Outer London West Middlesex; Outer London South Herts and North Middlesex; Outer London South West Essex; Outer London North West Kent; Outer London North East Surrey

I recently completed the London Loop, the circular path which runs around the edge of Greater London.  (My title is taken from the telephone directories which between them once covered that area.)  A surprise of the Loop is how much it contrasts with the Capital Ring, which I have written about previously.  The London Loop is much less urban than the Capital Ring – inevitably and by design, for its purpose is to exploit the countryside which has been preserved on London’s fringes, while the Ring is an inner suburban walk.  But unlike the Ring the Loop seems detached from the districts it passes through.

My chief memory of Enfield, for example, is the distant views of Trent Park and Forty Hall from among the fields.  Teddington is represented by the residential streets at its western end, Hounslow by the Heath rather than the town, Hayes (Middlesex) by the Grand Union Canal towpath.  Chingford impinged only as the very edge of the built-up area as it touches Epping Forest which otherwise predominates.  At Stanmore I had a strange sense of passing through and not passing through, as the signs and the map told me that was where I was, but I was certainly not at the centre.  I saw the centres of Uxbridge and Elstree only because those places are at the ends of sections of the Loop, so I deviated from the route proper to or from their railway stations at the beginning or end of a day’s walk; and the centre of Barnet only because I made a detour to find somewhere for lunch.  Chigwell is perhaps an intermediate case in that you only encounter the modern centre – the railway station and shops – when getting to and from the route of the Loop, but the latter does take you past the King’s Head, a half-timbered inn which was depicted on a poster painted by Fred Taylor in 1914 for the London Underground to encourage excursions to Chigwell.  Only at Rainham (Essex), Erith, Old Bexley, Ewell and especially the market place and river front of Kingston did I have a sense of passing through a town; it is not the predominant sense of the route even at most towns it encounters.  The Capital Ring gives the opposite sensation even at its greenest.

In short the Loop, considered as a London walk, has a nebulous quality.  Rather than giving a hold on the capital it is more an affair of west Middlesex, south Herts, south west Essex etc.  And perhaps this was what was intended.  Modern London has these places as part of its complex character, and the London Loop brings this aspect into focus.  If we consider it and the Capital Ring together we have a beguiling picture of London, because of the contrast and tension between them.

Another reflection is perhaps more central to the concerns of this blog.  The route of the Loop is well signposted, it is shown on maps and there is a written description, with strip maps, in the guidebook by David Sharp and Colin Saunders.  But all this does not mean you are always certain of the way.  Sometimes, for example, the route I took through a wood did not follow the official path all the way.  Sometimes I took a detour for some other reason.  For example beside the River Crane at Hatton Cross large puddles, the residue of floods, had made the bank impassable, so I had to take instead to nearby streets.

Detours such as this are excusable.  Surely no one can have completed any long distance path without at least one, which implies some elasticity about those paths’ routes.  So a path such as the Loop will in time become a variety of oral tradition: the bounds of acceptable deviation from the official route will be established by custom and, like oral traditions such as songs, verse and stories, will vary over time.  The course of the London Loop exists, will exist and will have existed in both the official marked route and in the deviations from it commonly used.  In so many aspects of existence there is the official record and there is the way things are done in practice.  We have to investigate both if we are to establish historical truth.

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The concrete, asphalt, gravel and green turf beneath my feet

I have recently completed the Capital Ring. If you have not met it, the Capital Ring is a 78 mile circular walk around London. Its London is mostly that of the inner suburbs, although it ventures out as far as Harrow on the Hill; its character is perhaps summarised by the position of its two river crossings, at Richmond and Woolwich. Hazlitt famously encapsulated the delights of walking:

Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner – and then to thinking!

But he went on:

When I am in the country, I wish to vegetate like the country… I go out of town in order to forget the town and all that is in it.

What the Capital Ring shows is that green turf is not necessary to the thinking that a walk stimulates, nor do we necessarily want to forget the town. The designers of the Capital Ring have made an effort to include as much green as possible, but the scene is in fact a matrix of green and buildings in constantly shifting juxtapositions and proportions; a scene both asymmetrical and fluid whose constant movement, which the built-up parts emphasise, is itself conducive to thought – for my money more so than the countryside. It is a long time since I enjoyed a walk so much and so consistently. Every step I took exhilarated me, even on the one day (out of six) when it never stopped raining.

Rather than forgetting the town, let alone all that is in it, the Capital Ring gives us a different perspective on it. These are residential districts, but firmly, sometimes grittily, urban; unlike the outer suburbs they are not failed attempts at a country retreat (which is not to disparage the outer suburbs, which have become a landscape in their own right). And these districts are very definitely neighbourhoods, with a focus and an independent life. I would advise any new visitor to London to walk at least a section of the Capital Ring. It gives a better view of London life than the round of the traditional tourist sites can. It is indeed a record of what London is.

To link the various districts that the Ring does induces new connections both on the ground and in the mind. Walking from Highgate to Stoke Newington, for example, I was illogically surprised that these two places are so close (the map should have told me) but their different characters had made them seem physically far apart too. Physical and mental boundaries, I feel, should be permeable and somewhat ill-defined, so that we can relatively easily move from the centre of one thing to the centre of something else essentially different, and so make unexpected connections. Many people who live in the metropolis will travel to nearby countryside to walk; I once walked from Croydon to Colley Hill, which must be much less common, and the surprise that I could do that added to the pleasure of moving from one landscape to another, sharply contrasting one when that contrast was so gradually achieved.

We should, too, enjoy the urban landscape for its own delights. The Capital Ring does this. Much of even its green stretches consists of urban park, also a distinctive form of landscape. But contrast the guide book to the Ring by Colin Saunders with the guide book to the London Loop by David Sharp and Colin Saunders. The London Loop is another circular walk, this one around the edge of Greater London and therefore including much genuine country. But the authors of the Loop guide think it necessary to say, “there are inevitably some more urban stretches where you may wish to grit your teeth and think of the many pleasures to come.” Why? I would expect a walk around even the edge of the metropolis to mingle suburb and country, to its greater enjoyment. The city, as Brigid Brophy observed, is “one of the cardinally simple brilliant inventions, like currency”. It is also beautiful, even at its most everyday.