Tuesday 10 January 2017

London Loop 22: Harold Wood - Upminster Bridge

Pages Wood, the largest site in Thames Chase Community Forest.

The London Loop has now turned decisively back towards the Thames, and this short section follows the valley of Thames tributary the river Ingrebourne, though not always on riverside paths. It begins with two contrasting green spaces: a large traditional urban public park and a newer, more rugged area of community woodland that also serves as an introduction to Thames Chase Community Forest. On the other side of the Southend Arterial Road it descends to the Ingrebourne itself, tracking the edge of the last proper fields on the trail within sight of Upminster windmill. Just before the end, it passes one of the most important geological sites in Britain.

I couldn’t work out a way of combining this walk with those either side without splitting an official section, so I’ve left it as a short walk on its own. One useful option might be to break the previous walk at Noak Hill Road (where buses are more frequent than at the official Section 20 endpoint of Havering-atte-Bower) and combine the rest of that walk with this one. There’s a good bus option just over halfway if you want an even shorter walk.

Update November 2017. Although I'd recommend first-time walkers follow the official London Loop route as described here, there is a slightly more roundabout alternative via the Ingrebourne Way, which is fully accessible and includes some green spaces and historic buildings not on the Loop. It doesn't pass that close to Harold Wood but there are various bus options. The later section of this is largely along roads although there's the option to revert to the Loop.

Harold Wood Park

Harold Wood Park retains its cricket ground roots, visible left.
Until the late 1960s, the most prominent building in sight when leaving Harold Wood station was the Matthews Brothers Mill, opposite the main station building and to the left. This had its roots in the early years of suburbanisation, when the Matthews family first opened a shop selling animal food on Gubbins Lane in 1895. The mill, which made animal food and fertiliser, followed in 1905 and became the hub of a successful regional business. It was sold to Unilever in 1963 then closed and demolished in 1968, after which the present houses and flats were built on the site.

The mill’s owners were generous supporters of Harold Wood Cricket Club, formed the year after their shop opened, and the club played a role in the creation of the first green space along today’s section, Harold Wood Park. To reach it, you’ll need to double back on the other side of the railway, past streets with names like Athelstan Road and Ethelburga Road, commemorating the area’s Anglo-Saxon past. There were two female Saxon saints named Æthelburh with local connections: an East Anglian princess who died in 664, and the first abbess of Barking Abbey in the 670s. Æthelstan ruled England from 927-939.

The core of the park dates from 1934, when a local landowner, Edward Bryant, donated farmland to what was then Hornchurch Urban District Council on condition that it was used for cricket. The cricket club still plays in the park today, although the site has been much expanded around the cricket facilities, particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s to cater for the growing population. It’s now a relatively large urban park of 19.4 ha. Much is given over to sports pitches, but the field divisions and hedgerow lines of the site’s agricultural past have been preserved and there are some attractive rows of trees, including a weeping willow avenue planted to aid drainage after the Great Storm of 1987 brought down many of the veteran trees.

The park has benefited from recent refurbishments and now holds Green Flag status. One of the more curious recent additions is a set of oral history notice boards transcribing the reminiscences of park users, from very young children to people who remember being in the park when World War II broke out in 1939. It’s a shame nobody thought of a more imaginative way of presenting these, as I doubt the large slabs of text are often read, but collectively they give an excellent account of the value of public spaces like this to the local community.

It’s in a corner of the park that the Loop first encounters the river Ingrebourne, the penultimate major Thames tributary along the way, and one that will stay close throughout most of the rest of the trail. The river rises in Essex, just south of Brentwood, and is joined just after it’s passed under the M25 by a longer tributary, the Weald Brook, which rises in what’s now Weald Country Park near South Weald. Its second major tributary is the Paynes Brook, which the Loop followed towards the end of the last section, though the confluence is off the trail, in the industrial estate just before Harold Wood station. From the park, the river flows in a slight bow, first southeast then southwest, via Upminster Bridge, Hornchurch Country Park and Rainham, joining the Thames on Rainham Marshes, a total distance of 43.3 km.

Pages Wood

The rainbow arch has been replaced with more prosaic signing at Pages Wood.
The Loop leaves Harold Wood park on a footbridge across the Ingrebourne, installed in 2006 to link with Pages Wood on the other side of the river. This is also the trail’s entry into Thames Chase Community Forest, the second (after Watling Chase, first encountered on section 15) and by far the most visible of the community forests along the way. I discussed the project at some length on the stretch of the London Countryway between Brentwood and West Horndon, so I’ll only summarise here.

Thames Chase, one of 12 community forests in England, was designated in 1990 over almost 100 km2 of green belt, brownfield sites and derelict land in the London Boroughs of Barking & Dagenham, and Havering, and the Essex districts of Brentwood and Thurrock (the last now a unitary authority), with a remit to increase tree cover in the area from 4% to 30% over 40 years as well as improving access, recreation and conditions for wildlife. Originally all the forests had government funding but that has long expired and many have struggled in the new era of local authority austerity.

The two London forests face additional challenges from administrative quirks. They were established at a time when there was no cross-London government, but now find themselves straddling the boundaries of territories with very different ways of doing highly relevant things like the strategic development of green space, nature conservation and active travel. Though the various landowning bodies continue to support their own sites, funding for central coordination at Thames Chase has been much reduced, with some local council contributions now completely withdrawn. The work continues thanks to the heroic efforts of the Thames Chase Trust, an independent charity now responsible for coordinating the project that’s proved adept at finding funds from other sources and mobilising volunteers and communities.

When I last checked, a few years back and already well over halfway to the 2030 target, over 2 million new trees had been planted in Thames Chase, with woodland cover now at 8%, twice what it was but well short of the 15% it should have been by now. Nonetheless, the Forest project has made a major contribution to the growth and interconnection of accessible green space in the area, including a portfolio of extensive, user-friendly and consequently very popular Forestry Commission sites.

At 74 ha, Pages Wood is the largest of these, created from two farms, Mount Pleasant and Pages Farm, bought by the Commission in the late 1990s. Originally the trail passed across the bridge and under a ‘gateway feature’ in the shape of a rainbow-painted arch, still mentioned in the Transport for London walk description but since removed due to vandalism, as are some of the carved wooden benches which originally brightened the site.

Despite this, the stretch through Pages Wood is a pleasant one, on gravelly multi-user tracks which accommodate cycles and wheelchairs but are still comfortable to walk on. The environment is more mixed than the name suggests, as the design intersperses patches of wood with meadows and broad grassy strips alongside the paths, so even when the 100,000-plus new trees have matured fully, there will still be a sense of openness. Our path parallels the Ingrebourne, not always obvious behind hedgerows off to the right, and shortly the Ingrebourne Way walking and cycling route, introduced in the last section, rejoins from the left. Further on, the trail is forced away from the main stream to cross a small tributary, finally winding its way out of the site and along Hall Lane.

Upminster Hall

River Ingrebourne glimpsed through the willows at the foot of River Drive.

When the Loop crosses the Ingrebourne into Pages Wood, it’s not only entering the community forest but the old manor of Upminster Hall. Today, Upminster is part of the London Borough of Havering, but historically it was a separate parish from the Royal Liberty of Havering described in the previous section, with the river running between them.

Upminster was a long, thin parish quartered by two main roads: a north-south route roughly parallel to the river, of which Hall Lane now forms the northern part; and the road now known as St Mary’s Lane, running east from Hornchurch, crossing the Ingrebourne at Upminster Bridge and continuing towards Cranham, the next parish east. At some point during the Anglo-Saxon period, a village centre developed where these routes crossed, on the high ground of the eastern side of the valley above the river: the name Upminster means ‘church in a high place.’

There were three manors in the parish, with Upminster Hall occupying nearly all the land north of St Mary’s Lane. Along with 16 other manors, it was gifted by Earl Harold in the mid-11th century to support the religious house he’d founded at what’s now Waltham Abbey. It was the property of the abbey until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, when the king gave it to his chief minister Thomas Cromwell.

It remained a rural manor under various private owners until the early 20th century when the land was broken up and much of it sold for development, beginning in the south, close to Upminster station and the historic village centre, which rapidly grew into the nucleus of a suburban town. But here in the north, substantial areas of land remained undeveloped into the Green Belt era. There are still fields on both sides of Hall Lane, which the Loop now follows south for some time.

The lane is soon interrupted by a 20th century intrusion, the Southend Arterial Road (A127), opened in 1925, one of several trunk roads from this period encountered on the Loop. It was built as a branch of Eastern Avenue, the A12, from Gallows Corner at Harold Hill, to provide a faster route from London to Southend, superseding the old road via Tilbury, the A13. By the end of the 20th century, a newly widened and bypassed A13 had reclaimed its role as the preferred Southend route and the A127 was ‘detrunked’, though it’s still a busy route for shorter distance traffic. Originally it was a single carriageway with a simple flat junction where it crossed Hall Lane: it was dualled by the end of the 1920s and the current flyover junction, which now deflects you off your route a little, was finally opened in 1966.

On the other side are more fields with views of Canary Wharf, and the attractively named Strawberry Farm, which does indeed offer pick-your-own strawberries in season, as well as a pumpkin patch for Hallowe’en. Reaching houses, the Loop follows a residential street parallel to, but set back from, Hall Lane. This was one of the last patches of housing built on the former Upminster Hall estate, in the 1950s, and is now the northern limit of Upminster’s built up area.

Reaching the junction with Avon Road (the roads in this small estate are named after rivers: there’s even a Fleet Close), the Ingrebourne Way and the Loop separate for a while. The former, obliged to provide a suitable route for cyclists, simply continues along Hall Lane towards Upminster town centre (more about following the Ingrebourne Way as an alternative here). A short distance along, and just off the Loop, is a large public open space, Upminster Playing Fields.

In the southern part of this, some distance from the road, is Upminster Hall itself, the old manor house. It’s a Grade II*-listed timber-framed building, parts of which date from the 15th century, though it’s now used as the golf course clubhouse. Nearby and closer to the road is a 45 m-long thatched barn, also from the 15th century, known as the Tithe Barn although there’s no evidence it was ever used to collect tithes. It’s now a ‘Museum of Nostalgia’ housing a collection of everyday objects from Roman times to the present.

Vintage lampposts along River Drive.
The Loop, meanwhile, follows an intriguing walkers-only route which begins by descending the valley again along River Drive, an unremarkable residential street except for its vintage lamp standards with swan-neck brackets. Where the tarmac runs out, the route continues ahead as a rather rough path running steeply downhill through a patch of surviving woodland. This ends at a picturesque spot where a footbridge crosses the Ingrebourne back into the old Havering Liberty. The river here runs along the bottom of a field, and the Loop once again follows it downstream.

The next field along has been commandeered as a playing field by Emerson Park School, which glowers rather forbiddingly at the top of the slope to the right. But through the next hedgerow there are more arable fields. Finally, the path is forced up the valley again, along the field edge away from the river, with glimpses of Upminster Windmill over to the left, to reach an alleyway back to the streets. But it’s worth pausing a minute to savour the rolling and remarkably rural scene, as these are the last ‘proper’ agricultural fields on the trail.

The last fields on the London Loop climb up the Ingrebourne Valley near Hornchurch.

To Upminster Bridge

Hornchurch Cutting, where evidence of the Anglian ice sheet is revealed.

The walk concludes with a short section through residential streets between Hornchurch and Upminster. Shortly it crosses a bridge over a single track railway: the Romford to Upminster Line, one of the more obscure backwaters of London’s transport system. A mere 5.4 km long, it was built as a branch line by the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway in 1893 to provide a link with the Great Eastern Railway, originally with no intermediate stops: Emerson Park was added in 1909.

Narrowly avoiding closure in the 1960s, it became one of the lines transferred to Transport for London’s control in 2015, and is now operated as part of the London Overground, though with no connections to any other Overground lines, and with only half-hourly shuttle trains that take nine minutes to complete their journey. With Romford soon to find itself on the Elizabeth Line (formerly Crossrail), this little-known stub could enjoy a new lease of life.

But there’s much more of interest here than a minor railway line, although it’s difficult to see. Several times on these pages I’ve mentioned that during the last glacial period, the ice sheets rolled as far south as Hornchurch, reshaping the geology of the London area, and this site provides the evidence. During the construction of the cutting in 1892, local geologist T V Holmes, of the Essex Field Club, noted the excavations had exposed a 5 m layer of boulder clay, of a type now known as Hornchurch Till, topped with gravels that could only have been laid down by glaciation. Furthermore, the configuration of the layers showed that the upper river terrace of the Thames was formed after the ice sheet deposits, providing evidence that as the ice retreated, the river shifted from its original course through the Vale of St Albans to its current route through what is now London.

Subsequent investigations found rocks and fossils carried by the ice from the Midlands, and confirmed this was indeed the southern edge of the Anglian ice sheet, which reached this point about 450,000 years ago. Evidence of ice has also been found nearby at the more southerly site of the Dell, south of St Andrew’s church in central Hornchurch. The stretch of cutting south of the tracks and west of the bridge, on the right once you’ve crossed the line, is now a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, though given its location alongside a working railway it’s understandably closed to the public.

This section ends at Upminster Bridge station, which as it’s on the west side of the Ingrebourne is technically in Hornchurch, though most locals will think of this as Upminster. The Loop continues across Upminster Bridge itself and approaches closer to the famous windmill, so I’ll cover these features in more detail later – but you might well have time on your hands after walking such a short section, and a visit to the mill, not far away at the top of the hill to the east, might be a good way to fill it.

When the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LTSR) first opened its route through this area from Fenchurch Street in 1885, Hornchurch and Upminster were small towns surrounded by countryside, so there were no stations between them. But the railway itself prompted development, especially after 1902 when a new line from Whitechapel to Bromley-by-Bow provided a through connection to the District Railway through central London. A second set of tracks for local services was built alongside the old LTSR lines in the early 1930s, and several new stations added, including Upminster Bridge, which opened in 1934. Today, National Rail trains operated by c2c run fast between Barking and Upminster, while the London Underground District Line serves the intermediate stops.

The surprising swastika at Upminster Bridge station.
Upminster Bridge, now something like the 13th least busy station on the Underground, retains its attractively compact 1930s polygonal station building and tastefully tiled interior. One of its features of interest is a vintage K2 red telephone kiosk, the only one inside an Underground booking hall. Rather more striking is the decorative tiling on the floor in front of the ticket barriers, in the unmistakable shape of a swastika.

Today, the swastika is indelibly associated with fascism, racism and genocide through its appropriation by the National Socialist Party in 1930s Germany, but it was originally an ancient Hindu symbol of good fortune, and a relatively common element in architectural decoration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some swastikas which predate Nazi associations have subsequently been discreetly removed. This is one of those that remain, respecting the integrity of the original design, though it’s hard to imagine a time when it will once again be viewed as the attractively symmetrical flourish it was originally intended to be.

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