This is one of the longer sections of the LOOP and I had managed to find myself another glorious day to tackle it. Exactly a month after my last foray I was very pleased to find that a lot of leaves were still on the trees, although with a forecast of heavy rain and wind in the next few days, I suspected that this would be the last that I would see of the leaves in all their autumn glory.
I took the train from Elstree and Borehamwood station to the beginning of the walk at Moor Park where I had left off last month. By taking the train only as far as West Hampstead and walking the short distance from the main railway station to the underground station nearby I saved myself some time and money on the train ticket (a useful tip for end to end walkers like me). Moor Park was rather different from last time in that it was almost deserted – no school children on a Sunday morning! With a decided nip in the air I was keen to get walking and as soon as I left the station I retraced my steps along the link route that I had traversed last time. Underfoot was extremely wet courtesy of a very heavy dew and I soon regretted not taking a chance on my yet-to-be-worn winter walking boots. My summer boots were very wet very quickly, although to be fair the water didn’t actually penetrate through the canvass.
At the end of the wood I turned left to skirt around a golf course, one of several that I would be seeing today. The number of players on the course was quite respectable despite the wet underfoot conditions. I suspect most of the players already on the course were eager to get finished before lunchtime. As I wandered across the course the colours of the blackberry bushes were what struck me most. I had never really considered how bright their leaves can get in the autumn, as I usually lose interest in them when the berries are finished. Yet there was a rich tapestry of reds and yellows on all the bushes, whetting my appetite on what was surely going to come later in the walk.
At the far end of the golf course I had the first viewpoint of the day as the LOOP bade farewell to the Colne Valley for the last time and headed determinedly eastwards as the Colne and its partner the Grand Union Canal headed north. After crossing a main road the LOOP crossed a green space that was covered in morning dew. It sparkled in the sunlight so much that you could have been forgiven for thinking it was frost, but it was actually too mild for that overnight. The air was thick with the smell of wood smoke and fireworks from the Bonfire Night celebrations the night before, a smell I always associate with autumn. The green space was thronged with dog walkers all making interesting tracks across the grass, a sort of reverse snail trail!
After a brief dalliance with a piece of suburbia I was thrust into Oxhey Woods, a very pleasant slice of ancient woodland full of pretty colours but rather defaced by various pieces of rubbish. Why do people feel it’s necessary to leave their rubbish in such lovely surroundings and spoil it for everyone else? It’s not as even as if it was the odd piece of litter either – we are talking tables and mattresses! After passing by a very expensive looking lodge house and through sun dappled woods I became aware of yet another housing estate and with it brought more fly-tipped rubbish. Groan! Thus far I had also been following a couple of fellow walkers from Moor Park station. They looked lost as I approached them but avoided my gaze so I wandered on having failed to connect with them. I had a feeling that they were fellow LOOP walkers but clearly didn’t want my company. Who knows they may still be lost for all I know!
After a fairly long section of woodland walking I was pleasantly surprised to get out into the open air shortly afterwards. This supposedly was the second viewpoint with a sweep of London allegedly before me (according to the guidebook anyway). It is true that Wembley Stadium and Harrow-on-the-Hill church were very visible landmarks away in the distance but other than that it wasn’t a very memorable if I’m honest. The path soon dropped away from this ‘high point’ (slightly raised more like!) and down to a farm where I met a dreaded mud bath that I had to pick my way through very carefully for fear of being swallowed up by it!
A little past the farm I also passed Pinnerwood House, apparently the home of Edward Bulwer Lytton, all round Victorian hero by all accounts. I have to confess I had never previously heard of him yet it is claimed that he originated some of the great clichés of our time in his capacity as author (he was also a politician, poet and playwright). He coined the phrases ‘pursuit of the almighty dollar’, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and my personal favourite ‘the great unwashed’. Anyhow his former house is a much photographed landmark of the LOOP and deservedly so.
It was to be the last highlight for awhile; from here it was an airy but rather uninspiring walk around seemingly endless fields until I reached the West Coast Main Line, the main rail route from London to North West England and Scotland. It was surprisingly quiet even for a Sunday, suggesting perhaps that at least some of the lines were closed for the day. A couple of trains did pass though just to dispel my first though, which was complete closure. I crossed the line by means of a bridge where I was almost completely enclosed, presumably to prevent vandalism of the line below by people throwing stuff over. Secure it might have been but I was pleased to get across as it was far from a pleasant experience.
The path continued along a road and crossed at a junction by a garden centre, still managing to do decent trade despite the lateness of the season. I was pleased to cross the road opposite and continue out into open countryside. I got the distinct impression that the rather unloved piece of land I passed first was an unofficial rubbish dump and it was therefore some relief to pass through a gate and out into a golf course. This was the third encountered today and clearly golf is a very popular pastime in these parts. I guess planning golf courses was also a lot easier than houses in the green belt around London? I continued up the side of Grim’s Dyke golf course until I got to a track at the top of the hill, where I turned to look back across the view behind me. It was actually pretty good – rather better than the one across London earlier. A little further along the track and I came upon Grim’s Dyke, the ancient feature that the golf course is named after. This earthwork’s origin is a mystery and also barely discernable underneath all the vegetation. It did mark the beginning of another lengthy section of woodland walking as I crossed Harrow Weald.
In the woodland are a number of man-made features of different vintages. First the modern, with a very large telecom mast unsympathetically dumped in the middle of the wood. It was so big that it could conceivably pick up signals from outer space (perhaps that is its function?). A slightly older construction was a little further ahead; the 1870 house also known as Grim’s Dyke and formerly the home of WS Gilbert or Gilbert and Sullivan fame. The weed choked lake reached before the house is the scene of Gilbert’s death. He had a heart attack while trying to rescue a woman who apparently got into difficulties when he was trying to teach her to swim. When I reached the old house I realised that I had strayed from the official path – it was worth it though. The old place is now a country house hotel that still puts on Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance were upcoming productions – good fun if you like that sort of thing.
I re-found the path through the woods and came out on Old Redding Lane. This is something of a local beauty spot, with a well-used car park and a great view southwards across the metropolis. Wembley Stadium suddenly looked a lot closer from this point and the intervening countryside looked like an autumn parkland rather than the endless houses you might expect of such a view. I lingered for a minute then continued along the road past the intriguingly name ‘The Case is Altered’ pub. Apparently this is more common a name that I realised, but it usually refers to a change to licensing law some 300 or so years ago. This example though apparently takes its name from a corruption of ‘casa alta’, Spanish for high house. Certainly the pub sign confirms that, for it depicts soldiers trying to capture the place, although the signage itself has seen better days sadly.
After a brief respite from woods it was back into woodland walking again, crossing another section of Harrow Weald. On a sunny autumn day it was a joy to be walking through all these patches of woodland, but I’m not sure it would be so appealing at any other time of year. The woodland was finally interrupted by the A409 – a particularly busy road that was tough to cross. On the other side the character of the walk changed completely as I entered the grounds of Bentley Priory. The pathway through the grounds is surfaced, which made the going rather easier. I soon became aware of a very large barbed wire fence on my left and remembered that Bentley Priory was the famed headquarters of RAF Fighter Command during World War II. Apparently the old place is still owned by the Ministry of Defence, hence the rather stern looking security measures around the outside. As I walked around the perimeter fence I got the odd glimpse of the Italianate architecture of the old place, but I wasn’t going to risk taking pictures in these nervous times!
At the far end of Bentley Priory were some very salubrious houses of various vintages all clustered together on an exclusive looking estate perhaps once populated by the top brass in the air force but now more likely to be owned by footballers, stockbrokers and swanky lawyers? The path only briefly flirted with such a world though and it was soon back into woodland as I passed by Stanmore Cricket Club and then some picturesque looking ponds known as Caesar’s Lakes. These were allegedly dug by the Romans when they occupied this area (hence the name) but nobody seems sure. As I skirted Stanmore (famed for being at the end of the Jubilee Line) I became aware of two very different gatherings of people. The first was the sporting fraternity of Harrow Rugby Club, where boys from various ages were competing in some fiercely competitive games (if the crowd’s reaction was anything to go by). The second was the gathering of Muslims for what I took to be a pretty important event at the Islamic Centre just opposite the rugby club. There was a degree of traffic chaos in the area caused by both events, but it was good to see plenty of life around. Too often on this walk I have wandered through suburbia and seen no-one at all.
I finally left the woodland and heathland behind a little further on when I passed by the National Orthopaedic Hospital. Judging from the appearance of the LOOP side of the campus the hospital isn’t used much, since many of the buildings look semi-derelict. Yet there seems to be no reference to this on the website – it’s all a bit confusing really.
However, this did mark the point at which woodland walking was almost completely left behind. I could hear the roar of the M1 ahead of me and at the corner of the hospital campus I got a great view out across the green belt towards St Albans. Although the motorway did create quite a din, it did not impose itself too much on the view which was a relief. I wandered down though a few fields before coming to an underpass that I could use to get across. I am always surprised at how wide these bridges are, and this one resembled a short tunnel it was so dark underneath. After playing chicken across the road underneath the motorway (the rather busy A41), I then faced a half mile trudge along the road into Elstree. This wasn’t actually that bad, although I was pretty frustrated not to be able to cross and join the perimeter path around Aldenham Reservoir at the first opportunity. Instead I had to miss a good chunk of it before the opportunity arose.
The bit of shoreline of the reservoir I did walk was delightful. By now the sky was full of puffy white clouds which meant that the shadows and light were even better than earlier when it was a cloudless sky. The water was like glass and all around was a throng of activity with Sunday strollers, families airing their children and the members of the lake boating club busying themselves with preparing their boats for winter. The lake itself was apparently built by French PoWs in the Napoleonic War and in keeping with the reluctance of forced labour they made a poor job of it. Apparently the reservoir leaked for years before it was finally fixed by the installation of a concrete dam.
From the reservoir it was a short but fairly uninteresting walk into Borehamwood. Sadly the LOOP misses the charming village of Elstree entirely, with a brief view of the church all that is visible from the path. After crossing Watling Street, the old Roman Road that headed for North Wales and is now the pretty unimportant A5183, the LOOP then made an annoying detour away from the short road into Borehamwood, adding an extra half mile to my journey just so I could get a good look at yet another golf course! Over in the distance I was also getting pretty distracted by a police helicopter hovering over Borehamwood and I couldn’t help thinking that it had something to do with my car! Of course when I got closer I soon realised that it didn’t, but I have to confess that I rather rushed the last mile or so of the walk, not taking very much in.
This is the longest section of the LOOP so far completed, although it is still a relatively modest twelve miles. It is perfect to do on an autumn day when the colours are at their most radiant. Would I have enjoyed it is much at another time of year? Difficult to say, especially as there are no real stand out parts of the walk. Pleasant it was, but nothing like as enjoyable as the previous section walking along the Grand Union Canal.