Hello dear readers and thanks for checking out the eleventh day of my walk round the London LOOP orbital path. If you’ve been reading the previous posts then just skip down to the read more button as the next paragraph is merely a cut and paste of an earlier one for the benefit of readers who have just landed on this post.
The London LOOP is a little over 150 miles of designated and way-marked public right of way which is just concentric to the M25 motorway and as always I start with a quick word of advice. This post is one of a series and it will make more sense lunacy had compelled me to undertake such a large project.
Thanks for clicking and welcome to this instalment.
Regular readers will know that I left you last time at the end of Section 4 of the walk as per the guidebook / website and that meant that I was two thirds round as I had done Sections 12 – 24 North of the Thames first and had now completed 1 – 4 South of the “Old Father” and I really had a taste for it again after a hiatus of nine months. This was my third consecutive day walking and how I wish I could do those distances now, writing this as I am under house arrest / lockdown during the CoVid pandemic in May 2020 and with ill-health having reduced my striding out somewhat.
The day started out a little badly as I had to once again pass the forlorn looking waste ground that formerly held a pub but I had got myself over that and was looking forward to Section 5. This Section is officially Hamsey Green to Banstead Downs (per the guidebook, not website) and as always I didn’t know if I would get it all done that day or possibly even a bit more. It is a distance of ten miles which I could knock off easily enough in those days depending on how distracted along the way but that was not a problem as this was never intended to be a speed march. If you care to join me we’ll see how far we get.
I knew I was on the right road, literally and metaphorically as, right beside the vanished pub was a useful sign which told me so and indicated I was in the blue third of the walk. I have not mentioned this colour coding before as it is of no practical use and not referred to in any detail in the guide book or websites. I really don’t know why it exists but for the sake of completeness I’ll tell you that blue is basically everything South of the river, green the Northwest and yellow the Northeast. Don’t bother taking notes, you won’t need to know this and there isn’t a test at the end of the page!
Despite standing beside a busy road whilst taking the above I was soon right back in the country again. The LOOP really is like that. This area is generically known as Riddlesdown which comes from the old English meaning a cleared woodland on a hill and was first recorded in 1331. It is just over 100 acres of calceous scrubland (yes, I had to look that up) which simply means the soil is chalky and they haven’t cleared it to build on yet. Thankfully, nobody will ever be able to build on it as Riddlesdown and the adjacent Kenley Common which we will come to shortly are both City of London Corporation Commons, a concept we have met before on this walk.
About three quarters of the site is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) mainly due to some unusual herbs found there and the presence of a rare European bush-cricket, whatever that might be. Perhaps more importantly it is one of very few places in London where juniper grows which must have been handy for the production of London’s famous gin. I didn’t notice any of these wonders but I certainly did notice the disused chalk quarry because it is so big you could not miss it. I must admit that when I saw it I didn’t know it was a quarry and took it to be a natural geological feature which looked like a mini white cliffs of Dover but it was actually operational until 1967.
In Riddlesdown I passed a feature I had not seen for years and always associated with wild places and mountain tops, a trig. point. I certainly was not expecting one here. I apologise to those of you who may know all about trig. points but I am going to explain for the benefit of my readers who may not. I only found out when I was learning to read maps in the Scouts!
Britain has a very long history of cartography extending back centuries and having it’s origin in military necessity which gives rise to the rather quaint and internationally renowned name of the Ordnance Survey. I recently watched a wonderful documentary on the BBC about the history of the organisation and it was fascinating. Sadly it is no longer available on the iPlayer.
Whilst the triangulation (i.e. accurate measuring of the country) had been going on piecemeal in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was not keeping pace with the requirements of the 20th century and in 1936 the OS started building concrete structures like this which were designed as a base for a theodolite from where steady, precise measurements could be obtained. The term trig. point is merely a contraction of the word triangulation point. If you want to know all about them, the OS website has an excellent article here.
They are mostly of this design but with a few larger cylindrical structures called Vanessas which I have never seen an example of and which naturally I had to look up. It seems the name is a corruption of Venesta which was the company who made them. You probably didn’t want to know that but it kept me happy. In the way that people like to collect things there are people who try to “bag” as many trig points as they can in much the same way that others go Munro bagging in Scotland which entails climbing mountains over 3,000 feet. I have even heard of people trying to visit every Wetherspoons pub in the UK which sounds like a plan to me. These trig-happy types (another one I couldn’t resist) have a rather good website of their own if you are interested.
I don’t know why but the rather ugly functional lump of concrete made me a little wistful although I was glad I saw it. I carried on up some quite steep steps and onto Kenley Common, another of the Corporation Commons and even bigger than Riddlesdown at a shade under 140 acres. Unlike Riddlesdown it is not and SSSI but rather an SINC (Metropolitan grade) and I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up. SINC is an acronym for Site of Importance for Nature Conservation although how that differs from an SSSI I am not sure and why we need so many different designations is quite beyond me. I won’t even bore you with Special Landscape Area (SLA), Local Green Space (LGS) or Metropolitan Open Land (MOL). I promise you I am not making these up and there are even more but that is enough to be going on with. I suppose it keeps a lot of bureaucrats in well-paid if not necessarily productive employment.
It was on Kenley Common that I saw what must rank as one of the most pointless structures I have ever seen. I did have a look round and could see no evidence of post holes from a former fence on either side. I eventually came to the slightly Pythonesque conclusion that it was either a training aid for teaching novice ramblers how to open and close gates or was a leftover prop from the “Upper Class Twit of the Year”. If that means nothing to you, look it up, it is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Before you ask, no I didn’t go through it as I am not quite that mad yet!
Not far past the gate to nowhere I found an old area of concrete surrounded on three sides by a low earth berm and I had no idea what it was but I do now. This is one of a series of “shelters” for Spitfire ‘planes in Word War Two to give them a modicum of protection from aerial strafing whilst on the ground. They are now Scheduled Monuments and the whole airfield is a Conservation Area, so there are another couple of designations for you. The blast pens were sorely needed as we shall see in a moment.
Walking past the shelters I came to a runway with some buildings in the distance and a number of gliders and Land Rovers parked up and this gives a clue to the airfield. It is now home to 615 Volunteer Gliding Squadron (VGS), part of the RAF Training Wing for Air Cadets but while gliding is a nice peaceful pastime (at least if you are not parachuting into or landing in enemy territory) Kenley has a much more violent history.
Opened in 1917 as an airfield for the infant Royal Flying Corps it saw service in the First World War and was still in service with the RAF by the time of the second global conflict where it was one of three airfields tasked with the defence of London during the Battle of Britain. I mentioned that the blast pens were very necessary as, on 18th August 1940, during the costliest day of the Battle of Britain when the Allies lost 68 aircraft and the Germans 69, the airfield was attacked and 10 aircraft were destroyed on the ground with another six damaged, a serious loss for an already over-stretched Fighter Command.
Over it’s years of service RAF Kenley was home to many famous pilots including “Sailor” Malan, the Soth African ace, “Johnnie” Johnson, another fighter legend and, before the war, the famous Douglas Bader before he lost his legs in an accident.
After the War, RAF Kenley carried on as an RAF station until 1959 when it adopted it’s present glider operations. Powered aircraft are no longer allowed to use te runway, which is still in it’s original WWII configuration which leads many (including Heritage) to regard it as the best preserved Battle of Britain airfield in existence now. It is still technically administered by the Ministy of Defence although bizarrely the guy in charge of it is based at RAF Syerston which is many, many miles away in Nottinghamshire. That’s defence cuts for you, I suppose. Because of it’s current semi-military use I was slightly wary about taking images but I was out in the open and making no secret of what I was doing. I didn’t see a soul about anyway to tell me off.
Standing right at the edge of the runway here it was impossible not to reflect on the almost suicidal bravery of the young men, often not much more than boys, who took off from here and all to often never came back. When I was there it was over 70 years since the Battle of Britain and still you could almost hear the roar of the Spitfires and Hurricanes hammering down this very stretch of tarmac as they scrambled to effectively turn the tide of the War. To borrow Churchill’s famous quote, “Never in the field of human conflict, has so much been owed by so many to so few” and I do honestly believe that still to be true. Certainly there have been massive sacrifices all over the world in many awful conflicts but the Battle of Britain was so pivotal it is difficult to overstate it’s importance.
I was having a good old think about all this as I wandered the very short distance to my first “pit-stop”, the absolutely brilliant Wattenden Arms and that did nothing to derail my train of thought as it is an absolute shrine to the aviators of Kenley who used to frequent it. It is literally only a short stroll there from the airfield (presumably a stagger back) and I really don’t blame them for sinking a few after what they had been doing. If you have any interest in military history, as I have, this place is an absolute must on the LOOP and even if you have no interest at all, it is still a cracking pub.
Much as I would have loved another in a pub where again you could almost hear the chatter of long-dead airmen, I had more walking to do and so went back on the path where the first feature I encountered did rather surprise me. As you can see it is an observatory, specifically the Norman Fisher Observatory which is home to the Croydon Astronomical Society. I would have though that there would be too much light pollution this close to London but they must be happy enough with it as their website suggests they are still an active group.
I wanted to crack on but after a short walk across Coulsdon Common I fear I had to stop again. Yes, another pub, this one the Fox and another gem, there really is a fine selection of quality hostelries on this walk. Although the current structure is not the original one, there has been an inn here since at least 1720. The Fox has one claim to fame in that it is the Southernmost pub in London, i.e. it still has a CR postcode which makes it London Borough of Croydon. There is a fun article here about some lunatic visiting the pubs at the extremes of the four cardinal points of the compass in London on public transport in one day. I really must give that a go when this CoVid house arrest is over and I am just jealous I didn’t think of it first.
The pub is lovely but I really did want to get some more mileage done so it was another case of one pint and gone. After the Fox it was straight into the delightfully named Happy Valley, which I now know is home to one of Britain’s rarest plants, the greater yellow rattle which I had never heard of and still haven’t seen. Well, maybe I did but I can barely differentiate between a daisy and a dandelion so there was no chance of me recognising something so rare. Almost inevitably I had to look it up and, having seen images on the internet now, it doesn’t seem like I missed much as it is not very exciting unless you are a botanist and I most certainly am not.
Happy Valley sounds like a name that should have a story attached to it but it doesn’t as it was only named that by the local Council in 1970. Along with Coulsdon Common where we have just been and Farthing Downs where we are going shortly the whole area is yet another SSSI. Are you getting used to these acronyms yet? The yet to be named Happy Valley was only purchased in 1937 by the then Council to like the other two open spaces and it does make for a pleasant walk.
Farthing Downs is yet another of the City of London Corporation Commons that we have walked quite a few of already. There is another 235 acres here and I have discovered that their holdings of land outside the actual City amount to an impressive 16 square miles. Seven of these are in South London / Surrey and the LOOP passes though all of them so thanks to the good burghers and guildsmen of the Corporation for such a wonderful resource.
Apart from the natural beauty of Farthing Downs, it has a long history of human habitation spanning Neolithic, Bronze Age and Roman so prepare yourself for yet another designation as English Heritage, in their infinite wisdom (?) have declared this to be area of Archaeological Interest. I do hope these aren’t confusing you too much. Whilst researching this walk I have come to the conclusion that just about everything in London is legally protected in one way or another with the notable exception of pubs which you can close and demolish or convert to make a quick buck without let or hindrance.
Coming out of Farthing Downs I came upon another one of the distinctive signs telling me this was the end (in my case) of Section 5. Well, I had not really got going properly and it was only six miles since Hamsey Green so it was time to press on a bit as it was still only mid-afternoon. Section 6 here we come.
The first part of the Section is quite built up and goes through the village / London suburb of Coulsdon. It is difficult to regard it as a village now. I had no sooner got into Coulsdon than it was pub time again, this time the Jack and Jill which was fairly modern and unremarkable compared to the two beauties I had already visited but no complaints and just the one pint again.
I hadn’t really given much thought to the name of the pub when I was in it but it is very aptly named because when I started walking I went, like the nursery rhyme couple, up the hill and I didn’t even have a pail to fetch water. It just seemed to keep rising forever but it was worth it when you finally emerge from the urban sprawl as there are great views North over London which I inexplicably didn’t take an image of. I was presumably puffing and panting too much from the exertion of the hill.
A short distance further on I came to Mayfield Lavender Fields which at this time of year were obviously not in bloom. They must be quite some sight, not to mention aroma, when they are in full blossom in July and August. This is a commercial lavender farm and have regular events in season.
Onward, ever onward and I soon came to Oaks Park which will be a familiar name to horse racing enthusiasts as the Park gave it’s name to the famous Oaks race held at nearby Epsom during Derby Week. It was originally run through the park itself and then on to near the site of the current track. The Derby itself is named for the Earl of Derby who had his large mansion in the Park (it was demolished in the 1950’s) although it was only by sheer luck that it got that name. Lords Derby and Bunbury were organising the race and decided to toss a coin to see who would name it. Guess who won!
While the mansion may be long gone, part of the formal gardens still remains and was very attractive even this early in the year.
When I was walking this section of the LOOP in 2014 I had no idea that another path runs through the Park. It is the Wandle Trail which follows the route of that river from the Thames to it’s source at Carshalton Ponds near here. I finally got round to walking that in early 2020 and you can read about it here if you like.
Leaving the gardens, another short walk brought me to Banstead Woods, another lovely area of ancient woodland and, wouldn’t you just know it, another SSSI. Honestly, if I possessed a garden I am sure I could get it designated as something or other.
Banstead Woods was apparently once owned by Anne Boleyn before she lost her head although it long predates her as it was mentioned in the Domesday Book (census) of 1086.
Crossing over a single track rail line, which is something of a rarity in Greater London, I arrived into Banstead and decided that would do me for the day. I had completed two sections to a total of 10 and a half miles and I still had enough light and stamina to go on a bit more but it was a convenient break point to get my train back to London. Be aware that if you do decide to walk this part of the LOOP there are no trains to or from Banstead on a Sunday. Only five more sections to go and the LOOP was certainly looking to be achievable.
In the next instalment I have to clamber over things, duck under things, get caught in several downpours and take refuge from the elements in some great pubs so stay tuned and spread the word.