Wednesday, 21 April 2010

London LOOP section 5 Whyteleafe - Banstead

Kenley Airfield
It was back to the ‘burbs today after almost three months away to complete the missing section around South London.  One of the reasons I hadn’t managed to get here before is that it is not possible to complete this section on a Sunday unless using convoluted bus routes, since Banstead station does not have a Sunday service.
Kenley Observatory

As it happens I was completely without a car today, so it was just as well that this section is also the closest to home for me and relatively easy to complete, using East Croydon as the hub station.  The weather was rather a different proposition to the last time I came this way, as spring had well and truly sprung after what seems to have been an interminable winter.  It was an absolutely beautiful day, one of those that is begging to be used out on the hills.  For just about the first time this year there was actually some warmth in the air, which made it quite difficult to know what to wear.
The Fox

From Whyteleafe Station I retraced my steps back along the suburban streets until reaching the LOOP.  By now the gardens were full of spring flowers and the air was full of bird song; a far cry from the dismal day that I left back in January when I was last in these parts.  I have to say that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the climb out of Whyteleafe – I always prefer a mile or two to get accustomed to a comfortable pace before arriving at the first hill.  Still, this one wasn’t quite such a slog as I expected.  At the top was a short stretch of lovely woodland and just beyond that I could see Kenley Airfield.  This was one of the fighter stations in World War 2, vanguard in the Battle of Britain and apparently the last one still in original condition.  Nowadays it serves as a rather more peaceful facility – a training school for glider pilots.  As if to prove the point there were a couple in action taking advantage of the wonderfully bright and benign conditions.  Watching them float around in the sky above me was quite fascinating.  Yet the clues to the airfield’s past were perhaps more interesting.  In the far distance were the old officers’ quarters and assorted aerodrome buildings which I would have like the time to explore further – maybe another day?  Closer were the old blast pens that were originally constructed to protect the planes from airborne bombing attacks.
Coulsdon Common

After this brief interlude I continued on my way and for about half a mile the LOOP does its best to stick to the perimeter of the facility.  After crossing a couple of fields I came upon the rather bizarre sight of a small observatory, like a mini Greenwich.  Sadly I wasn’t given much of an opportunity to look at it since I was accosted by two rather angry and barky dogs who seemed not to be under any control from the adjacent smallholding.  I’m not that keen on dogs when I’m out at the best of times, but these were particularly anti-social and rather spoiled what should have been an interesting section.
Southernmost Point on the Route

I had thought that I’d escaped into the countryside, but got a rude awakening when I dropped down into yet another piece of suburbia in Old Coulsdon.  Fortunately this bit didn’t last more than a couple of streets and I was soon in the woods again with birdsong for my companion.  This was Coulsdon Common, a lovely tract of countryside rather spoiled by the main road that passed through the very middle of it.  The Dutch style Fox pub looked like a nice watering hole, but not open at 10.30 in the morning so I pressed on.  This was obviously a local beauty spot, judging by the number of cars already gathered in the car park behind the pub.  I passed by the curious looking gym equipment that parks people seem to think will attract casual users (they don’t, or at least I’ve never seen one).  Surely if people want to go to the gym, they will go to the gym, not come to a countryside location in the hope that the good people of the Forestry Commission or local authority parks department have provided such a facility?  Still, more notable perhaps than the gym was the fact that hereabouts was the southernmost point of the entire walk.  I turned to head to what I expected to be the best part of the day’s walk, the short section through Happy Valley.  I wasn’t disappointed!  This is a beautiful chalk downland walk, up there with the very best that the rest of the North Downs have to offer. 
Happy Valley

Naturally Happy Valley was pretty busy with people, all out enjoying the sunshine and getting their kids out into the fresh air during the school holidays.  All rather laudable, and although I normally like such countryside to myself, I couldn’t even complain inwardly as it was good to see so many enjoying their surroundings.  Having diagonally crossed the valley, I wandered up through a short section of woodland to reach Farthing Down.  Depending on how you look at it, this is a long finger of chalk ridge that extends into the suburbs (rather than the suburbs reaching into the countryside?).  It is a remarkable mile or so of walking and on such a clear day the view across to central London was amazing.  All the main buildings of the city and Canary Wharf could be picked out, and I was glad to have brought my binoculars so I could see them more clearly.  The road that I followed is actually a continuation of a road crossed near Chaldon Village on the North Downs Way.  The two paths are less than two miles apart at this point.
Farthing Down

It was as well to enjoy the ridge walk while I could, for the next part was much less pleasant.  From Farthing Down the path descends into Coulsdon, and this section must have been particularly dreadful to walk before the improvements to the A23 were made a few years ago.  After crossing Coulsdon South station (unusually via the station footbridge), I had to cross what I remember as the A23 but which is now just an access road now the by-pass section has been built.  By now lunchtime was approaching and so I scouted around for somewhere to get some lunch.  Despite being quite a big place, it was a bit barren lunchwise.  There seemed to be a surfeit of rather grotty looking takeaways but little in the way of baker’s shops, which was a massive disappointment.  I had to settle for Tesco, which shows how desperate I really was.

Having braved the town centre I was keen to get back to walking and the prospects weren’t good – for now I had to gain at least the same height out of town as I had dropped down from Farthing Downs.  This was along a seemingly endless uphill road through the suburbs, although the blossom on the trees provided some compensation.  At the top I was amused by the pub sign for the Jack and Jill, although it was rather strange surroundings considering the niceness of the suburbs on the way up the hill.  This was in a rather rough looking shopping precinct, the type normally avoided unless there is no other choice.
Blossom Trees

Fortunately, I was able to leave the road behind and continue on my way across country.  I was now crossing the Woodcote Estate, a rather strange landscape of scattered farmsteads set up for returning soldiers from World War 2.  Nowadays I bet these smallholdings are worth a small fortune!  From this well manicured piece of countryside I got rather a shock around the next corner when the field that the path crossed was full of flytipped waste.  Initially I was outraged, but when I saw that it was next door to a traveller’s site my reaction became more of a groan.  
Woodcote Estate
Another field further on and I reached a busy road, which I had no alternative but to walk along.  It was rather a scary experience and even though it was only a couple of hundred metres in length, this is a section that is in desperate need of improvement.  I was pleased to enter fields again, and this time I had a rather more Continental experience when the field I was crossing was full of lavender.  Of course at this early stage of the year the plants were rather brown looking and not the wonderful hues of purple that are reminiscent of Provence.  Still, better was to come when I entered Oaks Park.  This is a wonderful place to be, complete with cafĂ© and beds of beautiful flowers and palm trees.  I was just beginning to enjoy myself looking at the flower beds when it felt like the LOOP let me out through the back door almost unnoticed.  I was under some time pressure to get back home, on account of coming by rail so a proper look around the park was a luxury I couldn’t afford. 
Lavender Fields

From the world of Oaks Park, I soon came across a rather more forboding man made environment when I passed by Highdown Prison.  The walls around it were definitely not to be messed with and as I passed I considered how awful it must be to be incarcerated on such a beautiful day.  Shortly afterwards I crossed over Sutton Lane and looked out from the Banstead Downs viewpoint towards Kingston ahead.  Of course the next section of the LOOP I have already completed but the viewpoint didn’t give me much of a hint of how that section would look.  For the last part of the walk once I had crossed yet another railway line (and the one that would take me home), I had to dodge golf balls on the Royal Banstead Golf Course, where it had all begun for me back in October.  It was then a short hop skip and jump to the rather dilapidated Banstead station.
Oaks Park

This is a wonderful section of the LOOP (Coulsdon excepted – sorry), best enjoyed on a day just like today when it is sunny and bright.  With clear skies you can really make the most of the extensive views across the capital and it was certainly fun picking out the sights of London from the outer perimeter!