Monday, 23 November 2009

London LOOP section 1 Erith - Old Bexley

Erith Station
After my odd introduction to the LOOP a month or so ago, I decided to start the walk proper this time, at the beginning and continue in sequence.  While for some walks, sequential walking is not that important I think in this case it might well be otherwise the danger is that I will do all the ‘good’ bits and leave out some of the ‘bad’ bits.  Other writers have suggested that Day 1 is a bit hard to take and may not inspire the walker to carry on!  A bit harsh perhaps, but having looked at other people’s pictures and a description of the route I can understand this sentiment.
Erith Waterfront

As it happens the start of the walk is reminiscent of the start of the Saxon Shore Way a few miles further downstream, starting off with a tour of industrial units before getting better as the section opens up.  In terms of transport from one end to the other it is pretty easy.  There is ample parking at Old Bexley, with a public car park in the street.  A four hour ticket should be plenty to enable the train journey to the start and a relaxed amble back.  There are direct trains from Bexley to Erith, although confusingly the trains ‘terminate’ at Crayford.  In reality if you stay on the train it normally forms the next service back to London looping back through Erith and Woolwich Arsenal.  At Erith station there are numerous signs directing you down to the riverfront where the LOOP officially starts.
Pub Decoration

The Thames makes for a satisfying start point and the frontage at Erith has obviously received some investment in recent years.  There is an attractive garden area alongside the Thames and a little further along the old deep wharf (I assume used by cargo vessels), is now transformed as a pleasure pier.  There have been lots of new shops built and yet despite this there is still a bleakness about the place that wasn’t wholly down to the gloomy weather.  Perhaps there is just too much new build that isn’t sufficiently weathered yet?  In among the new build there were some gems though – the old police station (now a private residence) and a pub on the corner of the main street with a huge mural of Thames sailing barges painted on the side (didn’t help the pub though – it was closed).
Erith Pier

From a fairly promising and interesting start what follows certainly tested my enthusiasm!  In order to escape Erith, the path continues out along a road following the Thames as closely as possible but crucially behind some pretty unattractive industrial sites.  All manner of activities go on, mostly to do with recycling it seems, from cars to wood and obviously all needing the river to transport their goods.  Fortunately after a ten minute walk the path hits the riverbank proper and heads out towards Crayford Ness.
A Gritty Start

The next mile or so, while not being a picture postcard country walk is a fascinating glimpse into life on the Thames.  In the short time it took me to walk this section it seemed that there was activity everywhere I looked.  In the very distance behind me I could see the construction works on the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, while across the river there were hundreds of seagulls and a number of construction vehicles in the business of covering the enormous landfills at Rainham Marshes.  The river itself was busy with shipping traffic, with some very large vessels docked in the distance and the odd one chugging past me.  To the east the massive bulk of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge was busy with huge lorries moving slowly towards the toll booths on the south side.
Erith Marshes
Eventually I reached Crayford Ness, marked by a couple of towers incorporating navigation aids for shipping and the last uninterrupted view back towards Erith.  To my right was what looked like a shanty town of scrapyards, full of old cars and other vehicles.  A few caught my eye in particular; two old publicity vehicles for Lloyds TSB and Royal Bank of Scotland that are probably victims of the credit crunch and vehicles and trailers from defunct businesses such as Unwins Wine Merchants.  Their presence spoke volumes about our throwaway society and operations like this, despite their unloveliness are a crucial component.  It wasn’t the scrapyards that irked me so much as the unofficial piles of waste dumped outside by less responsible people.  One pile of tyres outside had formed a large mound, but had been there so long that it was slowly being absorbed into the marshes.

Crayford Ness

As I rounded Crayford Ness, I left the Thames and headed up the River Darent and past the flood barrier that protects Crayford and Dartford upstream from tidal surges.  From here the scrapyards become a distant site and although surrounded by other developments and traffic noise, this section of path has a rural feel that becomes increasingly pleasant further upstream.  After a mile or so the River Cray joins the Darent and the path swings round into the Cray valley.  The first few hundred yards are marked by large reed beds on either side of the river, all swaying violently in the stiff breeze that had by now also blown most of the cloud away.
QEII Bridge

Any hopes of a rural walk from here were soon dashed as I drew alongside a closed landfill and a recycling plant that I remember visiting in my professional capacity a few years ago.  After a weekend of heavy rain the whole area was awash with water and I was pleased that the pavement at least sat above the very flooded road.  I passed under the curious railway bridge where a new access had been dug underneath to allow for the passage of lorries.  This was quite a severe cut, forming almost an inspection pit underneath that was inevitably full of water!
Cray Mouth

Fortunately the industrial landscape was short-lived for on the other side of the busy A206 road I came upon a much more attractive section of the River Cray running to the rear of residential gardens.  Apparently river traffic came along this section of river until very recently, delivering wood to a local sawmill and the last load came this way in 1977.  I found it very hard to believe, given the size of the river at this point.  Despite the forgotten feel of the river, it seems to be quite well looked after with some obvious conservation work having taken place along stretches.  There was little rubbish, despite reports given by other bloggers.
River Cray

Eventually I reached Crayford Town Centre, which was surprisingly attractive.  This was once a significant bridging point for the London – Dover Road as Watling Street came through here (the modern A2 now by-passes Crayford).  The River Cray seems to have been celebrated as an integral part of the Town Centre, now bounded by an attractive little modern park and not simply ignored by surrounding housing as it was just a little further back along the path.  I had noted there was a public toilet here and thought that I might use it, but on arrival it was one of those pay as you go tardis type facilities, so I gave it a miss.
Crayford Backyards

The LOOP leaves Crayford along London Road and then into Bourne Road, which were traffic choked and dull.  On the edge of Crayford I walked by a car showroom that had some unusual looking columns outside that I took to be old fashioned lighting columns.  However, these are apparently all that is left of the erstwhile Crayford Cinema.  The owner of the car showroom has given them an attractive paint job – hats off to him for maintaining them!
Crayford Town Centre

Just past the car showroom the LOOP turns left onto a large recreation ground and heads back to the River Cray.  The walk along this part of the river is beautiful and possibly the nicest part of the whole day.  It’s hard to believe that the walk is not in the depths of the countryside and far removed from the industrial creek it is destined to become only a mile or so away.
Following the Cray

I reached a sports building at the corner of the recreation ground and while the path crosses the river here and heads off towards the A2 bypass, I took the opportunity to have a nose at Hall Place ( a gem of a place that would be criminal to ignore if passing by.  Best of all there is no admission charge to the old place, and a fantastic team room inside that overlooks the River Cray.  The Hall is a strange mix of architectural styles, with a brick half and a stone half that look like an odd marriage!  In the grounds are some fantastic gardens and some very portly looking yew topiary sculptures of mythical and heraldic beasts such as dragons and lions.
Hall Place

In order to access Hall Place from the LOOP, you need to walk around the perimeter of the car parks servicing the sports pavilion and the Hall itself.  Despite some tantalising glimpses into the grounds there is no other way in or out (don’t be tempted to try getting out through the grounds – you will be disappointed as all exits are sealed).  The house and grounds demand at least half an hour of your time, which shouldn’t be a problem even if you are on your four hour ticket.
Hall Place Topiary

After an enjoyable visit I continued on my way, crossing the Cray once again and heading towards the A2.  The noise is hard to ignore, but crossing it isn’t too bad, if a little convoluted.  The path uses the rail crossing, going up and over the railway and looping back underneath on the other side.  The underneath of the rail bridge is obviously a graffiti artists paradise, with every inch of available space taken up by lurid and colourful tagging. As I passed underneath one of the new express trains built for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link passed by, a little off the beaten track.
Tudor Brickwork

It was now a short stroll into Old Bexley through some very attractive woodland.  On the map it suggested that this might be just a fringe to the housing estate on the other side, but in reality it was like another world, with no sign of any housing beyond.  Even at one point when the path threatened to enter the estate it hooked a right and headed down towards the church in Old Bexley instead.  Rather than stick to the official path I took the opportunity to wander down through the old graveyard alongside instead.  This is a wonderful old place, full of graves that are slowly being absorbed into the natural world.  I’m not sure if this is being intentionally allowed to happen for it is now being managed as a nature reserve and some parts of the graveyard are obviously being kept clear of vegetation.
Bexley Graveyard

The church at the other end is highly unusual and immediately striking.  The steeple has an octagonal top built above what looked like it would be a more conventional pyramid.  It is as though the builders/ architects changed their minds half way through construction!  Strangely the church website does not mention anything about the unusual steeple in its history ( .
Bexley Church

From the church it was a short walk back into the town centre along a road full of historic buildings back to the car park I had left four hours earlier.  This was a short walk full of contrasts, from the rugged industrial Thames riverside through areas of suburbia to the oases of history that have survived all the development going on around them with dignity and still providing character and interest.  Despite the bad press I enjoyed it immensely and am already looking forward to the next stage to Petts Wood.
Bexley Church

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