Friday 25 August 2017

Hillingdon Trail 1: Cranford - West Ruislip

The grass expanses of Hillindgon. Yeading Meadows, off The Greenway, Yeading.

The London Borough of Hillingdon is the second biggest London borough, and one of its greenest, with extensive swathes of parks, nature reserves, woodland and countryside including Ruislip Woods, one of the only two National Nature Reserves (NNRs) in the capital. In 2014, the borough held the highest number of Green Flag awards of any local authority in the country. Since the early 1990s some of these places, including the NNR, have been linked by a signed walking trail, the Hillingdon Trail, running roughly north-south through this rather elongated borough on London’s western edge. Not only is the Trail well worth exploring for its own sake, it also provides a useful alternative route to the London Loop, with which it connects at Cranford and Harefield.

I’ll describe the Trail in two parts, both around 17.5 km or a reasonable day’s walk. The first follows the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal then heads off along the suburban green chain that lines the valley of the Yeading Brook, with some fascinating nature reserves along the way such as Yeading Woods and Ickenham Marsh. It ends by following an old lane to Ickenham and West Ruislip Tube station. The second section is even more varied, starting with another suburban green chain along the Grand Union Canal Feeder and the Cannon Brook, crossing Ruislip Woods and wandering through the Colne Valley Park around Harefield to finish at Springwell Lock back on the Grand Union Canal. An optional continuation will take you to Rickmansworth town centre and Tube station.

Hillingdon Trail signing off The Greenway,
West Ruislip.

More about the Hillingdon Trail

The Hillingdon Trail is a product of the late 1980s when the idea of green walking trails across London caught the imagination of both council staff and voluntary groups. Local volunteers worked with the borough council to devise the route, which was first publicised in a route card folder sold at council outlets in 1994. At that point plans for the London Loop were well-advanced, which might explain why, although the Trail connects with the Loop at both ends, the Loop ultimately followed a different route, further out along the edge of London, occasionally venturing into Buckinghamshire, essentially tracking the Grand Union Canal and river Colne through the Colne Valley Park.

The difference is certainly not in the attractiveness of the surroundings. The Hillingdon Trail is an excellent walk throughout, with very few roads and streets and a real sense of openness that’s still easily accessible via public transport. In a little less than 30 km it includes an impressive variety of surroundings: post-industrial canalsides, suburban green corridors, managed parks and nature reserves, rolling agricultural fields and fine views over the lakes and woods of the Colne Valley towards the end.

The jewel in its crown is Ruislip Woods National Nature Reserve, with its hectares of ancient woodland and the decidedly un-London-like prospect of a sandy beach beside the tree-lined reservoir of Ruislip Lido. The woods weren’t designated as an NNR until 1997, otherwise they may have proved more attractive to the London Walking Forum members who planned the Loop.

I guess most walkers will still tackle the official route of the Loop first and possibly return to walk the Trail later. Even through the Loop ventures further west than the Trail, the latter wiggles about a bit so is less direct. It’s a 27.7 km walk from Bath Road in Cranford to Harefield West via the Trail, and only 23.3 km via the Loop, which can be shortened even further to 19.8 km if you ignore the excursions away from the towpath. The terrain on the Trail is a little more challenging too, particularly through Ruislip Woods and around Harefield.

Besides the obvious break point at West Ruislip there are numerous other transport options including various bus stops so no matter how you choose to walk the route, you should be able to split it into lengths that meet your preferences and abilities.

The Hillingdon Trail officially starts at the car park in Cranford Country Park, on London Loop section 10 and close by St Dunstan’s Church, but there’s no handy public transport here. A signed extension, the Southern Link, connects from Bath Road, well-served by buses, to Cranford Park Stables just north of the car park. Both these points are also on Loop section 10, and both trails share stretches of path, but the Southern Link follows a more circuitous course around Cranford Park, taking 1.5 km rather than 1.14 km. One advantage is that you get to see more of the park, but you also have a bit more noise from the M4.

The Loop and the Trail then share largely the same paths for a while, although the Trail decides to dodge away eastwards to follow the river Crane more closely through Dog Kennel Covert north of the M4, a relatively minor additional 150 m. The two trails diverge decisively on the Grand Union Canal towpath at the bottom of the ramp from Parkway, on the edge of Hayes. Here the Loop heads west towards Hayes & Harlington and Uxbridge, while the Trail turns in the other direction for a short distance to Bulls Bridge to pick up the Grand Union Canal Paddington Arm and start its journey along the Yeading Valley.

If you wanted to start at a station, the next one down the Loop from Cranford is at Hatton Cross, which will add another 2.5 km to your walk. Alternatively, you might decide that the early part of the Trail is too like the Loop to be worth walking, and start instead at Hayes & Harlington station where Loop section 11 begins. From here it’s only 1.5 km back down the Loop and the Grand Union Canal Walk to the Parkway ramp, resulting in a 14.5 km walk to West Ruislip station.

If you’re walking the Loop and decide to substitute the Trail alternative between Hayes & Harlington and Harefield West, be aware that, while the distance via the Loop is 19.2 km (shorter if you stick to the towpath) on paths that are largely flat and easy to follow, and therefore doable in a day if you’re a relatively fit walker, it’s 25.2 km via the Hillingdon Trail, including some hills and fiddly wayfinding in woods. You might consider adding an extra day by breaking at West Ruislip or elsewhere.

The Trail and the Loop eventually converge to within 100 m of each other at Black Jacks Lock, Harefield, and finally meet a little further on at Harefield West, at the bottom of Summerhouse Lane not far from Harefield Lock. This is the end point of section 12 of the Loop, one of the few that breaks at a bus stop rather than a station.

The Trail and section 13 of the Loop then share the same route for 1.4 km through Old Park Woods to the hamlet of Hill End. Here, Loop walkers will finally part company with the Trail, which heads northwest back towards the Colne Valley, while the Loop goes northeast to the Hertfordshire boundary near Woodcock Hill and on to Batchworth Heath and Moor Park. Before the Loop was finalised through Hillingdon, the path to the boundary was signed as the Northern Link, and some of these signs remain today.

The official end point of the Hillingdon Trail is back on the Grand Union Canal at Springwell Lock north of Harefield, in the northwestern tip of the borough, 28.5 km from Cranford Country Park car park and just over 30 km from Bath Road. The council guide gives the length of the Trail as 20 miles, which is 32 km: I think this is a slight overestimate.

There’s no public transport immediately to hand at the end either, but you have at least two options. The closest bus stop is 1 km away on the Uxbridge Road: this is in Hertfordshire and outside the Transport for London fares area but has reasonably frequent services to Rickmansworth even on Sundays. Alternatively, there’s the pleasant and convenient option of continuing on the towpath for a while and then cutting through the lakes of Rickmansworth Aquadrome to Rickmansworth town centre and station. Although also in Hertfordshire, Rickmansworth has the virtue of being on the Tube, with frequent Metropolitan line services operating within the zonal fares system.

The 2.8 km of path from Springwell Lock to Rickmansworth is included in the overall 17.5 km I’ve given for part 2 so should be easily manageable. Wayfinding is easy too, following not only the Grand Union Canal Walk but another trail, the Colne Valley Trail, which has been shadowing us since just west of Harefield Village.

Looking at the map, you’ll note that if you divert from the Loop to the Trail and back again, you’ll be doglegging northwest to Harefield then northeast again towards Moor Park. Is there the possibility of a more direct walk leaving the Trail earlier, say northeast from Ruislip Woods to rejoin the Loop somewhere around Oxhey Woods or Hatch End? The sprawl of Northwood obstructs the way here, so for the moment I’ll leave this idea for future investigation.

The Hillingdon Trail is signed in both directions using a variety of methods. In many places, you’ll see metal fingerposts with the trail name on a brown background, particularly at junctions with roads. No destination names or distances are included on these. Away from roads look out for stumpy wooden posts with the letters HT and a directional arrow carved and painted in white, installed relatively recently.

Occasional more conventional waymark discs on gates and fences bear the trail name and a graphic of a boot print coupled with the standard coloured arrows for public rights of way. Some older wooden fingerposts still stand, though often badly decayed. As always don’t rely on the signs, which may be missing, vandalised or eroded. When I last walked the Trail, at least one of the wooden wayposts was displaying an arrow pointing in the opposite direction from the correct one!

The routecard pack is long out of print, but its contents have been helpfully transferred to the Hillingdon council website. Like the original cards, this divides the trail into six relatively short sections, with a page for each. There’s not much in the way of background information, but there’s a route description and a reproduction of the maps that appeared on the cards, which can also be downloaded separately as PDFs. These are sketch maps which don’t contain much in the way of detail and are not always easy to read, so I highly recommend you supplement them with Ordnance Survey Explorer map, on which the Trail is also shown using the standard line of green diamonds.

The first part of my own description covers sections 1-3 plus part of section 4, while the second par covers the rest of section 4 and sections 5-6. There’s a bit more information about the original sections later.

Hillingdon, incidentally, was one of the new London boroughs created when the capital was expanded as Greater London in 1965. Before then, the area was part of the now-abolished Middlesex county, with four predecessor authorities. The Trail only passes through two of them: Hayes and Harlington Urban District, including Yeading and part of Cranford; and Ruislip-Northwood Urban District, including Harefield and Ickenham. The other two are Uxbridge Metropolitan Borough and West Drayton Urban District. Hillingdon was originally planned to be known as the London Borough of Uxbridge but the name was later revised.


River Crane in northern part of Cranford Country Park, near the old Cranford Le Mote manor.

I’ve already talked about the river Crane, Cranford and Cranford Country Park in some detail under London Loop section 10, which also includes a route description for anyone setting out from further down the Crane valley at Hatton Cross Tube. On Cranford Bridge along Bath Road, you’re right on the corner of London Heathrow Airport, with a constant stream of aeroplanes passing by, but you’ll soon be leaving this behind.

If you choose to follow the Hillingdon Trail Southern Link rather than the Loop, you won’t see much of the river itself but you’ll see a bit more of the Cranford Country Park. This path follows the southern edge of the central meadows then turns north along the western edge of the site, on a pleasantly tree-lined bridleway following a stream known as Frogs Ditch, with fields visible on the other side. Soon you’re walking along the edge of Cranford Wood, some of which is thought to be ancient woodland and is noted for its seasonal bluebell displays. Near the point where the ditch and the wood meet is an earth mound of uncertain origin, possibly a Roman survey mound.

The route then passes through a wall that once enclosed a walled garden forming part of the estate. Some of this site has been used as an orchard, and part is now fenced off as a wildflower meadow scattered with damson trees and occasionally grazed by cattle. The roar of traffic on the M4 slightly detracts from the peacefulness of the scene here: it runs just on the other side of the wall and you’re walking alongside it. There’s further brickwork off to the right as you approach the arch that leads you back to the Loop by the famous stable block.

In the unlikely event that you’re starting from the official Hillingdon Trail start point at the car park, you’ll approach the stable block through a different arch, passing close to St Dunstan’s church with its memorial to Tony Hancock along the way. If you haven’t walked this way before, it’s well worth diverting a little to look at the church, also discussed under Loop 10.

North of the Stable Block, the Trail follows the Loop under the M4 and through Dog Kennel Covert, then follows a minor variation to join the side of the Crane. The river once meandered freely through this area of woodland and meadow, but was canalised into its current straighter course when the motorway was built in 1964. Recent works to remove culverting have created a more natural bank. The footbridge here once led to the site of a secondary manor house, known as Cranford Le Mote, pulled down in 1780. The A312 road has subsequently covered the foundations of the house, but fragments of the moat from which it took its name remain.

The Trail and Loop then run together along Parkway and descend on the giant ramp to the Grand Union Canal towpath, built in 1992 along with the road as part of the Hayes Bypass. Here the two trails finally part company, heading off in opposite directions.

Southall and the Paddington Arm

Bulls Bridge, with the main line of the Grand Union Canal to Brentford right, the Paddington Arm left.

A few steps from the Parkway ramp you reach Bulls Bridge junction where the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal joins the main line from Brentford. The little white bridge that takes the towpath over the end of the Paddington Arm is a modest landmark for what was once one of the most important transport junctions in Britain, linking the rapidly developing industrial towns of the West Midlands with central London and Docklands.

As explained in London Loop section 11, the first stretch of what was then known as the Grand Junction Canal opened between the river Thames at Brentford and Hemel Hempstead in 1798, with the intention of extending to Braunston in Northamptonshire, on the Oxford Canal which went to Coventry. This was the route approved by Parliament, but the detour into central London via the Thames was already considered less than ideal, and long before construction of the main line was completed, the company was already pushing for permission to provide a more direct link with the capital.

The outcome was the Paddington Arm, opened in 1801 as a 22 km canal branch from Bulls Bridge to Paddington on what was then the northwest corner of the metropolis. Several decades before the railway terminus opened, the area was already an important transport interchange, standing on the intersection of Edgware Road – Roman Watling Street – and the New Road, London’s first bypass, a toll road to Islington and the City opened in the 1750s. The New Road still forms part of London’s Inner Ring Road, though it’s now known variously as Marylebone Road, Euston Road, Pentonville Road and City Road.

The Grand Junction Canal was open throughout by 1811, by now with a more direct connection to Birmingham via the Warwick & Napton and Warwick & Birmingham canals, and by 1820 the Paddington Arm had more direct access to the London Docks via the Regents Canal from Paddington to Limehouse. Like all canals, it suffered badly from growing competition with the railways from the late 1830s on, though soldiered on, its owning company merging with the Warwick and Regents Canal companies in 1929 to create the Grand Union Canal. Following the transport nationalisations after World War II, it passed to government agency British Waterways, which has since been spun off into an independent charity, the Canal & River Trust.

Today, a smattering of freight still travels along London’s canals, but almost all the boats you’ll see are homes and pleasure craft, or service vehicles belonging to the Trust and other businesses connected to the canal. The waterways have long since been reinvented for other uses: of course, they make great walking and cycling routes and wildlife corridors, but less visibly they earn income from telecoms and utility companies running cables and other services under the towpaths. This stretch is as welcoming to walkers as any, providing useful links in parts of London chopped up by industry and main roads.

The Paddington Arm initially follows the valley of the Yeading Brook – actually the upper reaches of the river Crane under a different name. As we’ll see, almost all this first section of the Hillingdon Trail traces the valley. You’re right on the edge of Hillingdon here as the canal forms the boundary, which doesn’t run down the centre of the water but along the eastern edge of the canal land. So the towpath is in Hillingdon, but the industrial estate on the other side of the fence on your right is in the London Borough of Ealing.

The towpath runs under Bridge 21A, which carries one of those pieces of infrastructure that helped bring the canal age to a close: the Great Western Railway, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This is part of the initial stretch to Maidenhead, which opened in 1838, originally as a 7’ ¼“ (2140 mm) broad gauge railway, but subsequently converted to the emerging British standard gauge of 4’ 8 ½” in (1435 mm). Eastwards it also runs to Paddington, westwards to Bristol, Cardiff and Penzance.

Irises growing beside the Paddington Arm on the edge of the
Southall Gasworks development site, May 2017.
The Yeading Brook itself runs a little to the west, on the other side of the canal. Beyond the rail bridge and between the two waterways is a strip of overgrown rough woodland owned by the Canal & River Trust and on the west bank of the brook is Minet Country Park, created from neglected former farmland and industrial land in the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the Ealing side of the towpath was a massive 33 ha building site. This is the former home of Southall Gasworks, opened in 1869 and run down in the early 1970s after the discovery of natural gas made it obsolete. More recently the site been used as long-term car parking for Heathrow Airport. In 2015, work began on preparing it for redevelopment by cleaning 250,000 m3 of contaminated soil, and 2017 saw work begin on a 25-year master plan to provide 3,750 new homes.

While canals were once shunned by anyone who didn’t have to visit them, attitudes have changed, and the priority for the developers is to complete the 618-home Southall Waterside phase of the development in time for the opening of the Elizabeth Line in 2019. The good news for walkers is that this will open up a more direct connection to Southall station from the canal through the new estate. Two new footbridges across the canal are also promised, providing links through the Canal & River Trust land to the Country Park and raising the possibility of an alternative route for the Trail that stays closer to the brook.

The development is the latest in a succession of changes that have transformed this west London community numerous times over the course of a little more than a century. Until the early 19th century, the area now called Southall was a scattering of tiny rural hamlets in an area of Middlesex better known as Norwood. In mediaeval times, it had been part of Hayes parish and remained so formally until 1859, although the obvious geographical division of the Yeading Brook and then the Paddington Arm set it apart from the rest of the parish.

Significantly, a major road ran through it, an ancient route linking London and Oxford via Uxbridge known as the Uxbridge Road, which was turnpiked in 1721 and was part of a regular coach route by the early 19th century. The place names have shifted in meaning over the years: ‘Southall’ was once applied only to the area a little south of the road, around the Green, where the manor house stood. The settlement along the road itself, east of the bridge over the Yeading, was known as Northcott.

Population and industry in the area began to grow slowly with the opening of the canals. By then the biggest landowner was Lord Jersey, who also owned nearby Osterley Park, and he profited from the inclosure of the local land in 1814. Like several other rural locations just outside London, Southall was a retreat for the better off, with numerous “respectable villas of an ornamental character” around the Green. When the Great Western Railway was built, Southall was considered important enough to have a halt of its own, opened in 1839.

The first major industry taking advantage of the transport links was brickmaking, which spread from the 1850s, necessitating new cottages for workers. By 1890 there were still under a thousand houses, but by 1894 factories had been built and cheap housing was spreading. The transport link that made the biggest difference to the area’s accessibility was not the railway, which remained relatively expensive, but the electric trams which arrived in the first decade of the 20th century, linking with Uxbridge and Shepherds Bush along the main road: fares on these were much more affordable to people on modest incomes.

By World War I, Southall was a busy industrial area and continued to grow after the war. The Greater London Plan of 1944 described it as acutely overcrowded and recommended a brake on further industrial development, but large social housing estates were added in the 1940s and 1950s. By the time the last of these was completed in 1959, Southall was undergoing the social change for which it’s perhaps best known today, as a favoured destination for Commonwealth immigrants to Britain, and one group in particular – Sikhs from India’s Punjab region.

Southall was ideal for this: it was some distance from central London so accommodation was cheaper, but it was built-up and industrial, so there were plenty of jobs and homes. And once the first newcomers settled, the phenomenon of ‘chain immigration’ developed as new arrivals headed for places close to family members and friends or even just people from their own part of the world. Landlords were often reluctant to rent to immigrants, but a group of families could pool its resources to buy a house, which would then be shared while each individual family saved enough to buy their own.

But why Sikhs? Before Indian independence, many Sikhs served in the army under British officers, and some family legends mention an ex-officer with connections to the area who offered his former comrades work here. It’s also often stated that a local rubber factory, Woolf’s, had a deliberate policy of employing Sikhs. This has been contested by the descendant of a director of the firm, who believes the story was originally put about by racists needing to blame someone for immigration. Certainly, many immigrants worked at Woolf’s, but there were other large local employers keen to tap this new source of labour in the 1950s and 1960s, including bus maker AEG and Heathrow Airport, which was then expanding rapidly in response to the civil aviation boom.

The new arrivals were not well-treated. Even if highly qualified, immigrants were regarded by employers as cheap unskilled labour and often worked in poor conditions for very low wages. They faced casual racism in everyday life, and could expect little support from the police if this escalated into intimidation, violence and even murder. The council regularly bused immigrant children to schools far from home to avoid them becoming a majority locally. Councillors and MPs harangued the Sikh community for retaining traditional practices like turban-wearing rather than assimilating. But as the community grew, it also organised – the Southall Indian Workers Association, the first of its kind in Britain, was founded in 1956 and played a role not only in promoting unionisation and improving pay and conditions in the workplace but also more generally.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Southall became, along with some other London neighbourhoods like Brixton, a focus for an increasingly ugly debate about immigration and race in the UK. It was targeted by organised racists and anti-immigrant campaigners, sometimes with the support, tacit or otherwise, of the authorities. Gurdip Singh Chaggar, an 18-year-old student murdered by racists on the High Street in 1976 was dismissed by police as “just an Asian”.

On St George’s Day 1979, in the runup to the election that was to return Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, police attacked anti-racist demonstrators opposing a rally of fascist and racist party the National Front, provocatively held in Southall town hall. During the scuffles, one of the demonstrators, Blair Peach, a white New Zealand-born teacher, was struck and killed by a police truncheon, likely wielded by a member of the notorious Special Patrol Group. In July 1981, a gig by bands with a neo-Nazi following in the Hambrough Tavern pub became the flashpoint for a riot involving angry young Sikhs, racist skinheads and the police. These and other incidents triggered a succession of debates about institutional racism, particularly in the police, and some changes did eventually follow.

Though recent political developments remind us that racism and anti-immigrant sentiment haven’t gone away, the world has incontestably moved on. Most Londoners now seem comfortable with their city’s multicultural complexion, and people of all colours and backgrounds regularly descend on Southall to enjoy its food and music. Punjabi script is proudly displayed on street and station signs. Meanwhile, Southall’s local ‘Indians’ are now largely third and fourth generation British, and recent immigrants are more likely to be from Afghanistan or Somalia.

You won’t see much of this if you stick to the towpath, so for a closer look and to enjoy some of that food and music, turn right along Uxbridge Road when you reach Hayes Bridge. The gas works redevelopment will also make central Southall more accessible from the towpath, as well as bringing in a new wave of young professionals who will doubtless change the social composition of this troubled but resilient suburb once again.

The Yeading Valley

View along the Paddington Arm towards London from Spikes Bridge.

A little further on the towpath on the other side of Hayes Bridge, you reach a footbridge known as Spikes Bridge. This bridge once linked farmland severed by the canal: now it links housing estates and urban green spaces, though it’s still a pretty spot. It’s at this point that the Paddington Arm begins to diverge from the Yeading Valley. The canal keeps going northeast before bending east towards central London, while the line of the brook turns northwest. To the right, and in Ealing borough, is Spikes Bridge Park, left as a green space when the surrounding estates were built in the 1930s, and now much used for sport. But our way is over the bridge, leaving the canal for the area known as Yeading.

Historically Yeading was a sub-parish of Hayes occupying a triangle of land in the northeast, east of the Yeading Brook and north of the Uxbridge Road. The first known historical reference is from 757, when it was known as Geddinges, and in 793 King Offa of Mercia granted land in Hayes and Yeading to the Archbishop of Canterbury. By the late 14th century the area was a sub-manor of Hayes, and at times during its history it may even have been more populous than Hayes itself. While researching his 1876 Handbook to the Environs of London, Stephen Thorne found an “irregular, commonplace collection of houses” whose inhabitants were “always found civil”.

Dense housing appeared much later in Yeading than Southall and Hayes, and much of the area traversed by the trail remained as farmland into the 1950s. As in some other parts of west London, the earliest development of industry resulted from the discovery of an abundance of brick earth conveniently close to a canal. From the 1820s, a complex of brickfields, docks and wharves grew up a little north of Spikes Bridge on the west side of the canal, variously known as Yeading Docks or Willowtree Docks, which after World War II was partly used for landfill, before being redeveloped in the 1980s as housing estates, parks and a marina.

Most of the rest of Yeading remained as marshy fields and meadows with almost no roads or even tracks across it until the 1950s and 1960s, when large social housing estates designed to cope with the post-war crisis spread on both sides of the river. But the land closest to the brook was wisely left as a green strip, partly for water management and partly to provide recreational space for the growing population. As a result, a nearly continuous chain of public recreation grounds, parks, open grassland and nature reserves lines the valley between Southall and Ruislip, like a miniature regional park.

To be honest, overall the space could be better-utilised than it is: though the nature reserves are fascinating and the Crane Valley Partnership has coordinated some largely volunteer-led improvements elsewhere, the swathes of grass dotted with decaying play equipment are rather too extensive in places. Nonetheless it provides a pleasant, off-road route for the Hillingdon Trail, with the brook itself never far away.

The Yeading Brook rises from a spring in Pinner Park, just southwest of Headstone Lane station, and feeds the moat in Headstone Manor before running roughly southwest through North Harrow, Roxbourne Park and Ruislip Gardens. It meanders around Northolt Aerodrome and through Ickenham Marsh, then runs southeast via Yeading and south towards Hayes. In the southwest corner of Minet Country Park, just north of the Great Western Railway, it’s joined by a couple of minor streams and for no apparently good reason changes its name to the river Crane – in Saxon times both streams were known as the Fishes Bourne.

The Crane then takes a roughly bowl-shaped course, via Cranford, Hounslow Heath, and Twickenham, where it curves up again through St Margarets to join the Thames at Isleworth. In its lower reaches, it becomes entangled with an artificial watercourse, the Duke of Northumberland’s River, as explained under London Loop section 9. The total length of Crane and Yeading combined is just under 26 km, of which just over 12 km is officially the Brook. The entire course is within Greater London.

Another trail joins at the bridge, one of a number created through the Crane Valley Partnership in the late 1990s and early 2000s under the general title West London Waterway Walks. Known as the Dog Rose Ramble, it’s a 13 km circular walk – or, rather, triangular, with Sparks Bridge as the southernmost point. Two sides of the triangle are shared with other trails: the Grand Union Canal Walk from Northolt southwest to here, then the Hillingdon Trail northwest to Golden Bridge on the northern edge of Yeading. It then runs in its own right east back to Northolt again. Needless to say, the original leaflets are long gone but the trail is sporadically signed on the ground, shown on OS Explorer maps and documented on several unofficial sites.

Immediately on the other side of Sparks Bridge is a pleasant meadow, improved as part of the Willowtree development. Then, through a hedge, the first of the huge grassy spaces opens before you, known as Brookside Playing Fields. The brook runs along the left side of this space, but the Trail chooses the right side. This is so it can connect with the subway under the Hayes Bypass, a continuation of the road you descended from near Bulls Bridge, which has sliced across the grass here since the early 1990s.

On the other side, you’ll get your first proper view of the sprawling post-war Yeading Lane housing estate, then the Trail works its way across a smaller grassy area, known as Larch Crescent Open Space and, further on, as Yeading Lane Playing Fields. You arrive at Yeading Bridge on Yeading Lane, one of the few genuinely old roads in the area, connecting Yeading with Hayes since mediaeval times. The old village centre was a little way along the lane to your right, but no historic buildings remain.

The Trail now crosses the Yeading to the Hayes side, and enters a more pleasant and intimate space currently managed largely as a hay meadow, Shakespeare’s Avenue Open Space. Across a small bridge back to the Yeading side is another large area of open grass, Greenway Playing Fields. It’s at this point you’ll appreciate quite how vast the Yeading Lane estate is, as a long line of identikit red brick council houses marches along the Greenway, across the grass to your right. This tranche of valley is designated part of Yeading Meadows Local Nature Reserve (LNR), parts of it managed by the London Wildlife Trust. The grassland dotted with mature trees provides a haven for insects, and the marshy area on the left, between your path and the brook itself, is an intriguing patchwork of grass tussocks and reeds.

Reaching Kings Hill Avenue itself, you once again approach close to the boundary with Ealing borough, the former parish boundary between Hayes and Northolt. This follows the north side of the avenue and then runs along the brook for a while. The Trail stays firmly on the west side of the brook, first on a fenced path beside it and then following the perimeter of a modest sports stadium known as Park Farm. Since 1982, this has been the home of AFC Hayes, a soccer team that grew from a pub team, founded in 1974 as Brook House FC. It adopted its current name in 2007 after another team in Hayes disbanded, and currently plays in the Combined Counties League, the 10th level of English football.

The Trail then stops short of entering a large public sports field, Grosvenor Field, where Hayes Rugby Club plays, and instead turns onto a tree-lined path parallel to its perimeter. To your left, between the path and the field, is a rather overgrown and usually dry ditch. This is the Grand Union Canal Feeder, part of the original elaborate system for keeping the artificial waterway adequately filled.

Completed in 1816 as one of two canal feeders, it ran 13 km from a large reservoir at Ruislip, which I’ll have to say much more about in the second section of the walk. The Feeder, which has been shadowing us on the far side of the Brook since Southall, emptied into the west bank of the canal about 200 m north of Uxbridge Road. You will have passed this point earlier on, but there’s nothing to see today – the system proved ineffective and inefficient and was last used in 1851. Parts were filled in and covered, but some of the channel remained in use for local drainage.

The Trail leaves the Feeder to run through Michael Frost Park and rejoins it again briefly just before reaching Charville Lane. This is another old east-west road across Yeading, connecting Hillingdon and Northolt. The Trail follows it for a short while but stops short of the bridge over the brook. There’s been a bridge here since at least the 14th century, and it now goes by the picturesque name Golden Bridge, though it was originally Golding Bridge. On the other side of the bridge, in the old parish of Northolt and present-day Ealing borough, the road becomes a bridleway, used by the Dog Rose Ramble. The Trail leaves Yeading here, keeping north for a while parallel to the Canal Feeder and Yeading Brook.

Hillingdon and the nature reserves

The Grand Union Canal Feeder running through Ten Acre Wood, part of the Yeading Woods nature reserves.

The area north of Charleville Road offers perhaps the most attractive surroundings of this section of the Hillingdon Trail: it’s a patchwork of woodlands, fields, hedgerows and meadows that preserves fragments of an older landscape. The Yeading Brook forms a Y-shape through the area: in the fields north of Ten Acre Wood, there’s a confluence with an eastern arm that flows from a secondary source in South Ruislip. The main course, meanwhile, bends west through Gutteridge Wood and towards Ickenham, faithfully shadowed by the Hillingdon Trail and the Canal Feeder.

The route also roughly approximates the boundary of two ancient parishes: Ickenham to the east and north, of which more later, and Hillingdon, the parish after which today’s borough was named, to the west and south. It’s rather ironic that the Hillingdon Trail tiptoes so gingerly around Hillingdon itself. The manor of Hillingdon is mentioned in the Domesday survey, and originally included Uxbridge, which ultimately developed into the more important settlement. Parts of Hillingdon remained rural until after World War II when they were protected as part of the Green Belt, as here.

Boardwalk in Gutteridge Wood LNR
The Trail crosses the Brook again into Ten Acre Wood, an interesting combination of old hazel coppiced woodland with a late 19th century oak plantation superimposed on top. Since 1990, the wood and several other patches nearby have been a designated Local Nature Reserve and are currently managed by the London Wildlife Trust. Leaving the woods, the path runs through wildflower meadows across the Brook once again, and then the canal feeder, with the site of a former sewage works on the right, to enter another Wildlife Trust-managed woodland, Gutteridge Wood.

The picturesque name is a corruption of Great Ditch Wood, referring to its proximity to the Brook. The western part at least, known as Cutthroat Wood, is ancient woodland, continuously wooded with oak and hazel since at least Tudor times, and noted for seasonal bluebells.

The Trail crosses and then turns to run alongside the Canal Feeder again in Gutteridge Wood, and the Brook isn’t far away here either, running roughly parallel to the Feeder over to the right. Then you cross it to emerge into a small grassy recreation ground, Lynhurst Crescent Open Space, where a path along the backs of houses leads to a more formal green space, Elephant Park – the place where the HT waymark points in completely the wrong direction. The Trail crosses the end of a street, Windsor Avenue in North Hillingdon. Once this area too was meadows and woodlands, most attached to a farm called Rye Fields, but in the 1930s the council built an estate here which expanded into today’s residential district.

The Hillingdon Trail negotiates the A40 Western Avenue along a cycle route, passing through a woodland known as Freezeland Covert on the other side of the A437 sliproad before running alongside the Yeading Brook under the A40 itself. This is one of the major London trunk roads, initially constructed in the 1920s as a successor to the old route to Oxford along the Uxbridge Road. Originally it had flat junctions but was substantially expanded in the 1980s, when the subway was built. The Trail continues along the Brook on the other side, ending its dalliance with Hillingdon parish to enter Ickenham.


Sheep grazing at Ickenham Marsh.
There’s archaeological evidence of an extensive Roman field system as well as earlier Bronze Age agriculture around Ickenham, though it’s not known if human habitation was continuous between Roman times and 1086 when the locality appears in the Domesday survey under the name ‘Ticheham’. After the Norman Conquest the manor was held by Geoffrey de Mandeville, Constable of the Tower of London. By the 16th century, two manors had emerged in what had become the relatively small independent parish of Ickenham: Swakeleys in the west and Ickenham in the east, each side of a traditional village at the junction of Wakeleys Road, from Uxbridge, and Long Lane, which ran north-south between Hillingdon and Ruislip.

The population of Ickenham was still only 329 in 1901, but enough of them were influential enough to lobby successfully for a halt on the Metropolitan Railway. This opened in 1905 and soon began to transform the area’s fortunes. In 1922, much of Swakeleys was sold off for housing, and other largely private developments soon followed, transforming the village into the ‘desirable’ commuter suburb it is today, with a population of over 10,000. The 20th century also saw a growing military and aviation presence in the area: Northolt Aerodrome, later RAF Northolt, was built on farmland to the east in 1915, and a military station and depot, RAF West Ruislip, was built closer to the village two years later.

The Trail connects Ickenham’s two historic commons. The first is Ickenham Marsh, a low-lying area of wetland, meadow and secondary woodland beside the Yeading Brook. By 1892, the Marsh had become severely overgrazed by commoners’ cattle and the Parish council attempted to gain closer control, originally through a court case. When that failed, the council took out a lease from the manor and it’s been public land since 1906, now wholly owned by Hillingdon.

Some commoners were still exercising their traditional grazing rights on it up until the early 1960s, and grazing has recently been reintroduced by the London Wildlife Trust, which has managed the site since 1987. The marsh had a narrow escape: in 1970, the Greater London Council proposed it as a potential site for a major new UK exhibition, conference and performance venue, the need for which had been identified by the government. Vociferous local protest saw off the plans, and the National Exhibition Centre ended up in Birmingham, where it now occupies an area of over 2.5 km2.

It’s in Ickenham Marsh that the Hillingdon Trail finally parts company with the Yeading Brook, the course of which curves eastwards to run along the northern perimeter of RAF Northolt, just on the other side of the marsh. This was developed on the former farmland of Hill Farm in 1916 as a training school for the Royal Flying Corps, predecessor of the Royal Air Force (RAF). During World War II it was an active base for both the RAF and the Polish Air Force – the Polish war memorial stands on its southeast corner, some way off the route.

After the war, it served as an interim civilian airport for London during the construction of Heathrow. It’s still an active RAF base, in fact the main air force base in London following recent consolidation, and has the longest history of continuous air force use of any location in the UK, but it’s increasingly used by civilian aircraft too and hosts other organisations like St John Ambulance.

The Trail follows Austins Lane, an old lane that has long linked the marsh and the village, which begins as a track, but it’s not long before the first suburban housing appears. If you’re breaking the walk at Ickenham station, the easiest way is through these streets. Our old friend the Canal Feeder now runs to the right of the lane, occasionally visible through the hedge. The patch of grass and trees on the left is part of the grounds of Ickenham Hall, formerly the manor house of Ickenham Manor, rebuilt in 1740 as a red brick mansion. It’s been council-owned since 1947 and used mainly as an arts and youth centre and visitor attraction: a youth theatre was built next door in 1968 and now operates as the Compass Theatre. You could also wander to the station across the grass and past the hall though the route is a little indirect.

Austins Lane crosses the railway that spurred the suburbanisation of the neighbourhood. It began operations in 1904 as part of the Metropolitan Railway’s extension from Harrow-on-the-Hill to Uxbridge, the result of a deal with arch rival the Metropolitan and District Railway which had authorisation to build the route but lacked the finance. As part of the deal, the District had running rights through on its own line from Earls Court and Hammersmith via South Harrow, and still today this stretch of railway is part of both the District Line and Piccadilly Line. Originally, steam trains ran through Ickenham without stopping, but as previously noted local pressure resulted in the opening of a what was originally a simple wooden-platformed halt on the site of today’s Ickenham Station in 1905, and electric trains began running the same year.

Church Place, Ickenham, with 17th century barn left.
Just after passing a listed 17th century thatched barn behind the fence on the left, Austins Lane reaches High Road, the continuation of Long Lane, just a little to the north of the village centre. It’s worth a slight detour to admire the remaining cluster of historic structures, including St Giles Church, the 16th century Coach and Horses pub, the mediaeval Home Farmhouse, the village pond and perhaps the most famous landmark, the 1866 water pump, now on a traffic island in the middle of the road. With its elaborate octagonal Gothic canopy, the pump was a legacy of local resident Charlotte Gell, who also made several other philanthropic endowments to the village.

The Trail heads in the opposite direction, still following the Feeder alongside High Road on the right. Housing developments on the other side of it now cover the area of RAF West Ruislip, originally farmland which became a Royal Flying Corps depot in 1917, extending both sides of the railway through West Ruislip. It was later used as a military store and an RAF maintenance depot. In 1955, it was occupied by the US Air Force and from 1975 by the US Navy. In the late 1980s part of the site was redeveloped as the residential Brackenbury Village. The Stars and Stripes was finally lowered at West Ruislip in 2006 and the rest of the site is now housing too.

Incidentally, most of RAF West Ruislip was in Ickenham, not strictly in Ruislip which was a different parish to the northeast. Similarly, RAF Northolt isn’t entirely in Northolt, which was also a separate parish, and now part of the London Borough of Ealing. Sensibly, RAF bases were usually named after the nearest rail station. Today there are stations closer to RAF Northolt than Northolt but these didn’t exist when the base opened.

You could continue directly to West Ruislip station along the High Road, but I recommend following the Trail a little further through Ickenham Green, a remnant of the second area of common land in the parish. Although it’s been partially encroached, the Green still retains its strip-like shape, stretching northwest from the High Road – ultimately it reaches the river Pinn although the Trail doesn’t venture that far. One of the encroachments, unusually, was the work of local paupers who claimed part of it for gardens, and remained there unchallenged long enough to claim squatters’ rights. It’s been public open space since 1906 when the lord of Swakeleys manor granted it to the parish council, and Ickenham Cricket Club has occupied a square of it since 1950.

Across Ickenham Green. Squatting paupers not shown.

The Trail crosses the Canal Feeder and continues through some pleasant woodland, turning right at the cricket ground and emerging in a street of genteel interwar bungalows. From here it rejoins the Feeder under the Chiltern railway and across Ruislip golf course, but that’s a walk for another day.

West Ruislip

The area now known as West Ruislip was once a hamlet known as Kings End in the far south of the old Middlesex parish of Ruislip, of which I’ll say more in the next section. The original parish boundary was obscured by developments such as the bungalows, the golf course and RAF West Ruislip. It would have crossed the High Road a little southwest of the railway bridge but was later realigned to follow the railway. The High Road approaching the bridge now is a typical interwar suburban shopping parade, all mock-Tudor retail units with flats above.

The railway was opened in 1906 as the Great Western and Great Central Joint Railway (GW&GCJR) between Ashendon Junction in Buckinghamshire via High Wycombe to Northolt. From here, the Great Western Railway (GWR) built a link known as the New North Main Line to its existing main line at Old Oak Common, and the Great Central Railway (GCR) built a link via Wembley to Neasden and its line into Marylebone. The GCR was a Sheffield-based railway company with aspirations to operate a main line into London, and in the late 1890s it worked in partnership with the Metropolitan Railway.

As described when I visited Great Missenden on the London Countryway section 7, the Met, which had begun as the founder of London’s Underground system, also had main line ambitions, and already ran deep into Buckinghamshire at Quainton Road. Originally the GCR’s main line services were planned to access Met tracks here, but it was a challenge to slot these services between frequent local trains. When relations between the GCR and the Met broke down, the GCR formed a joint venture with the GWR to build an alternative route, which became the last main line to be built into London until High Speed 1 in 2007.

West Ruislip was one of the original stations along the line, originally known as Ruislip and Ickenham. Then, following the creation of the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB), one of the forerunners of today’s Transport for London (TfL), in 1933, major plans for the expansion of the Underground were drawn up. They included extensions at each end of the Central Line, which by then ran alongside the GWR at its western end to terminate at Ealing Broadway.

Work was interrupted by World War II but by 1948 a new branch of the Central Line had opened from near North Acton, running alongside the GWR’s New North Main Line to Northolt then alongside the joint line to West Ruislip. The original plan had been to continue the Central Line out to Denham, but as the creation of the post-war Green Belt had now protected that area from further development, the project was cut short at West Ruislip. The next stop west would have been a new station at Harvil Road.

There have also been changes to the way main line trains operate along this stretch of line. Today the New North Main Line is rarely used for its original purpose to get Paddington trains to and from Birmingham, and its local function has been taken over by the Central Line. The line to and from Marylebone had become something of a Cinderella service by the 1980s, and the London terminus almost closed, but since the 1990s it has flourished under the Chiltern Railways banner. While most Chiltern stopping trains from here only go as far as Gerrards Cross, regular expresses once again pass through on their way to Britain’s second city, as well as to Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon.

West Ruislip station.

Original sections

The Hillingdon council route cards for this section are divided as follows:

1. Cranford Park. This covers the 2.5 km Southern Link and the first very short section of the Trail proper, 1.8 km from Cranford Park car park to Bulls Bridge. As explained above, the Link and the Trail here follow a very similar route to the London Loop, but it’s slightly more roundabout.

2. Hayes Towpath. This follows the Grand Union Canal Paddington Arm towpath to Spikes Bridge then the Yeading Brook green corridor to Yeading Lane, a total of 4.2 km. You can also start this section from Hayes & Harlington, an additional 1.2 km.

3. Yeading Valley. This section is entirely along the Yeading Brook green corridor, including the various nature reserves, and ends at the end of Windsor Avenue in North Hillingdon, a total of 5.6 km.

4. Ickenham Marsh. The Trail continues along the Yeading Valley as far as Ickenham Marsh then heads into Ickenham, where I’ve decided to break my description at the point where the Canal Feeder crosses The Greenway. The distance to here is 3.2 km and the section has 2.9 km still to run to the bus stops by Ruislip Lido. The link from The Greenway to West Ruislip station is about 500 m.


DodgyKnee said...


I found your site when researching the Hillingdon Trail.

I thought it'd be a quick lunchtime read but the depth of local history you provide is incredible.

In the end, with bing/OS map at hand, it took me a week to absorb it all.

When I finally do walk the route your research will enrich my experience ten fold.

Many thanks


Des de Moor said...

Hi Mike and glad you found it useful. Yes I have indulged myself a bit in the level of detail -- which is why I don't post very often! Please do walk the route, it's well worth it. My post on Part 2 of the route is also now online.