Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Cray Riverway: Erith - Crayford - Foots Cray - Orpington

Source of the river Cray in Priory Gardens, Orpington. Not gardens, and never attached to a priory.

The river Cray connects the distinct environment of Crayford Marshes, where it joins the Darent just short of the Thames, with the source deep in suburbia in the grounds of Orpington Priory, via a string of historic villages in outer southeast London, most of them named after the river. The London Loop follows part of the Cray, but the earlier Cray Riverway tracks the entire length of the valley from mouth to source. And as Orpington is only a short step from the official route of the Loop via Crofton, the Riverway provides an interesting alternative.

The Riverway is 27 km long, rather too much for most walkers in a single helping, and if you’ve already walked the Loop, the first 11.5 km will be familiar. Crayford provides an alternative starting point for a more manageable 17.5 km walk with minimal duplication. Stations at Bexley and St Paul’s Cray and numerous bus stops along the way provide opportunities to create shorter walks.

River and Riverway

View over Crayford Pits and the Cray Valley from Sandy Lane, Ruxley.
The river Cray is a chalk stream, a river type encountered numerous times in London underfoot but internationally highly rare. Its name most likely means ‘the clean, fresh and clear river’, a fair description of the quality of such a stream, though it could also mean ‘the river that often floods’. Its source is in Priory Gardens, Orpington, a pond formed where permeable chalk meets impermeable London clay just below the surface.

From here it flows around 14 km north and slightly northeast, entirely inside Greater London and the boroughs of Bromley and Bexley. Near Hall Place, Bexley, it’s joined by a substantial tributary, the Shuttle, which rises at Avery Hill near Eltham. Below Barnes Cray and out into Crayford Marshes, the river becomes tidal and is known as Crayford Creek. It drains into the river Darent in the marshes east of Slade Green, just 1.5 km short of the latter’s confluence with the Thames.

As with its parent the Darent, the Cray’s valley is fertile and there’s considerable evidence of prehistoric settlement, particularly in the upper section around Orpington. There were Roman settlements here as well as further downstream at St Paul’s Cray and Crayford. Later, the river shaped industrial development: at one point, when the flow was much more vigorous than today, it powered 14 mills, and the purity of its water encouraged the development of the bleaching, paper making, cloth dyeing and printing industries. These mills were the predecessors of the heavy industry that emerged along the lower reaches in the 19th and early 20th centuries, like the Vickers plant at Crayford.

As often along London’s rivers, housing generally stays away from the river bank for flood management reasons, creating a chain of green strips intermittently broken by waterside industry. And as elsewhere in London, these green strips have been exploited as a resource for walkers. The London Borough of Bexley was one of the original four council partners in the Green Chain project, launched in the late 1970s to make better use of southeast London’s generous endowment of green space for recreation and conservation. The partnership’s most visible creation, the Green Chain Walk, is a pioneering path network that changed the mindset on urban walking and inspired countless similar projects. I’ll have much more to say about it in future blogs, but for the moment I’ll note that it prompted the council and local walking campaigners to create additional connecting trails.

Two signed river-based routes, the Cray Riverway and the Shuttle Riverway, resulted, both launched in the late 1980s. The Shuttle Riverway is essentially an extension of the Green Chain so I’ll talk it about then. The original Cray Riverway ran for about 16 km between Erith, where for part of its journey it accompanied the Thames and Darent, and Foots Cray, just short of the borough boundary with Bromley.

As there was a lengthy gap in riverside access between Hall Place and North Cray, the Riverway offered two alternative routes slightly away from the river. An inner, northwest branch went over the Black Prince Interchange on the A2 and along the road into Bexley Village, then through the slowly recovering gravel extraction site at Upper College Farm to the edge of the Albany Park estate, rejoining the riverside at Stable Meadow, North Cray. An outer, southeast branch ran past Churchfield Wood, skirted the edge of Bexley Village, climbed the slope of Mount Mascal below Joydens Wood then descended again to Loring Hall and on to Stable Meadow. This alternative included an inconvenient diversion to a safe crossing on the busy A223 road. The two routes formed a narrow waist on the map where they almost met, approaching within 250 m of each other in Bexley.

When the London Walking Forum began planning the London Loop in the early 1990s, the obvious way to start it off was to make use of the Cray Riverway. The Forum opted to mix and match the two branches, first following the southeast branch past Churchfield Wood, then hopping across to the northwest route past Bexley Station and through Upper College Farm. This cunningly avoided the higher proportion of road walking at the beginning of the northwest option, and the tricky crossing near the end of the southeast variant.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Bromley council incorporated a route based on its own section of the river in its portfolio of shorter green trails, largely developed in partnership with local voluntary organisation Environment Bromley, or EnBro. This was included in the council’s Circular Walks and Trails routecard pack issued in the early 2000s, and an updated version is now available to download.

The Bromley section has always been described in the downstream direction, from the source, and although the Bexley section was originally described in the opposite direction from the river’s mouth, the most recent official text runs from Foots Cray downstream too. This is arguably the most logical way of describing a riverside route, but I’ve opted to work from Erith towards the source, keeping the Riverway in line with the Loop. There’s an obvious alternative Loop route from Erith to Foots Cray in simply following the branches of the Riverway the Loop doesn’t use. But as the source of the Cray isn’t all that far from the Loop where it passes through Crofton, it’s straightforward to complete the whole of the Riverway then return to the Loop, as described here.

All things considered, the Riverway isn’t quite such an attractive option as the official London Loop. Riverside access isn’t continuous and there’s quite a bit of pavement pounding. The Loop’s creators cherry-picked the best bits of both Riverway branches, and you certainly shouldn’t omit Scadbury Park and Petts Wood on the official route from your round-London wanderings. But as an additional ‘bonus feature’, the Riverway offers plenty of interest, as well as giving the river a chance to complete its story for those who’ve enjoyed its company so far.

To minimise potential confusion, I’ve produced two route descriptions for the Riverway that align with those for the Loop. Cray Riverway 1 covers Erith to Bexley and is identical to London Loop 1 except for the very last bit. Cray Riverway 2 covers Bexley to Orpington station. Walkers who’ve already completed the Loop may well want to start the Riverway at Crayford, so will only need to use part of the first description. I’ve included the link between Orpington and the official Loop route in Darrick Wood in a revised description for London Loop 3. There are links to all of these at the end of the post.

Here’s an outline of the options:

1. Erith to Hall Place. For just over 11 km, the Cray Riverway and the London Loop share the same paths, which you’ll find described in both Cray Riverway 1 and London Loop 1.

2. Hall Place to Bexley. The northwestern branch of the Riverway, described in Cray Riverway 1, takes a more direct 1.8 km route with some road walking, though also with good views of Hall Place, a link to the Shuttle Riverway and some heritage buildings along Bourne Road. The Loop follows the southeastern branch on a slightly longer and greener 2 km route via Churchfields Wood as described in London Loop 1. Because the Riverway branches don’t quite meet in Bexley village, there’s a short stretch of the Loop that’s on neither, which you’ll walk in reverse at the start of Cray Riverway 2.

3. Bexley to Stable Meadow, North Cray. The southeastern branch of the Riverway, covered in Cray Riverway 2, follows quite a rural route past the Woodland Trust’s Joydens Wood and Mount Mascal stables then through fields to Loring Hall and back to the riverside. There’s a slightly tricky crossing of the A223 at North Cray which the Riverway solves rather unsatisfactorily by diverting you to the nearest controlled crossing, and if you follow this, it’s a 3.3 km walk. But the problem is less severe than it used to be and if you feel confident to use the more direct dropped kerb crossing instead, it’s only 2.1 km. As described in London Loop 2, the Loop follows the northwestern branch of the Riverway via Upper College Farm, pleasant enough with no dodgy crossings, and very slightly shorter at 2 km.

4. Stable Meadows to Foots Cray. The two branches of the Riverway and the Loop merge here to follow the picturesque path through Foots Cray Meadows, a distance of 2.4 km described in both Loop 2 and Riverway 2.

5. Foots Cray to Orpington Priory. From Foots Cray the Loop heads west on a completely different route via Petts Wood. As described in Cray Riverway 2, the Riverway continues to track the Cray valley via St Paul’s Cray and St Mary Cray, at first mainly along roads, though they are relatively quiet. There’s an historic village street at St Mary Cray then a riverside path nearly all the way from there to Priory Gardens. The Riverway officially ends (or starts) at Orpington Priory by the southern entrance to Priory Gardens, 5.7 km from Foots Cray.

6. Orpington Priory to Orpington Station. For additional transport options, you may well want to continue to Orpington War Memorial or the station, so I’ve included this in my description of Cray Riverway 2. It’s 1 km from priory to memorial, much of it on a good stretch of urban footpath, and trhe station is 700 m further.

7. Orpington Station to Darrick Wood. For those who want to walk on to rejoin the Loop, in London Loop 3 I’ve outlined a link from Orpington station to Darrick Wood. The surroundings are mainly roads and residential streets, so nothing special, but just after the station you’ll pass Crofton Roman Villa and then get a good view back from the top of the hill over the Cray valley. The link is 1.6 km, and the best transport option beyond this is the bus stop in Farnborough village, another 1 km further on. From Foots Cray to Farnborough via the Riverway is 9.9 km; via the Loop, it’s 12.2 km.

The Riverway in Bexley is signed on the ground with fingerposts and circular waymarks incorporating a logo showing a stylised tree within a wavy blue line. There are also London Loop waymarks where the two trails are coincident, and carved wooden obelisks at key points. As far as I know, it has never been signed in Bromley, presumably as so much of it is along roads. Don’t expect to rely on signing even in Bexley, though, as missing signs and vandalism are not unknown.

Erith to Bexley

Andy Scott's Propella takes flight at Crayford Town Hall Square

I’ve written about Erith, Crayford Marshes, Barnes Cray, Crayford, Hall Place and Bexley in more detail along section 1 of the London Loop so I won’t repeat myself here. But if you do start in Crayford, there’s now a more direct route from the station than the one in the official description. This cuts through Town Hall Square, a mixed development of housing association flats, private homes, retail units and a replacement library and community centre completed in 2015.

You’ll walk past two sculptures in welded galvanised mild steel, from designs chosen by locals and commemorating the former Vickers factory. Both are by Scottish public art specialist Andy Scott, best known for the Kelpies, the giant horse heads by the Forth & Clyde Canal in Falkirk. In the square itself is Propella, a female figure that homages a former Vickers logo, while on the corner of the supermarket car park is Captain Crayford, a young boy with a model aeroplane.

There’s also now more public art just off the station link to the right along London Road, in tiny Tannery Garden (this is also on the alternative station link and the main Loop route). Though as the name suggests a tannery once stood here, the designs commemorate a different local industry, Rutters brickworks. The steel screens add interest while also concealing an electricity substation.

You may already have visited Hall Place as a short detour off the official Loop route, but if not, the northwest branch of the Riverway runs right past the entrance, and I strongly recommend you look in. Otherwise the Riverway runs along the boundary wall and fence slightly away from Bourne Road, providing a view of the house with its delightfully mixed architectural styles and the bizarre topiary in the garden. It’s by the car park entrance to Hall Place that the trail links with the Shuttle Riverway mentioned above, which at first climbs the hillside on the other side of Bourne Road, the northern section of Hall Place park before joining the Shuttle near BETHS school.

As discussed on London Loop 1, Crayford straddled one of the most important highways out of London, heading for the Kent coast and the mainland. Originally a Celtic trackway and then a Roman road later known as Watling Street, it became a coaching route, a turnpike and, from the 1920s, a trunk motor road classified as the A2. Crayford takes its name from the ford where this road crossed the Cray, later a bridge.

The highway followed different alignments over the centuries from the west to the river crossing: in coaching days, it ran along London Road, a part of which is also followed by the Loop and the Riverway. In 1927, during the early phase of government-sponsored motor road building, it was diverted along a new stretch of road running between Hall Place and Bexley, known as Rochester Way, crossing the Cray right by its confluence with the Shuttle, a little way south of the hall.

Originally this stretch of Rochester Way was a single carriageway road with conventional flat junctions, but in 1972 it was widened and upgraded, among other things by the construction of the split-level junction known as Black Prince Interchange which still stands today.

Just after crossing the A2, you cross the river Shuttle: the confluence is in the far corner of the Old Dartfordians rugby field over on your left. To your right on the other side of the roundabout ahead is the Black Prince itself, a much-extended red brick mock-Edwardian roadhouse hotel built at the same time as the first iteration of Rochester Way and now a part of the Holiday Inn chain. It was named after Edward of Woodstock, the 14th century Black Prince and Duke of Cornwall, who is known to have stayed at Hall Place on his way to war in France. In the 1960s and 1970s this was a well-known music venue, hosting acts like Cream and Genesis.

Bexley National Schools, Bourne Road.
Past a public sports field, St Mary’s Recreation Ground, on the left, Bourne Road narrows to a residential street leading into Bexley Village, or Old Bexley as it’s often known. There are some buildings of interest here, notably the Old School House, on the right, a neo-Jacobean yellow brick building from 1824 now used as offices, its stucco highlights brightening a façade apparently designed to intimidate as many schoolchildren as possible. This was originally known as the Bexley National Schools, though the panel above the main entrance bearing this legend is probably a later addition covering a window.

Outside no 11 on the left, not long before the junction with the High Street, are two listed 1930s red K6 phone boxes, though no longer containing phones.

North Cray

View across the Cray Valley descending from Mount Mascal at North Cray.

From Bexley, our route switches to the outer branch of the Riverway, which climbs the hillside rising above the river Cray to the southeast. You’re now in the area known as North Cray, part of the extensive swathe of Kent given to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, by his half-brother William of Normandy following the conquest. We’ll be walking through Odo’s former territories for the rest of the Riverway, and I’ve said more about this surprisingly ferocious cleric at Crofton on London Loop 3.

North Cray was once a separate parish, but by the late 12th century it had fallen into the possession of the Rokesle family of nearby Ruxley parish, and in 1557 the two were amalgamated. By the 16th century, some of the land had been subdivided into smaller country estates, including a mansion known as Jackets Court on the slopes above the river. By the end of the 16th century, this has been replaced by a fine house known as Mount Mascal, on an “eminence”, as late 18th century historian Edward Hasted puts it, higher up. In the mid-18th century it was owned by a wealthy City of London porter brewer, William Calvert, also an MP. By Hasted’s time, an avenue of trees continued across the other side of North Cray Road to another house known as Vale Mascal, which overlooked a waterfall on the Cray.

These grand houses are long-gone, though the surroundings remain surprisingly rural and there are still fine views over the valley. Today the barns and farm buildings are devoted to the equestrian industry, and the fields are horse paddocks, though still divided by old hedgerows and rustic tracks. The ‘eminence’ is occupied by Mount Mascal Stables, a large riding school and livery service established in 1966 which advertises itself under the slogan ‘Horsemanship for all’.

Just before the stables, you’ll pass an access point into Joydens Wood, a 136-ha patch of ancient woodland that crowns the ridge. The woodland is just off the path but worth exploring if you have time, or returning to later. Its name derives from William Jordayne, who was granted ownership of the wood in 1556, though it had likely been continuously wooded for much longer than that. As well as wildlife and bluebells, it’s known for its ancient monuments, notably the remains of Iron Age roundhouses and the Fæsten Dic (‘strong dyke’), a ditch over 1 km long and several metres wide. It dates from the Saxon period but there’s some disagreement about exactly when: perhaps the 5th century, perhaps the 7th and 8th centuries during the conflicts between Kent, Wessex and Mercia.

The woodland was once more extensive but sections of it were levelled and developed from the 1930s, augmented by a post-World War II housing estate to create the residential area known as Joydens Wood to the east of the woodland. Most of this is on the Kent side of the London boundary, which runs through the wood, but a few streets form part of the continuously built-up connection between London and Dartford. The remaining woodland was taken on by the Forestry Commission in the 1950s, and since 1987 has been managed by the Woodland Trust.

The Riverway descends the slope again on a field path, emerging on North Cray Road, originally a modest lane but widened extensively in the late 1960s. Much of the historic fabric of North Cray village was demolished in the process, though a surviving 14th century timber-framed hall house, Woodbine Cottage, was dismantled and moved to an open-air museum near Chichester. This road is one reason why the Loop opts for the other branch of the Riverway, as the nearest controlled crossing involves a 1.2 km detour to the nearest roundabout and back. This is still the official Riverway route, but since then speed limits have slowed the traffic a little, and there’s a dropped kerb and a paved central reservation, so if you’re relatively nimble on your feet you shouldn’t have too much trouble crossing here.

On the other side, a little to the left is the White Cross pub, which originated as a roadside alehouse in 1729, although the present building is later. It was known as the Red Cross between 1730 and 1915, when the War Office instructed all pubs with that name to adopt a new one out of respect for the Geneva Convention. The Riverway then follows the drive past Loring Hall, the last remaining mansion in the area, discussed under Section 2 of the Loop, with which you’re soon reunited on the banks of the Cray. For more about the many delights of Foots Cray Meadows, see my earlier post.


Tudor Cottages, Foots Cray.
Where the trail leaves Foots Cray Meadows, it starts its longest section alongside roads, beginning with the main junction in Foots Cray itself where the Riverway definitively splits from the London Loop. I’ve covered Foots Cray in detail elsewhere, but you’ll see a bit more of it along the Riverway. Just along the High Street are some genuinely old buildings: the four timber-framed houses now known as Tudor Cottages on the right were adapted from what was originally a single high-ceilinged hall, perhaps dating from the late 15th century. The Seven Stars a little further on the left is that London rarity, a pub in a pre-Victorian building: the main part of this weatherboarded house has likely stood here since the 16th century.

You cross the Cray again on a relatively modern bridge, but on the alignment of a much older crossing, where the road from London to Maidstone crossed the river. This became part of the A20 in 1921, but lost this status with the opening of the Sidcup bypass the following year. The rest of the surroundings as you climb away from the valley are inescapably modern: an uninspiring parade of budget supermarkets, self-storage facilities and warehouse-based retailers. At the top is the big roundabout known as Ruxley Corner, where until the 1990s A20 traffic rejoined the historic Maidstone Road towards Swanley. A path on the right near the top briefly gets you away from the road, running between two massive car showrooms, to emerge on Edgington Way, the old link road between the bypass and the roundabout.

As well as once being a parish in its own right, Ruxley lends its name to one of the ancient subdivisions of Kent known as ‘hundreds’, broadly equivalent to today’s Bromley borough plus Bexley south of Watling Street. A little further east along the Maidstone road is the site of Ruxley Manor. This is now a garden centre but still contains the remains of the 13th century parish church, deconsecrated in 1557 when Ruxley was united with North Cray. But that’s a detour: our way is south along the grain of the valley. The Riverway follows Sandy Lane, immediately crossing the boundary into Bromley borough. This was once a continuation of the main road south from Erith and Bexley to Orpington and the south, but now it’s little more than a byway. The woodland on the left, Ruxley Wood, is mainly a post-war plantation, now used for paintball and laser games.

The lane then dips to pass under the current A20, which crosses the Cray on a viaduct built in the early 1990s as part of an upgrade in preparation for the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Now the slopes on the left are dedicated to an older form of outdoor recreation than paintball, in the form of the Orpington Golf Centre. On the right is an area of overgrown open space with wide views over the valley. Gravel was dug here between 1929 and 1951, leaving behind a series of flooded pits since colonised by wetland birds and other wildlife, where more than 500 plant species have been recorded. Ruxley Gravel Pits is now a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and Local Nature Reserve managed by the Kent Wildlife Trust, but sadly it’s not currently open to the public.

This section of the Cray Valley was traditionally popular with the travelling people who for many centuries provided itinerant labour for the hop gardens, orchards and farms of Kent. Soon after the gravel pit was decommissioned in the 1950s, it became known as an atchin tan or stopping place for travellers during the winter season when work was scarce. Another such location nearby was Corkes Pit in St Mary Cray, now the Murray Business Centre. As the economic basis of their lifestyle was eroded, and following patchily-implemented legislation in 1968 that obliged councils to provide permanent caravan sites, many travellers settled in the area, and St Paul’s Cray and St Mary Cray still have one of the largest populations of settled travellers and people of Romani origin in the UK.

Given the open surroundings, Sandy Lane still feels much like a country lane where you might even imagine encountering a traditional wooden caravan: the pavement even disappears for a while. With traffic calming measures in place, it’s not too much of a deterrent, but you’ll undoubtedly be relieved when a further stretch of pavement rises above the level of the carriageway to run between hedges, screened from the traffic. It’s not long after this ends that a scattering of houses begins, as the lane gently descends back to the riverside at St Paul’s Cray.

St Paul’s Cray

St Paulinus Church, St Paul's Cray.
One peculiarity of the Cray valley is the number of places incorporating the river’s name in theirs. Bexley and Orpington are the exceptions, but otherwise there are Barnes Cray, Crayford, North Cray, Foots Cray, St Paul’s Cray and St Mary Cray. Barnes and Foots were originally personal names, while St Paul and St Mary refer to the dedications of parish churches.

In the Domesday survey of 1086, the former is referred to simply as Craie and the latter as Sud Craie (South Cray), which must have been even more confusing, so it’s not surprising that the present names evolved. The Paul in question, incidentally, is not the famous biblical St Paul the Apostle but St Paulinus, an early missionary to England and colleague of Augustine’s who became the first archbishop of York before his death around 644.

In the late 13th century, St Paul's Cray was held by Simon de Cray, made Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports on the Kent and Sussex coast in 1275. It was always a small parish, strung out along the river and road, though busy with milling activity, which from the later 18th century increasingly focused on paper. “There is no village,” wrote Edward Hasted in 1797, “the houses in the parish, about fifty in number, standing dispersed throughout it. The church stands alone, half surrounded by tall elm trees, the shade of which casts a pleasing gloom, and makes a picturesque appearance to the building”.

The biggest changes followed in the 1950s when St Paul’s Cray became the site of one of the new out-of-town social housing estates developed by the London County Council in response to the post-World War II housing shortage: we’ve already encountered several similar estates on the main London Loop. 3,000 new homes were built, mainly houses and maisonettes with small back gardens, on the slopes of Paul’s Cray Hill to the east of the river. Within a decade or so, the area had become part of the London sprawl, though on the very edge of the metropolis: beyond the estate is a country park and then the fields of Kent.

There are several features of interest around the mini-roundabout at the bottom of Sandy Lane. The weatherboarded Bull pub to the right is Grade II listed, with an 18th century front and 19th century rear extension. The industrial area behind it and further right along Main Road is on the site of the former Ruxley Paper Mills. On the right side of Sandy Lane just before the junction are the red brick Ivy Cottages: the oldest is no 2, with an exposed timber frame, which dates from the 17th century: its neighbour is perhaps a century younger. There’s another listed K6 phone box too.

Riverside Gardens, St Paul's Cray.

Soon you'll catch sight of the Cray for the first time in a while, running over weirs and through channels in Riverside Gardens, a lush and pretty little park. The paths here look tempting but sadly there’s no continuous riverside route yet, so you’re better off keeping along Main Road. As its name suggests, like Sandy Lane this was part of the original main route along the valley from Bexley to Orpington. Since the 1920s, a parallel route, the A224 Sevenoaks Way, has run on the other side of the river, but as this passes through a lengthy US-style strip of boxy retail parks, car dealerships, self-storage facilities and wholesale warehouses, most walkers will prefer the route I’ve described.

Opposite the gardens is St Paulinus church, still set back slightly from the road within a tree-filled churchyard. Parts of the flint rubble building including the nave date back to the 11th century, and you can still see a small window from that period in the north wall. There are numerous later additions, including a late 12th century tower, 15th century windows and unsympathetic Victorian extensions. It hasn’t been a Church of England church since 1978 but it’s still in religious use, now occupied by the Nigerian-based Pentecostal movement the Redeemed Christian Church of God. The rest of Main Road is largely modern, with the modest brick houses of the LCC estate visible on the left.

St Mary Cray

St Mary at Cray church, St Mary Cray.
Crossing Station Road you’re over the old parish boundary and into St Mary Cray, and the first prominent building is the church. It’s not quite as old as its neighbour St Paulinus: the foundations are likely 12th century in origin, and the tower and some of the arcades in the nave are from the following century. Indoors are some notable 15th century screens. The building was also a target of Victorian church restorers, with three separate projects in 1863, 1876 and 1895, and the current flint-faced exterior largely dates from this period, though following some of the original designs.

A paper mill once stood on Station Road, beside the Cray immediately to the west of the church, expanded in the 1850s into a substantial factory by owner William Joynson. This was converted to produce vegetable parchment in the 1930s and closed by then-owners Wiggins Teape in 1967: it was demolished and modern industrial units and car dealerships now occupy the site. Some historic buildings still stand around the junction, however, including 18th century Lime Tree House on the north side of Station Road opposite the church, and the former Blue Anchor pub at the top of the High Street on the east side, part of which comprises the remaining two bays of a four-bay 15th century hall house.

By the 1240s, the manor had become attached to Orpington but, despite this connection, for most of its history St Mary Cray remained a separate and more important town. In 1246, it was granted the right to hold a weekly market, which lasted until 1703 when the market house was blown down in a storm. In the later 18th century and throughout the 19th, it was the venue for an annual toy fair. Unlike St Paul’s Cray, it has a proper centre which has been well-preserved enough to give a flavour of the past.

Cray Viaduct from the south: note concrete arches nearest camera.
The Riverway route follows the historic High Street, now a conservation area. Since 1860, it’s been dominated by one of the nine massive arches of the Cray railway viaduct carrying the Chatham Main Line across the valley. This was originally opened by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR) as part of its route from London Victoria to Dover.

Labourers working on the project founded what became Cray Wanderers FC, one of the world’s oldest surviving football clubs: there’s a little more about this in my commentary on London Loop 2. The track here was quadrupled in 1958 and the viaduct widened to the south: look up as you walk beneath and you’ll see that the southern half of the arch is concrete, but the facing of the extension was carefully finished in brick to match the north side.

The opening of the railway attracted new residents and most of the houses that now line the High Street are post-1860 at the earliest, but the L-shaped weatherboarded Mary Rose Inn overlooking a little courtyard on the right just before the traffic barrier is 17th century, with a shop front added in the Victorian era. Beyond this, the street opens out onto the old market place, now a small village green. The village sign was installed here by the St Mary Cray Action Group to mark its 21st anniversary in 1992: the centre shield shows the white horse of Kent, while the flanking shields bear the arms of ancient families linked to the parish.

Beyond the green, the Riverway at last becomes a riverside walk again, along an open grassy bank between the river and the High Street, the northernmost extremity of a public open space known as Riverside Gardens. Until World War II, this was the private back yards of shops and houses fronting the High Street. The riverside suffered badly from wartime bombing and after the war, rather than rebuilding, the land was allocated to provide badly-needed green space for the increasing local population. Across the bridge to the right and just off the route is the Nugent Shopping Centre, built on the site of the Morphy Richards electrical appliance factory, operating between 1936 and 1970: at its peak in the mid-1960s it produced 1,000 electric irons per hour.

The small waterfall a little further on is the only surviving remnant of Snelling Mill, a water-powered flour mill which ended its days serving ornamental fountains in the Rookery, a big house on the High Street which is also now demolished. The most prominent building on the High Street visible from here is the Temple United Reform Church, a 1950s replacement for what was originally a much more impressive non-conformist chapel, built in 1851 and demolished following bomb damage in 1954.

You pass an old paddling pool that’s been remade as a sand and water play ‘fun zone’, and now on the other side of the river, cross Kent Road. There was once a ford at this point and the area to the west, developed since late Victorian times, is still known as Fordcroft. Archaeological digs here have uncovered a Saxon cemetery and a Roman bathhouse. Beyond this is a 1950s model boating lake and then a pleasingly wilder and more overgrown area around a pond, formed by a spring that’s one of the sources of the Cray. South of here, the original course of the Cray has been covered over by more recent development, including the A224 road, so the path runs east, around allotments. It then crosses the yard of St Andrew’s Church, built as a chapel to serve the swelling population in 1893.

Ponds fed from springs near St Mary Cray - Orpington boundary.

Lower Road, which you now follow, once ran straight down onto Orpington High Street: the tangled junction ahead was created in the 1920s when the A224 Orpington bypass was driven through. A typical interwar parade of shops, Carlton Parade, is over the road on the right, on the site of the millpond serving Orpington Mill or Colgate’s Mill. This flour mill was the uppermost mill on the river, just below the source, and is recorded in the Domesday survey. It was converted to steam in the 1870s but soon ran into financial difficulties, and ended its days as a storehouse before being demolished in 1935.


Orpington Priory. Never a priory but now an Asset of Community Value.
Like St Mary Cray, Orpington was known to the compilers of the 1086 Domesday survey, and for much of their history the two neighbouring settlements competed to be the most important centre in the area. With its industry, market and fairs, St Mary Cray was the more significant of the two for much of the second millennium, but Orpington emerged triumphant in the 20th century and is now one of the biggest urban centres on the Greater London fringes.

The town first appears in the written record several decades before the Norman conquest in 1032, when Eadsy, treasurer to England’s Danish king, Cnut the Great, gave his lands at Orpedingetune (meaning ‘farmstead belong to Orped’) to Christ Church Canterbury. Following the Conquest and then the fall from grace of Bishop Odo, the monks of Canterbury claimed the manor back. In the 12th century it was largely leased to the Ruxley family, encountered above, and following the Dissolution passed into private hands. For a while it was in shared ownership with nearby Lullingstone in the Darent valley to the east, now over the boundary in Kent.

Some development followed the opening of Orpington station in 1868, but the transformation from a small country town into a suburb only really kicked off after the station was rebuilt and enlarged in 1904. The first big privately developed estate was the Knoll, on former hop gardens between the west side of the High Street and the railway. Development continued through the interwar years, with the Ramsden council estate added in the 1950s to the east of the bypass. Like the rest of the Cray valley, Orpington has a significant traveller population, and an inaugural international congress held here in 1971 led to the foundation of the Romano Internacionalno Jekhetanipe or International Romani Union, a member of the Council of Europe and with special consultative status at the United Nations.

The Riverway makes a grand entrance into Orpington through two imposing 18th century gates, originally at the High Elms estate (on London Loop 3). These give access to the park known as Priory Gardens, with its extensive ornamental lakes – or rather lake, as there is actually a single 1 ha body of water divided by an artificial cascade, originally a sluice to control the water level. The lake started life as a mediaeval fishpond, fed by the spring that provides the main source of the Cray, and was remodelled in the late 19th century as a feature of the private parkland attached to Orpington Priory, complete with artificial islands. It’s worth taking a brief pause here, congratulating yourself on having traced the river to its source.

The route onwards crosses the cascade and continues on a straight path through the park, known as Monk’s Walk. After walking through a grassy meadow, you pass formal gardens on the right – well worth a detour to explore – and then the building known as Orpington Priory, just short of the southern gate out of the park. The Riverway officially ends here, though my description continues.

The references to monks and priories are 19th century fancies, as this site never accommodated a religious order, though the small estate did remain in the hands of Christ Church Canterbury until the Dissolution. The core of the building dates from the 15th century, and was extended in the 17th century. It was originally used as a rectory, attached to nearby All Saints Church, which is a little off our route but visible from it, over on the left, and also worth a visit. Parts of the church predate the Conquest, with the nave likely built early in the 11th century, perhaps when the Canterbury monks first took over. It presents two contrasting exteriors: a mediaeval main section pierced by 13th century lancet windows and a large 1957 extension in simplified pseudo-Gothic style. Inside is an Anglo-Saxon sundial, discovered and reset during restoration work.

After the Dissolution, the rectory was leased to the Hart Dyke family of Lullingstone, and eventually, in 1865, passed into the hands of Dr Herbert Broom, a keen historian who is thought to have been responsible for creating the formal gardens, broadly in the Arts & Crafts style. Remodelling was continued from 1919 under the next owner, publisher and landscape painter Cecil Hughes, under the influence of renowned garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, a friend of Hughes and his wife. A particularly noteworthy feature added during this period is the Theatre Garden to the northwest of the house, designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe in 1927, with ranked platforms so it can be used both as a theatre and a garden. There’s also a monument to Ivy Millichamp, the last civilian victim of a World War II V2 rocket.

Orpington District Council, a predecessor of today’s London Borough of Bromley, leased the house as offices after Hughes’ death in 1940 and by 1959 had taken ownership of house and grounds. The present park, incorporating additional land to the north, opened in 1962. The house was turned into Orpington Museum, later Bromley Museum, but this fell victim to austerity in 2015 as the council voted to sell the building. Local protesters blocked a proposed conversion to private housing by registering it as an Asset of Community Value, and it’s since been bought by a contemporary art organisation, V22.

Continuing ahead, you arrive on Bark Hart Road, with the church to your left and the original centre of Orpington along Church Hill to your right. An old road, Lych Gate Road, now continues ahead as a footpath where Bark Hart Road curves away, and soon there’s a view of the Walnuts shopping, further education and leisure centre over on the right. In the 1970s it was this development that destroyed the few remaining pre-Victorian buildings in the town. Residential streets lined with identikit interwar detached houses now lead to the village sign, installed in 2000, and the Portland stone war memorial displaying the familiar white horse, tellingly now the only listed building on the High Street.

Orpington war memorial now marooned on a roundabout.

At the start of the 20th century, this part of town was still largely rural, the southern end of the street dwindling into a few scattered cottages. But as the main route from the station ran this way, the rustic surroundings were not to last. When the memorial was installed in 1921, it provided a proud and sombre municipal end-stop to a newly extended commercial strip. Today the effect isn’t quite so striking, as it’s marooned on a roundabout encircled by thick traffic, with an unsympathetically boxy glass curtain-walled Tesco Extra on the opposite corner.

It’s a shortish walk west from here along Station Road to the station itself. As stated above, this was opened in 1868 by the South Eastern Railway (SER, no relation to today’s Southeastern), established in the 1840s as the operators of the first rail route from London to Dover, with its ferry connections to Belgium and France. Originally, the SER used a circuitous route which headed south from London Bridge on the London & Croydon Railway to Reigate before cutting east via Tonbridge and Ashford. Following the opening of the competing LC&DR route encountered earlier, the SER built a cut-off line from New Cross via Orpington and Sevenoaks to Tonbridge, greatly reducing journey times. This line eventually came to be regarded as the South Eastern Main Line.

The station has entrances on both sides, though the main entrance has always been to the west of the line, on the Crofton side of the tracks. The current building dates from 1904, when the line was quadrupled and the platforms expanded from two to six in response to the increasing importance of commuter traffic. This hadn’t been a major consideration in the 1860s but in the early 20th century it stimulated a dramatic transformation of the area, as we have seen. Two further terminating platforms on the Crofton side were installed on old carriage sidings in 1992.

Main entrance to Orpington station, proudly flying the flag.


Crofton: well-tended lawns among the bungalows.
I’ve written about Crofton in a little more detail along London Loop Section 3, including its main attraction, a little off the official Loop route but right next to this alternative, adjacent to the main station entrance. This is Crofton Roman Villa, one of many that stood in this part of Kent in pre-Saxon times, and along with Lullingstone Villa not too far away (and on the Darent Valley Path), a fine reminder of the area’s pre-mediaeval past.

To connect back to the Loop from here, the best way is first to climb the hill ahead: undistinguished of itself, but look back for a sweeping view across the valley you’ve been following. The hill crests the watershed, with the Cray on one side, and the Kyd Brook or Quaggy, a tributary of the Ravensbourne, on the other.

Then you’ll need to take to more interwar residential streets, many of them lined with bungalows, though with plenty of trees and some patches of green. You rejoin the Loop in a small clearing in Darrick and Newstead Woods Local Nature Reserve, not far from the village of Farnborough and the very edge of London’s sprawl.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

London Loop alternative: Dartford Crossways - Crayford

Welcome to the Enchanted Woodland, actually a smallpox cemetery in disguise.

Completing my proposed alternative route of the London Loop using the public bus service across the Dartford Crossing, this is a moderately short and largely urban but pleasant and interesting walk linking the bus stop at Crossways in the suburbs of Dartford with Barnes Cray, back on the official route. Along the way, you can enjoy flooded gravel pits remodelled as landscape features of business parks, a closeup view of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, and a visit to an enchanted woodland. The final stretch sticks to riversides through Dartford Marshes followed by an optional extension along the official trail to Crayford station.

There are plenty of opportunities to split the walk by bus, including the frequent FastTrack dedicated busway services linking Dartford, Bluewater and Gravesend, although these don’t accept TfL cards. And you’ll pass close to Dartford station which although outside London is now conveniently in TfL’s Zone 8.

Since the Crossways bus stop is a short walk from the south bank of the river Thames, another obvious way of completing this walk would be to use the riverside paths more-or-less throughout, upstream along the Thames to Crayford Ness then upstream along the Darent to Bob Dunn Way Bridge to meet the route described below. This is a very good walk, and a little more straightforward, but it’s 2 km longer. At some point I plan to explore the Thames Path and its actual and possible extensions in more detail in these pages, so for the time being I’ve found a more varied and surprising route inland. For more about the issues of completing the Loop in the east and why I’ve proposed this alternative as a bonus feature to the official trail, see my previous post.

Dartford, Kent

It’s appropriate that the geographical area where our circuits of London start is named after a rim or border. The word ‘Kent’ most likely derives from a Celtic term with this meaning, Latinised by Julius Caesar as Cantium. Its people, whom Caesar described as “by far the most civilised” of the Britons, were known to the Romans as the Cantiaci.

As the closest part of England to the European mainland, Kent will always be border country. But borders are rarely entirely impermeable, and the county has long been the conduit for people, cultures and ideas. Caesar himself first landed in Walmer near Deal from Boulogne in 55 BCE, and the ancestors of the Belgic and Celtic people he encountered had likely reached England via that same shoreline. The force that finally annexed most of Britain to the Roman Empire during Augustus’ reign in 43 likely landed at Richborough. Where their march northwest was interrupted by the Thames, they created a river crossing on the line of the later London Bridge, and inadvertently founded London.

Following the withdrawal of Roman rule in the 5th century, Jutes from what’s now southern Denmark migrated to East Kent and Saxons from western Germany followed them to West Kent. By 597, the year the Italian Christian priest Augustine landed at Reculver, Kent was a stable Anglo-Saxon kingdom, under Æthelberht, the first reliably attested king, some of whose laws survive as the oldest-known written English texts. Augustine completed his mission to convert the king, and became the first archbishop of Canterbury. The next and, so far, most recent successful occupation of Britain, by William of Normandy in 1066, was an exception, beginning in Sussex rather than Kent. The fact that William’s troops marched through Kent without formally demanding a surrender is the explanation for the county’s traditional motto, Invicta, meaning ‘undefeated’.

There’s still an echo of that old split between Saxons and Jutes in numerous institutional divisions between east and west Kent, and in the folk distinction between the demonyms ‘Man/maid of Kent’ for the east and ‘Kentish man/maid’ for the west, with the boundary almost but not quite following the river Medway. As these pages don’t look much beyond the immediate hinterland of Greater London, Jutes and men and maids of Kent are beyond our area of interest.

From Roman times, London itself has formed part of this rim country, the first big metropolis where the flow from the southeast eddied and often settled. So the city became the greatest borderland of all, flourishing as a multicultural, polyglot melting pot and a laboratory of new ideas. It’s long maintained a Kentish foothold, with a royal palace at Greenwich since before 1300, and a later royal dockyard at Deptford, both effectively extending the capital downstream along the Thames. When the county of London was belatedly created in 1889, it formally incorporated those parts of Kent roughly equivalent to today’s Greenwich and Lewisham boroughs. London returned for more in 1965, absorbing Bexley and Bromley.

And as everywhere, that borderline status of both London and Kent has remained problematic, its permeability both desired and resented. You’re forcibly reminded of the border if you’re unlucky enough to get caught up on the M20 approaching Folkestone during Operation Stack, the periodic clampdown on vehicle passage through the Channel Tunnel. Sadly, the current trend is hard rather than soft: in the referendum that sparked the current self-harming process of the UK leaving the European Union in June 2016, while almost 60% of Londoners voted to remain, 59% of Kent voted to leave.

Dartford takes its name from the ford on the river Darent around which the original town grew in Roman times. It’s the easternmost of three ‘Ford’ towns where the Roman highway later known as Watling Street, and highly likely its Celtic predecessor, crossed Thames tributaries. The others, from west to east, are Deptford, the ‘deep ford’ on the river Ravensbourne, and Crayford, on the river Cray – the destination of today’s walk. I’ve said more about Watling Street when discussing the London Countryway, which crosses it between Gravesend and Sole Street.

In the Roman period, Dartford could well have been an important local centre, given the attested presence of several apparently prosperous villas in the fertile Darent valley. The road later became a pilgrim route to Canterbury, as made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer, and Dartford, which could be reached from London in a day by an energetic walker, was an important stop on the way.

By the 14th century the town boasted two priories and a weekly market, and was likely one of the key rallying points for the rebels from Essex and Kent who marched on London in 1381 during the ill-fated Peasants’ Revolt. Alongside Deptford and Maidstone, it’s a claimant to the birthplace of revolt leader Wat Tyler, though there’s no proof of this. I’ll have more to say about this incident in a later post, likely on a walk visiting Blackheath, much closer to London along Watling Street.

Dartford industrialised comparatively early, thanks to a convergence of geographical factors including the river and road links to London, the abundance of good water which also provided power for mills and, like Purfleet and Thurrock across the Thames, the presence of chalk deposits close to the surface. The first paper mill in England opened here in 1588 and more soon followed. There were chalk pits in mediaeval times, and more recently pharmaceuticals figured highly among the local produce, as we’ll see. Among Dartford's more recent exports is Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, who has a local arts centre named after him.

By the mid-20th century, Dartford had effectively become a commuter suburb and continuous urban sprawl connected it to London in several places. It was one of the areas reviewed by the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London in the late 1950s for possible inclusion in an enlarged capital. But the Commission’s final report stopped short of recommending this, presumably because the town was still relatively self-contained: unlike some places outside London encountered on the Loop, it wasn’t excluded at a later stage following local protest.

In 1974, the Victorian-era Municipal Borough was enlarged with the inclusion of the rural hinterland to create the present Borough of Dartford. A more recent proposal to create a unitary authority by merging it with Gravesend was also rejected, so it remains part of the two-tier local government system of Kent. Unsurprisingly, though, the idea of Dartford becoming part of London is still regularly discussed, and local opinion appears almost equally divided on the issue.

Like many other places just outside London, Dartford is dominated by the capital without being able to enjoy the benefits of belonging to it. Local identity and viability have been placed under enormous pressure from industrial decline and retail competition from the West End and closer by. The giant Bluewater shpping mall just downriver, is widely blamed for turning the once-flourishing town centre into a denuded parade of closed shutters, charity and pound shops. But today’s walk avoids the historic centre in favour of its post-industrial hinterland, so we’ll need to wait for a later post to test this judgement.


Former chalk pits at Crossways are now lakes enjoyed by local workers.

Observant walkers who have crossed the Dartford Crossing from the previous section will notice that the surroundings on both sides of the Thames here are telling essentially the same story. Both are the recently redeveloped sites of former chalk quarries.

Once across the river, the bus from Chafford Hundred stops at the Galleon Boulevard stop in the Crossways Business Park, right by a Campanile hotel set behind an attractive pond complete with a fountain. This area was once part of Stone, then the next parish downstream along the Thames from Dartford, and was known as Stone Marshes. As on the other side, the marshes were successfully drained in mediaeval times to create quality farmland. Then chalk was found in the late 1860s, and over the next few decades, fuelled by the demand for cement from the London building industry, no less than four quarries appeared, with associated cement works and other facilities, all linked by a private tramway. By the 1930s they had all been incorporated into one giant undertaking, the Dartford Portland Cement Works.

These works fell into progressive disuse after the war and were finally demolished in the 1970s, leaving a blasted landscape of pits and slag heaps. Regeneration began in 1988, with a big distribution depot for supermarket Asda soon opening on the riverside, and the former cement wharf next door becoming a freight shipping terminal. The 120-ha Crossways Business Park now houses over 50 businesses employing 5,000 people. Rather like Stockley Park on section 11 of the Loop, it just missed the change in planners’ thinking towards more mixed-use development, so it’s one of those places that feels oddly compartmentalised and lonely, although there are two hotels and a scattering of residential properties.

This may seem an unpromising environment to walk in but turns out to be more pleasant than expected, helped enormously by a network of off-road paths and numerous water features remodelled from chalk pits, like that Campanile pond. Soon, you’re walking beside another, rather larger example known as Cotton Lake. Until the late 19th century there was a farm here, Cotton Farm, later overwhelmed by the pit which forms the basis of today’s lake. North of the lake, an 1870s map shows watercress beds steadily being encroached by chalk workings.

Our route leads straight across the Littlebrook Interchange connecting Dartford and Crossways with the M25 and the Dartford Crossing. This was first opened as part of the initial construction of Crossways in 1988 and substantially enlarged in 1996. The main interest here is the view from the flyover end-on to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and down to the tunnel approaches. Try to imagine the scene in the 19th century when this was Littlebrook Farm: the only survivor from this era other than the name is the fragmented strip of woodland that surrounds the A282 to the southwest. There’s a lot more about the Dartford Crossing and the bridge in my previous post.

View from the Littlebrook Interchange: tunnel beneath, bridge below.

Joyce Green and Temple Hill

Repurposed fence posts in the Enchanted Woodland
The residential streets west of the interchange were built on farmland as social housing between 1951 and 1960 in response to the post-war housing crisis, and still comprise Dartford’s largest area of deprivation. The neighbourhood is known as Temple Hill, recalling the fact that this was once Temples Manor, gifted by Henry II to the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Temple Farm stood in the northwest corner until it was demolished to make way for housing during the original development.

The trail runs through another fragmentary strip of woodland surviving from Littlebrook Farm, before following streets named rather pompously after poets and authors: Wordsworth Way, Wodehouse Road, Chaucer Way. Another familiar name around here is Joyce Green, not after the experimental Irish novelist but another farm to the northwest, which still survives, unlike the hospital which borrowed the farm’s name in the 20th century.

Following the advance of epidemiology in the late 19th century, but before the perfection of effective vaccines and antibiotics, highly infectious diseases like smallpox, which spread rapidly in densely populated urban areas, were contained by isolating those already infected. In a grim echo of the prison hulks from the Napoleonic period, in 1881 two former Royal Navy wooden warships were pressed into service as offshore hospitals. At first, they were moored off Deptford but in 1883 were moved to Long Reach off Dartford where they were joined by a third vessel, a former cross-Channel paddle steamer.

But conditions on board were far from ideal for the purpose, and in 1901 the Metropolitan Asylums Board began work on a land-based isolation hospital at Joyce Green Farm, a little inland from the ships. Work had barely started when a new smallpox epidemic hit London, so two further hospitals were built originally on a temporary basis a little closer to the river, known as Long Reach and Orchard hospitals.

Joyce Green hospital opened with 940 beds in 1903, though the outbreak of the previous year turned out to be last major smallpox epidemic in London, so in 1910 the hospital was repurposed to handle fever cases. It remained largely empty for periods in the 1920s and 1930s before becoming a military hospital during World War II, at one point reserved for the Free Dutch Forces based in Britain. Later it was a general hospital, becoming part of the NHS in 1948. It finally closed in 2000, superseded by Darent Valley Hospital near Bluewater.

The site is currently undergoing redevelopment as a housing estate and science park known as the Bridge. The curious layout of the original hospital, so distinctive on contemporary maps with its 22 separate ward buildings arranged symmetrically in an echelon formation and originally connected by a horse-drawn tramway, has been completely obliterated by demolition.

One curious corner of the hospital does survive, though in a rather different form. In the early 20th century there was no effective treatment for smallpox and the mortality rate was high, so a corner of the grounds to the southeast was consecrated as a cemetery. The site was last used for burials in 1951, and gradually became overgrown. By the 1960s it was surrounded by new houses, and it became known locally as an informal open space, especially after 1993 when it was severed from the hospital site by the construction of the new A206 road. But it also suffered major problems with litter and fly tipping.

Following the closure of the hospital, a local campaign pushed for the creation of a community woodland on the cemetery site. It was bought from the Department of Health for £1 in 2009 and reopened under the management of charity the Temple Hill Trust as the Enchanted Woodland, remarkably the only substantial area of public woodland in Dartford. With little funding available, the restoration and maintenance of the site, including the removal of over 20 t of illegally dumped rubbish in 2013, has largely been a volunteer-supported project. Since 2016 it’s been managed by a local school, the Temple Hill Primary Academy, and students have embarked on a new programme of planting using saplings nurtured in the surrounding house gardens.

Visiting the woodland requires a horseshoe-shaped deflection of the route but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s worthwhile. It’s a dappled patchwork of mature trees planted when the hospital was first developed, ivy-carpeted secondary woodland, more recent saplings and patches of grass. In spring, it’s noted for violets, likely descended from some that were once planted on a grave. Dotted throughout are more recent and often quirky decorations, like hand-carved signs, and an old fence line turned into a decorative feature, lending a distinctive and intimate feel.

Only one headstone remains, commemorating a nurse, Ethel Chapman, who died in 1922. This, and the overgrown yew trees, are among the few on-site clues to the site’s origins. So it’s astonishing to learn that 1,039 bodies are buried here, of which 802 are from a single year, victims of the last great London smallpox epidemic in 1902. According to the official history compiled by the Trust, at the peak of the epidemic a new communal grave was dug each day, and filled with up to 14 corpses in sacks stuffed with straw and charcoal to absorb the bodily fluids. Most graves were marked with a simple numbered metal spear, none of which still stand, though some are preserved by the Trust. There are two military burials from World War I but, unusually for war graves, even these are unmarked. After 1936, there were no more burials until the final five in 1951.

The walk then threads through grassy strips that formed part of the original estate design, and suddenly you find yourself atop a modest cliff. A wide view opens north towards the Queen Elizabeth II bridge and the Thames, with the low hills of Essex visible on the other side. The cliff appears on mid-19th century maps and is likely a relic of chalk diggings, although from an earlier period than the large scale works of the 1870s and after. Today, a flight of steps leads down it to a children’s playground nestling in its shadow, known as the Joyce Green Lane Recreation Ground.

Clifftop view north over Joyce Green Lane Recreation Ground and the marshes.

A gate from the playground leads onto Joyce Green Lane itself, once an old farm track from Temple Hill into the marshes, and later the route travelled by hospital patients from the station. Then another grass patch, Wellcome Avenue Open Space, bridges the transition to an area of rather different character. The clue is in the name, for Wellcome Avenue commemorates one of Dartford’s most significant industries.

Industrial Dartford

This birch on the corner of  the former Wellcome North Site
overhangs the route of a cement works tramway.
The marshy area to the north of Dartford town centre, with the tidal river Darent close at hand for water, power and transport, has been an industrial zone since at least the 16th century. Back then, a tidal-powered steel slitting mill stood on the riverside near the northern end of the High Street. Over the centuries this grew into the biggest milling complex on the river, known as the Phoenix Mill and used at various times for timber, cotton, flour, mustard, linseed oil and paper. This last commodity is something of a local speciality, produced in the area since at least 1588 until early in the 21st century.

In 1889, the mills were sold to pioneering pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co, founded by two US-born pharmacists, Silas Burroughs and Henry Wellcome. This originated in Wandsworth, on another Thames tributary we’ll be visiting on later walks, in 1880 but soon outgrew its original site. If you break your walk at Dartford Station, you’ll be able to see the mill pond, remodelled by Burroughs Wellcome into a decorative lake with artificial islands, providing a suitably attractive frontage for what was intended to be a model factory. The station opened when the South East Railway extended its North Kent Line west from Gravesend towards London in 1849, improving the connectivity of the mill site still further.

Burroughs Wellcome played a lead role in establishing the pill as a form of medication, and is further noted for the emphasis it placed on research: among other things it made major advances in the production of antihistamines, insulin and, more recently, the antiviral drugs used to manage HIV infection. Its philanthropically-inclined co-founder wanted the profits spent on improving human health, and after his death in 1936, his legacy was used to set up the Wellcome Trust, still a major funder of medical research, as well as the owner of one of London’s most fascinating museums at its Euston Road headquarters. But the original company has subsequently been absorbed through mergers, and is now part of the world’s sixth largest pharma multinational, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

At first Wellcome occupied only part of the mill complex, with some of it leased to a flour miller, but in the early years of the 20th century the drug company expanded to fill the rest, and then beyond. Immediately to the north, and to your left as you begin to walk south along Central Road, was one of the late 19th century cement works, connected to a wharf on the Darent by a tramway which crossed your path through what are currently the locked gates on the right a few steps further south: an interpretation board marks the spot. Another tramway ran north-south along Central Road to the mills. The cement plant was disused by World War I when it housed German prisoners of war before being occupied by Wellcome.

The area on the right (west) side of Central Road, known as the North Site, was farmland attached to Temple Farm until as late as the 1980s, when it too became an extension of the Wellcome plant. This use proved relatively short-lived: GSK closed the entire plant in 2011, laying off 650 staff – equal to half the 1,300 who had worked at the site in its peak years. Unsurprisingly given its proximity to the station, the whole lot is being redeveloped as housing. At the time of writing, building has only just started on the North Site, but 400 homes on the older site opposite are nearing completion. Pleasingly, the new neighbourhood will be known as the Phoenix Quarter, reviving the old name of the mill.

The land between the North Site and a former paper mill close to the station is occupied by a later 20th century development of light industrial units: not especially attractive or distinguished, but providing a straightforward walk along the obviously named Riverside Way to the Darent and the more open surroundings of the final stage of the walk.

Dartford Marshes and the Darent

Boardwalk alongside the river Darent by Riverside Way Industrial Estate, looking upstream at low tide.

The river which gives Dartford its name rises from the Greensand ridge at Crockhamhill Common, south of Westerham, close to Kent’s western boundary with Surrey and only a few hundred metres from the route of the London Countryway through Kent Hatch. The Darent skims the northwestern edge of Sevenoaks and runs through Otford, Shoreham, Eynsford and Dartford to join the Thames on the marshes at Crayford Ness, a distance of 34 km. It’s a chalk stream, one of several encountered on these walks, and the exceptional purity of its water is one of the reasons its valley is associated with the paper and pharmaceutical industries.

A 31-km signed walking trail, the Darent Valley Path, traces the river’s course. Although this runs entirely outside London, it’s entirely within the London Countryway and therefore within the scope of this project, so I’ll discuss the river in more detail alongside the trail when I get around to it. This route follows a short section of the northernmost part of Darent Valley Path between Riverside Way and Bob Dunn Way Bridge.

The Darent is tidal below Mill Pond Road near Dartford station, where there’s a now-derelict lock that gave access to Phoenix Mills. As is the custom with Thames tributaries in the London area, the tidal section is known as a creek, Dartford Creek. Quite large boats could once sail this far at high tide, and a right of navigation still exists, although silting has made boating difficult. The recently formed Dartford and Crayford Creek Restoration Trust is currently working to remedy this.

From Riverside Way a decent riverside path, augmented by a newish stretch of boardwalk, leads downstream into the marshes, soon leaving the industry behind. With Crayford and Erith Marshes (section 1 of the Loop) further up the Thames and Rainham Marshes (section 24) on the Essex side, Dartford Marshes forms the largest surviving remnant of an environment that once stretched much further upriver, and is now a designated Site of Nature Conservation Interest. Managed and drained since mediaeval times, the marshes were traditionally used for grazing, though also for activities that require isolation, such as explosive storage and testing and, as previously discussed, the treatment of infectious diseases. We’re far enough down the estuary here that the section closest to the Thames is salt marsh, though we won’t get that far today.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the marshes are a unique environment in the London area, both in terms of their wildlife value and their special and rather curious sense of remoteness. Yet they are undervalued and underappreciated. Fragmented ownership, split between ten different landowners on the Dartford side including the council and private interests, makes coherent management difficult, and paths and access points are limited. For the confident walker, this can provide a surprising sense of escape – sometimes you seem to have the whole marsh to yourself – but it provides insufficient surveillance to deter the likes of fly tippers and illegal off-road motorcyclists and partly explains the local reputation for antisocial behaviour. Don’t let this put you off – you’re unlikely to be troubled and can enjoy the space and the bird life on the muddy creek.

When I first walked these paths in the very early 1990s, there were no crossings of the Darent below Mill Pond Road, so the only possible riverside route north from there was all the way to the confluence and downstream along the Thames towards Gravesend. But in 1993 they opened the new A206 bypass, the road which severed the hospital site, originally known as University Way, but later renamed when the planned university failed to appear as Bob Dunn Way. Dunn, who died in 2003, was the Conservative MP for Dartford throughout the Thatcher and Major years, from 1979 until the ascent of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997.

This fast and busy road crosses the Darent just south of the mouth of the Cray, and pedestrian access from the riverside to the bridge has thankfully been provided, so although the traffic is something of an intrusion, there’s at least the opportunity to nip across the river.

Looking towards Dartford Salt Marshes from just north of the Bob Dunn Way Bridge.

From here you follow the river wall around the triangle of marsh between the Darent and its lowest tributary the Cray, soon turning to walk upstream along the latter as you’ll continue to do for the rest of this section. This stretch of river is also tidal and therefore known as Crayford Creek. It forms the boundary between Kent and Greater London here and the official route of the London Loop from Erith lies within hailing distance, along the corresponding path on the other side. Nearing the industrial buildings of Barnes Cray, you cross a footbridge over a minor tributary, the Stanham River, or rather a straightened arm of it that was once served the industries in Crayford like the Vickers works.

Crossing the footbridge, you leave Kent and enter the London Borough of Bexley, but there’s still a good path following the river as it bends past the waste reception centre and under the 1849 brick rail viaduct that also provides a distinctive feature on the official Loop route nearby. On the opposite bank, a bicycle is hoisted improbably on a tall pole above a ramshackle collection of huts and old containers: perhaps a trophy captured by the locals on nearby National Cycle Network Route 1 and displayed here pour encourager les autres. The Cray’s appearance changes dramatically here: you can see how it’s been straightened, widened and culverted, with boat docks and a turning bay. This work was largely carried out in 1840 to improve access to the mills on the site.

Did the locals seize this bike from a hapless cyclist on NCN1? River Cray, Branes Cray.

And so our walk reaches Thames Road at Barnes Cray where it finally meets the official London Loop as well as the more local Cray Riverway trail. There are buses from here, but I’d recommend continuing at least a little further into Crayford, enjoying the river’s further change of character into a more rustic and verdant stream, as well as the satisfaction of having actually completed a circuit around London, even if a short part of it had to be by bus.