Tuesday, 19 October 2010

London LOOP section 9 Uxbridge - Moor Park

Uxbridge Tube Station
It’s been five months since my last trip to the ‘burbs and strangely I had really missed doing this walk.  My original plan today was to walk the next section of the Sussex Coast Path, but a fire at Hastings Pier only a couple of days earlier actually put me off a bit.  I had enjoyed looking at the pier only a few weeks ago and the thought of seeing the only just put out remains just seemed like voyeurism and I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Crown and Treaty

Now that autumn has really kicked in the thought of wandering along another section of the Grand Union Canal, as this section of the LOOP does for the first five miles seemed a lot more appealing.  I once again parked in the centre of Uxbridge as further north I had heard about a huge jam on the M25 that I didn’t really need to get involved with.  This also enabled me to get an earlier start on the walk as the public transport bit would be left to the end.  From the shopping centre I headed down to the banks of the Grand UnionCanal, passing the Crown and Treaty pub as I did so.  This Tudor looking building is just a lowly chain pub these days but it has a place in English history, for under a different guise it was the setting for some fairly tense negotiations between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War in 1645.  Perhaps unsurprisingly the treaty was doomed to failure with both sides feeling that they had the upper hand in the war at the time.  It wasn’t too long before the inevitable happened to Charles I.  No doubt Oliver Cromwell would be horrified at the current use of the building!
Lock Keeper's Cottage

Just past the pub I was reunited with the canal at the Swan and Bottle pub and stood for a moment on the overbridge watching the delicate operation that is turning a canal boat.  Fortunately there is a winding hole at this point, for otherwise the manoeuvre would be impossible.  Once the turn was complete I lost interest and continued down onto the towpath.  I immediately sensed that this was going to be a special day for walking since the weather was sunny and still and with virtually no flow on a canal, the surface of the water was almost like a mirror in places.  Just north of the start of my walk I passed the first lock and point of interest when I passed by Uxbridge boatyard and lock in quick succession.  My eyes were drawn to the lock keepers cottage, now a private residence and a great place to live if you are a boat spotter!

A little further on and another industrial relic wasn’t so lucky as a large demolition machine was in the process of dismantling the metal shed attached to one side using what I can only described as huge bolt cutters (great attachement by the way!).  I stood and watched mesmerised for a few minutes, secretly wishing that I was actually taking part.  If the canal hadn’t been there, who knows I might have asked for a go.  Perhaps I need a trip to Diggerland one day?
Stern Wheeler

The next half a mile or so I spent nosing at the various boats parked by the side of the towpath.  Most were in very good condition with their beautiful liveries and some displaying business details that in some cases I wasn’t sure were current or historical!  Some had very ingenious ways of ensuring that their owners had plenty of modern conveniences, including bicycles, small boats tethered alongside, satellite dishes and photovoltaic cells all attached to their boats.  I also saw a pretty preposterous looking ‘stern-wheeler’ – never seen anything like that before!  It’s a far cry from the basic conditions the canal boat owners from the 18th Century would have ‘enjoyed’.

I soon headed out of the built up area of Uxbridge and open countryside beckoned on the other side of the roar of the A40 Westway which passed above me.  I soon realised that I would get some pretty good pictures of the canal today as the water was so still and the reflections were amazing.  In this early part of the autumn  it always surprises me how some trees have almost completely shut down and others still look green and thriving and both kinds were very much in evidence along this beautiful stretch of the canal.  In the blackberry bushes alongside the spiders had spun hundreds of webs in order to catch the hapless insects that were still hanging around trying to feed on the last of the blackberries.  It almost felt like Mother Nature cleaning up after the summer and getting ready for the winter hibernation. 

I had to pinch myself that I was in Greater London, especially as the map showed an area of countryside scarred by gravel quarrying.  Remarkably though the gravel pits have returned to nature and enhance the countryside – it shouldn’t be possible but what can I say?  The canal seems a far from an industrial relic too and the stretch between Westway and Denham Lock is especially enjoyable.  My peace and quiet was rather spoiled though by the ferocious looking guard dogs standing at the gate behind the lock keepers cottage at Denham Lock a little further on.  I was just glad they were contained safely behind the gate, otherwise I think I would have made a dainty mid morning snack.  I couldn’t help thinking that they might be set on customers of the tea room that now occupies the cottage if people don’t pay!  At Denham Lock there was also the intriguing sight of the canal crossing the River Colne.  I don’t know why these aqueducts are so interesting but there is something rather odd about water crossing water that I can’t quite get my head around.
Tea Anyone?

A short while later and at the next bridge the path left the canal to take a course alongside a couple of lakes now filling former gravel pits.  The origins of these beautiful lakes is amazing when you see how they look now – it’s as though they have been here forever.  As I wandered along this stretch of the path I enjoyed looking at the various birds that call the lake home busily gathering nesting materials for their winter homes.  The woodland floor was also littered with fungi, including a few fly agaric, the archetypal fairy mushrooms with their vivid red colour and white spots.
Fly Agaric

At the top end of the lake I jumped out of my skin as a train went rattling past and I realised that I was approaching the former Great Central Line and now line to Birmingham via Chiltern Railways.  I was also reunited with the canal at this point and the reflections of the viaduct in the water were truly amazing.  Capturing them on camera wasn’t so easy though as I had to work my way through stinging nettles and brambles to get the right spot, so I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labour!
Autumn Tints

On the other side of the viaduct another lake appeared and this time it was being used as a sailing and watersports centre although there was no life at all today, save for a grebe in the distance busily taking advantage of the quietness and gathering weed for its nest.  Eventually at the end of the lake the path curved around and I soon realised why as I had reached Denham Boatyard, an enormous parking lot of canal boats,  Yet despite all the shapes and sizes of boat on show it was the one nearest the path that caught my eye, the MSC Frodsham, which I understand now is a replica vessel based on the boats that used to ply the Bridgewater Canal in Cheshire.  It seems to be a much travelled boat for I have since come across pictures of it in Gloucester, Shropshire and Wolverton.
Great Central

For a short while I left canal behind as I rounded yet another gravel pit, this time set up as a delicious looking nature reserve complete with picnic area that definitely would have sparked my imagination.  I wandered over to take a closer look at the lake and was delighted to find a red admiral butterfly sitting on a buddleia bush just begging to have its picture taken.  Once I had a couple of shots it cleared off, heading off into the undergrowth in search of a more private spot.  I soon became aware of some more unnatural looking wood next to me and as I traced it around I quickly realised that it was actually a canal barge that had been pulled up onto shore and left to rot and be absorbed by nature.  Judging by the size of the trees that had taken root inside I am guessing that it had been there in excess of 50 years.
MSC Frodsham

A little further on and I reached a road at the settlement of South Harefield.  The nature reserve that I had been walking through had some pretty robust looking defences around the gateways, I suspect to help protect it from traveller and flytipping incursions.  While I applaud these efforts, it is sad that the countryside surrounding urban areas has to be furnished with concrete blocks, bunding or metal gates in order to stop this anti-social behaviour.  I was pleased to be reunited with the canal once again after this flirtation with normality.
Red Admiral

I dropped down onto the canal by the Horse and Barge pub at Widewater Lock.  The pub looked deserted today but its expansive size, together with plenty of additional facilities like kiddies playground and crazy golf course suggested that this might be quite a popular stop off point for canal boaters.  The canal northward from here was very tranquil and quiet and I passed very few people for the next couple of miles.  Each side of the canal was open countryside for the most part although on the western side I could see glimpses of yet more extensive gravel pit lakes.  Every so often I passed the odd house and in one or two cases they came with very well tended gardens adding even more beauty to the scene.  Most of the houses initially I guessed were canal workers houses, for they certainly seemed to be the right style and vintage.  Just before the end of my canal part of the walk though it seemed as if a developer had finally woken up to the potential of the canal as an attractive place for housing as I passed a reasonably new development.  Far from detracting from the attractiveness of the canal though it seemed as if many of the householders were also canal devotees for there were several boats moored outside what I took to be the house of the owner.  I also suspect that the houses replaced some derelict canal based building, hence they were allowed to be built in what I am sure would otherwise be green belt land.
Returning to Nature

At the rather cheesily named Coy Carp pub (which had some very strange looking cobwebs filling the area under the eaves by the way), I finally left the canal for good today.  I was actually a bit disappointed for I had really enjoyed the Grand Union Canal both today and way back in May when I completed the last section.  I can’t help feeling that sooner or later I may well be back to look at the rest of the canal (maybe as a bike ride?).  I rounded a couple of roads, passing a fairly impressive looking mill building on the way and headed up the hill out of the Colne Valley.  I couldn’t help but see the irony of a missing cat poster being affixed to the directional signage for a cattery and wondered whether the two were linked in some way? 
Canal Cottage

After passing the cattery (which was nestled in a cleared hollow in the woods and looked like a place that anyone would want to holiday) I climbed up through woodland that I took to be some ancient parkland that had been left to rack and ruin.  I say this because alongside the path was some quite elaborate decorative iron fencing that had clearly seen better days and which only about 25% remained in situ.  At the top of the hill the path levelled out and passed between a large allotment site and a large open site with planning permission signs affixed to the fence.  Initially expecting that it was zoned for housing when I read through I saw instead that the locals had actually applied for village green status to preserve it as a public open space, an increasing practice in recent years.
New Neighbours

I reached another road and passed by a pub that has now been turned into a children’s centre, although the style of the building still gave the game away as to its provenance.  Even the old pub sign was intact at one end of the car park.  From here the path then continued across several fields, unremarkable except that the maize crop in one had been left to rot and remained unharvested perhaps as a result of the wet weather we had during September.  The worst part of the day came at the end of these fields when I had to walk about 500 metres along a very busy road with no pavement.  There are fortunately very few sections like this on the LOOP but when they do come they make for nasty walking indeed.  I was very pleased to see the footpath sign off to the left a few minutes and a couple of close shaves later.  I passed along another path that had been securely fenced off from its surroundings for a short while before being disgorged into a huge field with a great view across to Moor Park golf course.  I suddenly became aware of my feet getting a bit wet and realised that the grass in the shade was still damp with heavy dew that hadn’t yet seen the sun and not evaporated. 

Unlike previous correspondents that have complained about the lack of signage in these parts I could have no such complaints so far today, but I did discover a missing sign that almost cost me quite a lot of distance before I realised.  Luckily the very obvious path that had been going forever forward seemed as if it might be heading in the wrong direction and sure enough I discovered that I was correct.  Finding the true path seemed more difficult than I expected but I realised that I should have entered an adjacent wood.  I wasn’t wholly sure though as it was a bit of a rough path and not what I had been used to, so you can imagine my relief when I finally found a LOOP sign once again.
Former Pub

It wasn’t the only time I would be relieved as about 500 metres further on when the path threatened to become ever more swampy after the recent heavy rain, it suddenly detoured at exactly the right moment to avoid the worst of it entirely.  The path through this part of woodland was much less well-defined though and I wouldn’t be surprised if many LOOP walkers have got pretty lost through here.  I reached Betchworth Heath, a lovely little oasis sitting alongside a very busy couple of roads.  The pond was not especially clean though – it looked like the rain had stirred up much of the pondbed, leaving the water pretty brown and murky.
Betchworth Heath

The two pubs at Betchworth Heath couldn’t be more different.  Ye Old Green Man is a pub that looks to have cleaned up on the catering trade, appealing to the well heeled.  Just down the road though the Prince of Wales looks like a much seedier joint, confirmed by its rusty sign and the advertisements for strippers on one of the blackboards outside.  I was pleased that my dalliance with yet another busy road was short lived and I soon found myself wandering down through an area of woodland.  The path though had some strange piles of concrete paving slabs at various points on the way down, suggesting an unfinished civil engineering job.  A little further on and there were excavations of a different nature as the path was completely filled with a very large and freshly dug burrow of possibly a fox judging by the size of it.  After this surprisingly rural stretch through what appeared to be suburbia according to the map, I eventually hit houses and most of the remaining part of the walk was through salubrious suburbia and private estates.
Abandoned Project

When I reached the tube line I was about to travel on I took the link path to Moor Park station.  On one side of me I could hear the odd thwack of a golf ball, while on the other side was the Metropolitan Line to Watford and Amersham.  Yet, between these distractions the little corridor of woodland that the link path travels through was alive with the sound of birdsong, more in keeping with Spring than Autumn.  Yet, on such a fine day who wouldn’t want to sing about it?
Approaching Moor Park

Moor Park station was a bit forbidding and had obviously been made very vandal-proof, slightly out of keeping with the setting that the station is in.  I expected only a couple of minutes wait here for my train back to Uxbridge (via Harrow-on-the-Hill), but in the event I ended up waiting a lot longer than expected since there had been a breakdown further down the line.  Surprisingly this was the first time that I had used the Underground network to get back to my point of origin.  Not a good start!
Moor Park Station

The public transport link is one of the easier ones in North London and this section was mostly a joy, especially the canal section.  The latter half of the walk was less memorable and I’m hoping won’t be a common theme as I now strike eastwards across the top of London.  I guess by the time I come back this way autumn may well be heading into winter…

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

South West Coast Path Section 52 West Bay - Abbotsbury

West Bay Cliff
It never dawned on me that I would be back on the coast path so soon, but a quick perusal of the weather forecast suggested that the outlook wasn’t great in the South East.  The weather forecast for Bridport on the other hand was fantastic so I needed no second bidding!  Now I have headed a little further east along the Jurassic Coast these day trips are not so arduous, especially on a Sunday morning when the road to Dorset is so empty and I can be down there in a couple of hours.
West Bay

As happened with my first of these day trips I hit the line of cloud somewhere in the Southampton/ New Forest area and from that point the sky was azure blue without a cloud in the sky.  I can’t help but be excited for the walk ahead when the conditions are so fabulous!  I wished that I had had these conditions when I had walked the Golden Cap section a few weeks earlier.  I managed to reach Abbotsbury almost exactly two hours after leaving home and about half an hour before my bus was due.  I was pleased about this as it gave me the opportunity to have a little look around in the village and with no panic about catching the bus (the service runs every two hours from here to West Bay).
West Bay Cliff View

The bus, when it did arrive, was quite full and I noticed a number of people donning walking boots and all probably with the same idea as me.  When I got out at West Bay there were only a couple of others that alighted though, suggesting that the others were heading much further westwards.  I stocked up on provisions at the shop on the dockside and had a peer at the boats before setting off for East Cliff.  I was tempted by the Tea Station, visited at the end of my last walk but thought that a tummy full of bacon sandwich/ coffee might not be the best thing to help me get up the steep climb of the cliff.
Empty Beach

Plodding up the side of East Cliff was a bit of a shock to the system so early in the walk but I comforted myself with the knowledge that this was likely to be the hardest climb of the day.  The view from the top was compensation too; I had picked an extremely good day to be doing this walk and the views extended to far beyond Torquay on the Devon Coast, some 70 miles away in one direction and the formidable lump of the Isle of Portland 20 miles in the other direction.  The great sweep of Lyme Bay was calm and deep blue and full of shipping seemingly idle and quite possibly enjoying a day’s rest on the sunshine.  All through this walk the sea has been on my right hand side (making for fairly easy navigation!) and sometimes it is easy to forget the views and activities going on at the left of me.  As I looked out across West Bay, the sweep of the old railway line to Bridport was pretty evident and the Tea Station seemed to be filling up with visitors quickly.  In the distance the pine tree crowned Colmers Hill stood out as possibly the most famous landmark in this part of Dorset.  Immediately next to the path now was the Bridport and West Dorset Golf Club, very busy today as you might expect on such a sunny day.
Scenic Golf Hole

As it was still pretty early in the morning I now faced the sun as I headed towards Abbotsbury.  This made for slightly odd picture taking as it meant that I had to take pictures retrospectively all the time, giving the impression that I was walking in the opposite direction.  However, the light and clarity of the air were so fantastic that I didn’t really mind.
Bleak Caravan Park

After walking along a level piece of cliff top for awhile, the path dipped into a hollow that was occupied by possibly the most scenic golfing hole in all of Dorset.  I suspect many golfers come to this course to play this hole, for it really is spectacular (although I’ve no doubt an absolute pig if it is windy!).  It was a testing little section for me too as the steepness of the path both sides of the hollow made me think hard about how to approach it.  One slip and it might have been curtains for the rest of the day’s walking!  Fortunately both the golfers and I made easy work of our respective requirements today and I continued along the cliff edge at high level for another half mile or so.
Lazing Around

The next dip down to sea level was rather different as I was this time faced with a fully fledged river valley blocking my way, albeit that the river was little more than a stream and couldn’t possibly have carved the valley before me.  However it was really formed, its natural beauty was rather sullied by yet another caravan park (is there really that much demand for staying on these bleak facilities?).  This one seemed to be even more functional looking than others, and little attempt had been made at blending it into the countryside.  It’s a funny thing – before walking along the coast I didn’t much care about caravan sites but now I am beginning to despise them.  For all its prettiness the Jurassic Coast has been spoiled by the number of parks allowed so close to the water.
River Bride

I got a better view of this park than most for my way up onto the next set of cliffs was barred by the small stream rather enthusiastically called the River Bride.  The path dog-legged around this obstruction by means of a bridge a couple of hundred metres upstream.  Far more interesting than the exploits of the remaining holidaymakers left at this late stage of the season were the geological processes going on at the mouth of the river.  This was like the forthcoming Chesil Beach in miniature.  The mouth of the river had been blocked off by the shingle bank that had been deposited probably as a spit at first, but which now formed a natural dam.  On the way to the bridge over the river I passed through a field of donkeys, looking very chilled out on this Sunday morning.  Most of them were laying down half asleep, maybe they knew something about the weather that I didn’t?  On the other side of the river were the remains of several pillboxes, suggesting that the authorities were concerned about the security of this lonely stretch of the Dorset Coast.  I suspect that an area like this would have been far more vulnerable to invasion than the locations most of us would think about.

Looking back down the coast from the adjacent cliff was amazing – the blues of the sea, sky and river were different in their intensities but made for some spectacular contrast.  I climbed the short climb to the top, by now realising that as I headed east each of the cliffs were getting a little shorter.  Walking along Burton Cliff was a joy, with views across to the village of Burton Bradstock inland and the breathtaking view opening up towards the Isle of Portland ahead of me.  As I got closer to Burton Beach the path had obviously been re-routed in a number of places to deal with the erosion that is a constant feature of this coast.  This issue was particularly pronounced as I reached the clifftop hotel by Burton Beach, where it looked like several attempts had been made to deal with the problem.
More Caravans

Burton Beach was particularly busy although most of the visitors had confined themselves to the coffee shop on the beachside.  Seeing how many people were there I thought better of sticking around and pushed on along the coast.  The next cliff was barely noticeable for height, but more pillboxes were in evidence using what height did exist to give a little better view out to sea.  It seems strange to think that this piece of coast was so well protected, but the evidence is there for all to see, even though these structures are generally unloved these days.
Beginning of Chesil Beach

A little further out from Burton Beach and as I approached the end of the cliffs for the day I was confronted by another gulag-like caravan site, this time on the top of the cliff and seemingly stretching on forever in military precision rows.  There were few tourists in evidence today, apart from a young family outside playing ball and enjoying the view across Lyme Bay.  This marked the end of cliff walking for me today for a short distance later I had dropped down onto the shingle that marks the beginning of the remarkable Chesil Beach, at 18 miles the longest stretch of shingle in the country.
West Bexington

I got a bit caught up in the moment as I approached Chesil Beach and missed the sign for the coast path, which actually pointed to the landward side of Burton Mere, the small reed filled lagoon cut off by the shingle beach.  I managed to walk a few hundred metres before I realised my mistake.  The prospect of walking an extended distance on the shingle probably saved me and I retraced my steps and regained the ‘right’ side of the Mere.  It was a relief since the path this side was devoid of shingle although sadly it was devoid of views too and for a mile or so I found the walking a bit ‘blah’, saved only by the continuing gorgeousness of the day and a brief interlude walking along a boardwalk through a small wood.
Waiting for the Enemy

I eventually reached West Bexington, a rather odd little village that is strung out along one road heading inland and notable only for the presence of a public loo (which was very welcome!) and an attractive looking café just set back from the seafront car park.  The Coast Path splits at West Bexington too – an inland route by-passes the Portland Peninsula and heads off across the South Dorset Ridgeway to Osmington Mills.  Not a coast path perhaps but offers a great view of the coast nonetheless – this will be a future day out for me. 
South Dorset Ridge

Today though I headed along the coast and just beyond the car park the path becomes a shingle road with a warning to vehicle traffic that there are deep ruts and shingle, suggesting that the road is impassable.  Yet, despite the implied warning there was a van about a hundred metres in that seemingly had been abandoned, having got stuck in the deep shingle.  From here the path followed what looked like it had once been a well-used coastal road that had not been maintained and left to fall into disrepair.  I saw signs showing passing places every so often and tarmac had clearly been laid at some point although there wasn’t much left.  It is a sparsely populated stretch of coast, with the only buildings of note are old coastguard cottages and the odd farm building.  Additionally there was quite a collection of pillboxes, further underlining how difficult it must have been keeping a watch out for the enemy in World War II.
Welcome Tea

Eventually the road gained some tarmac once again as I approached Abbotsbury and I came upon a largish car park.  More importantly there was a café, which was a very welcome sight as I was gagging for a cup of tea.  I ordered a pot and a bacon sandwich.  The latter was fantastic, made with local bacon and very tasty.  The pot of tea though was a blast from the past, served up in a plastic (yes, plastic!) Typhoo teapot that I hadn’t seen since the late 1980s when they were all the rage for awhile in motorway service stations!  Still it was a welcome cuppa nonetheless and fortified me for the last mile and a half into Abbotsbury.  Before heading to the village I took a last look up close and personal at Chesil Beach, for the path heads inland here.  This is a blessing for I can’t imagine anyone wanting to negotiate mile upon mile of shingle.  I did want to get a feel for the scale of the beach though and headed up onto the shingle bank.  It was an impressive sight, curving away gently towards the Isle of Portland.  My enjoyment of the view was rather distracted by the presence of a camera and broadcasting crew on the beach.  I edged over to see what was going on and realised that the main focus of the activity was Stuart Maconie, famous walker and radio personality.  I wanted to speak to him, but seeing that him and his crew were hard at it, I thought better of it.  I later learned that he is walking the Jurassic Coast section of the South West Coast Path with Mark Radcliffe for a radio programme.
Approaching Abbotsbury

After my encounter with such famous people it was back to the last part of the walk into Abbotsbury.  This is a beautiful village inland from the coast and hidden from view until the last minute by a hill that houses the famous landmark of St Catherines Chapel.  Rather than slavishly follow the official route I took the opportunity to head up the hill and have a look at the chapel more closely.  I was most glad that I did, for the view from the top was magnificent.  The chapel was interesting to look inside, albeit that the building is mostly a shell now with no pews or altar inside.  Across the village the remnants of the once extensive Abbey can still be seen even though the institution was one of the victims of the dissolution of Henry VIII’s reign.  On the Chesil Beach side of the hill I could also see the famous swannery, an unusual managed colony of mute swans.  Maybe a closer look at this beckons on my next trip?
St Catherine's Hill

From St Catherine’s Hill, it was a short descent into the village, which although catering for a tourist audience these days has managed to retain much of its charm.  I hurried back to the car having heard a car alarm from the top of the hill that I suspected might be mine!  You can imagine my relief when I found that not to be the case on my return.

This was easily the least taxing walk along the Jurassic Coast so far, for apart from the short cliff section (not even comparing with previous sections), it was flat for the majority of the walk.  The bus connection was easy and took only twenty minutes, although some planning is required as the X53 only runs every 2 hours.  I was super lucky with the weather – it was easily the best day we had during the whole of September!  Refreshments and toilet facilities are also surprisingly easy to come by on a relatively sparsely populated stretch of coast.  All in all a joy.  Now when can I get down here again?