I EMBARKED ON THE LONDON COUNTRYWAY on the promise of variety. Keith Chesterton, who devised the original route, was inspired by the GR1 orbital trail around Paris, and his conviction that the countryside around London was much more varied and attractive than that of its French arch-rival. Some 340km of sharp contrasts later, the route has made its case unarguably, and it still has surprises in store.
This last stage has an atmosphere that’s different again from anything previously encountered. It strikes out across the wide, flat floodplain smoothed over millennia by the river Thames on the north side of its estuary, following long straight paths alongside long straight ditches crisscrossing broad, damp fens and fields under open skies. Occasionally small hills rise up from the flatness, topped by villages and small towns, but elsewhere you could almost be walking in the Netherlands or Flanders. Even the Thames tributary into which most of the watercourses ultimately drain, the Mardyke, has a Dutch sounding name. Then at last the path arrives at the river itself for an exhilarating and rather curious final waterside stretch between two historic forts, ending at the ferry that completes the circuit.
The flat country starts almost straight away. A right of way preserved through post-war housing runs under a gloomy Victorian red brick bridge carrying the London, Tilbury and Southend railway to emerge on the edge of a meadow. Crossing the railway, the path leaves the modern day county of Essex and enters the final local authority area on the Countryway, the borough of Thurrock. Once an Essex district, in 1998 it became a unitary authority in its own right, along with Southend further down the estuary, and various other miscellaneous parts of England, including Windsor and Maidenhead on a previous leg of the route.
As an area of flat and flood-prone land on a major navigable river that once led to Britain’s biggest port, Thurrock has long been distinct from the rest of Essex and much more industrialised. The area benefited when the advent of containerisation drove shipping from the restricted spaces of the London docks, but it’s recently faced its own industrial decline. This, and the fact that it functions like a far flung corner of London suburbia without enjoying the benefits of being properly integrated into the capital, may explain why in 2012 the borough came bottom of the list in the government’s wellbeing index, earning it the dubious distinction of the most miserable place in Britain. The Countryway finds a route through it that’s mainly green and pleasant, but there is a certain sense of desolation, and a few glimpses of the grittier side of life by the estuary.
The first stretch of flat, slightly sticky walking leads past Tillingham Hall, once the site of the most important manor house in the parish. Until the Dissolution it was held by Coggeshall monastery and is still marked on Ordnance Survey maps with traces of an ancient moat. Then the path passes the 1.6 ha Slough House Lake, created in 1990 by the Environment Agency as part of flood defences but also used as a commercial fishing lake stocked with carp and catfish and offering fishing permits by the day.
Bulphan and the MardykeThe Countryway skirts the western edge of Bulphan, pronounced ‘bullven’ – the ending is likely related to the word ‘fen’. The 15th century church of St Mary the Virgin is worth a look though it’s a little off the route, which turns away from the village along Fen Lane to a staggered junction at a brick bridge rebuilt in 1993. On the southeast corner, through the trees, stands the forlorn remains of a big and solid whitewashed pub, the Harrow, with slightly comical mock-Tudor outbuildings. Once this was a well-recognised landmark – locals recall it decked in fairy lights and standing out at night like a beacon amid the emptiness of the fen. The pub closed in 2000 and seems to have been summarily abandoned: photos posted online by someone who explored the site in 2008 show half finished bottles of lemonade standing on the bar counter, stock still in the drinks store and cellar, and toys and clothes in the bedrooms. It became a target of vandals and looters and after a fire in 2009 the site has been more thoroughly secured. Update August 2021: the pub was demolished in 2018 and the site is now occupied by the Glass House, a "detox and wellness retreat".
The ruined pub reinforces the impression of a remote and desolate spot, particularly under grey skies, but this is actually the closest point on the route to Greater London. Tracking an old parish boundary, a little stub of the London Borough of Havering pokes out near here beyond the M25, the only part of the capital outside the orbital motorway. And since it would be rude to walk the London Countryway without visiting London, I recommend that before turning past the Harrow you continue for another 300m or so along Fen Lane. The lane crosses yet another small stream, confirmed as a boundary by two flanking street name plates in different designs, one for Havering and one for Thurrock. You can even stand with a foot in both camps. The history of London’s contested edges is manifest in the fact that this narrow country lane seemingly in the middle of nowhere falls under the same administrative arrangements as Piccadilly Circus.
The stream is a subsidiary channel of the Mardyke: the main river itself crosses Fen Lane just a little further on, in Havering. The name derives from an Old English term meaning ‘boundary ditch’ so it’s likely the watercourse followed by the current boundary was the older course. The official source is at Holden’s Wood between Great and Little Warley, from where the river runs 18 km to the Thames at Purfleet, close to the Dartford Crossing. The Countryway never crosses the Mardyke itself, running east of the source and the main flow, though it encounters various feeder streams, including the one that flows from the same source as Old Hall Pond in Thorndon Park in the previous section.
Now the ground starts to rise slowly towards the large village of Orsett. These settlement-topped hills barely raising their heads above the marshy expanse may remind you of scattered islands on a catastrophe map predicting rising sea levels. The image is eerily apt – much of this area was inundated in the floods of 1953, and the locals had to take refuge on the high ground.
OrsettApproaching the village, the route passes a ring and bailey earthwork and a fragment of masonry of uncertain age, where once a circular and a rectangular structure stood side by side surrounded by ditches. The structure is known locally as Bishop Bonner’s Palace on the assumption that it once belonged to the Bishops of London, of whom Edmund Bonner is arguably the most notorious. Bonner, at first a lackey of Henry VIII who actively helped manage the king’s split from Rome, was promoted to that office in 1540, but later, under Mary, became a zealous persecutor of Protestants. His personal role in the executions of at least 120 and perhaps as many as 300 ‘heretics’ earned him the nickname Bloody Bonner, but he fell from grace when Elizabeth took the throne and died in 1569 in the Marshalsea prison in Southwark. But there’s no evidence that the ‘palace,’ a scheduled ancient monument, is genuinely connected to Bonner. In a wood across the other side of the site is a fish pond now known as the Decoy which once belonged to the building.
Still standing just to the south is Old Hall Farm, a farmhouse with an exposed timber frame dating from around 1500. In the 1990s this became the home of the local MP, maverick right wing Conservative Teresa Gorman, who carried out major alterations to the Grade II listed building without seeking the necessary permission. Eventually Gorman was forced to reverse some of the changes, although there were accusations locally that she had been treated more leniently by the planning authorities because of her position. She retired from Parliament in 2001, and now campaigns locally for the UK Independence Party.
Both Gorman and Bonner may well have found a use for another historic structure that stands on a little green where the route meets the village high street. This small black weatherboarded building with barred windows dating from around 1700 is the former village ‘cage’ or lockup, a forbidding cell for malefactors. Next to it is a small enclosure fenced with sturdy oak posts: this is the village pound, where stray livestock was kept until claimed. The village centre is a conservation area: parts of the church date back to the 12th century and there are many other listed buildings, as well as a more recent and slightly unlikely addition, the palm-fronded Princess Diana Memorial Garden at the main junction with Rectory Road.
Continuing uphill the route passes another landmark, Orsett Hospital, originally a workhouse built in 1837 when Orsett was the headquarters of the local Poor Law Union. In 1917 the institution began admitting people only if they were ill, and soon evolved into a local hospital. In the 1960s, as the NHS began pursuing a policy of building big general hospitals on out of town – and sometimes difficult to access – sites, the facilities at Orsett were significantly expanded, only to contract again when the local NHS came under financial pressure in the 1980s. It now concentrates on specialist services and a minor injuries unit, and much of the 1960s site has been redeveloped as housing.
As the hospitals were contracting, the roads were expanding. Across a muddy recreation ground beyond the hospital the route climbs a pedestrian bridge to cross the last major radial route out of London, the A13, which runs from Aldgate to Southend. The busy dual carriageway in the trench below was opened in 1982, and on the other side of the bridge is its predecessor, now numbered A1013, dating from the 1920s. Then the route crosses farmland separating Orsett from the Tilbury conurbation, first descending then rising slightly again to the last low gravel and chalk ridge before the Thames.
Chadwell St Mary and Tilbury
The path reaches a corner of a small woodland, Old House Wood, now a recognised site of local nature conservation interest on the northern edge of Chadwell St Mary. This was the original parish covering the area to the south now occupied by Tilbury Town and Docks – the villages of East and West Tilbury, from which the contemporary port takes its name, were part of a separate parish to the east which the route will shortly traverse. The village was simply known as Chadwell until the 19th century when the ‘St Mary’ suffix, after the saint to whom the parish church is dedicated, was added to distinguish it from Chadwell in Buckinghamshire. There’s a romantic story that the name refers to a well blessed by St Chad, but in the Domesday survey the place name is recorded as Celdewella, simply meaning ‘cold well’. The well in question had disappeared by 1980.
Today Tilbury Town, which largely developed in the 1880s to serve the new docks, is the local nucleus, and part of a conurbation that unites a row of riverside industrial and transport zones on the north bank of the Thames estuary running west to Purfleeet. Chadwell is effectively a dormitory suburb, and looming above the trees ahead is a relatively unusual sight on the Countryway: a trio of forbidding 1960s council tower blocks on the Godman Road estate. It’s possible to follow a more direct but rather more urban route to the ferry terminal from here, via Tilbury Town, or to drop out and catch a bus, but the main Countryway defers gratification in favour of interest, gently skirting the towers and arcing southeast on a hook-shaped final stretch, initially across clay and gravel fields which show evidence of habitation dating back to the Old Stone Age.
From here the route crosses an unusually large field not subdivided by hedges – a relic of the feudal open field system of strip agriculture which survived here until the 19th century. The southern part of this field is very likely the location where in August 1588, Elizabeth I ceremonially reviewed an army of between 17,000 and 22,000 men, hastily assembled to meet the threat of the Spanish Armada. This was the occasion when, in her speech to the troops, the Queen made her often quoted remark: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too”. In the event, the Spanish fleet was scattered at sea by the English navy under the command of Francis Drake, and never threatened the Thames. The preservation of West Tilbury’s agricultural landscape, so close to London, the river and the docks, is largely down to major local landowners and farmers the Cole family, who resisted selling off land for development.
East Tilbury and the Bata factory
On the other side of the power lines and the London, Tilbury and Southend railway, the route reaches East Tilbury, and a fine view of where industrialisation did take hold and in a way that provides yet another unexpected interest. This is the former Bata shoe factory, according to Radio Praha “a Czech modernist Utopia on the Thames marshes” and hailed by the EU’s industrial heritage specialists as “one of the most important planned landscapes in the East of England”. It was founded in 1932 by Tomáš Baťa, who had adopted the mass production methods of Henry Ford to grow his shoemaking business from small beginnings in 1894 in his hometown of Zlín in Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now in the Czech Republic. He had already built satellite factories in several other European locations when he first considered a site at Tilbury in 1929 at the height of the Great Depression. Baťa died soon after construction started but his company became a major local presence, creating a company town with model housing, schools and leisure facilities for its workers.
Built using concrete on welded steel columns to designs by Vladimir Karfik, an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, the constructivist-style factory is one of the earliest modernist buildings in England. The surrounding white box-shaped workers houses are also strikingly different from any other architecture in the area. The company started to shift production to other, now-cheaper locations in the 1980s and the factory finally closed in 2005. It’s now a Grade II listed building and its surroundings a designated conservation area, with a Reminiscence and Resource Centre in the local library.
The bridleway finally reaches the evocatively named Love Lane just shy of a triangular junction. Keith Chesterton is his original London Countryway guide opts to end this section here, directing returning walkers left on a road-based link to East Tilbury station, so the subsequent section includes stretches on both sides of the river and a ferry crossing embedded within. But I recommend you push on for just over 7km and finish the walk in style.
The old centre of East Tilbury is on the riverside, though the station of that name is over 2 km inland by ‘Bataville’ – indeed it was originally opened to serve the factory, in 1936, eventually superseding a station that served both villages, Low Street, which closed in 1967. The settlement then became stretched out on the road between the two sites. This road has the feel of a slightly neglected seaside town, with colourfully painted cottages, a painfully bright pink pub, and the sense that everything is leading to nowhere except the water’s edge. St Catharine’s church, on the final stretch, is built mainly of flint, with Kentish ragstone ferried across the river, and some Roman masonry – parts of it date back to the 12th century. One notable feature is the abandoned stump of a tower, built by the garrison at the fort during World War I in memory of fallen comrades. It was intended originally to be full height but its construction was halted by the planning authorities when it had only reached a single storey.
Coalhouse Fort to Tilbury Fort
Update August 2021. There's a problem on the riverside path on this section due to erosion, with temporary closures in place from the water tower just past Coalhouse Fort for 340 m upstream. The path may be closed at high tide and at other times with no alternative available. Walkers' reports suggest it's possible to get around the relatively short problem stretch by descending to the foreshore but this is something I certainly wouldn't recommend at high tide. A walker reports in July 2021 that "whilst there are still signs up stating that the path is closed, they don't take up much of the path and can easily be walked around. The path itself seems to be fine, I didn't notice any signs of erosion." This section of path is part of the Thames Estuary Trail and is due to become part of the England Coast Path, so hopefully the issues will be addressed in due course. In the meantime, I'd be grateful for any further information.
riverside park, and in 1983 a separate charity, the Coalhouse Fort Project, set itself up to restore and conserve the buildings and create a military museum within them. The fort is currently open for pre-booked groups and on regular open days. The route winds in a leisurely way along defensive earthworks seamlessly incorporated into grassy landscaping, reaching the little promontory at Coalhouse Point where the Countryway finally descends to the river
One of the pleasures of walking the Thames Path in its entirety is the gradual cline of change as the river grows from an occasional trickle in a normally dry channel across a Gloucestershire field to the flood that pours into the North Sea. But sampling the river at two different points on this circular route, the contrasts are even more pronounced. We met it last between Windsor and Marlow, where we followed some stretches of the national trail and I had more to say about the river’s course, its history and its significance. Back there it was a rather narrower and more peaceful waterway semi-tamed by engineering for inland navigation, evoking the osier-draped Edwardian charm of The Wind in the Willows and Three Men in a Boat. Here it’s a broad tidal mouth approaching a kilometre wide, plied not by narrowboats and pleasure cruisers but by massive container ships making their stately way to and from the docks between Dagenham and Tilbury.
Note: the official route of the Thames Path doesn't (yet) stretch this far, but from 2014, the path between Coalhouse Fort and Tilbury became the first open section of a proposed extension known as the Thames Estuary Path and has been signed at such.
You’re close here to the point at which the river dissolves into the sea. An obelisk at the site of Milton Fort, a little downriver on the opposite bank, once marked the downstream limit of the City of London’s claim on the river. The Crab and Lobster at Milton still labels itself the last pub on the Thames, though the jurisdiction of the City’s successor, the Port of London Authority, continues as far as a line from Havengore Creek, between Southend and Foulness, to Warden Point, on the Isle of Sheppey.
Next the path runs past Tilbury power station, often on a concrete walkway above which a sea wall towers like an artificial cliff, leaving you hard against the splashing tide – and here you’re best advised to check the weather and the likelihood of flood before setting out. The graffiti when I visited seemed incongruously to have survived from the 1980s mod revival: “Essex Mods”, “Purple Hearts” and “Merton Parkas” – and even more unexpectedly, that famous Elizabeth I quote in full.
The route then threads on steel gantries, sometimes completely encaged, through a great dark jetty used for supplying the station, standing on the river atop thick pillars and surmounted by two equally massive cranes, their girder jibs poised over the water like mechanical scorpion stings. The first coal-fired station was opened here in 1956, followed by a much bigger one in 1969. In 2011 it was converted to run on sustainable biomass, but for a limited time only, as it had to close in October 2013 in accordance with European legislation for stations of its size and type. Current owners RWE planned to replace it with a more environmentally friendly plant on the same site, but then suspended the project, so for the moment this huge site is silent. When you finally arrive at the promenade outside Tilbury Fort, things suddenly feel downscaled and prosaic. The pub a little further on is called the World’s End, but you might feel you’ve already been through that and out the other side.
A short stretch of path through a narrow strip of landscaped public space upstream of the fort finally brings London Countryway walkers to the impressive and curious endpoint of their journey on foot, the pier and terminal at Tilbury Riverside. The large and elegant pavilion-like structure jutting out over the river has the grandiloquent poignancy of a place that has been left marooned by changing times as hopelessly out of scale for its current use. In the days before cheap air travel, this was the closest purpose-built terminal to central London for the ocean liners that then provided the main mode of intercontinental public transport. From the 1930s up until the 1960s the landing stage handled departures and arrivals from destinations on all of the inhabited continents, including Buenos Aires, New York City, Cape Town and Sydney.
Today people flit to places like these for brief business trips or short holidays. But back then journey times were so long and tickets so expensive that for many of the passengers this terminal served, their departure was a genuinely life changing event. They might not plan to return for many months, if at all. The landing stage witnessed flows of humanity that changed history and the face of contemporary societies. In 1939, hundreds of thousands of London children were evacuated to Suffolk via Tilbury on paddle steamers. Many of the ‘£10 poms’ who took advantage of the Australian government’s post-war subsidised emigration scheme set out from here. And on 22 June 1948, the MV Empire Windrush berthed here following a voyage from Australia via Kingston, Jamaica, where 492 people (among them calypso musician Lord Kitchener) had embarked in response to an ad offering cheap transport for anyone who wanted to work in Britain. Most only intended to stay a few years on this cold, damp island before returning home, but they became the vanguard of a wave of immigration from a crumbling empire that transformed and enriched the cultural mix of both London and the UK, while inadvertently setting out a whole new terrain of often violently contested politics.
It’s a shame that the significance of this spot to so many ordinary travellers isn’t commemorated more effectively. In South Rotterdam’s regenerated docklands an even vaster former transatlantic liner terminal stands along the Wilhelminakade, on the Nieuwe Maas. Nearby stands the beautiful, and now beautifully restored, former offices of the Holland-America Line, now the Hotel New York. On the waterfront beneath the hotel is a bronze sculpture depicting lost property stranded on shelves, never to be collected. Tilbury has the odd plaque but deserves something equally as poetic. In the meantime you will have to imagine the empty spaces filled by the echoes of the anxious chatter of the crowds who once reinvented their lives on this spot.
The oldest maritime feature around here is the ferry, a service which has taken advantage of the narrowing of the river here since at least 1571, when on the Essex side the terminal was isolated at the end of a path through the marsh to West Tilbury. At various times there were several competing ferries, including one owned by the Fort which operated from what’s now the World’s End pub. In 1854, the London, Tilbury and Southend railway opened its line from Fenchurch Street in London to a terminal on the site of the current landing stage, and began operating a ferry initially for its own passengers, taking over all the ferry routes in 1862.
These waters had long been in use for cargo shipping, with vessels simply anchoring in the river and unloading onto lighters from Gravesend. As ships got bigger, outgrowing the London docks and the river moorings, the demand grew for new deep water docks along the Thames. In 1882, in response to competition from the newly built Royal Docks at Beckton (now visited on the Capital Ring walking route), the East and West India Dock Company, which operated docks on the Isle of Dogs and Limehouse, began digging on the marshes upstream of the ferry. The basic layout of the docks, with a main dock and three side branches, remains today, though there have been many improvements to create one of Britain’s three major container ports, and the biggest port for imports of paper. For much of the 20th century the Port of Tilbury was part of the Port of London Authority but it was privatised in 1992.
Before World War I, one of the shipping companies using Tilbury, P&O, began operating passenger liners as well as cargo ships from the docks, though they were less than ideal for this purpose. Demand for passenger traffic grew after the war, and the government and London County Council decided on Tilbury as the location for a new passenger terminal. The current landing stage, built out onto a floating platform and incorporating a new station, was designed by Edwin Cooper, and built as a joint venture of the PLA and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, which now owned the LTS, from 1924. It was opened in 1930 by Ramsay Macdonald, Britain’s first Labour prime minister, then in his second term of office, and the first ship to depart was a P&O liner bound for Australia.
At its peak in the late 1940s and 1950s the facility was handling over 300 liners a year, and 140,000 passengers. 3million passengers per year travelled on the ferry, which then operated every 15 minutes with some services embarking and disembarking people directly from liners at anchor. The ferry also catered for car drivers between 1927 and 1964, when demand dwindled thanks to the opening of the Dartford Tunnel.
The use of the landing stage rapidly declined with the growth of international air travel in the 1960s. The direct rail service to London was reduced to a shuttle to Tilbury in 1981 and the station closed altogether in 1992. The facility is now operated by the Port of Tilbury and known as the London Cruise Terminal, though also incorporates an arts and activity centre. There are three or four cruise departures a month in season, and some more modest leisure trips. The only ‘ground transportation’, as they say at US airports, is now a modest turquoise single decker bus to Tilbury Town.
ferry continues, keeping itself to a small and unsheltered corner of the jetty, like a lackey granted the privilege of tugging on the emperor’s robe. Now in the hands of a private operator and subsidised by Kent and Thurrock councils, the service is much less frequent than it once was, but still provides the lowest Thames crossing for foot passengers, cyclists and motorcyclists.
Make sure you plan properly to ensure your walk ends with a grand waterborne finale, as the ferry currently doesn’t operate beyond early evening and doesn’t run at all on Sundays. With the opening of the Jubilee Line and HS1 the public transport alternative is a little better than it was but still involves getting into London and back out again: the quickest route is a bus or walk to Tilbury Town, a train to West Ham, a Tube to Stratford and a high speed train back out to Gravesend.
One grey day in October 2010 I finally walked onto the decking of Tilbury Landing Stage, completing my walk on the London Countryway. I was doubly delighted to find my visit coincided with the departure of the PS Waverley, the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world, built and still based at Glasgow where it spends the summer providing delightfully nostalgic trips ‘doon the watter’ of the Firth of Clyde. I once spent a wonderful sunny day with my partner on the Waverley to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute and back. At the end of the season the ship paddles down the coast to pursue an itinerary along the Thames and south coast, but today there were no passengers aboard so it may well have been heading back to Glasgow. I waved at the crew and they waved back. As one journey ends, another begins.
I looked across at the ferry pier and the church tower of Gravesend on the opposite bank and thought back to the day early in the previous spring when I turned my back on the river and set out with only my own physical effort to cover 350 km in a great loop around London, finally to arrive here and connect back to my starting point. That day had been overcast, like today, but much colder. Today was mild and the weather had held for most of my journey, but drizzle spat in my face on the riverside, which somehow seemed appropriate, as if I was actually tasting the dampness of the river and its fens. Could I see my own back heading up the ramp towards the churchyard with its statue of poor Pocohontas, who had died without completing her own great journey? I wondered what the weather was like the day she succumbed to the fever, on this slick of a river so far from home.
Eventually the little white ferry that bears her name bobbed up to the pier and I stepped aboard with a feeling of elation. It looked like my fellow passengers were making everyday journeys, and the uniformed man selling tickets went about his business with the air of someone who’s been doing this for many years. For a moment my world seemed out of synch with theirs: I wanted to chatter excitedly about what this trip meant to me but restrained myself, unsure of how exactly to communicate my sense of accomplishment to strangers preoccupied, as all of us are, with the minutiae of our own lives. But then, they might have felt that way too. The bloke with the bike might have cycled all the way from John O’Groats to get here for all I knew.
Inside, the ferry is modestly appointed, appropriately for its short journey, with only a handful of wooden benches for comfort. But of course I wanted to be out on the little deck, communing with the river and the rain. Yes, I’d done it in a series of day stages across 18 months or so, with lots of trains and buses in between, but I’d still joined all those dots with my own two feet. I was so pleased with myself I did something I rarely do, and took a selfie. Long distance walkers – and perhaps other keen travellers, the sort that plot train journeys from St Pancras to Singapore – will probably recognise that specific sense of achievement, tinged with a slight undercurrent of anticlimactic melancholy that it’s all over, the experiences already melting away into vague memories. In the end I shared my achievement with the waitress in the café in Gravesend where I treated myself to a celebratory ice cream, but she just looked nonplussed and smiled indulgently. Weird man, eating ice cream on a day like this.
Part of the purpose of writing this is to help you share that sense of elation and achievement, though I’m confident that even if you never walk the whole route and just dip in and dip out, you’ll find many other pleasures along the way. I didn’t invent the London Countryway – that credit is due to Keith Chesterton back in the 1970s – so I feel no sense of modesty in singing its praises, and it does provide a very fine and fascinating walk. It might be shivering at Coldrum Longbarrow, the view from the Greensand Ridge, the oddly private beauty of the Marden Valley, stumbling on a futuristic house among the Downs, walking through the vines at Denbies, a stag calmly inspecting you in Knole Park, the sense of solitude on Chobham Common, seeing Windsor Castle drawing slowly closer on the Long Walk, admiring the Sylvan Thames at Eton or the cute cottages of West Wycombe, descending the last Chiltern hill, spotting bitterns in River Lee Country Park, getting lost in Epping Forest, or even sighting those gloomy towers of Chadwell St Mary across the flat lands of Thurrock.
But more than the sights, and the fine details you only see when on foot, it’s the resonances, and the stories connected with them, and the flights of imagination they trigger. The Native American princess at Gravesend, Virginia and Vita at Knole, Mohammed Al-Fayed’s stolen oil, Tom Baker’s Doctor menaced by tiny trains at Betchworth, the severed head of Walter Raleigh carried by his grieving wife, Martians over the Muslim Burial Ground at Woking, the spoil of Roman Libya at Virginia Water, the Thames’ link with the Danube at Marlow, the erotomaniac Frances Dashwood at West Wycombe, the Chilterns Music Camp, William’s triumph at Berkhamsted Castle and Harold’s supposed burial at Waltham Abbey, the modern vision of a great forest at Sandridge, the world’s chatter at Brookmans Park, the Celtic camps in Epping Forest and the struggle to save the land, the Catholic refusniks of south Essex and the chapters of so many lives that began and ended at Tilbury Riverside. Or there’s the chance encounters with strangers along the way, like that boy taking his first steps at Addington, or the passing conversations with other walkers on the trail.
And if, nearing the end of your journey, your elation is undermined by regret and anxiety about what to do next, remember this London Countryway doesn’t actually touch London itself, unless you count the brief detour west at Bulphan. London is gifted with many walking routes, with a series of concentric rings beckoning you from suburb to core and several good ways of walking across the lot. The Countryway, with its protected agricultural land and green space, for the most part doesn’t look like London, except where pre-1939 suburbia creeps along railway lines and roads, or post-1945 overspill occupies the gaps of otherwise separate towns. But London is never far away, so close that it’s shaped the landscape through which the route runs in ways that aren’t always visible. The fact that so much green has been preserved is itself driven by the need to define the capital’s edges. This hinterland is London’s dormitory, London’s playground, and, as pointed out so eloquently by the Thames Chase Trust, often London’s dumping ground. The Countryway sets the context for an exploration of London itself in biological and geological terms too, with its chalk ridges and its woodlands revealing what underlies the metropolis, and what would spring up from those hidden layers should civilisation ever retreat.
And then there’s the two crossings of the river Thames, in two of its contrasting aspects. The Thames is the single feature in which geography, history, and human need and ingenuity are fused at London’s heart. I chose the Thames as start and end point originally for rather arbitrary, and slightly anally retentive, reasons, to bring the Countryway in line with the two official orbital routes. But now I feel vindicated. Keith Chesterton wanted to end grandly, striding the springy chalk on one of the most spectacular sections of the North Downs Way to Box Hill. But that is a landscape carefully preserved for its ‘natural’ beauty and its echoes of a pre-Urban age, and the views are to the south, encouraging you to turn your back on London and gaze instead across the Weald to the South Downs and the coast. My last stretch, along the mighty Thames past rubbish tips, power stations and forts, was invigorating in its own way, and more honestly London-like. And how would you rather cross a river to complete your circuit: on a cute set of stepping stones across a rustic stream, or on a ferry across a magnificent tidal estuary plied by ships that link continents?
Look at the river now: its current flows east, towards that submerged mouth where it once joined its mother, the Rhine, but somehow it draws your gaze west, towards its source, through one of the world’s great cities. As the Princess Pocohontas approaches the ferry pier on the Kent side, my gaze and my imagination are drawn upriver too, through the Dartford Crossing to Erith, where the start of the London Loop awaits me on the south bank, by the long arm of the deep water wharf that reaches out into the river, and the start of another journey.
Download a route description of this section (PDF)