Sunday 13 March 2016

London Loop 9/10: Kingston - Hatton Cross - Hayes (Hillingdon)

The Heathrow flight path experience at Cranford: great for plane-spotters, residents less enthusiastic.

AT LAST THE LONDON LOOP crosses the Thames, for the first and only time, and its initial foray north of the river starts splendidly with an extended stroll through the deer-grazed grasslands and exquisite woodland gardens of Bushy Park, the only Royal Park on the trail. A golf course-dodging pavement trudge then leads to the river Crane, which the Loop follows as a green corridor for more-or-less the rest of this section, except for a worthwhile detour across surprisingly wild Hounslow Heath, and a first taste of towpath walking along the Grand Union Canal at the end. Aviation enthusiasts will be delighted (and others perhaps less pleased) to walk right beneath the main approaches to, and in places alongside the perimeter of, London Heathrow Airport, with an endless stream of aircraft sometimes mere metres overhead.

Once again I’ve combined two shorter official sections into a longer day walk – the longest in my account of the trail, though it’s all fairly easy going apart from damp and mud. You can split the walk if you choose, at the official break point at Hatton Cross near Heathrow, or at many other places. The route description also outlines and unofficial alternative route through the former Feltham Marshalling Yards which you can read more about here.

Another option, which you might want to consider if rewalking the Loop or as a separate walk, is to follow the Hillingdon Trail from Cranford Park. The early part of this trail is shared with the Loop but joining the Grand Union Canal, it heads off to find its own way along the Yeading Valley, rejoining the Loop again in Harefield at the end of section 12.


Traces of Middlesex at Cranford Bridge, which
takes the Bath Road over the river Crane.
Like many major rivers, the Thames has played a role as a boundary of political and administrative power. From Saxon times until relatively recently, a substantial stretch of the river from Goring Gap to the estuary kept several English counties firmly apart, give or take the odd anomaly, with Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Middlesex and Essex to the north and Berkshire, Surrey and Kent to the south.

Bridges and modern urban development undermined this function, and the London County Council boundary created in 1889 acknowledged the reality that the metropolis now spread both sides of the river. But the outlying areas clung to the old boundaries for longer, and up until 1964, Kingston Bridge took its users from Surrey into Middlesex.

The county of Middlesex once covered much of what’s now London on the north side of the river, geographically encompassing the historic centres of the City and Westminster, though both these exercised their own powerful influence and the former became formally self-governing in the 12th century.

As its name suggests, Middlesex originated as the territory of the ‘Middle Saxons’, between the West (Wessex), East (Essex) and South (Sussex) Saxons, though unlike the others it never seems to have been a kingdom in its own right. Back in the 6th century it formed a part of the Kingdom of Essex, which was then much bigger than the current county of the same name, stretching along the north bank of the Thames from the river Colne to the coast and also including parts of modern Hertfordshire and perhaps Surrey too.

In the 730s Essex ceded the land to the west of the river Lea to another Saxon kingdom, Mercia, and the territory became a distinct shire which retained its identity following the Norman conquest. But as London grew, Middlesex, the second smallest English county after Rutland, never quite escaped from its shadow.

The City and, to a lesser extent, Westminster retained an influential role in its local politics, its courts met in the City, it never had a proper County Town outside London and the rest of its local affairs were dealt with by parish vestries and ad-hoc boards. The governance situation arguably reflected the reality: throughout much of the second millennium, the county essentially functioned as a giant farm and market garden for London, until the arrival of the railways when it was gradually transformed into an equally co-dependent dormitory suburb for the centres of power.

Ironically, Middlesex finally gained a more clearly-defined autonomous status at the very moment it lost 20% of its area and a third of its population to the London County Council in 1889. For the next 75 years it functioned as a proper shire county, although its administrative headquarters was outside its own territory, at the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster. But formal separation from London didn’t contain development and population growth.

As I’ve recounted before, from Victorian times until the 1970s, English shire counties were subdivided into urban and rural districts, with the exception of big towns which had self-governing status as ‘county boroughs’. As constituted in 1889, Middlesex had no county boroughs and four rural districts. All the latter had been transferred to urban districts by 1934, and by the early 1960s nine of the county’s towns had populations which merited county borough status. Between them these towns accounted for over half the population and would render the county unviable if granted autonomy. This was one of the factors behind the subsequent enlargement of London.

In April 1965, Middlesex was abolished as an administrative entity. The vast majority of its territory was transferred to the new Greater London Council, subdivided into a new set of London boroughs. The remaining fragments went to neighbouring counties: Potters Bar to Hertfordshire and an area in the southwest around Staines and Sunbury to Surrey, which expanded onto the north bank of the Thames for the first time. The concept of Middlesex persists only for ceremonial purposes and in the organisation of sports teams, though many people in this part of London still believe they live in this non-existent county, thanks in part to the Royal Mail, which insisted on the inclusion of the name in correct postal addresses into the 1990s.

The internal borough boundaries created in 1965 generally respected the Thames as a dividing line: interestingly the only exception is the borough the Loop now enters. The London Borough of Richmond upon Thames names itself after the famous riverside town on the south bank (or, if you prefer, the east bank, as the river here runs roughly north-south) but also incorporates the former municipal borough of Twickenham and is actually headquartered in that town.

Bushy Park

Bushy Park, the only Royal Park on the London Loop, where deer run free.
The area immediately on the other side of Kingston Bridge is known as Hampton Wick and was once a small riverside village on the southern edge of Hounslow Heath, part of the broader manor of Hampton (‘settlement by the bend in the river’), with Hampton Village on the higher ground a little away from the Thames. From 1237 the manor was held by the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem (better known today as St John Ambulance). In 1514 it was leased by Thomas Wolsey (c1473-1530), then a close adviser to King Henry VIII and shortly to become Lord Chancellor and a Cardinal.

Wolsey set about rebuilding the manor house, Hampton Court, near the river some way upstream of Kingston Bridge, into a magnificent palace surrounded by extensive agricultural land, part of which had already been enclosed as a deer park. Wolsey expanded this by converting neighbouring arable land to deer grazing. By 1529, the cardinal had fallen from royal favour, partly for having failed to secure Henry’s divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and to pre-empt an inevitable seizure, he gifted the estate to the king, who had long had a taste for the place. Wolsey died of illness in Leicester in 1530, while on his way to London to answer treason charges.

Henry made Hampton Court his principal residence and set about his own expansion and redevelopment programme, including upgrading the deer park further to satisfy his own sporting enthusiasms. That deer park evolved into today’s Bushy Park, though until the early 18th century the name applied only to one of the original parcels of land, the area to the north, towards Teddington. During Victorian times the park was gradually opened up to the public, and is now managed as a public open space, at 445 ha the second largest of London’s Royal Parks after nearby Richmond Park.

The palace itself, one of only two that survive of Henry VIII’s many palaces, and the adjoining Hampton Court Park to the south, on the other side of Hampton Court Road, are now managed separately by Historic Royal Palaces as a visitor attraction. The last monarch actually to live at the palace was George II (reigned 1727-60). Bushy and Hampton Court parks between them form a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Bushy is perhaps the most overlooked of the Royal Parks but is no less fascinating and magnificent than its better-known sisters, and the Loop includes a varied selection of its many pleasures. The journey starts shortly after crossing Kingston Bridge, on a tree-lined avenue opposite handsome Gothic revival St John’s church, opened in 1830, originally as a chapel-of-ease attached to St Mary’s, Hampton. Soon you’re out on rough open grassland dotted with patches of trees, where around 320 red and fallow deer roam free – their grazing is an essential element in retaining the distinctive acid grassland habitat with its patches of bracken and signature wild flowers, and this part of the park is the best place to see them. The surroundings are open and rugged, a surprising contrast to the densely-packed suburbia all around.

After a while you pass a patch of woodland, the Oval Plantation, and reach Heron Pond, one of a chain of artificial water features. In 1639, Charles I had the Longford River created by diverting a branch of the river Colne through the park, principally to improve the water supply to the palace but with some landscaping advantages too. This 19 km watercourse, dug by hand over the course of only nine months, earned the nickname ‘the king’s hosepipe.’ The ponds here date from the cutting of a further channel a few years later, during the Commonwealth period.

During World War II, the parkland north of the ponds housed Camp Griffith, a US Army base, and in 1944 General Dwight Eisenhower turned the site into what was essentially the command centre for the Allied forces in Europe by moving his Supreme Headquarters here. There’s a memorial slightly off route. Further north, on the edge of the park, is Bushy House, formerly the Lower Lodge, which since 1900 has housed the National Physical Laboratory, the UK’s scientific measurement institute. The various sports grounds west of this host among others Teddington Cricket Club, which, oddly, claims to have helped formalise the rules of field hockey in the 1870s when its members took to playing that sport as a winter alternative to cricket.

The so-called Diana Fountain, one of Bushy
Park's many treasures.
The Loop follows the water to Chestnut Avenue, originated in 1622 when Charles I planted two parallel rows of lime trees along a straight track. In the 1690s architect Christopher Wren, whose family home was nearby, embarked on an uncompleted project to realign the landscaping of the park so it more effectively flattered the palace. The avenue became a grand formal approach, with the addition of a further outer row of limes and an inner row of chestnuts on each side.

It’s worth a detour south along the avenue to view the park’s greatest sculptural treasure, the so-called Diana Fountain, which is much more likely a depiction of another classical goddess, Arethusa, in bronze, surrounded by four boys and four water nymphs, also in bronze, arranged on a tall rusticated marble and stone base.

Charles I commissioned it from Hubert Le Sueur as a gift for his wife, and at one point it stood in the palace gardens. It was moved in 1713 to this large round basin of water, part of Wren’s redesign. The palace, an intriguing fusion of Tudor and Baroque styles with sumptuous gardens including a famous topiary maze, is only a little further on from here, but it’s some way off our route and you won’t be able to do it justice in a quick detour from a day walk.

Instead the Loop continues on the other side of the avenue, where the water channel resurfaces, and into the Woodland Gardens, originally created in 1925 amid two early 19th century plantations. The gardens got a makeover in the early 2000s as part of a substantial investment in the park and are now looking splendid, providing one of the most beautiful environments on the Loop. Although they’re carefully designed and maintained, there’s a pleasing casualness and unpredictability about the mix of mature trees, including some languorous willows, shrubs, wandering paths, irregular ponds, and sudden splashes of colour from flowerbeds.

Another welcome recent addition, just off the route when it enters the gardens, is the tastefully designed Pheasantry welcome centre with its café and information office. On a personal note, your author once helped organise a televised National Day of Walking event here featuring, of all people, former pop and soul singer and serial celebrity Sinitta.

Finally leaving the woodland, the Loop crosses a path known as Cobblers Walk, a name it earned in the 1750s when the ranger, the second Earl of Halifax, blocked it off, then reopened it when a local cobbler threatened court action. You can admire the main stream of the Longford River a few paces west from here, but the trail continues northwards parallel to it on the other side of a fence through grassy fields towards the biggest lodge, Upper Lodge.

This is likely the oldest inhabited site in the park, with evidence to show a Roman fort once stood here. It’s been a lodge since at least 1537, and the current building largely dates from 1710, when the first Earl of Halifax was the ranger. He was responsible for creating the adjoining water gardens, also recently partially restored. The buildings were used to station Canadian troops during World War I and remained in military use until 1994. In 2009 significant parts of the house and outbuildings were sold for luxury redevelopment.

From the lodge the trail turns east across the grass, passing one of the smaller ponds, Hampton Hill Pond, to leave by the Laurel Road Gate. If this is your first taste of Bushy, hopefully it will tempt you to return.

Hampton Hill and Fulwell

Residential sprawl and golf courses fill the gap between Bushy Park and the Loop’s next target, the river Crane, so expect some rather dull walking after the previous succession of delights. The area immediately to the northwest of the park is now known as Hampton Hill, but until development began in the late 19th century it was simply the upper rural hinterland of Hampton parish. In the early stages of its growth it was known as New Hampton. Today it has a busy high street and even a theatre, which you can reach if you walk west rather than north to leave the park.

The Loop runs close to Fulwell station on the Shepperton Branch Line, a catalyst for development when it was opened by the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) as a single-track branch in 1864. Crossing the line itself, you’re in the area still known locally as Fulwell. Once part of the southern sweep of Hounslow Heath, the remains of which are a little further on, by the early 17th century it had become a large farm, Yorke Farm, centred on a house called Fulwell Lodge. Unlikely-named property developer Charles James Freake bought the estate in 1871 and named the growing housing estate Fulwell Park.

In 1904, local golfers leased a substantial 99 ha of still-undeveloped land from Freake’s trustees to establish Fulwell Golf Club, which still operates behind thick hedges to your right as you walk along Burtons Road. In the 1930s Middlesex county council bought the land to preserve as green belt, with the golf club operating it as a public course. Then in the 1950s it began to convert the northwest corner of the site into a recreation ground with sports pitches, but the more ambitious aspects of this plan, which had included a swimming pool and gym, were abandoned and in 1975 it was turned into a second, public 9-hole course called Twickenham Golf Course.

Domestic art deco in Twickenham, near
Hospital Bridge Road.
Ownership passed to Richmond council who have progressively privatised the land. The Fulwell side was sold off in the 1980s amid some local controversy, the Twickenham side in 2002. A big private sports centre run by upmarket gym chain David Lloyd now stands where a public facility was once envisaged. At the end of Burtons Road, the Loop follows one of the few public paths across the site, through some marginal green space, alongside a forlorn remaining community football pitch and past the posh new centre. There was an almighty row in 2011 when the centre management stopped this path up, alleging that it was enabling vandalism. Thankfully it was reopened, and now there’s additional signing and crossings to guide you through.

A dodge through streets brightened by the occasional splash of art deco takes the trail to Hospital Bridge Road, an old lane that once traversed Hounslow Heath, linking Hampton with Hanworth. The streets on the opposite side of the road were the last part of Fulwell Park to be developed, when Fulwell Lodge was finally demolished in the 1930s: some of them bear names like Lisbon Avenue and Manoel Road in commemoration of the exiled King Manuel II of Portugal’s residency here between 1913-32. The road crosses the river Crane at Hospital Bridge, originally known as Whitton Bridge but likely renamed after the hospital that once stood on the heath nearby, attached to James II’s military encampment. From this point on, you’ll be tracking the Crane valley upstream.

The River Crane

River Crane in Crane Park just upstream of Hospital Bridge.
The Crane is one of those rivers with several names but a single stream. It begins as the Yeading Brook, the main source of which is in Pinner Park just to the southwest of Headstone Lane station. This winds roughly south for just over 12 km through Northolt and Ruislip, and between Hayes and Southall. Just before crossing the Great Western railway and Grand Union Canal near Bulls Bridge, Hayes, the brook is joined by another stream that rises in nearby Minet Country Park, and becomes the river Crane.

This is very near the end of our route today, as the Loop essentially tracks the Crane upstream between Hospital Bridge and Bulls Bridge. From Hospital Bridge downstream, the Crane heads east and then northeast through Twickenham, joining the Thames at Isleworth. Its overall course is roughly bowl-shaped, with a total length of 13.5 km, or just under 26 km if you include the Yeading Brook, and all of it is in Greater London.

As with many of London’s rivers, including those encountered previously on the Loop, the requirements of flood management have kept development at a distance. So the Crane runs largely as the core of a green strip, with extensive public access along its banks.

In the late 1980s Hounslow and Richmond councils began promoting the River Crane Walk as a specific walking route, eventually inspiring a whole set of West London Waterway walks described in a pack of leaflets, and taking in neighbouring boroughs Brent, Ealing and Hillingdon, the last of which also promotes walks along the Yeading as parts of the Hillingdon Trail and Willow Tree Wander. As often, the leaflets are long since out of print but you’ll find the routes documented online. Downstream, the River Crane Walk splits, with sections following both the Crane itself and the Duke of Northumberland’s river, of which more later, towards the Thames.

Almost immediately after the Loop joins it, the river runs under a wide road bridge carrying the A316 Great Chertsey Road, a 1920s relief road linking the A4 at Chiswick with routes to the southwest. Here you’ll meet, but not yet cross, the borough boundary, which runs along the road from the southwest and then starts to follow the river northwest: after the bridge, the opposite bank is in Hounslow.

The Shot Tower, Crane Park.
The riverside green space here is simply known as Crane Park Richmond or Crane Park Hounslow, depending on the portion, and its total extent is around 30 ha (see also Friends Group). This stretch is particularly rich in pleasant woodland and riparian wildlife, hosting kingfishers, water voles and dragonflies. A 2012 refurbishment included the installation of a series of wooden benches carved by artist Paul Sivell: look out for one depicting a dragonfly.

A little further upriver stands one of the most interesting and curious buildings on the Loop, the so-called Shot Tower. This 25 m tapering brick tower surmounted by a lantern is the only remaining building from the Hounslow Powder Mills, which operated on this site between 1766-1927. The facility, which began by taking over an existing corn mill, was an outgrowth of the gunpowder industry established on Hounslow Heath in the 16th century. In 1820 it was bought by a company known as Curtis’s & Harvey and expanded to cover an area of over 40 ha, bigger than today’s park, but with the buildings sparsely spread for safety reasons. The mill lost its license in 1927 and a local councillor bought it, hoping to sell it as a going concern, but eventually part was developed as housing and part was sold to the local councils to create the park.

The Shot Tower, now Grade II listed, dates from 1828. It was long thought that the tower was used for the manufacture of lead shot, with molten lead poured through a sieve at the upper level and left to fall into a tank of water below, but some sources now question this, suggesting instead it was simply a watchtower for fire (despite such safety measures, the mills experienced at least 55 accidental explosions during their working life).

Millstone, Crane Park.
Following restoration in 2002, the building is now used as a visitor and education centre, open at least every Sunday afternoon. It’s managed by the London Wildlife Trust, which is also responsible for the adjacent Crane Park Island Local Nature Reserve, occupying an artificial island created in a bend of the Crane in powder mill days, and a good place to spot the elusive water vole. Near the tower you’ll also find some old millstones, and another of Sivell’s benches, this one depicting an oak leaf.

The park and riverside footpaths continue on the other side of Hanworth Road, but when the Loop was first devised further progress was blocked a little upriver by the derelict Feltham Marshalling Yard, which operated between 1918-69 and was once probably the busiest railway siding in the country, handling almost 3,500 wagons a day. Part of the site is a nature reserve and it’s now possible to continue through it close to the Crane, but the Loop retains its original roadside diversion here to give you more of an experience of Hounslow Heath.

Update October 2017: I've since researched the route through the Marshalling Yards, which is strictly informal, though more direct, logical and 1.3 km shorter. Both options are included in the route description and you can read more about the alternative route here.

On the way to the Heath you’ll pass Hounslow Cemetery, opened in 1869 and still retaining its original pair of chapels connected by a porte-cochère. It’s actually in Richmond still, though owned by Hounslow council. The route then crosses the Waterloo to Reading Line: this stretch was opened by the London and South Western Railway as an extension of the branch line to Richmond on to Windsor in 1848. Then the Loop turns off the road into a neat, grassy park by the side of flats, which is actually the only remaining open portion of Hounslow Heath now in Richmond. Once through the treeline, you’re in the London Borough of Hounslow, and in a strikingly contrasting environment.

Hounslow Heath

Hounslow Heath: dancing highwaymen long gone.
A millennium ago, Hounslow Heath (see also Friends Group) was the major geographical feature of southeast Middlesex, a bleak and largely flat expanse of rough vegetation atop a geological feature known as Taplow gravel, similar in character to the extensive areas of heathland on the other side of the river in Surrey which we visited on the London Countryway. It extended over a vast area within the angle of the left bank of the Thames between Isleworth, Hampton and Sunbury, west to Stanwell Moor and what’s now the M25, and north to Harlington, Cranford and the route of today’s M4, encompassing practically the whole of today’s walk. In 1545 its extent was estimated at 4,293 acres or 17.4 km2, of which only 0.8 km2 remains today.

For centuries the heath was largely used for rough pasture and common, and for royal hunting and hawking in the late mediaeval and Tudor periods, but parts of it were sporadically inclosed and cultivated. A 1545 act of parliament authorised the inclosure and division between parishes of the whole heath, but this was never fully implemented, and as late as 1790 a band of ‘waste’ still stretched from Hamptom northwest to what was then the village of Heath Row.

Contemporary commentators disapproved of such a large area of inhospitable and underexploited land so close to the capital, especially since the main roads to the west of England were compelled to cross it. The first such route was the Roman Via Triobantes, now the A315 Staines Road, later joined by the Bath Road, today’s A4, to the north. From the 17th century, these well-used coaching routes through lonely, rough country attracted the most unwelcome of attention, and Hounslow Heath became notorious as one of England’s top hotspots for so-called ‘highwaymen’ robbing travellers at gunpoint.

There’s an agglomeration of romantic folk culture around these characters, who were popularly regarded as loveable rogues, if not heroes, as they mainly targeted the rich in a society with marked extremes of wealth. If you believe all the claims, it’s surprising Dick Turpin ever had time to rob anyone as he must have spent all his time touring Middlesex pubs – in reality the Heath was some way from his known territory. Other names associated with the area include Philip Twysden (1714-52), a Church of Ireland bishop who allegedly turned to highway robbery after falling bankrupt, and French-born Claude Du Vall (1643-70), who according to legend once let a victim escape with most of his possessions intact in exchange for giving the thief permission to dance the courante with his beautiful wife by the roadside, a scene depicted in an 1860 painting by William Powell Frith.

Some of the early highwaymen were former Royalist officers who lost their commissions during the Commonwealth period and found a new way to make use of their access to weapons and their shooting skills, which might explain how their reputation for gallantry was first established. But it’s likely most highway robbers were desperate and ruthless men who could look forward to short lives that ended violently, either in the course of their business or at the end of a rope. Gibbets displaying the decaying corpses of some of them were known landmarks on the heath in the 18th century.

One of the drivers for the eventual inclosure of the heath was to curb such activities. The first such inclosure was at Stanwell in 1792, and by 1827 much of the area had been parcelled up into landed estates, farms, market gardens and housing developments. The survival of the much smaller open space remaining today is largely due to its military use, which dates back to the Civil War when both sides used it for musters and reviews. James II established the first permanent camp, and as we’ve already seen, Hospital Bridge was likely named after its hospital. Cavalry barracks were built in 1793, and in 1818, during the inclosure period, some of the land became government property, used for parades, military exercises, medical treatment and storage right up to the 1950s.

Map fans will be interested to learn that during this period the heath also played a role in the history of cartography. In 1784 General William Roy used the clear sightlines afforded by the open space to establish an accurate baseline of 27,400 feet (8351.5 m) to the spire of Banstead church, not far from an earlier section of the Loop. This provided the basis for triangulating the rest of Great Britain, resulting in the first accurate maps of the country produced by the Ordnance Survey.

Fatefully, this large expanse of flat ground close to London also proved attractive to early aviators. On the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the military converted part of its site into one of the earliest bases for fighter aircraft, Hounslow Heath Aerodrome. After the war, the facility was transferred to civilian use, and for a brief time between 1919-20 it was the London Terminal Aerodrome, London’s first commercial airport, offering the first daily public air services in the capital. The first flight from Europe to Australia departed from here. Services ceased when Croydon Airport opened in 1920, but this was by no means the end of the story for aviation on the heath. The aerodrome was located in the northern part of the current open space, a little off our route – nothing survives beyond a few concrete tracks and a decaying plaque near the entrance.

By the 1960s the remaining heath was no longer required for military use and passed to council ownership. A portion to the west, bounded by the Crane, was used for landfill, and later restored, reopening as a golf course in 1979. The rest was eventually designated a Local Nature Reserve and a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation, and became the informal green space it is today. With its rugged, heathy grassland, wildflower meadows, hedgerows and scrubby woodlands, it’s a delightfully unexpected environment in the middle of a densely developed area, and a valuable reminder of what the whole of this part of London once used to look like.

The Loop crosses the golf course but you won’t see much of it as the path runs through a tree-lined gulley between landscaped banks built on postwar waste before arriving once again at the Crane. The river here runs through a woodland strip known as Brazil Mill Wood, another echo of former industrial use – a mill to the north of the site processed brazil wood into red pigment for dyes during the 18th century, and later switched to making cartridges. It closed in the 1920s, though a millrace and sluices survive, visible from the path.

Staines Road, which crosses the river at Baber Bridge, follows the route of the Roman road from London to Chichester and the southwest, also known as the Devil’s Highway. It then became the main coaching route to Exeter, later superseded by the A30. Over the bridge is Donkey Wood where the Crane runs through the site of another gunpowder mill, originally established as a sword mill in 1635. In 1822 it was absorbed by Curtis’s and Harvey, owners of the mill passed earlier, and closed in 1927. Further along are earth banks that were once part of the mill structures.

Just beyond Staines Road the path crosses a footbridge over a joining stream. This is the Duke of Northumberland’s River, one of two artificial watercourses connecting the Crane with the next major Thames tributary westwards, the Colne – the other is the Grand Union Canal which we’ll encounter later. Curiously, the Duke’s river is in two parts. It was dug in the 1540s to power new mills built by the keeper of Syon Park near to the Thames at Isleworth, and originally known simply as the Isleworth Mill Stream.

A short lower channel leaves the Crane at Kneller Gardens near Twickenham Green, passing both the local rugby stadia to join the Thames opposite Isleworth Ait. But because this would excessively reduce the river’s flow, a further channel was cut further upstream, taking water from the Colne at Longford across Hounslow Heath to Baber Bridge. It became the property of the Duke of Northumberland in 1604, thus the current name. The westernmost stretch parallels the similar but slightly younger Longford River, already encountered in Bushy Park.

Recent work to enrich the wetlands along this stretch was supported by the owners of Heathrow Airport, who also opened up the green space known as the Causeway, a little further along. This takes it name from the Causeway road, which actually is a causeway, running between two ‘balancing reservoirs’ just to the west, part of the water management system at the airport. Beyond this is the A3 Great South West Road, built in 1925 to relieve traffic on the Staines Road and, opposite this, the massive hangers of British Airways’ engineering facility within the perimeter of the great airport that now occupies a substantial portion of the former heath from which, at one remove, it takes it name.

Heathrow Airport

Hatton Cross, one of the worst road crossings on the Loop. The Great South West Road (A30), Piccadilly Line and
British Airways maintenance hangars in the distance.

One way of looking at London Heathrow Airport, or LHR, to use its IATA code, is as a set of impressive facts and figures. It’s the busiest airport in the UK, the busiest in Europe in terms of passenger traffic and the sixth busiest in the world by the same measure, one of the world’s most important hub airports for transfer passengers as well as those starting or finishing journeys here. In 2014, 73.4 million passengers used this massive 12.3 km2 site to travel to or from 185 places in 84 countries, while 1.5 million tonnes of freight were shifted, involving a total of almost half a million air transport movements.

An army of 76.500 people are directly employed across its four terminals, 177 aircraft stands, cargo facilities and ancillary services. It’s the biggest by far of the officially designated London airports and one of only two London airports officially within the capital’s boundary (the other being London City Airport at the Royal Docks).

Another way of looking at Heathrow is that it’s an antisocial place for an airport, immediately to the west of the adjacent built-up area. Although the current boundary was drawn in 1965 deliberately to encompass the airport, the urban sprawl was already there when Heathrow was built two decades earlier. The east-west runways match the prevailing winds, so most aircraft landing here approach from the east, right over the city. Passengers with window seats arriving on a fine day enjoy spectacular views of central London, but those who live right underneath the approaches suffer significantly from nuisance and noise. The story of how the airport came to be here is surely one of the most shocking examples of government arrogance and contempt for the democratic process in the modern history of London.

After Hounslow Heath Aerodrome’s brief moment of fame, as recounted above, in 1920 Croydon Airport became London’s major air passenger terminal. Ten years later, aviation began on another part of the heath when aircraft manufacturer Fairey, which had a factory in Hayes, was given notice to cease using RAF Northolt for assembling and testing its products.

Following a suggestion from its chief test pilot Norman Macmillan, who had once made an emergency landing in the area, it built a 60 ha airfield on several adjacent plots of former market garden to the southeast of the hamlet of Heathrow, in Harmondsworth parish, one of them bought from the local vicar. Originally known as Harmondsworth Aerodrome and later as the Great West Aerodrome, the site lay across part of today’s southern runway, between Terminals 2 and 3 and Terminal 4. It was only used for assembly and testing, and from 1935-39 for the Royal Aeronautical Society’s annual air shows, though was steadily expanded with the intention of relocating Fairey’s factory.

The outbreak of World War II disrupted the development of commercial air transport, but by 1943, planners’ thoughts had started to turn to post-war reconstruction. The Air Ministry, influenced by utopian planner Patrick Abercrombie, began considering options for the future of air travel in London, demand for which was expected to grow rapidly. Croydon already had little room to expand, so the ministry’s eyes fell on Heathrow, with its extensive flat and open land, its existing aerodrome and its proximity to two trunk roads.

Taking these proposals through the normal planning channels would be a lengthy process with an inevitable public enquiry and no guarantee of success, as there were plenty of grounds for objection, including the high quality of the agricultural land that would be lost and the thousands of people already living under the likely flight paths. So under-secretary of state Harold Balfour, a former World War I fighter pilot, circumvented these obstacles by exploiting wartime emergency measures, in 1944 requisitioning the Great West Aerodrome and surrounding lands.

Balfour later admitted he lied to MPs that the facility was needed for long-range aircraft supporting the war effort in Japan. Within weeks, around 100 households were evicted, 20 farms and market gardens closed and Heathrow village flattened as construction of the airport began. There was no obligation under wartime regulations to pay compensation to Fairey, who were offered only the 1939 market rate for farmland, and subsequently sued the government in a case that wasn’t finally settled until 1964.

London Airport, as it was then known, was opened in 1946, initially with passenger facilities in ex-army tents, and later prefabs. It was renamed London Heathrow in 1966 to distinguish it from the capital’s second airport at Gatwick. The first permanent terminal, the Europa Building, later Terminal 2, opened in 1955, in the central area between what were then six runways in the hexagram pattern still visible today. The Oceanic Terminal, later Terminal 3, was added in 1961 and Terminal 1 in 1969, both also in the central area. In 1970 the two east-west runways, now lengthened, became the principal ones with the others disused.

Of course no-one in the 1940s could have foreseen the massive growth in air travel over the rest of the century: originally it was assumed there was no need for a rail connection as all those who could afford to fly would arrive by taxi or chaffeur-driven car, and the Piccadilly Line was extended to the airport only in 1977. But every time the issue of air capacity has arisen since, the path of least resistance has been to expand Heathrow, rather than build a new airport somewhere more suitable.

Terminal 4 was added on the southern edge in 1986 and Terminal 5 to the west in 2011. The Duke of Northumberland’s River and the Longford River have been diverted twice, and now follow parallel courses along the southern perimeter. In 2014 a new and much bigger T2 was opened on the site of the original Europa Building; T1 has since closed, with T3 to follow, and a single giant terminal under phased construction in the central area. The airport was privatised in 1987 and is now owned by a consortium led by Spanish company Ferrovia, who have long lobbied for a third runway, to bitter local opposition. A government-appointed commission took the airport’s side in 2015 but at the time of writing the government still hasn’t announced its final decision.

The point where the Crane crosses the Great West Road is the official end of London Loop section 9, with Hatton Cross Tube a shortish walk west along the main road. This is the last station on the Piccadilly Line before the airport, and convenient if you want to visit the central terminals, which can only be reached either by rail, or by road tunnels under the runways restricted to motor vehicles only. For many years this meant the airport was inaccessible on foot or by bike, until the opening of Terminals 4 and 5 on the periphery, which have pedestrian access and free rail links to the central cluster. If you really wanted to walk to Heathrow, T4 is the closest to the Loop. The airport itself is in the London Borough of Hillingdon, which you enter as soon as you cross the Great West Road.

For walkers who aren’t leaving the Loop here, this is one of the trail’s more problematic road crossings. The riverside path continues on the opposite side, though the official route diverts some way west to the first safe crossing, almost as far as Hatton Cross, then back on the other side. It’s sorely tempting to cross the busy road informally, and locals regularly take the risk to get between bus stops. Once across, just in front of the BA maintenance works you’ll see a decorated concrete wall: this surrounds the Piccadilly Line cutting and the portal of the tunnel that takes the Tube under the runways. The short link back to the Crane was blocked by construction work last time I walked this way, but should now be clear.

The Loop now follows the Crane along the eastern rim of the airport site and the boundary of Hillingdon and Hounslow. The path runs on the east side, taking the Loop temporarily back into Hounslow, on sometimes-damp paths through a leafy green strip, eventually emerging via a small playground onto residential streets. Walkers will have been aware of the proximity of the airport for a long time, with the succession of approaching planes, seemingly sometimes only seconds apart, visible from at least as far away as Hounslow Heath. But walking along Waye Avenue, directly under the flight path to the northern runway, you can appreciate the extent to which Heathrow impacts on its neighbours. Some of the world’s largest passenger jets roar mere metres above the chimneys of neat 1920s semi-detached houses, so close that you can practically count the rivets on their wings.

Finally the trail reaches the Bath Road or Great West Road (A4), the second of the major routes that once traversed the heath, heading not only for Bath but the important port of Bristol. The modern alignment of the road dates from improvements in the 1630s meant to improve postal services. Traffic increased significantly from the end of the 17th century with the growth of Bath as a fashionable resort, and the road was turnpiked in 1717. In 1971 it was superseded as a through route by the M4 motorway to the north. Here it’s a rather characterless stretch of interurban highway, lined with petrol stations, convenience stores and chain hotels in utilitarian buildings which, almost without exception, look cheap and ugly, the sort of places from which travellers are grateful to fly away.


Former stable block at Cranford Park, one of the only survivors of the old manorial estate.

The etymology of Cranford seems obvious, as it’s the point where the Bath Road originally forded, and now bridges, the Crane. But it seems the village was named first, back in the Saxon period, not after the river but after the herons that frequented it, known at that time as cranes. The river name is what linguists know as a ‘back formation’.

By the time of the Domesday survey the village was the seat of a Norman baron, but by the 13th century most of it had been given to the Knights Templar, and passed on to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem when the Templars were suppressed. The main manorial estate, Cranford Park, became the property of the Berkeley family in 1618, and there are numerous traces of them in the area. Although the village is now blighted and severed by main roads with undistinguished architecture, there are still some interesting buildings in the old high street, which runs north from the Bath Road a little off our route, including one of Greater London’s two remaining parish lockups.

The Loop crosses the Crane again, over the current bridge, part of which dates from 1776, though it was widened and strengthened in 1915 and 1930. Some of Cranford is in Hounslow, but on the other side of the bridge the trail is once more in Hillingdon, London’s second biggest borough after Bromley. Turning back northwards along the valley you first walk through a very well-kept formal recreation ground, once part of the manorial park and now named Berkeley Meadows after its longstanding incumbents, before entering what’s left of the park proper through a small woodland and eventually regaining the riverside for a while.

Tony Hancock memorial at St Dunstan's church,
Cranford. "You wait till I'm dead, you'll see I was right."
The Berkeleys sold the manor house and the park to the former Hayes and Harlington council in 1932, but the house, in the northwest corner of the site, deteriorated and was demolished in 1945. The rest was opened as a public park in 1948, jointly managed with Heston and Isleworth council, whose successor London borough, Hounslow, still has a role in managing the site. The 58 ha park has a pleasantly rural feel, particularly given that it’s so close to Heathrow, with flower meadows where hay is cut in summer, wetlands and patches of woodland. Its most noteworthy features, though, are the buildings which occupy what’s now the northern edge of the main space, close to the site of the house and right up against the M4 motorway.

St Dunstan’s, Cranford’s parish church, may have been an 8th century foundation and was once controlled by the Templars and the Knights of St John. Its tower dates from the 15th century, with a slightly more recent nave, though it’s been much rebuilt, notably following a fire in 1710. One of its bells was cast in 1338, and the interior boasts several important memorials and effigies

Perhaps its most famous recent association is with the brilliant but troubled comic actor Tony Hancock (1924-68): turn right immediately on entering the churchyard and follow the wall around to the left to find his modest memorial on the corner of a wall. Hancock committed suicide in Sydney, Australia and was cremated there, but the satirist Willie Rushton brought his ashes back here to bury them. The track past the church is known as Watersplash Lane: as its name suggests, it once led to another ford of the river.

Next to the church are some remains of the manor house complex: an atmospheric enclosed courtyard with an 18th century red brick stable block surmounted by a clock, and an arched entrance. Another well-established walking route starts here: the 32 km Hillingdon Trail, created by the council in the late 1980s to link many of the key parks, countryside areas and green corridors in the borough. The route could actually be walked as an alternative to the next couple of sections of the Loop; it meanders roughly south to north via Ruislip and Ickenham, and connects with the Loop again at West Harefield, the end of section 12.

The Loop runs straight through the arch and under the M4 in a subway dating from 1964 when the motorway was opened. On the other side is a now-severed fragment of the park, with riverside water meadows, before a brief return to busy streets and major roads. The trail turns along the Parkway, built in 1959 as part of one of the abortive pre-M25 London orbital schemes, crossing the Crane yet again and re-entering Hounslow. The road climbs steadily to a viaduct high above the Grand Union Canal, where a more recent pedestrian and cycle ramp cascades spectacularly down to the towpath. The borough boundary follows the canal here so once you’ve crossed it you’re back in Hillingdon.

Hayes, Hillingdon

Great Western railway bridge from Grand Union Canal
near Hayes.
Our route heads west along the towpath, but a few steps in the opposite direction is Bulls Bridge junction, where the original main line of the Grand Union Canal to the Thames at Brentford meets the Paddington Arm towards the edge of central London. Both stretches are walkable, and the Paddington Arm connects with the Regents Canal, on via Camden and Islington to Limehouse Basin further down the Thames. The Paddington Arm will also take you onto the Capital Ring clockwise to Harrow and Finsbury Park, and the main line onto the Ring anticlockwise to Richmond and Crystal Palace.

We’ll be seeing a lot more of the canal in the next section, so I’ll discuss it in more detail later. There are several features of interest along this stretch, beginning with one final crossing of the Crane, just after the Loop joins the towpath. The canal here runs at a higher level than the river, crossing it on an aqueduct, so look down for one final glimpse of the Crane, just below the confluence of the Yeading Brook.

Until very recently you would likely have caught the distinct smell of roasting coffee here from the Nestlé factory on the other side of the canal. This was founded in 1913 as a chocolate factory by German-born Eugen Sandow, a world-famous strongman now knowns as the father of modern bodybuilding. He proved less of a success as an entrepreneur and in 1916 sold the site, which eventually passed to the famous Swiss baby milk and chocolate firm in 1929. Shortly afterwards, the Brazilian Coffee Institute approached Nestlé for ideas about what to do with surplus coffee, leading to the perfection of instant coffee here in 1939. By the 1950s, over 2,000 people worked here, but the facility was shut down and sold to a property developer in 2015 with production moved elsewhere.

One last sight of the Crane, flowing beneath
the Grand Union Canal.
A little further is a bridge carrying probably London’s most famous main line railway, the Great Western from Paddington to Bristol and Penzance, engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This first section, from London to Maidenhead, opened in 1838. It was originally built to a broad gauge of 7’ ¼ “ (2140 mm), but subsequently converted to the emerging British standard gauge of 4’ 8 ½” in (1435 mm), retaining its generous widths and clearances. The bridge has since expanded to three spans, with gaps between them through which shafts of light penetrate the gloom, playing on the water. The road bridge where this section ends at Station Road, Hayes, is modest by comparison.

This is the second place called Hayes at the end of a London Loop walk, after the town in Bromley between sections 3 and 4. The area is mentioned in the Domesday survey, but was originally a cluster of five small, separate settlements. The part where the Loop emerges, near the station, was previously known as Botwell – the original Hayes town was a little way to the north, round a part-12th century church which still stands.

Up until Henry VIII’s time, the land was largely owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, but later passed through several private hands. It was largely agricultural until the end of the 19th century, when it was progressively converted to an industrial suburb by the Hayes Development Company, taking advantage of its proximity to both railway and canal. George Orwell, who lived and worked here as a teacher in the early 1930s, described it as “one of the most godforsaken places I have ever struck.”

For much of the 20th century, Hayes enjoyed international fame of a sort as the home of British recording giant EMI, with the address “Hayes, Middlesex, England” appearing prominently on countless LPs, including the original UK issues of all the Beatles’ albums. The Gramophone and Typewriter company, founded in 1897 by gramophone inventor Emile Berliner, started making records in Hayes around 1908.

The company became Electric and Musical Industries during the Great Depression in 1931 when it merged with Columbia Records. By the 1960s the site covered 61 ha and employed 14,000 staff. EMI collapsed in 2007, a victim of the early 21st century upheavals in the music industry: it’s now part of the Warner Music. It’s no longer operative in Hayes, though its archives are still here. Its original buildings, which in later years were reassigned largely to defence electronics work, are being redeveloped under the name The Old Vinyl Factory: if you want to visit, it’s best to continue along the towpath a little further then follow the Legible London signing away from the canal.

Hayes and Harlington station, originally called simply Hayes, was opened in 1868, thirty years after the line itself. Curiously, it was once briefly on the District Line: from 1883-85, District Railway trains from Mansion House called here on their way to Windsor. Currently it’s only served by National Rail trains, but TfL roundels are due to appear when the Elizabeth Line opens in 2018. This is the last stop before Airport Junction where the spur to Heathrow leaves the main line, and although the premium non-stop Heathrow Express trains – one of the most expensive rail services in the world -- power straight through, semi-fast Heathrow Connect services, due to be superseded by the Elizabeth Line, will take you into the airport.

Great Western main line looking towards London at Hayes & Harlington, with trackwork for the new Elizabeth Line left.

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