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.

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