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.