Tuesday 29 August 2017

Hillingdon Trail 2: West Ruislip - Harefield - Rickmansworth

Ruislip Lido: half-close your eyes and you might be in Switzerland...

This second part of the Hillingdon Trail is arguably even more attractive than the first part, including a lengthy walk through Ruislip Woods National Nature Reserve and a section through the Colne Valley Regional Park, with wide views over the valley itself. You can rejoin the London Loop at Harefield West, or continue to the picturesque end point of the trail at Springwell Lock on the Grand Union Canal, with the option of catching the Tube home from Rickmansworth.

There are other options to split the walk using buses, though no convenient public transport for almost 6 km through Ruislip Woods. For more about the background to the Trail and advice on walking it as an alternative to the London Loop or in its own right, see my introduction to the first section. I’ve explained how my description here fits with the official description published by Hillingdon council at the end of the post.


River Pinn from Clack Bridge, Ruislip: the right bank was once the responsibility of Kings College, Cambridge.

To me the name Ruislip will be forever associated with the 1974 comic novel Tropic of Ruislip by Leslie Thomas, best known as the author of The Virgin Soldiers. For Thomas, Ruislip was the ideal backdrop for his satirical take on the pretensions of social mobility and the hypocrisies of suburban sexual infidelity. But although he included references to actual locations, like the Breakspear Crematorium, the fictitious Plummers Park estate where most of the action takes place is more likely to have been based on Carpenders Park, northeast of here between Harrow and Bushey and on London Loop section 15. The estate in the novel stands just across from a large council estate, from which the residents sharply distinguish themselves – which sounds like the traditional relationship between Carpenders Park and the adjoining South Oxhey estate, originally built as social housing.

Even so, the description might ring a bell with walkers in this and other similar London suburbs. Plummers Park, according to Thomas, was:
…in the country but not of it. The fields seemed almost touchable and yet remote. Wild roses bloomed and blew in seclusion just out of reach; rooks and flashing magpies in elm and rowan were merely distant birds in distant trees; the fox and the rabbit went unseen from the human windows…When [the estate] was built some trees were permitted to remain like unhappy captives spared because they are old. They remained in clusters, sometimes embedded in garden walls as selling points for house-buyers desiring fresh air, twigs, greenness and autumn acorns for their children. It was rumoured that the builders had a mechanical squirrel which ran up trees to delight, deceive and decide prospective purchasers…

The streets had, with commercial coyness, retained the sometimes embarrassing names of the various pastures and fields that now lay beneath concrete, crazy paving and statutory roses. Cowacre, Upmeadow, Risingfield, Sheep-Dip, The Sluice, and Bucket Way…Husbands polished cars; wives polished windows or fingernails. On summer and autumn evenings sunset gardeners burned leaves and rubbish, the smoke climbing like a silent plea for deliverance that forever went unanswered.
The inspiration of Carpenders Park also explains why Thomas refers to his fictitious estate as in Hertfordshire, which the real Ruislip certainly isn’t. Historically, it’s a Middlesex parish, which in the early 11th century belonged to Wilward Wit, a thegn of Edward the Confessor. Its name likely means ‘rush-leap’, perhaps referring to a place on the river Pinn where rushes grew and fish leapt. It’s recorded in the Domesday survey, and after the Norman Conquest was given to Notre-Dame du Bec, a Benedictine abbey in Le Bec Hellouin, Normandy. In 1211, as England separated politically from Normandy, it was sequestrated and passed through several noble hands, until 1441 when it was granted by King Henry VI to the college he had just founded in Cambridge, known today as Kings College.

Much of the land in Ruislip stayed under college ownership until well into the 20th century, although substantial portions were leased to private incumbents. This changed after 1904 when Ruislip station opened on the Uxbridge branch of the Metropolitan Railway, and the college began to parcel up and sell off its land for housing. The fact that the subsequent development was a little better-managed than in some similar locations partly accounts for Ruislip’s ‘desirability’, and was a result of the foresight shown by members of the parish council. In 1903, noting the imminent arrival of the railway and the plans of the college to profit from it, the council successfully petitioned to become an Urban District so it would be better placed to coordinate the changes and limit the potential damage.

The District then became something of a pioneer in urban planning, a task made much easier by the unified ownership of most of the land up for grabs. Working in partnership with Kings College and a builder selected following a competition, and in consultation with residents, it produced a first master plan in 1914. Had this been implemented it would have resulted in the destruction of much of the green space and historic buildings, but it was held up by World War I.

Changing opinion after the war, including an intervention from the Royal Society of Arts, secured much of the heritage enjoyed today, which was then further protected by the tighter planning regime, including the Green Belt, after World War II. The new Ruislip was, and is, almost exclusively a commuter settlement, with very little local industry, although the nearby military presence at Northolt and, to a lesser extent, West Ruislip (as discussed in the previous section) also applied pressure on local housing

The river Pinn and Cannon Brook

The Grand Union Canal Feeder enters Ruislip under the Chiltern Main Line.
The rather gloomy pedestrian route is through the left arch.
The Trail enters Ruislip by following a footpath alongside the Grand Union Canal Feeder, here with quite a healthy flow of water, under the Chiltern Main Line railway. The Feeder has been shadowing the Trail since Southall and is now not far from its source – I’ve said more about it and the railway in the previous section.

Beyond the railway is Ruislip golf course – refreshingly in these outer suburbs, the only golf course crossed by the Trail. It’s a council-owned course on some of the land conserved for recreation under the original development plans and has been open since 1922. The Trail continues across it alongside the Feeder for a while and soon you can see evidence of the farmland it was moulded from, in the form of old hedgerows.

Then you’re on Clack Lane, an old lane that’s now a footpath. This was part of a route to Kings End from Newyears Green, a hamlet closer to Harefield. It takes you northwards to Clack Bridge on the river Pinn, where there has been a crossing since at least mediaeval times.

The Pinn flows for around 19 km from a source on Harrow Weald Common, on the slopes just below the Old Redding viewpoint visited on London Loop section 15. From there it runs roughly southwest through Pinner and Eastcote to Ruislip, then turns south past Ickenham and the west of Hillingdon village, to a confluence with the Frays river near Yiewsley, so ultimately flowing into the Colne near West Drayton. It was formerly known as the Ruislip Stream, and its current name is a back-formation from Pinner.

As often in London, the riversides have generally been kept clear of development, but in this case the arrangement has something of a history. When the land around Ruislip was inclosed in 1804, the lord of the manor, who held a lease from the college, insisted on a right of way three feet (0.9 m) on both banks so that he and his servants could continue to fish. Today Hillingdon council maintains a 19 km walking trail, the Celandine Route, largely along the Pinn and Frays rivers from Pinner to Cowley where it connects with the Grand Union Canal Walk, and via that to the London Loop heading southeast. Much of the river upstream of Pinner into Harrow borough is also walkable and I’ll explore it in a future post.

Following the Celandine route east from here will take you past the aqueduct where the Feeder crosses the Pinn to the old village centre of Ruislip, which is some distance off the Trail, but might merit exploration on another day. Several historic buildings have been preserved, including houses and shops arranged around a village square with a water pump, and the recently restored buildings of Manor Farm, including a large 13th century barn. You could perhaps find your own way back onto the route via Park Wood.

A little upstream of Clack Bridge, the Pinn is joined by a tributary known as the Cannon Brook, which rises on the slopes of Duck Hill above Ruislip and flows in a westward-facing bow to the confluence here. The Canal Feeder tracks its valley, with good reason as we’ll soon see, and from Old Clack Farm at a main junction of the lane, we’ll either follow the Feeder or the Brook, both of which have left green ribbons through the houses.

The land to the north of the Pinn here was originally a separate manor within the parish, known as St Catherine’s or Little Manor. This was gifted separately after the Conquest to another Norman abbey, Abbaye Sainte-Catherine du Mont in Rouen, which also held the manor of Harmondsworth, and the two shared the same ownership for several centuries. St Catherine’s was linked to another small manor south of Ruislip village, known as Southcote, and Clack Bridge was once the joint responsibility of the lord of Southcote Manor and Kings College. The manor was broken up in the late 19th century into smaller farms, and you’ll walk through a few fragments that still retain a rural feel. But the northern part of it was one of the sections of Ruislip developed by the Urban District as council housing in the 1950s and 1960s, and it’s through this that the Trail now threads.

You’ll see the Feeder again with its distinctive miniature brick overbridges alongside the path past the playing fields of Whiteheath School. Then you cross a bridge over the Cannon Brook on Ladygate Lane, and follow residential drives to Howletts Lane, where a typical 1960s housing estate shopping centre stands beside the path. Beyond it is a more open green strip with grassy patches and shady willows: the Trail here more-or-less follows the route of the Feeder, which has been filled in, and the more meandering course of the Brook is over to your right. This path delivers you to a roundabout at the junction of Breakspear Road and Bury Street, the latter an ancient north-south route through the parish.

Leslie Thomas is one of several writers who assume the Breakspear Crematorium nearby is named after Nicholas Breakspear (c1100-59), who as Adrian IV became the only English-born pope to date. In fact, it’s a reference to William Breakspear, who owned an estate to the north in Harefield parish in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. A little south along Brakspear Road stands a pub known as the Breakspear Arms, at the junction with Breakspear Road South, an old north-south route linking Uxbridge and Rickmansworth and originally known as Harefield Lane. The pub was rebuilt in the 1970s and is now an Indian restaurant, but there was a pub on the spot for at least a century before that. It’s likely the road names echoed the pub and the crematorium echoed the road.

The preponderance of Breakspear names locally has helped generate a local legend that the papal Breakspear was born nearby, but there’s much better evidence that his birthplace was in Bedmond, Hertfordshire, not far from London Countryway section 10.

Ruislip Lido and Woods

The dappled surroundings of Copse Wood, with hornbeam coppices.

Of the numerous surprising sights to be seen along the walking trails of London, Ruislip Lido is one of the most un-Londonlike. With its concrete surrounds, it’s obviously artificial but if you half-close your eyes, the 24 ha expanse of water with its sandy beach at the foot of a thickly wooded hillside could almost be in Switzerland. Today it’s a flourishing leisure facility almost surrounded by a National Nature Reserve, with a waterside pub and café, boating and swimming facilities. But it was created with the much more practical purpose of topping up the Grand Union Canal, some 11 km away (discussed in more detail in the previous section and in London Loop section 11), to which it was connected by the Canal Feeder.

The canal was only recently opened when in 1804 Kings College began to inclose its lands at Ruislip. To help finance this, the college sold a portion along the valley of the Cannon Brook to what was then the Grand Junction Canal Company for the construction of a feeder reservoir. As often with reservoirs, this necessitated the inundation of an existing settlement, Park Hearne, amid the woodland of Park Wood. It’s not known what happened to the displaced inhabitants, but there’s a local story that they had to be evicted by the militia. By the end of 1811, the stream had been dammed and the valley was filling with water.

As mentioned in the previous section, the system never worked very well, and was taken out of service in 1851. The reservoir remained in canal company ownership and became something of a white elephant. Then in the period between the wars, with a growing local population and increasing numbers of leisure visitors to the area, the company realised it might generate an alternative income. In 1933, it was reopened as Ruislip Lido, complete with an art deco building housing changing rooms and café, a swimming area and boating facilities. A miniature railway was added in 1945.

Most of the canal companies were included in the post-war nationalisation of transport, and the site was inherited by the British Transport Board, which didn’t see itself as an operator of leisure facilities. In 1951, the Board sold the Lido to Ruislip Urban District Council, which by now also owned much of the surrounding woodland. Leisure use flourished into the 1970s, when the site attracted visitors from all over London. It soon boasted a sailing base, and a water skiing club with action-loving Doctor Who actor Jon Pertwee among its members, adding celebrity appeal to regular tournaments. It was used to stage the sinking of the Titanic for the film A Night to Remember (Roy Ward Baker 1958) and featured in Cliff Richard vehicle The Young Ones (Sidney J Furie 1961).

The Lido then entered a more troubled period, triggered by current owners Hillingdon council hiking the admission charges. In 1991, it was leased to a private management company, but this venture failed after two years, not helped by the lowering of the water level to reduce the risk of flooding, which made sailing and water skiing impractical. The situation reached a low point in 1993 when arsonists burnt down the main building. The Lido’s fortunes have steadily improved since then, with the opening of the successful Water’s Edge pub-restaurant, which provided enough income to restore the beach and boathouse and provide a watersplash pool. The lake is still out of bounds to swimmers for health reasons, though there’s an aspiration to change this too.

At the point where the Trail reaches the corner of the reservoir, you can see the original dam, on which the refreshment kiosk and boathouse now stand, roughly at right angles to Reservoir Road. The water originally reached the dam itself, but since the level was reduced, a grassy margin separates it from the water’s edge. This has revealed the intake for the feeder, visible behind a grille underneath the dam in the southwest corner.

Further along at the end of Reservoir Road, a short diversion from the Trail leads to Willow Lawn station at one end of the Ruislip Lido Railway, now the longest 12” (305 mm) gauge railway in the UK. When first opened in 1945 it was much shorter, running from close to the beach in the southeast corner northwards along the eastern lakeside. Following an accident in 1978 it was almost closed permanently, but volunteers formed the Ruislip Lido Railway Society to keep it going, and the society eventually took over its operation.

The rails were extended to Haste Hill on the northeast corner of the lake in 1990 and on around the lake to the current terminus in 1998, where there’s a turntable to switch the direction of the locomotives. The railway operates daily during school holidays and at weekends for the rest of the year, and even boasts a steam loco, Mad Bess, built onsite by volunteers in the late 1980s.

Path through the delightfully named Mad Bess Wood.
Things get even better as the Trail enters the 294 ha Ruislip Woods National Nature Reserve (NNR; see also the Ruislip Woods Trust website) through a gate into Poors Field. The woodland here, like most of the surrounding parts of London, was once part of the great Forest of Middlesex (see for example the discussion of Enfield Chase on London Loop section 17). Not all the area has been continually wooded since then – parts of it are known to have been cleared by grazing, followed by regrowth as secondary woodland when this ceased, and there are some deliberate plantations. But much of the NNR is ancient woodland which has been in existence since at least Tudor times and likely much longer.

Indeed, it’s the largest block of ancient semi-natural woodland in Greater London, and constitutes one third of the remaining tree cover in the former county of Middlesex. Most of it is coppiced hornbeam with standards of penduculate oak (Quercus robur) growing on London clay, but there are sections of sandier soil dominated by sessile oak (Q. petraea). You’ll also find birch, alder and areas of scrub and acid and neutral grassland.

There are four distinct but adjacent woods, and the Trail runs through three of them. The one it avoids is Park Wood to the southeast, on the other side of the lido. This was originally attached directly to the manor, and included some of the parish common land, still known as Ruislip Common. Poors Field was another part of the common, and has been conserved as rough meadowland, but you’re soon climbing into Copse Wood, and further on are Mad Bess Wood and Bayhurst Wood.

As mentioned several times in London Underfoot, nearly all of Britain was once covered in woodland, most of which was gradually cleared for agriculture from the Bronze Age onwards (see London Countryway section 12). There were three main reasons to keep woodland: for sticks and timber, as rough grazing particularly for pigs, and to support game for hunting. All these uses are evident at Ruislip Woods. Coppicing the hornbeams by cutting them back to the stool every 20 years or so produced a ready supply of sticks for purposes like fencing, furniture and vehicle making, while the tall oaks yielded sturdy timbers for use in construction and shipbuilding. Ruislip timber helped build the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Westminster, as well as the nearby barns on Manor Farm.

At the time of the Domesday survey the woods provided a home to 1,500 pigs, and there was also a parcus ferarum or park for wild beasts. Probably the main reason such large woods survived into modern times, though, was their geography. They stood on the high ground between the valleys of the Pinn and the Colne, rising to 90 m in Copse Wood, their soils poor for intensive agriculture and their terrain discouraging for settlement.

By the time urban development resumed in Ruislip after World War I, the amenity value of the woods was gaining greater recognition. The same railway line that threatened to engulf the area with commuter homes also brought visitors seeking a green escape from the city, and the woods became a popular destination for walking and other outdoor recreation. In 1931, Ruislip Urban District Council bought Park Wood from Kings College for £28,100. Originally the college had planned simply to gift the wood, but found it was legally obliged to demand market rates for property it disposed of. The council turned for support to Middlesex County Council, which contributed 75% of the cost, on the not unreasonable basis that most visitors to the site would be from outwith the district.

In 1936, the County Council bought Copse Wood and Mad Bess Wood jointly with the London County Council, another indication the woods were considered of more than local interest, and in 1950 nearly all the woodland was designated a Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI). In 1959, a small portion to the north of the lido near Haste Hill, and off our route, became a Local Nature Reserve, and in 1982 Hillingdon council, which now owned all the woods, began managing them as a single entity under a plan that aimed to restore traditional coppicing, grazing on open grasslands and even charcoal burning. Finally, in 1997 the whole complex was designated a National Nature Reserve (NNR), the first such designation in London and the first in an urban area anywhere in the country, later followed by Richmond Park NNR on the Capital Ring.

Copse Wood was formerly known as the Great Wood of Ruislip and was much bigger: 348 ha in 1565, reduced to 134 ha by 1853. Just to the south of the wood, and the left of the Trail, you’ll pass a more open, scrubby area: this is the site of Battle of Britain House, a mansion built in 1905. During World War II the US Army used it as a spy school. Following an unsuccessful attempt to acquire it as part of an RAF memorial scheme after the war, it became a youth centre, though was renamed in line with the original memorial proposal. It later housed the Ruislip and District Local History Society, but was burned down in 1984. The ruins and garden are gradually becoming overgrown but there’s still a fine view from the site across the Lido.

The Trail crosses Ducks Hill Road, a continuation of Bury Street, into Mad Bess Wood. There’s no obvious explanation for the evocative name, which is first recorded in 1769. The woodland was once part of Westwood Common in the separate manor of St Catherine’s mentioned below, and was once more open than today: only 37 ha of its present 56 ha were wooded in 1587, which might explain why the area to the west of the Trail as you enter the woodland is known as Young Wood. The wood is likely the site of the hunting park mentioned in the Domesday survey: the bulge in the line of Breakspear Road North, to the west of the wood, suggests that it was built to circumnavigate a park pale or fence.

Across Breakspear Road North is the westernmost portion of the NNR, Bayhurst Wood. This has a separate history from the rest of Ruislip Woods as it isn’t historically in Ruislip but in the parish of Harefield: the boundary followed the road. Harefield was held before the conquest by Countess Goda, and passed through several Norman hands until the 1180s when the part of it containing the wood was separated out as the Manor of Moorhall, and given by owner Beatrice de Bollers to the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, the religious order that gave rise to St John Ambulance. It’s not clear if the Hospitallers ever occupied the manor themselves or rented it out.

Ownership passed to the Crown following the Dissolution in 1542 and between 1553 and 1877 it was owned by the Newdigate family, who annexed it to their Harefield Place estate. In 1934, the wood was one of numerous parcels of land bought by Middlesex County Council to conserve as green belt, and when the county was abolished in 1965 passed to the Greater London Council (GLC), who managed it as Bayhurst Woods Country Park. When the GLC was in turn abolished in 1986, the boroughs took on most of its green spaces, and Hillingdon began managing Bayhurst as part and parcel of Ruislip Woods. Following the creation of the NNR, the Country Park designation was officially dropped, though is still used locally. The wood also represents the Trail’s entry into the wider area of the Colne Valley Park, introduced in London Loop section 11.

The open fields of the Colne Valley beyond the trees of Bayhurst Wood.

Bayhurst has a different aspect to the rest of Ruislip Woods, with more sessile oak as well as birch, beech, alder and aspen. In 2008, a 2 km perimeter cycle path was added, also open to walkers and known as the David Brough Cycle Trail. Unusually it honours a living person: Brough is well-known locally as the former head of democratic services at the council and the chair of Hayes Town Partnership. Following the cycle trail is now an option for Hillingdon Trail walkers: it’s more direct and more accessible. The traditional route doglegs deeper into the woods, offering a more immersive green experience, but includes quite a steep climb.

There’s one last fragment of the NNR over on your right: Tarletons Lake, a serene old pond surrounded by swampy grassland and woodland which was previously managed as a Local Nature Reserve by London Wildlife Trust but is now back under council control. As the Hillingdon Trail’s exit from this very special place, it certainly provides a contrast to Ruislip Lido at its entrance.


Harefield Church just visible through the mature trees in its churchyard.

I’ve written a bit more about Harefield under LondonLoop section 12, but the Hillingdon Trail will give you more of a rounded view of this old northwest Middlesex parish. Leaving the NNR you’ll find yourself walking through some of London’s genuine countryside, today largely under public ownership as part of the Green Belt. On the right is Middle Lodge, one of the lodges of Breakspear House, and you might catch a glimpse of the house itself through the trees.

This was the nucleus of the Breakspears estate that once belonged to the non-papal Breakspear I discussed above. The Grade I-listed house was rebuilt in the mid-17th century and has recently been converted to flats. The area to the left may well have been part of the old park attached to the original Harefield manor house, until 1786 when the latter moved to Harefield Lodge further south. Across the fields you can see Park Lodge Farm, which is still operated as a commercial farm and includes a Grade II-listed 18th century farmhouse. The path you join through a rather damp woodland is known as Breakspear’s Path: the Breakspears and their servants would have walked to church this way.

You’re soon completing their journey alongside the churchyard wall of St Mary’s church, the oldest building in Harefield. As mentioned in my earlier piece on the Loop, it’s some way outside the village to the south, perhaps because for many centuries it was more a manorial than a parish church: for at least some of its history, the manor house was next door. It was a ‘private peculiar’ until 1847 and didn’t become a parish church until 1898.

Inside are numerous lavish monuments to people connected to the lords of the manor, including one by Grinling Gibbons to Mary Newdigate who died in 1692. It’s likely there was a church on the site in Saxon times, but the oldest extant part is a patch of 12th century masonry in the west wall of the nave. There’s a 13th century lancet window in the exterior north wall, the nave is 14th century and the tower 16th, with the oldest bell dated 1629, though there are the inevitable Victorian rearrangements.

If you wander in the churchyard, you’re sure to notice the Commonwealth War Graves, and in particular a large group with unusual (in fact unique) scroll designs surrounding an obelisk commemorating Australian victims of World War I. The Australian presence here is not only testimony to the international carnage inflicted by that war, but is also a clue to the early history of Harefield’s best-known institution, Harefield Hospital, the specialist heart and lung hospital to the north of the village.

In 1914, the future hospital site was occupied by a mansion known as Harefield Park House, home to a wealthy Australian couple, the Billyard-Leakes. When war broke out, they offered the use of the house and grounds to the Australian Ministry of Defence as a convalescent home for wounded servicemen. It became the No 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital, the only entirely Australian war hospital in England. By October 1916 it had 960 patients accommodated in over 50 buildings, and even published its own magazine, the Harefield Park Boomerang.

Inevitably some of the wounded didn’t make it, and over 100 of these are now buried here, commemorated in headstones designed by the patients and staff. When the hospital closed in 1919, the site remained in medical use, initially as a tuberculosis sanatorium, and eventually evolved into the renowned specialist facility of today.

Countess of Derby almshouses, Harefield.
The Trail now climbs Church Hill towards the village, passing several historic buildings. The red brick Tudor almshouses with their fairytale chimneys on the right were endowed by Alice Spencer, Countess of Derby, lady of the manor in the early 17th century. She’s known to have entertained Elizabeth I at the manor house, and is memorialised in the church. The former White Horse pub on the left, a private home since 2010, is largely late 17th century.

The Trail then turns off along Bird Lane, an old track beside an ivy-clad 17th century cottage, but the village centre is not much further along the High Street, with its shops, cafés and pubs arranged around a large green.

You’re soon walking alongside hedgerows again, soon with views towards the Colne valley. Off to the left is a little-known Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Harefield Pit, which isn’t open to the public. The interest here is geological: it’s a former chalk pit where digging has revealed several layers of London’s geology, with chalk below gravelly Reading Beds laced with tiny fossils of algae, topped off with London clay.  You cross the end of a drive that leads up to a splendidly sited posh pub-restaurant, the Old Orchard, well worth a visit, before descending through a meadow into the valley, with the Grand Union Canal visible ahead.

The Trail arrives within a few metres of Black Jacks Lock, with Black Jacks Mill, mentioned in London Loop section 12, on the towpath side. The Loop and the Grand Union Canal Walk share the towpath, but the Hillingdon Trail doesn’t join them quite yet, preferring to stay on Jacks Lane on the east side of the canal. This is also the route of the Colne Valley Trail, which runs north-south through the park from Staines-upon-Thames to Rickmansworth. The lane runs along the foot of Coppermill Meadow, also known as Mount Pleasant, an unusual outcrop of chalk grassland, part of the Mid-Colne Valley SSSI. Unlike Harefield Pit, it’s openly accessible to the public.

View across the Colne Valley from the meadows west of Harefield.

The Trail and the Loop finally reunite at the bottom of Summerhouse Lane in Harefield West, by the new development around Coppermill Lock. A short step away is the bus stop that serves as the transport interchange for section 12 of the Loop, so you could break your walk here, and simply pick up section 13 of the Loop next time around, disregarding the final short section of the Trail. Both share the same paths for 1.4 km, running through Old Park Wood to the hamlet of Hill End, discussed in my post on Loop 13. From here the Loop is additionally signed as the Hillingdon Trail Northern Link as far as Woodcock Hill: when the Trail was first created, the intention was to link it with the Loop in the north but it wasn’t yet clear which way the latter would be going. But there’s a bit more of the Trail proper still to go, and it’s well worth walking.


Across the fields at Hill End, on the original route of Springwell Lane.

Leaving the Loop, which heads to Batchworth Heath and Moor Park, the Hillingdon Trail continues through Hill End, temporarily leaving Springwell Lane to follow a path across fields. Looking at the map, it’s clear the lane originally continued ahead along the line of the path here, but when it became part of the modern road network, it was diverted via Cripps House Farm.

You take a farm track past Springwell Farm, which bends down to join another running parallel to the valley, carrying the Colne Valley Trail which has taken a more direct route from Harefield West. The view from here across the valley with its numerous lakes is impressive, and you might even be able to see the Chiltern hills in the distance. Beneath, alongside the canal, is the boatyard of Wood Hall & Heward, which builds workboats, tugs and barges for use on inland waterways. Even more prominent is Thames Water’s Maple Lodge sewage treatment works, a massive site opened in 1950 that discharges its purified water into the canal.

Springwell Lock near Harefield.

And so the Hillingdon Trail ends on the Grand Union Canal in the picturesque location of Spingwell Lock, number 83. A narrow bridge crosses the canal by the lock, and there’s a lock keeper’s cottage alongside a scattering of other buildings, forming an attractive group: none are individually listed but they form a designated Conservation Area. The bridge and a disused quarry just to the northeast featured in 1974 Doctor Who story ‘The Three Doctors’. You’re in one of London’s furthest-flung corners here, in the extreme northwest of Hillingdon borough, and only a step away from Hertfordshire.

There’s a bus stop with a decent service into Rickmansworth about a kilometre away on the A412 near Maple Cross, though this is over the boundary so don’t expect to be able to use your Oyster card or contactless. To reach it you’ll need to stay on Springwell Lane, which takes you between Inns Lake and Springwell Lake and over the river Colne out of London by Mill End pumping station. Perhaps a more agreeable, if longer, option, is to continue to Rickmansworth on foot, where you can finish this London walk with a proper Tube ride home from Hertfordshire.


The Grand Union Canal leaves London at this old City of London coal tax marker, on the boundary between Hillingdon
and Rickmansworth. Photo looking towards London from the Hertfordshire side.

The best way to Rickmansworth is along the towpath, following the Grand Union Canal Walk and the Colne Valley Trail. You leave London just under 500 m along the canal from Springwell Bridge. The point is marked by a coal post – not one of the white cast iron posts typically found on roads, but a waist-height granite obelisk of a type used for canals and navigable rivers, one of only five remaining examples of the design. I’ve said a bit more about these curious posts under London Countryway 22. The inscription refers to the years of the reign of Queen Victoria when the Act of Parliament that required them to be installed was passed, 1851, and the relevant chapter.

You’re now in Hertfordshire, in the modern district of Three Rivers and the old parish of Rickmansworth, ‘Ryckmer’s stockade’. I’ve introduced the county under London Loop 13, while the parish was part of the extensive land in the area granted to St Albans Abbey by Offa, the 8th century ruler of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia. It remained in the possession of the abbey until the Dissolution in 1539. By this time, the nucleus of the parish had become a small town and an important local centre, with mills along the Colne, and in 1542 Henry VIII granted it a market charter. The opening of a station on the London and Birmingham railway in nearby Watford in 1838 abstracted much of the market trade, and the market hall was demolished in 1868.

By then the town had gained its own rail connection along a branch line to Watford. This stimulated some growth after it opened in 1862 but was never very successful: most of it was closed in the late 1950s and it’s now a cycle path. Far more significant was the arrival of the Metropolitan Railway at a competing station in the town, via an extension from Pinner in 1887. This triggered extensive residential development aimed at commuters, some of it carried out by the Met’s own property arm. Though excluded when London expanded in 1965, Rickmansworth today remains on the Tube and functions as a classic commuter suburb.

The next lock, Stockers Lock, number 82, is if anything even more picturesque. On the southwest end of the lock, at the foot of the steps leading up to the garden of Stockers House, is another coal post, although this time it’s the more familiar cast iron design. It seems anomalous here, beside the canal and some way outside the boundary. The explanation is that Stockers House was originally built in 1862 to house a City of London coal duty collector. It must have been much easier to strongarm the cash from boat operators held captive in the lock rather than at the actual boundary. The post initially stood in front of the house, but was moved here by the house’s occupant, no longer a City taxman, in 1964. As well as Stockers House and the coal post, several other structures round here are listed, including the lock cottage, the bridge, the lock itself and Stockers Farm on the other side of the canal.

Bury Lake, Rickmansworth Aquadrome, partly owes its existence to the old Wembley stadium.

The Trail turns away from the canal and winds through the watery landscape of Rickmansworth Aquadrome and Stockers Lake Local Nature Reserve (LNR) between the canal and the river Colne. Like much of the Colne Valley Park, the landscape here has been shaped by gravel extraction: this was the site of one of earliest large-scale gravel pits in the area, which opened in the 1920s and provided some of the construction materials for the original Wembley Stadium. The pits have since flooded naturally, creating inviting environments for water birds. The LNR supports over 60 species of breeding birds in summer, and in winter welcomes wigeon, goldeneye, shoveler and smew ducks migrating from Iceland and the Baltic. The site has been a public amenity since the 1970s and was designated an LNR in 1984.

There are actually four lakes arranged from southwest to northeast across the site. The smallest is Inns Lake in the southwest, which is on the other side of the Colne, bounded by Springwell Lane and within the Hillingdon boundary. Stockers Lake is next: this is the biggest, and its western part is also in Hillingdon. These two lakes are now owned by water company Affinity Water, although they’re managed by Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust. Then there’s Bury Lake and Batchworth Lake, managed by Three Rivers District Council as the 41 ha Aquadrome, which additionally includes formal parkland and woodland. Activities on offer include sailing, kayaking, water skiing, windsurfing and fishing.

The Colne Valley Trail runs briefly beside the eastern shore of Stockers Lake before turning along the southern bank of Bury Lake, passing the Bury Lake Young Mariners Base, home of a charity promoting sailing to young people that, unusually, has no paid staff. Then it turns north along the bank of Batchworth Lake. Finally, it crosses the river Colne (see London Loop section 11) and joins the road by the roundabout just west of Rickmansworth town centre, where it officially ends.

The Ebury Play Area just by the park gate is named after Robert Grosvenor, 1st Baron Ebury (1801-93), the local landowner behind the town’s first rail connection, the not-terribly-successful Watford and Rickmansworth Railway mentioned above. My suggested route to the station runs part of the way along Ebury Drive, which also commemorates him. In case you’re wondering, the original station was to the south of the town centre, near the church, but it’s now been demolished. The comparative success of the later Metropolitan Railway was partly due to its ‘Metro-Land’ strategy of creating its own demand: off our route, on the other side of the roundabout to the north of Uxbridge Road, is the Cedars Estate, developed by Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Ltd in the 1920s as part of this approach.

Rickmansworth station, landmark of Metro-Land.
If you follow my directions you’ll cross the High Street just shy of the centre of town, which clusters around the war memorial a little further east. There are some Victorian and earlier buildings here, and a modern library. But otherwise continue to the station, opened in 1887 and still preserving much of its original Met architecture. At first it was a terminus, then the line was extended to Chesham in 1889 and eventually got as far as Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire.

In 1925, the Metropolitan Railway was electrified as far as here, and the station remained the point where trains into Buckinghamshire changed from electric to steam traction until 1961, well into the London Underground era. Chiltern Railways trains between Aylesbury and London Marylebone still call, the successors to the Great Central Railway trains which began serving the station in 1899 under a rather bumpy partnership agreement with the Met. I’ve told a bit more of the story of these various railways in my commentary on Moor Park under Loop 13.

Before you depart Rickmansworth, you might recall its fate as a comic stereotype of middle class Metro-Land was sealed by the author and screenwriter Douglas Adams in the novel version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1978:
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Minutes later, the Earth was demolished by the Vogons to make way for a hyperspace bypass, and the secret of Life, the Universe and Everything was lost forever.

Original sections

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

4. Ickenham Marsh. The card covers 6.1 km overall, but the first part of the route, from North Hillingdon to The Greenway in West Ruislip, is included in the previous section. The link from West Ruislip station to the break point is 500 m, then it’s 2.9 km along the route to Ruislip Lido bus stops along the Cannon Brook and the Grand Union Canal Feeder.

5. Ruislip Woods. This is the most rural stretch of the Hillingdon Trail, from Ruislip Lido via Ruislip Woods National Nature Reserve to Harefield Church, a total of 5.7 km without transport. The most convenient bus stops are just a little further into the next section, along Church Hill.

6. Harefield Locks. This card includes a total of 5.3 km, the first 2.1 km part of which climbs Church Hill from Harefield Church, then descends to Black Jack’s Lock and continues parallel to the Grand Union Canal to the bottom of Summerhouse Lane in Harefield West. There the Hillingdon Trail meets up with London Loop and continues for 1.4 km to Hill End. The final part of the Trail is 1.76 km to Springwell Lock, though part of the Loop is also shown on the card as the Northern Link. My recommended links to the bus stop near Maple Cross (1 km) and to Rickmansworth station (2.8 km) aren’t shown on the card.