Tuesday 31 October 2017

London Loop 9 Alternative via Feltham Marshalling Yards

Piles of abandoned sleepers are one of the few reminders of what was once the UK's biggest rail siding:
Feltham Marshalling Yards

Here’s an alternative routing of London Loop section 9 that provides a greener and more direct way between Richmond and Hounslow boroughs. The official trail currently follows a longstanding provisional route, leaving the obvious line of the river Crane for a rather awkward detour via Hounslow Heath, including a longish road walk. The detour persists because the status of the old Feltham Marshalling Yards site which straddles the river is still not entirely resolved. But for some time now, an informal path closer to the river has usually been kept open, and although it’s not widely publicised, it’s well-known locally.

The official route has its virtues, particularly as it includes Hounslow Heath, an attractive and interesting reminder of what suburban west London looked like before it was covered with concrete. But getting there involves a dull slog along Hounslow Road, and the walk back to the Crane follows an irritating zigzag around a golf course. The alternative is not only entirely off-road, more logical and 1.3 km shorter, but includes a large overgrown area of considerable nature and industrial history interest and a brief taste of the fascinating Cavalry Tunnel. Do remember that it’s still strictly informal: access depends on three gates in substantial fences being left unlocked; the site can feel rather desolate and isolated; and the Cavalry Tunnel section, though very short, is unlit and unmaintained.

I’ve revised the existing London Loop route description for sections 9 and 10, Kingston upon Thames – Hatton Cross – Hayes (Hillingdon), to include details of both options, and you can read more about the places on the Feltham Marshalling Yards alternative below.

Pevensey Road Nature Reserve

The woodchip path through Pevensey Road Local Nature Reserve.

I’ve said more about the river Crane, one of the most substantial Thames tributaries in Greater London, in my commentary on London Loop section 9. Like many urban rivers it forms a green corridor, which the Loop first joins at Hospital Bridge, between Fulwell and Whitton. The trail follows the river through Crane Park, on the site of the old Hounslow Gunpowder Works, and past the famous Shot Tower to reach the main Hounslow Road at Hanworth. Here, the official Loop sets off northeast along the road to Hounslow Heath, but the observant walker will spot tempting damp woodlands across the road. On the east bank is an extension of Crane Park known as Little Park, but our route crosses the river to enter the space on the west bank.

The land adjacent to the river here was acquired by the old Middlesex County Council before World War II. Part of it was then allocated as the South West Middlesex Crematorium, controlled by its own statutory board made up of a partnership of local authorities. This opened in 1954 as part of the post-war proliferation of such municipal facilities – it was the 74th local authority crematorium to open in the UK since the war.

A margin of woodland, wetland and scrubby meadow surrounded the site on three sides: inherited by Hounslow council, this was included in the area designated the Pevensey Road Local Nature Reserve (LNR) in 1994, and is now partly maintained by The Conservation Volunteers. This southern section of the site is also known as Peter Cribb Park, dedicated to the late former superintendent of the crematorium, a keen naturalist who made a major contribution to the conservation of local green spaces.

The watercourses here are a legacy of the former gunpowder mills to the south: the river itself follows a managed course, while a parallel millstream, also labelled as the Crane on most contemporary maps, runs to the east. The trail crosses the river then tracks its western bank through the reserve on a recently improved woodchip path, although the water isn’t always easily visible through the trees. After a while you climb a sharp slope into a more open scrubby area, the site of the former Feltham Urban District Council sewage works, built in the 1920s but disused by the 1950s and now part of the LNR. Following the woodchip path left here will take you to the Feltham Circles, the remains of the sewage works tanks, now covered in graffiti. But these are off our route, which runs alongside and then through the fence surrounding the Marshalling Yards site.

Feltham Marshalling Yards

Into the depths: entrance to the Cavalry Tunnel.
For such a huge facility, the Marshalling Yards had a relatively short life of a little over fifty years. Construction started in 1916, largely carried out by prisoners of war on fields immediately to the south of the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) main line east of Feltham station. Its purpose was to replace the company’s freight facilities at Nine Elms which were becoming overwhelmed by demand, and the location was chosen partly because of the space, partly for the convenience not only for the L&SWR’s own line, opened in 1838 from Nine Elms to Woking as the London and Southampton Railway, but for links to other railways. 

Like much of this area, the land had originally formed part of Hounslow Heath before the latter was gradually inclosed and developed in the 19th century, as explained under Loop 9. First operational in 1918 and completed in 1921, Feltham was once the busiest railway siding in the country, handling almost 3,500 wagons a day, over 51 km of track. During World War II it was used for moving war supplies, including materials destined for the 1944 Normandy Landings, and was duly targeted for bombing.

Traffic declined after the war as more freight moved onto the roads, and the facility didn’t survive the phasing out of steam traction on British Rail during the 1960s. It finally closed in 1969, after which nearly all the infrastructure was removed. Since then much of this huge site – about 30 ha – has been left derelict and quietly returned to nature. Huge clumps of buddleia and stands of silver birch now sprout where wagons once gently rattled by, and the habitat has proved particularly welcoming to reptiles. All in all, it’s a valuable and rare example of what happens to a large brownfield site abandoned for the best part of half a century.

The yard is still under railway ownership, now that of British Rail’s successor Network Rail, and most of it has since been designated as Green Belt and a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation. But proposals for its future management have so far failed to bear fruit. Meanwhile, it’s enjoyed informally by local people who are aware of the access points – and unfortunately occasionally for less benign use such as illegal off-road motorcycling and anti-social behaviour.

There’s a longstanding aspiration on behalf of local councils and the Friends of the River Crane Environment campaign group (FORCE) to incorporate the Marshalling Yards more fully into the Crane Valley corridor, with a recognised walking and cycling route running through it as part of the wider riverside route.

This looked like it might finally happen in the late 1990s when planning permission was granted for a contentious proposal by Railtrack, the company that briefly and disastrously took over custody of infrastructure following the privatisation of British Rail, and the Royal Mail to build a giant sorting office on the northeast portion of the site. The permission was subject to a ‘section 106’ (s106) agreement to provide and maintain formal access to the rest of the yards. A dispute between the London Borough of Hounslow and Network Rail about ongoing responsibility for maintenance followed and as a result, though money was set aside and some work was done, the promised new network of paths was never completed.

The latest document to address the future of the site is the council’s masterplan for the redevelopment of Feltham, published in 2017. This envisages building around 600 homes on parts of the site – though the rest would be taken into public ownership and conserved and managed as public space. FORCE and other local groups are understandably concerned about the building proposals, but a more strategic approach to conserving the rest of Yards as a community and natural resource could well be the way forward. Meanwhile the gates that interrupt the through-route are left tacitly open – not least because if locked they’re rapidly vandalised by motorcycle scramblers.

Walking into the site, you soon cross the trackbed of one of the sidings, and follow it right through a very tall gate into another scrubby area. The earthworks round here are relics of the two humps that once played an integral part in the yard’s operations: wagons would be hauled to the top then allowed to run into the correct sidings under gravity. Once through the tall gate you turn left and walk along a gulley: the path here runs parallel to one of the site’s best-known surviving features, the Cavalry Tunnel, and you’ll shortly descend to see more of it, between two concrete blocks installed as crude motorcycle barriers.

The tunnel was the solution to dealing with the river Crane. The L&SWR line bounding the site to the north already crossed the river, which passed beneath in a tunnel, so the engineers redirected the flow into a new culvert and extended the tunnel over it, leaving an uninterrupted surface above. A second, narrower, tunnel was provided alongside the main one, primarily to cope with overflows in times of flood. An urban myth quickly grew up that the real purpose of this 686 m passageway was to allow cavalry troops stationed at the barracks on Hounslow Heath access under the tracks. But although the overflow tunnel undoubtedly provided an informal pedestrian route for those courageous enough to brave the darkness, this seems unlikely. The structure is also sometimes known as the 40-Acre Tunnel, presumably after a field that once stood here.

Among the work carried out under the sorting office s106 agreement before it was paralysed by dispute was the cutting of a new pedestrian and cycle subway into the northern end of the tunnel, which you now use to cross the still-operational railway and leave the site. It’s a strange place: in a dusty and neglected space at the bottom of a gritty slope, there’s a sudden eruption of formal civil engineering, with hard surfaces, tactile paving and signing, looking like a discovery from some post-apocalyptic science fiction drama. On the right, you can peer through iron bars along the rest of the dark and gloomy tunnel as it heads south: certainly not a comfortable environment even for a cavalry regiment.

Your way is left, along a few slightly spooky metres before you emerge through another gate and back out onto the riverside path: look right again to see the Crane emerging from the main tunnel.  Not much further on, the official Loop route rejoins across a bridge on the right and continues ahead through Brazil Mill Woods to Baber Bridge, as previously described.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Ingrebourne Way: Noak Hill - Upminster Bridge

Right-of-way-deterring gateposts at Dagnam Park.

The Ingrebourne Way is a walking and cycling trail that very roughly follows the Ingrebourne valley north-south through the London Borough of Havering. Starting at the pretty hamlet of Noak Hill in the north, right on the edge of the countryside, it runs through Harold Wood and Upminster to Rainham, linking several green spaces in Thames Chase Community Forest and connecting at Rainham with further trails across the marshes to Purfleet. Throughout its length it either duplicates or parallels the London Loop, providing alternative routes and circular walks.

You can cover all the sections of the Ingrebourne Way that are significantly different from the Loop on the 13 km route described here, starting by bus stops at Noak Hill Road on the northern edge of the Harold Hill estate and finishing at Upminster Bridge station. Some of the walk duplicates the Loop but there are interesting excursions through Dagnam Park and the new woodland at Harold Court, as well as a different way through Pages Wood that includes an impressive view. South of here the Way mainly follows roads through Upminster but passes several historic buildings.

The next station back down the Loop before the Ingrebourne Way diverges is a long way away at Chigwell, so the best advice to start the walk is to catch the bus from Romford or Harold Hill stations to Wincanton Road, Noak Hill. There are various other bus stops along the way, and the trail passes busy Upminster station before ending at Upminster Bridge station, the same point as London Loop section 22.

More about the Ingrebourne Way

Start of the Ingrebourne Way at Noak Hill.

As mentioned along London Loop 21, the river Ingrebourne rises in Essex, just south of Brentwood, and is the furthest downstream of all the tributaries flowing through Greater London that join the Thames on its north bank. ‘Bourne’ means a stream, but the origin of the prefix is obscure: it may be a proper name. The river is joined just after it’s passed under the M25 by a longer tributary, the Weald Brook, which rises in what’s now Weald Country Park near South Weald. A second major tributary, the Paynes Brook, joins near Harold Wood station: the London Loop and the Ingrebourne Way both follow parts of this. From Harold Wood, the river flows in a slight bow, first southeast then southwest, via Upminster Bridge, Hornchurch Country Park and Rainham, joining the Thames on Rainham Marshes, a total distance of 43.3 km.

As seen many times in London Underfoot, fear of flooding has largely kept developers away from the water’s edge, and the idea of a green trail following the river has been around for a long time. Hornchurch Urban District Council, one of the predecessors of today’s London Borough of Havering, acted on the idea as far back as the early 1960s by creating three successive ‘parkways’ along the river south of Upminster, quite likely the earliest dedicated off-road walking and cycling infrastructure in what’s now London and today part of both the London Loop and Ingrebourne Way (see Loop 23 for details).

Access extended as more stretches of riverside became public parks, and proposals for a continuous route were being considered in the 1980s, though there were still numerous obstacles. As the London Loop developed in the 1990s, its promoters the London Walking Forum understandably focused on the Ingrebourne corridor as a way to return the trail to the Thames in the east. But there were still diversions into surrounding streets at several points when the Loop officially launched. The designation of much of the area surrounding the river as part of Thames Chase Community Forest in 1990 helped, and some of the diversions have been smoothed out, but the path still isn’t entirely continuous.

Today’s Ingrebourne Way finally emerged as a fruit of increased cycle funding in the early 21st century, although in a rather different form than what might originally have been envisaged. Launched by Havering council and the sustainable transport charity Sustrans in 2013, it’s primarily a cycle route, designated National Cycle Network (NCN) Route 136, although also of course open to walkers and pleasant to walk too, as much of it is off-road and not too busy with bikes. But the need to accommodate cyclists and manage their impact has resulted in both roundabout diversions and road-based sections longer than many walkers will find comfortable. Quite a bit of it doesn’t actually follow the river, and the riverside stretches are largely shared with the Loop.

Here’s a brief overview of the various walking options.

1.        Noak Hill Wincanton Road bus stops – Chequers Road. At its north end, the Ingrebourne Way isn’t currently connected with any other recognised walking and cycling trails. It starts on Chequers Road, Noak Hill, at the gate at the top of Lower Noke Close, the old drive through Dagnam Park. This is off the London Loop, but I’ve described an 800 m link from the point where Loop section 21 enters the Harold Hill estate, also conveniently close to the Wincanton Road bus stops with a good service from Romford and Harold Hill stations. This is one of those rare stretches of the Loop that wanders far from railways: the first station back is at Chigwell, almost 15 km away. The official start of section 21 is also at a bus stop, at Havering-atte-Bower 4.4 km back, and with one of the least frequent services in London. Even the official Loop guide suggests you might want to use Wincanton Road as a break point instead. The link from here to the Ingrebourne Way is simply along the road, but Noak Hill is well-supplied with cute rustic cottages, several of them listed, so there’s plenty to look at along the way.

2.        Noak Hill Chequers Road – Harold Hill Central Park. The Way runs straight through Dagnam Park past manor house ruins and a fishing lake surrounded by woodlands, well worth a diversion from the Loop, which it rejoins by the Portrait Bench in the middle of Central Park after 2.4 km. Total distance from Wincanton Road to Central Park is 3.2 km via the Way, 1.7 km via the Loop section 21, which takes a more direct course alongside the Paines Brook.

3.        Central Park – Paines Bridge. The Way and the Loop section 21 share the same path for just over 1 km through the green margin alongside Paines Brook as far as the A12.

4.        Paines Bridge – Pages Wood. At first the Way follows streets but then starts to climb up Shepherds Hill through the new woodland at Harold Court Woods. Entering another new woodland, Pages Wood, there are spectacular views from the top of the slope before the trail plunges down to rejoin the Loop at the bottom of the valley and turn with it alongside the Ingrebourne. Some may prefer this 3.2 km stretch for the view alone; the Loop alternative, comprising the end of section 21 and beginning of section 22, is slightly shorter, at 2.9 km, with about as much along streets, though it does include the break at Harold Wood station, Harold Wood Park and rather more of the Ingrebourne.

5.        Pages Wood – Upminster Hall Severn Drive. The Way and Loop 22 share the same route for 2.5 km, and once you’re out of Pages Wood it’s all along roads and streets.

6.        Upminster Hall Severn Drive – Hornchurch Stadium. The Way simply follows Hall Lane here into Upminster, passing the station, though there’s an opportunity to swerve off along the grass of Upminster Hall Recreation Ground at one point, and several historic buildings including the fascinating Tithe Barn with its museum. South of the station, a short hop through back streets is followed by a pleasant stroll through Upminster Park, then more back streets bring you back to the Loop, now on section 23, at the gates of Hornchurch Stadium. Total distance is 3 km, shorter than the Loop’s 3.7 km, but as the latter returns to the Ingrebourne again on an off-road walkers-only path through woods and fields, it’s likely to be the preferred choice for walkers so long as accessibility isn’t an issue. To end the walk here you simply follow the Loop ‘backwards’ to Upminster Bridge station, 650 m away. Noak Hill to Upminster Bridge via the various Ingrebourne Way alternatives is 14 km; sticking to the Loop, it’s 11 km.

7.        Hornchurch Stadium – Rainham. Although the Way meets the Loop at the stadium gates, officially it doesn’t rejoin the walking trail straight away. To facilitate cycling, it continues a little further along the street to reach the riverside along South View Drive. There’s little point to this detour for those on foot who want to continue to Hornchurch Country Park or Rainham. The Way now mainly follows the same paths as the Loop, though occasionally in the Ingrebourne Valley Local Nature Reserve and Hornchurch Country Park it takes a wider parallel path a short distance away. As these differences aren’t significant I haven’t bothered to provide an alternative description of the rest of the Way but if you really wanted to follow it religiously, it’s very well signed. Total distance to Rainham is 7 km.

8.        On to Purfleet. The Ingrebourne Way officially ends at Rainham station, though by now it’s met National Cycle Network Route 13 which continues through Rainham Marshes to Purfleet. The London Loop takes a similar though not identical route to Purfleet and I’ve described this as well as briefly mentioning the cycleway alternatives under Loop section 24.

As a trail designed to accommodate cyclists, the Ingrebourne Way is highly accessible, along broad paths with good surfaces – sometimes hard tarmac, sometimes softer bonded gravel—and no stiles. But there are a few more climbs and descents than on the Loop, which slightly ironically spends rather more time on the low, flat ground close to the river.

Another advantage of its being a cycle route is that the Way is particularly well-signed to NCN standards. Look out for the number 136 in white on a red rectangle alongside walker and cycle symbols on fingerposts, waymarks and other signs. On roads the signs usually have a blue background, while in the green spaces they may be on a green background. They’re often supplemented by signing painted on road and path surfaces. Unlike most walking routes, you should be able to follow the route using the signing alone, with no need for a written description, but just in case I’ve provided one anyway. You’ll see the Loop signing too where the two routes coincide.

There’s no official text guide to the trail, although a useful free ‘local travel map’, Havering / Ingrebourne Way, was published by the council and Sustrans in 2013 which is still downloadable as a PDF. This shows the Way, connecting cycling routes and even the London Loop. The trail also appears on Sustrans online mapping. The Way is shown on Ordnance Survey Explorer maps in the standard manner for a cycle route, with a line of orange dots for off-road ‘cycle tracks’ but only intermittent use of the number 136 in white on a red rectangle where it follows roads and streets.

Noak Hill and Dagnam Park

The imaginatively named Thatched Cottage, Noak Hill.
I’ve already introduced the Royal Liberty of Havering in my commentary on London Loop sections 20 and 21. There I explained that two separate estates occupied the Harold Hill area in the 14th century: Gooshayes, ‘goose enclosure’, to the west and Dagenhams or Dagnams to the east. The latter had itself originally been two estates, Dagenhams and Cockerels, named after former owners. The De Dakenham family (possibly from the town of Dagenham, not too far away) were granted land in the area by Henry III in the early 13th century.

After World War II, these greenfield sites were compulsorily purchased by the London County Council to build one of several large housing estates in locations surrounding London but – until the capital itself was expanded in 1965 – outside its official boundaries. 7,631 homes were built in Harold Hill between 1948 and 1961. Thankfully, swathes of former countryside and parkland were incorporated into the design and it’s these that we’ll explore in the early stages of the walk.

Noak Hill was the village attached to the Dagnams estate, sitting atop the hill to the north. The settlement could easily have been swallowed by the new development, but fortunately it was left alone and still retains its own distinct rural character today as a genuine London village, with several heritage buildings.

One of them is the Bear pub, a little to the left along Noak Hill Road from the bus stop and passed by the Loop. The current building has a Victorian core that was substantially extended in the 1950s, but there’s been a pub on the site since the late 17th century, when it was called the Goat. It was once well-known locally as the home of a real bear, kept as an attraction in a cage in the pub garden among less exotic fauna such as peacocks, and known for its consumption of beer and crisps. In fact, there were two successive bears:  Rhani, a Himalayan black bear who died sometime in the mid-1960s, and her successor Honey, a brown bear who went to Linton Zoo in Cambridgeshire when her owners retired in 1974.

To reach the Ingrebourne Way proper you’ll need to follow Noak Hill Road northeast, crossing Carters Brook and passing a succession of picturesque cottages that are now listed buildings. The aptly named Thatched Cottage and its neighbour, Old Keepers Cottage, are both early 19th century buildings; the latter isn’t thatched but is prettily weatherboarded. Opposite, set back from the road is late 18th century Holly Tree Cottage; on the same side and also set back are a pretty early 19th century pair known as Meadow Cottages. Opposite, on the roadside, of similar date and particularly pretty, is the long, low range of Rose Cottages with their weatherboarded western extension. A little off the route in Church Road is the 1842 St Thomas Church, which Nikolaus Pevsner described as “modest and attractive”. A Radha Krishna temple has stood on the same street since 2008.

The church contains various monuments to the Neaves, the family who fashioned the estate into its final form. Before this there were several successive manor houses in the park, including an Elizabethan moated manor, which Samuel Pepys visited several times in 1665. Richard Neave, a well-off merchant with the West India company, bought Dagnams in 1772: he later became a baronet and a governor of the Bank of England. In 1812, he had the old house demolished and replaced by a grand Georgian mansion, surrounded by gardens and grounds designed by Humphrey Repton. Neave’s son Thomas continued to expand the family’s holdings, amalgamating the estate with neighbouring Goosehayes.

Their successors began selling off the estate piecemeal after World War I and finally quit the manor house itself in 1940 when it was requisitioned for military use. Towards the end of the war, the house suffered a direct hit from a V2 rocket which cracked the walls. The LCC initially undertook to preserve and restore the house when it acquired the remains of the estate after the war. But the caretakers illegally stripped lead from the roof and this, together with the bomb damage, resulted in so much deterioration that the building had to be demolished in 1950.

The surrounding parkland was kept for recreation, though suffered from neglect over many decades, and almost none of the former gardens and other fine features created by Repton survive. By the early 2000s, ‘The Manor’, as the site is known locally, had a bad reputation as a wasteland plagued by illegal motorcycling and other anti-social behaviour. Concerned local people formed the Friends of Dagnam Park which successfully campaigned for designation as a Local Nature Reserve (LNR) in 2005. The group has continued to support the park and contributed to its becoming a much better looked-after space, with some help from a Veolia Trust grant.  

The Ingrebourne Way begins by following the old main drive. At first there are hedgerows and fields, but soon, amid a cluster of woods, are some obvious structures: a cobbled terrace on the left and, a little further, some low walls on the right, the only remains of the manor house and its associated buildings. The terrace is the former stable yard, once surrounded by stable buildings surmounted by a bell tower, with a walled garden immediately beyond to the east. These structures survived a little longer than the house: they were demolished in 1959, though the foundations of the garden walls persist below ground.

Some of the very few visible remains of the manor house in Dagnam Park.

The low walls are from the side of the main three-storey house, which faced northwest, in the direction we’ve just walked. The only other surviving fragments of the house are three stained glass roundels originally in a semi-circular fan above the front door, now in a church in Nowton, Suffolk.

Just off the route, originally at the back of the house and now surrounded by woodland, is a remaining landscape feature, the Round Pond, originally a bathing pool. Perhaps the best-known surviving relics, though, are the twin white cast iron gateposts either side of the drive. The gate that once hung between these was usually left open so that the public could pass through, but once a year it was shut to pre-empt claims that a public right of way existed. Even today, the Ordnance Survey map only shows the northern part of the drive as a public footpath, which appears to reach a dead end at the edge of the manor house site.

Beyond this, the drive runs through a pleasing expanse of open parkland and grassland, with the modern red brick buildings of Drapers Academy secondary school, completed in 2012, rising ahead. Its design, by FelldenCleggBradley architects, nods to its setting by mimicking the layout of 18th century English country houses. But before reaching it, the Way deflects right past a small car park: the drive itself originally continued all the way through what’s now the built-up area of Harold Hill, along the route of Settle Road and Dagnam Park Drive to the old Roman road to Colchester, now the A12.

The Way, meanwhile, passes another pond, now known as The Manor Fishing Lake and well-used for that purpose, but originally known as Green Pond, a cattle pond that predated the Neave era. Repton prettified this, and may also have added some of the plantation woodland around its banks. To the south of the pond, off the trail, are the still water-filled remains of a square-shaped moat, likely dating from the 13th or 14th centuries, which once surrounded the Cockrells manor house. It’s now a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The woodland further along, Hatters Wood, is ancient semi-natural, once one of the estate’s working woodlands, with a reputation for the quality of its timber. It’s through these lush surrounds that the Way descends and finally leaves the site.

Harold Hill Central Park

The Ingrebourne Way deftly avoids all but a short dip into the streets of Harold Hill here, soon entering Central Park and rounding the ancient woodland of Long Wood to join the London Loop by the Portrait Bench, with its silhouette figures of people with local connections, most recognisably Henry VIII. The park was created from farmland attached to the Gooshayes estate and you can read more about it under Loop 21. There’s more in that post too about the route from the park along the Paines Brook to the A12 Colchester Road, where the trails divide again.

The Way simply follows the A12 but to save too much exposure to traffic fumes and noise I’ve suggested that instead you take the parallel Retford Road, one of the streets laid out in the 1950s as part of the Harold Hill development. The streets south of the A12, in the neighbourhood known as Harold Park, are older: development started here in the 1920s when Iles & Co built a bungalow estate known as Sunnytown on the northeast of Harold Court Road. This is the road you now follow as it becomes a surfaced track across a bridge where the Ingrebourne Way finally meets the Ingrebourne itself for the first time. But there’s no riverside route here, so instead continue under the Great Eastern railway line (also introduced under Loop 21) and into Harold Court Woods in the old parish of Upminster.

Harold Court Woods

One of the surprisingly rare sightings of the river Ingrebourne along the Ingrebourne Way, on Harold Court Road.

In mediaeval times, the rough ground rising from the south of the Ingrebourne to Shepherds Hill in the far north of Upminster parish was managed as common: Upminster Common in the west and Tylers Common in the east. In the early 18th century some of this was inclosed and improved as farmland, including Goodhouse Farm immediately to the south of the river, which even boasted vineyards. In 1870, the farm became the home of William Richard Preston, a rather dodgy French-born Brentwood solicitor and property speculator. Preston was one of the partners who, as explained under Loop 21, had bought Gubbins Farm in nearby North End in 1866 with the intention of turning it into the proposed Harold Wood New Town.

Despite lack of progress with the development plans, Preston contrived to live in some style, building himself an elaborate white brick Italianate mansion known as Harold Court, surrounded by extensive grounds. He was finally declared bankrupt in 1881 and fled to Australia. Among the unfinished business he left behind was a sewage disposal contract with the Billericay Rural Sanitary Authority. The issue was resolved when the Authority agreed to buy the northeastern part of the site at a reduced price: the sewage works, first opened in 1884, still operates today.

In 1882 the house became a home for pauper children from Shoreditch and Hackney, and in 1891 the estate was bought by the Essex County Lunatic Asylum. By 1911 it housed 72 “male lunatics” who could not have enjoyed much in individual attention given that the staff consisted of a husband-and-wife management team and two attendants. In 1918 it became Essex’s tuberculosis sanatorium, then a general hospital attached to Brentwood under the NHS in 1948, renamed Harold Court Hospital. The last of many institutional occupants was Brentwood College of Education, under which it was turned into a teacher training college in 1960. This finally closed in the 1980s and the house was sold off for conversion to private flats.

The surrounding estate, meanwhile, passed to the Forestry Commission as Harold Court Woods, part of the developing Thames Chase CommunityForest, which the Ingrebourne Way first enters here. Though over 40,000 trees have been planted since 2001, the site isn’t just being managed as woodland, but as with several other areas in the forest is intended to have a more mixed and open aspect, including meadows. Among the more unusual new plantings is a traditional ‘Apostles’ Circle’ of 12 horse chestnut trees encircling a single central tree: this is a little off the trail along the bridleway to the right soon after the railway line. The mansion is also on the right as you climb the hill.

Pages Wood and Hall Lane

Spectacular views from the track that sweeps down from Shepherds Hill in Pages Wood.

Leaving Harold Court Wood, Harold Court Road continues as a track through more former common land now used as farmland: the farmhouse of Ivy Lodge Farm is on the left, now a veterinary surgery. Then you reach the road at the top of Shepherds Hill, with the next Forestry Commission site, Pages Wood, immediately opposite. This northern part of the site was originally Pages Farm, also carved out of Upminster Common.  The signed official route twists and turns a little to use a safe crossing, but as you approach the main track, you’ll see the buildings of the old Pages Farm ahead of you. The pebble-dashed farmhouse dates from 1663, while the barns and outbuildings are from the late 18th and late 19th centuries: all are now Grade II listed.

The London Loop also runs through Pages Wood so I’ve said more about it and about Thames Chase Community Forest on Loop section 22. The Loop follows the valley, but the Ingrebourne Way gives you a very different experience by entering on top of the hill and then plunging down towards the river. The views here are bracing, southwest ahead towards the Thames, with the North Downs on the opposite bank visible on good days, and eastward on your left towards the hillier parts of Essex.

At the bottom of the hill, the Way meets the Loop and at last follows the Ingrebourne for a while although it’s soon forced away from the river and across a tributary. After leaving Pages Wood, there’s quite a long section following roads and streets, over the Southend Arterial Road, past the Strawberry Farm and along Hall Lane, described in more detail in Loop 22. The paths separate again inside the built-up area of Upminster at the junction of Hall Lane and Avon Road. Here you may prefer to stay on the Loop, which returns to the river on a green walkers-only route – but if you’ve already done that, there’s a bit more of Upminster to see by following the Ingrebourne Way along the road.


Contemplating the hills of Essex from Upminster Hall fields.
I’ve introduced Upminster in some detail under Loop22, but the Ingrebourne Way will take you past a few more places of interest. Upminster Hall Playing Field, a public recreation area on the left soon after the junction with Avon Road, is on the grounds of Upminster Hall, one of three mediaeval manors in the parish. It was the property of Waltham Abbey from just before the Conquest to the Dissolution, when Henry VIII gave it to his chief minister Thomas Cromwell. From 1685 it was the property of the Branfill Family, who began selling it off in the early 20th century.

Opposite is red brick Upminster Court, built in 1905-06 for shipping and coal merchant Arthur Williams by architect Charles Reilly, on farmland formerly attached to Upminster Hall. It’s a good example of a ‘Wren Revival’ Edwardian country house, surrounded by noteworthy gardens. The house is Grade II listed and the gardens registered by Historic England, but neither is open to the public. After World War II the property was owned by Essex County Council and later the London Borough of Havering, and variously used an education and care centre; it’s now a commercial training facility operated by a private firm.

Much of the estate was sold in the 1920s to Upminster Golf Club, which still spreads on both sides of the road. One fragment not given over to golf, slightly off the route but well worth a look, is a 45 m-long thatched barn dating back to the 15th century and originally part of the home farm. The building, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, is known as the Tithe Barn although there’s no evidence it was ever used to collect tithes. It was bought by Havering council’s predecessor Hornchurch Urban District Council in 1937 and continued in agricultural use for a while. Since 1976 it’s been a museum managed by the Hornchurch & District Historical Society.

Upminster Tithe Barn, apparently never used to collect tithes.
It’s currently known as the ‘Museum ofNostalgia’ and houses a collection of 14,500 agricultural and household objects dating from Roman times to the present. Further along the drive past the barn is Upminster Hall itself. The Grade II*-listed timber-framed building, parts of which date from the 15th century, is now used as a golf clubhouse. Embedded in the big private course is a council pitch-and-putt facility, as if that’s the only form of golf the less wealthy local residents are permitted.

South of these you enter the residential area north of the station, laid out from 1906 by developer Peter Griggs, who was also responsible for much of surburban Ilford. Big houses line Hall Lane, while the side streets are all named ‘Gardens’ though there’s precious little green. You soon pass Upminster station, dating from the opening of the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LT&SR) main line from London Fenchurch Street in 1885. The original buildings and entrance still stand: they’re at track level along Station Approach just off our route, past the station on the left. The entrance on the main road bridge was added in 1932 when the station was expanded by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway.

In 1902, the largely underground Whitechapel and Bow Railway between Whitechapel and Bromley-by-Bow, a joint venture between the LT&SR and the Metropolitan and District Railway, enabled trains on what’s now London Underground’s District Line to work through to Upminster. Underground services were curtailed at Barking when the rest of the District Line was electrified in 1908, but resumed in 1932 when a new pair of electrified tracks reached Upminster. Today the station is operated by c2c, the National Rail successor to the LT&SR, though still also offers District Line services.

Upminster Station.

The Ingrebourne Way dodges through side streets (Branfill Road, named after the last family owners of Upminster Hall) and finally returns to green surroundings in Upminster Park – though there’s an option here to visit Upminster Windmill if you haven’t already, as it’s only a short detour along St Mary’s Lane. I’ve said more about it under Loop 23. The park was originally ‘glebe’ land – farmland providing a living for a priest – attached to the parish church, St Laurence’s.

As the town expanded, the need for recreational facilities grew and in 1929 the Urban District Council bought the land from the Church Commissioners, levelling it to create grassed playing fields crossed by tree-lined avenues. During World War II it was once of the few London parks that weren’t given over to allotments and other war-related uses, though there were bomb shelters near to where the Way enters the space today. At just under 7 ha, it’s a small but valuable space which has benefited enormously in recent years from the activities of a Friends group.

Upminster Park: valuable green space on former glebe land.

The church itself is across the park to the left: topped by a typical Essex leaded and shingled spire, it’s at core a 13th century building, though it was extensively rebuilt and altered in 1863 and 1928. It’s off the route of the Ingrebourne Way, which instead heads east through the park and along more streets to meet the London Loop again by the entrance to Hornchurch Stadium. To end the walk here, simply follow the Loop backwards across the Ingrebourne to Upminster Bridge station, which has a few heritage features discussed under Loop 22. Otherwise, join London Loop section 23 following the river southbound along the succession of Ingrebourne parkways mentioned above, with much of interest still ahead.