated for long term development as part of the Thames Gateway, and the advent of the successful Thames Clippers riverbus service which now reaches as far downriver as Woolwich Arsenal, that possibility is a little less remote than it once was, but is certainly not imminent. So, for the foreseeable future, anyone who wants to walk to Purfleet and continue to Erith faces a roundabout rail journey quite a long way back into London then out again, via c2c to West Ham, the DLR to Woolwich and Southeastern to Erith.

There is however one fixed river crossing at about the right point that’s all too visible from the Loop itself but is tantalisingly out of reach to walkers. This is the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, a high and graceful suspension bridge visible for miles around which since 1991 has taken southbound traffic across the river, while northbound drivers use the earlier tunnel crossing.

It’s enduringly frustrating that this expensive and beautiful bridge with its spectacular views of the estuary has always been off-limits to walkers, despite many other equally long and high bridges, both in the UK and around the world, operating safely with walking and cycling lanes. When the tunnel first opened in 1963, it was understandably considered a hostile environment for walkers, and too dangerous for cyclists. But cyclists successfully insisted on provision, and at first a small fleet of specially adapted buses was provided to ferry them through, and for free too, unlike motorists. The buses were soon phased out due to lack of demand, but the provision remained, provided by more conventional vehicles.

During the planning of the bridge, an attempt to cancel the cycle service was resisted by pro-cycling MPs, but nobody successfully argued the obvious point that the public should simply to be able to cross the bridge under their own power, on foot or by bike. The M25, lest we forget, was one of the pet projects of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a woman who allegedly held the opinion that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”.

Had the bridge been built just a few years later it’s likely the need for footways and cycleways would have been considered more seriously. As things stand, determined cyclists can still find their way via convoluted routes to assembly areas at each end, where yellow telephones are provided to summon a free lift in a dedicated 4x4 with a cycle rack. Waiting times extend up to 40 minutes, and cyclists friends tell me the people providing the service can be less than helpful, particularly when groups attempt to pre-book. But walkers don’t even have this opportunity.

Fortunately, there is still one way that people without vehicles or bikes can access the crossing, on the X80 bus. This is commercially operated by Thurrock-based private bus company Ensign Bus, so isn’t a public service obligation. Its primary purpose is to link Lakeside and Bluewater, two huge competing out-of-town shopping malls which nestle in former chalk quarries on each side of the estuary. It’s a limited stop route with stops that aren’t as close to the bridge as you might like, and it doesn’t run on Sundays, but it does help provide a viable alternative way of completing the Loop, and one way of doing this is suggested here.

If this is your first journey around the trail, my recommendation is to stick to the official route and enjoy the riverside walk through Rainham and Crayford marshes. But do consider this option as a bonus feature. Apart from an unwelcome stretch of road walking, it has much to recommend it: sites like Belhus Woods and Davy Down equal the highlights of the official trail, and even Chafford Hundred has pleasant surprises in store. Make sure you walk clockwise rather than anticlockwise so you cross via the bridge rather than the tunnel: the southbound bus ride is itself an experience, even if the views are brief and sometimes obstructed. Unless and until sense prevails in retrofitting walkways onto the bridge, it’s the closest you’ll get to what must be one of most exhilaratingly spectacular viewpoints on the river Thames.


Horse paddocks in rustic Upminster, Hacton Park Corner Farm

At first, the alternative route simply follows the official one, so I’ll leave you to refer to a previous post to find out more about Upminster Bridge and the Havering Parkways. It’s along Gaynes Parkway that the walk diverges, continuing on a grass path along the east side of the river Ingrebourne approaching Hacton Bridge, rather than crossing to the west side with the official Loop route and National Cycle Network 136.

In my post on Loop section 23 I introduced Hacton as a hamlet of Upminster that grew up beside the bridge around the early 14th century. Its original centre was to the south, at White Hart Corner – the pub of this name, opened in 1854, is still marked on maps though it closed in the 2000s. Hacton Lane, which runs north from the White Hart to cross the bridge, was once lined with cottages, but 19th century rural depopulation saw most of these disappear. The streets you walk down today were developed in the 1950s, and the Optimist on the corner of Hacton Lane and Little Gaynes Lane opened in 1956 as the first new pub in Upminster in the 20th century.

Opposite the pub and set back from the road is one of the remaining historic buildings in the area, the red brick Hacton House. It was built between 1762 and 1765 for William Braund, a successful merchant and financier and one of several well-off Londoners who bought country estates in Upminster around this time. After military use during World War II, it was converted somewhat unsympathetically into flats. Past the house, a footpath leads between playing fields and horse paddocks, the latter belonging to Hacton Park Corner Farm to the south. This once boasted a Jacobean farmhouse, destroyed during the war by bombs doubtless aimed at nearby RAF Hornchurch, though a 300-year-old Grade II-listed barn survived. It’s now a livery stable.

Pleasingly, the horse paddocks soon give way to a genuine fragment of London agriculture: arable fields now preserved as green belt, some of them still divided with the remnants of ancient hedgerows. Along these paths the Loop shares the way with the 16 km Upminster Circular Walk, originally developed by Hillingdon council in the 1980s, and well worth exploring. Though the leaflets are long out of print, the route is well-waymarked and easy to find out about online.

Suburban streets laid out in the 1930s loom ahead, but the path dodges them, stumbling instead into a delightful hidden corner known as Parklands Open Space, where mature trees tower over a stream, a tributary of the Ingrebourne, that has been dammed to create a rather sombre long, narrow lake. This is the only surviving remnant of Gaynes, which as previously mentioned was once the largest manor in the parish, named after the Engaine family who held it in the 13th century. In 1766, it was bought by James Esdaile, owner of a successful cooperage business and later a Lord Mayor of London. Esdaile already owned New Place and added several other local plots, knitting them together into a large estate. He rebuilt the modest manor house on a grand scale and had 40 ha of its surroundings landscaped into a park, with the lake as one of the features.

Last remnant of Gaynes Manor: The lake at Parklands Open Space
The estate was eventually divided up and in 1929 the last significant tranche was sold off for housing development, but Hornchurch Urban District Council, as it was then, bought the immediate surrounds of the lake as a public space. The area fell into neglect in the late 20th century, especially following the Great Storm of 1987 when fallen trees blocked many of the paths. Thankfully it’s been revived more recently with the help of an active Friends Group, formed in 2012. Our route crosses the water and soon leaves the site, but it’s worth a short detour a little further along the north bank of the lake for a view of the elegant Grade II-listed bridge at its opposite end, built in the 1780s by architect James Paine. The bridge is on Historic England’s ‘at risk’ register and in need of restoration, but so far funding for this hasn’t been forthcoming.

Bonnets Wood

Damyns Hall Aerodrome

A parish boundary once ran along Park Farm Road, onto which you emerge when leaving Parklands Open Space, dividing Upminster to the north from Rainham to the south. The trail now crosses onto the Rainham side to enter Bonnetts Wood, one of the first of several Forestry Commission sites on today’s walk. As the official Loop route runs right through Rainham village, I’ve said more about the old parish there.

For centuries, the land to the south of the road was farmland attached to the manor of Gerpins, its name derived from the Jarpeville family who held it from the later 12th century. By the early 20th century, the estate had been broken up, and these fields were farmed by the Bonnetts family, based at Central Farm on Aveley Road. In 2002, the land was sold to the Forestry Commission as one of the new woodland areas in Thames Chase Community Forest (see my post on the London Countryway between Brentwood and West Horndon). In common with several other Forest sites, like Pages Wood on section 22 of the Loop, it’s managed to create a varied environment with a more open aspect than you might expect. Woodland is interspersed with meadows, and paths are lined with wide grassy margins.

In 2012, the wood was doubled in size to 33.6 ha with the addition in the southwest of a former landfill, capped, so it’s said, with rubble left over from building the Shard at London Bridge. This has helped create a linked chain of green spaces westwards via Berwick Glades to Hornchurch Country Park on the official route of the Loop, soon to be improved further by the opening of a new road crossing. Unfortunately, though, there’s still rather a gap between Bonnetts and the next cluster of Forest sites to the south and east, the direction in which we now need to walk. So currently there’s no real alternative to an unappealing trek along Aveley Road.

Considering that it runs through the heart of a community forest, this is a disappointingly unfriendly stretch of road, narrow but straight enough that many drivers exceed the already generous 40 mph limit. There’s no continuous pavement, though there are occasional stretches of verge. The road, incidentally, once formed another part of the boundary between Rainham, to the west (right), and Upminster to the east. One feature of interest along the way is Damyns Hall Aerodrome, opened in 1969 on the site of the parkland surrounding 16th century Damyns Hall, which had burnt down four years earlier. It’s the only privately-owned general aviation aerodrome in Greater London, and is used by light aircraft, microlights and helicopters.

Once past the aerodrome drive there are various gaps in the hedge giving access to its large grass field, and nothing to discourage you from walking on the other side of the hedge parallel to the road, although this is strictly private property. An official permissive path around the aerodrome perimeter would be an improvement here. There’s also some hope that the former gravel pit behind the thick hedge on the right may eventually be reclaimed as part of the Forest.

As it is, the road walking is almost done at the junction with Bramble Lane. This was once the gateway to an important site known as Chafford Heath, the meeting point for the ancient hundred of Chafford, a pre-Norman geographical subdivision of Essex not to be confused with today’s Chafford Hundred where the walk ends. Three parish boundaries met here: Rainham to the west, Upminster to the east and Aveley to the south. One of these is still functional, as when Greater London was created in 1965, Aveley remained outside it. The boundary here doesn’t quite follow the road, so when you walk past the car park in Cely Woods and follow the track right, you’re leaving London, though not for the final time.

Cely Woods

Track through Cely Woods, showing the wide margins of the new Thames Chase woodlands.

Aveley was once a large and prosperous parish in Chafford Hundred, centred on a large village off the trail to the south. This was already in existence in Saxon times and is mentioned several times in the Domesday survey of 1086, its name likely derived from the personal name Ælfgyþ and a suffix meaning a woodland clearing. In 1929, Aveley was allocated to Purfleet Urban District, which became a part of Thurrock in 1936 – originally an urban district of Essex, then, from 1974, a borough and finally, in 1997, a unitary authority separate from both London and Essex.

Thurrock’s reputation is not a happy one – in 2012 it was the lowest-ranked of all council areas in England in the government’s Wellbeing survey, and I’ve said more about this and other issues in my writeup of the London Countryway alternative route via Tilbury Town. But I doubt you’ll feel unhappy in the modestly pretty Cely Woods, the second Forestry Commission site on today’s walk.

There were five manors in the parish in Norman times, with this northwest corner occupied by one known as Bretts after the Bret family who rented it from the Swein of Essex in the 13th century. It was bought in 1462 by London wool merchant Richard Cely, and he and his descendants occupied it for the next 70 or so years. During a legal dispute about the inheritance of the estate in the 1490s, the Court of Chancery seized a collection of family papers as potential evidence. This cache of letters, invoices and other business documents written between 1475 and 1488 ended up at the Public Records Office, where it was rediscovered in the late 19th century, and published in edited form in 1900 under the title The Cely Papers.

The papers turned out to be a goldmine for historians researching economics, politics and everyday life not only in England but Flanders, France and the Netherlands in the 15th century. Their importance is better appreciated if you understand that the wool trade accounted back then for much of the English economy: taxes on it contributed considerably to state income, and consequently it was heavily regulated, forcing its practitioners to play politics whether they liked it or not.

The Celys sourced wool largely from the Cotswolds and shipped it via Calais, then an English possession, to customers in the southern Low Countries. Their correspondence records them confronting piracy in the English Channel, sharp practice in the Flemish markets (they weren’t above a little dodgy dealing themselves), losses from constantly fluctuating exchange rates, and numerous wars as alliances shifted between England, Burgundy and France. All the same, they appear to have been among the more prosperous merchants of the day, at least under the guiding hand of Richard – his three sons proved less adept at running the business after his death.

Historian Henry Elliot Malden, who edited the papers for publication, summarised the Celys’ life in his introduction in a way that says as much about his society as theirs:
Taken for all in all, the life revealed is not worse in point of morality than that of the same class at other times. It is more vigorous and manly than commercial life is now. The modem young business man has his holidays devoted to sport. The Celys, besides occasional relaxations — and Richard rode down to buy in Gloucestershire hawk on fist, ready to let fly at heron or partridge as he journeyed — had a continual experience of roughing it in their working days. In peril of robbers by sea and land, in peril of bogs and stones on the English apologies for roads, among the contending troops in Flanders, tossing in smacks across the Channel, they probably became men, more natural and tougher-fibred than those who have to cultivate their manhood by sport and games in the intervals of business. There is very little sensibility about them, but plenty of sense.
In 1568, Bretts became one of numerous plots merged with the expanding Belhus estate, of which more later. When that estate was broken up in the 1920s, the area now comprising Cely Woods was separately farmed, until the early 2000s when the Forestry Commission bought it as part of the Thames Chase project, pleasingly reviving the Cely name.

The Commission’s land is newly wooded in the style of other Thames Chase sites, but also encloses two patches of ancient woodland now owned and managed as part of Belhus Woods Country Park, which very likely would have been known to the Celys, at least on the occasions when they were in Aveley rather than Ieper, Calais or Gloucester. To the west, and off our route, is Warwick Wood; to the east, and to your left before you leave the site, is White Post Wood, likely named after a parish boundary marker which once stood here.

Belhus Woods Country Park

Belhus Lakes, Belhus Country Park. Essex, not Essex.

By the end of the 17th century, Belhus was one of the biggest landed estates in Essex, comprising over 910 ha. It had begun as a smallish post-Conquest manor in Aveley parish, rented from the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem and variously known as Nortons, Manywares or Coppins Crouch. Its most enduring name is from the family who held it in the 1330s, derived from their original home in the village of Ramsden Bellhouse near Billericay, but the dynasty most responsible for its expansion are the Barretts. John Barrett acquired part of the manor through marriage in 1397 and his distant descendant Thomas Barrett-Lennard sold off the much-expanded estate bit by bit in the first half of the 20th century.

In its pomp, Belhus straddled not only Aveley but the adjoining parishes of Upminster, North Ockendon and Wennington. The manor house, to the south, was rebuilt in 1526 and expanded several times over the succeeding centuries. In 1618, a large tract of land nearby was converted into a deer park and from 1749 this was fashionably remodelled, partly to the designs of the ever-busy landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

The last family owner, Thomas Barrett-Lennard, preferred his clan’s other home at Horsford in Norfolk and neglected Belhus, selling a substantial tranche to Essex County Council in 1937 for preservation as Green Belt. During World War II, the house was badly damaged by bombs aimed at Hornchurch and the London docks, and was finally demolished in 1957. By then, most of the remaining land had been sold to the London County Council for housing.

Essex still owns an extensive portion of the estate. The northern section, including Warwick and White Post Woods, became public open space, designated in the late 1960s as a Country Park. The southern part, including the site of the house, is leased as a golf course. In between is Belhus Chase, which in the late 1990s was leased to the Woodland Trust. Essex’s ownership is now rather anomalous, as none of its holdings are within its current boundary. The Upminster segment became part of the London Borough of Havering in 1965, while the rest is in Thurrock, a unitary authority since 1997. But the county makes a decent job of running the country park.

As you cross Romford Road and enter Belhus Woods Country Park, you’re once again crossing the old Upminster parish boundary and returning to the London Borough of Havering. Much of the site is ancient woodland, though dotted with open grassland and meadows recalling the former deer park and shrubbery plantings from Brown’s day. There’s an excellent visitor centre right beside the route, with information boards and a decent café. A little past this, in a meadow off to the left, is the Belhus Woods Railway, actually two miniature railways at 184 mm (7¼”) and 127 mm (5”) gauge, built and operated by the volunteers of the Docklands and East London Model Engineering Society. It operates at least one afternoon a month except in winter, normally on a Sunday or bank holiday, and you can ride on it for a small charge.

The path runs through one of the largest patches of woodland, Running Water Wood, before the surroundings open out with Whitehall Wood on the left. A little further on is one of the most popular spots in the park, the grassy bank beside the first of several lakes, a legacy of gravel extraction. Turning south at the corner of the lake you’re following the London boundary again: the area to the east (left), though also part of the Belhus estate, was once another parish, North Ockendon. In 1936 it was divided, with this part allocated to Thurrock Urban District, and therefore remained outside London after 1965. You finally leave London for Thurrock when you cross the redundantly-named Running Water Brook, the south side of which was in the old Aveley parish.

The woodland to the north of the brook is known as Little Brick Kiln Wood; to the south you’re in Brick Kiln Wood. The names indicate these were, and still are, working woods. The brick kiln operated, with the occasional gap, between at least 1603 and the 1890s and bricks for the rebuilding of the mansion in the mid-18th century were likely made here. Some structures still survive among the trees. Hazel trees in the woods are still regularly coppiced and the timber used for thatching, fencing and hurdle making.

Over the brook, you’re officially out of the country park and into the Woodland Trust land of Belhus Chase. Much of this was grassland, but is now being replanted with trees in a layout intended to recall both the 17th century deer park and the 18th century landscaped version. The water channel to the left is artificial, a canal dug to supply water to the house. The original 18th century plans for the estate included a large lake, but the money ran out before this could be completed, and in 1770 engineer Richard Woods widened and expanded the canal to create this cheaper alternative, now known as the Long Pond. A little further on, the water expands into a broader pool, one of the more pleasant and secluded corners of the site.

The sense of seclusion is undermined by the nearby roar of traffic, and soon the trail climbs to cross the M25 orbital motorway. The official Loop route stays well within the motorway, but it’s encountered several times on the London Countryway and I’ve said more about it elsewhere, notably in my commentary on the walk between Oxted and Merstham. The road here, opened in 1982, bisects the Belhus estate, cutting straight across the line of the Long Pond. On the other side is a woodland known as the Ash Plantation. It’s a shame this is now severed from the rest of the site, but there’s the pleasing impression of a secret corner. Futher on, the trees end in a wide grass strip alongside the motorway, ushering you into the modern-day Belhus housing estate.


The curious wooden spiral in Dilkes Park, Belhus.

The Belhus estate once extended considerably beyond the Ash Plantation, but the tranche to the east was sold off to the London County Council (LCC) in the late 1940s. Along with an adjoining patch to the northeast in South Ockendon, this became another of the housing estates the LCC built on the London edge, well outside its own territory, as a solution to the capital’s postwar housing problems. The Loop runs through several similar estates, for example at South Oxhey (section 15) and Harold Hill (section 21).

The first house in Belhus was occupied in 1950, and there were 4,000 houses and 1,320 flats by 1959. The Greater London Council (GLC) inherited the estate in 1965, though it still lay just outside London. It’s been managed by Thurrock council since 1980, though retains the appearance of a typical LCC estate of the period. In line with the ‘garden city’ ethos of postwar planning, it incorporates considerable areas of green space which enliven otherwise unremarkable and sometimes rather bleak architecture: there’s a large patch of grass just to the left soon after you leave the Plantation, overlooked by a desultory shopping parade.

A slightly incongruous Regency-inspired street layout featuring a pair of crescents abuts a more extensive green space. The 6.3 ha Dilkes Park incorporates part of the former Dilkes Wood, an 18th century plantation attached to Belhus Park that included fragments of ancient woodland. It’s now owned by the charity Fields in Trust, though managed by Thurrock, and is a valued local amenity. It was singled out for praise by Play England for the way the children’s play equipment isn’t fenced off but “seamlessly integrated with its woodland setting and there is no sense of where the play space begins and ends”. I’ve drawn a blank, though, in trying to find out more about the spiral of small wooden posts that decorates the circular junction in the middle of the park.

Mardyke Woods and Davy Down

Belhus Woods, one of the oldest woodlands in Essex.

The old Belhus estate stretched as far south as the river Mardyke, and the slopes on the north side of its valley were thickly wooded. Like many of the other woods on the estate up until the later 19th century, these were important workplaces: trees were coppiced for timber used for building, firewood gathered and livestock grazed. The LCC bought the woods with the housing estate land after World War II but thankfully conserved a large wooded area as a public amenity. These woods, known as Mardyke Woods, are now managed by the Forestry Commission, and since 2012 have been improved with new paths, signing and woodland thinning with the help of a grant from the Veolia Trust, discussed in my commentary on the London Loop section 24.

Unlike the other Commission sites on today’s walk, these are delightfully thick and tangled ancient semi-natural woodland. Tree cover is classified as ancient in England if an area has been known to be continuously wooded since 1600 (see my commentary on the London Countryway between Welham Green and Broxbourne) but these woods are much older, and were likely well-established by Roman times. The site was once three adjacent woods, under separate ownership before being brought together by the Barretts, and the remains of mediaeval woodbanks still separate some of the portions. The oldest surviving document mentioning the largest portion, Brannett’s Wood, dates from 1339, making it the second-oldest recorded woodland in Essex.

The section of wood you first enter is known as Millards Garden, with a more open green space and playground beside it, then as the walk turns east you’re in Brannett’s Wood. The ruggedness of the paths here makes a pleasant change from the walk so far, and there are some surprising ups and downs, particularly as the path turns south and descends the steep river terrace of the Mardyke. You emerge into a contrasting scene, where the Mardyke itself has created a flat, marshy floodplain, a finger of the Thames marshes clutching its way inland.

The Mardyke rises between Great Warley and Little Warley on the outskirts of Brentford, and runs for roughly 18 km to join the river Thames at Purfleet, where the official London Loop crosses it just above the confluence. Its name means ‘boundary ditch’, as a stretch to the north once formed part of the boundary between Chafford and Barstaple, the next hundred east. Our route temporarily joins the Mardyke Way, an 11-km walking and cycling trail opened in 2007 alongside part of the river. Westwards this will take you to Aveley village itself where there’s an easy link to Purfleet and the official Loop; eastwards and northwards it links to Bulphan and the London Countryway.

You walk under a substantial brick viaduct carrying a railway across the Mardyke valley. Known locally as the Fourteen Arches, this was built in 1892-1893 by the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LT&SR) as part of a southern loop between the company’s stations at Romford and Grays. For much of its existence the line had only one intermediate station, Ockendon to the north of here, and it remains single track. An old parish boundary ran down to the Mardyke just the other side of the railway, dividing Aveley from South Ockendon parish, and the route ventures just a few steps beyond this before leaving the Mardyke Way to cross the reedy river on a new foot and cycle bridge.

The Mardyke between Davy Down and Mardyke Woods.

On the other side, the land between the Mardyke and the Thames was once part of another parish, West Thurrock, held before 1066 by the ill-fated King Harold. From mediaeval times this was a relatively prosperous patchwork of farms, market gardens and even vineyards with extensive marshes bordering the Thames. Fruit and vegetables grew well thanks to the chalky soil, and it was the presence of a thick ridge of chalk, the Purfleet Anticline, running through the area that determined its fate in the industrial age. Purfleet, beside the Thames to the southwest and at the end of the official London Loop, began as a hamlet of West Thurrock and is discussed in more detail elsewhere.

The chalk is linked to a longstanding puzzle of the Mardyke: how did an apparently minor river cut such a substantial valley between the chalk to the south and the higher ground to the north. Careful study of gravel deposits has led to the conclusion that, some 300,000 years ago, the Thames flowed this way, north of the chalk, before cutting through the narrow gap at Purfleet and continuing on its present course.

The footbridge delivers you into Davy Down, a delightful 6 ha green space with a verdant mix of grassland, wetland and woodland patches, overlooked by an imposing brick pumping station. In the early 18th century this was a farm, and later a market garden. Its name derives from the family that owned it, and the fact that part of the site was on a finger of chalk ridge. The site was severed when the A13 opened in 1982, becoming economically unviable and falling into dereliction, until rescued by a local trust with the support of the council and the water company, and opened as a green space in 1993. It’s now managed by the Land Trust with the help of local volunteers.

Following the path across the meadow, it’s well worth dodging left into the woodland known as Pilgrims Copse, where a footbridge crosses a pond from which a sculpture of a stork juts up, creating an attractive picture. The path then climbs up the ridge to pass the chapel-like Stifford Pumping Station, opened by the South Essex Waterworks Company in 1928 to pump water from a 42 m borehole into the chalk. Water is still pumped and treated here by successor company Essex & Suffolk Water, but much of the original structure has been made redundant by modern technology. The original massive Sulzer diesel engines are preserved in situ and can be viewed if you call at the right time: the waterworks and the adjacent modern visitor centre are open most Thursday afternoons and on intermittent other days.

The old track south through the farm is now blocked by the A11, so the drive swings back north to deposit you on Pilgrims Lane. Known further south as Mill Lane, this is a very old road linking Ockendon, North and South Stifford and the Thames, and does indeed have an historic association with pilgrims. A ferry ran from Stoneness on Thurrock Marshes across the river to Greenhithe from at least 1310 and, like its upstream counterpart between Rainham and Erith on the official Loop, formed part of a pilgrimage route through Essex to Canterbury. The ferry operated with some gaps until the 1860s.

The lane once formed the boundary between West Thurrock and the next parish east, Stifford, but our route follows this line without crossing it, remaining on the Thurrock side. It rises up onto a modern bridge across the early 1980s dual carriageway of the A13, the current iteration of the main road from London to Southend. Passing a travellers’ site on one side and the main coach park for Lakeside shopping centre on the other, you soon reach a roundabout at a junction with an earlier version of the A13, the West Thurrock Arterial Road, opened in 1925 and now numbered A1306. On the other side of this, the walk continues along Pilgrims Lane, now a footpath and cycleway through the much-redeveloped area of Chafford Hundred.

Chafford Hundred

Gorge-eous Thurrock. The view of Chafford Gorges Nature Park from Grifon Road Outlook.

Even more so than Purfleet on the official London Loop, the modern development of West Thurrock was determined by the existence of a large chalk outcrop so close to easy transport on the river Thames. Chalk is a component of cement, and demand for it rocketed in the 19th century as one of the key raw materials of the ever-expanding city. Gibbs & Co, later Associated Portland Cement, opened a large quarry and works in the area south of Mill Wood and immediately to the west of Mill Lane in 1872.

Two years later, the Lion Cement Works opened on the Stifford side of Mill Lane, with quarrying later extended almost as far north as where the Arterial Road now runs. The same year, the Tunnel Portland Cement Co began operations at Tunnel Farm, on what’s now the other side of the railway: by the early 1970s this was the largest such plant in Europe, producing over 1 million tonnes of cement annually and employing 1,200 people. Other industries then filled in many of the gaps between the quarries.

But chalk quarries have a habit of becoming exhausted, and by 1920s the Associated Portland works were already closed. Production on the other sites ceased in 1976, leaving behind a vast expanse of devastated and dangerous land. Regeneration began in the late 1980s, with the western part of Thurrock colonised by light industry, main roads and retail parks, and a new town emerging to the east, straddling the old parishes of West Thurrock and Stifford. The first new homes here were completed in 1989, and the site now includes some 5,300 houses and flats. The town bestowed itself with fake heritage by borrowing the name of the old Anglo-Saxon administrative division in which it was located, Chafford Hundred, although the original hundred covered a much larger area.

These “near-identikit houses…each one with a regulation rectangle of lawn, a name-plaque and at least one car in the driveway,” as the Evening Standard put in 2001, attracted young East Enders looking for starter homes that were cheaper and more spacious than their London equivalents but still with good transport connections. Property values rose rapidly in the 1990s, when the area became “the most coveted address in Britain”. Today, despite the obvious bland late 20th century look of the architecture, Chafford Hundred remains a relatively desirable address in otherwise-depressed Thurrock.

One of the town’s positive features is its green space, much of it imaginatively reshaped from the former quarries. And despite the Standard’s assertion that it’s “a place where everybody drives, unless they’re pushing a pram or pulling a dog”, there are numerous off-road paths, including the preserved alignment of Pilgrims Lane. Very little of our route through here uses residential streets.

Shortly you pass a lookout on the left with a birds-eye view of the Lion Cement Works, now transformed into the 81 ha Chafford Gorges Nature Park, managed by Essex Wildlife Trust and slightly off our route. In front of you, the ground drops sharply to a lush, sheltered landscape of lakes, meadows and woods, hidden away in an artificial pit like a suburban Shangri-La.

This part of the park is known as Warren Gorge, after a farm which in turn was named after a nearby rabbit warren. With a visitor centre on the other side of Warren Gorge, and two other gorges, Lion Gorge and Grays Gorge, to the south, the site is well worth exploring if you have time or make a return visit. As well as wildlife, it’s noted for geology and industrial heritage, with exposed layers of chalk and sands and the remains of an industrial railway in Lion Gorge. Parts are a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Continuing down Pilgrims Lane, the housing to the right, west of the nature park, was built not on reclaimed quarries but farmland. The path emerges by a more modest but well-used recreation ground, Chafford Hundred Park, on the corner of Warren Lane and Mill Lane. A school once stood on this site, and the surrounding quarries must have made it a dangerous location. You’re soon walking through Mill Wood, an area of woodland which somehow survived the quarrying and subsequent redevelopment and is now part of the nature park.

Mill Wood Sand Cliff: legacy of the Thames and Scottish beaches.
There’s another surprise as the trees to your left suddenly disappear and you find yourself striding along a clifftop: Mill Wood Sand Cliff. There’s a breath-taking view across the rooftops towards the industrial structures along the Thames, with the spindly geometry of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge close by to the right. Further south, the ridge of the North Downs rears up on the Kent side.

You’re now overlooking the oldest of the 19th century chalk workings, the Associated Portland Cement Works, also known as the Thames Works, Gibbs Pit or Mill Wood Pit – a significant site for industrial historians, as it was where the first rotary cement kiln was invented. The houses beneath are relatively recent, built in the mid-2000s, by which time the quarry had been disused for 80 years and had become something of a wildlife haven, noted for wild flowers and their associated invertebrates. But local efforts to save it failed, and now only this fragment is left.

As you descend the steps to street level and look back at the cliff, it’s worth studying the layers that comprise it. The bulk of it is yellow Thanet Sand, made from sands washed down over the millennia from the Scottish coast by coastal currents. But there’s an upper crown of gravel, stained distinctively reddish by iron. This is known as Orsett Heath Gravel, deposited by the wider river of about 380,000 years ago, and marks the oldest and highest of the Thames’ series of river terraces.

Finally, there’s a short stretch past the ‘identikit’ houses of the new town, to reach the uninspiring roundabout and square in front of Chafford Hundred station, or Chafford Hundred Lakeside to use its full name. Unsurprisingly, it’s the newest station on the line, opened only in 1993. There’s only a single platform on this single-track branch line at what’s now the busiest single platform station in the UK, serving not only the town but the massive Lakeside mall occupying the site of the old Tunnel works on the other side of the railway. The bus stop for Kent is located conveniently right outside the station door.

Looping the Loop by bus: the X80 waits outside Chafford Hundred station.

The Dartford Crossing

Snapped from the bus: the Thames from the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, looking downstream Note fragment of Kent sign right.

The area between Chafford Hundred and the Dartford Crossing is perhaps not quite as inhospitable now as it was in its quarrying days, but neither is it the most welcoming corner of the London region. Over the past few decades, large-scale industry has been supplanted by an environment more familiar in the environs of US cities, designed to optimise mass retail and travel by car, all big and ugly with no sense of human scale and thoroughly discouraging to anyone on foot.

It’s the sort of place where people drive to work in bleak business parks, drive to shop in hanger-like discount warehouses marooned among vast parade grounds of car parks, then drive to eat in drive-thru chain restaurants, perhaps stopping off to sleep in global-brand hotels. The absence of a sense of place is exacerbated by the knot of major highways that converges here: the A13, M25 and numerous feeder roads from other parts of Essex and East London. These fast roads connect a substantial portion of southeastern and eastern England into the homogenous retail and leisure experience that is Lakeside, the nucleus of a dispersed web of globalised culture.

It’s indicative of the way the place is designed that the bus follows such a convoluted route, up and down slipways, round multiple roundabouts and along service roads. Nobody except perhaps the most obsessive or masochistic psychogeographers would walk a route like this. The fact that such large areas of characterless late 20th century sprawl-scape are mercifully still relatively rare around London gives this one something of a gruesome fascination, but you will probably still be glad you’re whizzing through it on a bus.

The first stop is the small bus station tucked away rather embarrassedly on the edge of the main Lakeside shopping centre, or as it's recently been rebranded, Intu Lakeside. This is on the site of the quarry that once served the Tunnel Portland Cement works, named after Tunnel Farm which once stood nearby. The lake in question is a flooded pit, now the centrepiece of the shopping mall which, when it opened officially in 1990, was the biggest in the London area. It’s still the 11th biggest such centre in the UK, with 133,200 m2 of floorspace. The lake is admittedly well-used within the site, and the area known as the Boardwalk that surrounds it is a pleasant place to sit, at least on quieter days, but all the eating places surrounding it are branches of overfamiliar chains.

To the south of Lakeside, somewhere among the knot of access roads and motorway junctions, is the original parish centre of West Thurrock, but the bus avoids this. Instead it works its way up onto the Dartford Crossing approach, passing further retail parks that are much uglier than Lakeside. So that they can be used by non-motorway traffic, the crossing itself and its immediate approaches are not classified as part of the M25 but instead are numbered A282, running right through the site of the Tunnel Cement Works.

A road crossing at this point was first suggested in the 1920s, and preliminary boring began in the late 1930s before being interrupted by World War II. It was resumed in 1955 as part of the ambitious and later abandoned scheme to build concentric ringways around London, discussed elsewhere. Originally there was only a single carriageway tunnel, opened in 1963 and supplemented by a second tunnel in 1980. As plans for the orbital motorway took shape, it was clear that further capacity would be needed.

This was provided in 1991 by the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, which now conveys southbound traffic while northbound traffic uses the tunnels, so for Loop walkers the clockwise option is by far the best here. But the crossing is of course still regularly congested, as additional capacity only stimulates further demand. Drivers have always had to pay to cross the river here – at first the fee for a car was 6d (2.5p) – and the original promise that this was a temporary arrangement to recoup construction costs has since been abandoned. There’s now officially a ‘DART charge’ rather than a ‘toll’, currently £2.50 for a car, collected virtually and enforced using number plate recognition.

Galleon Boulevard bus stop, Crossways, Dartford:
Queen Elizabeth II bridge piers just visible.
For all the problems and issues, crossing the Thames on the bridge is still quite an experience, and I suggest you sit on the left for the best views. The German-designed structure cost £120 million, and when it was opened it had the largest cable-stayed span in Europe, at 450 m. It is still the lowest bridge across the Thames and the only one downstream of central London to be built since Tower Bridge in 1894.

The two main piers rise to a height of 137 m, embedded in caissons which are designed to withstand the impact of a 65,000-tonne ship. The deck is 65 m above the Thames, enough to allow cruise liners to pass beneath. It affords amazing views, though inevitably partially obscured by passing traffic, both upstream towards Crayford Ness, the Dartford Flood Barrier and the towers of Docklands and the City, and downstream to Swanscombe Marshes and Tilbury Docks. This alone is worth the bus fare, along with the satisfaction of having actually crossed the river.

On the Kent side there’s more convoluted navigation through the Crossways estate on the edge of Dartford, an area not too dissimilar to the jumble of Thurrock, perhaps because it too was built on the site of an abandoned cement works and quarry. The bus drops you on the corner of Galleon Boulevard, and the walk from here to the river Darent and on to reconnect with the main London Loop trail at Barnes Cray is a subject for another post.