The last sections of the Loop feel more manufactured than much of what has gone before. For most of their fifteen miles the paths have hard surfaces, including a long continuous mile besides roads. Soon after leaving Harold Wood (which is not a wood at all), the path goes through Pages Wood. It’s pleasant enough, but it’s a very tidy landscape, perhaps not surprising when it turns out that the whole thing is a new creation, with 100,000 trees planted since 2001.
Turning a corner, a line of pylons marches through adding a further blast of modernity.
The idea that pristine nature is to be found within the M25 is of course all romantic twaddle, a shadow of the pathetic fallacy. The landscape of Pages Wood was made by people – but so was this entire landscape, some of it centuries ago, some decades ago, and some (such as the huge landfill site at Rainham reached in the final section of the Loop) being created as we watch. Older is not the same as more natural, but it’s hard to shake the instinct that somehow it must be.
For most of the nine miles to Rainham, the path follows the River Ingrebourne, a narrow strip of woods and wetlands dropped between housing. It’s easy, fast and rather uninspiring walking, with only one stretch edging round field boundaries through long, wet grass. Once through Upminster, it’s even possible to see the river from time to time. More impressively, the path is uninterrupted by roads for almost three miles, underlining how much even a small river can form an impermeable barrier.
Rainham itself is distinguished mainly by Rainham Hall, an imposing Queen Anne house only opened to the public a few months ago, after long restoration. The Loop passes the front door, with railing bedecked with temptations to enter. Since this was the first, and quite possibly the last, time I have ever found myself in Rainham, perhaps I should have seized the opportunity. But I didn’t, preferring to keep to the rhythm of the walk.
My original plan had been to stop at Rainham and come back another day for the final section along the river to Purfleet. But the day was young and another five miles seemed entirely manageable, so I crossed the old railway on a level crossing and the new HS1 on a particularly convoluted footbridge and carried on across Rainham Marshes. As the path reaches the river, there is an area of newish industrial units, where the team which builds straight paths had done a fine job, but the team which does bendy connections had never quite caught up.
The modern industrial estate stands on older foundations. The 1897 6″ OS map records a pub, a chemical works and a fish manure works. Just beyond where the fish manure works once stood, there is a row of large tanks and a pervasive smell of boiled rice where Tilda Rice does whatever it is you do to process rice.
From then on, the path follows the river, past a vast area where marshland is being displaced by landfill at the rate of 1.5 million tonnes a year. Along the river there are odd structures in various stage of dilapidation harking back to a time when the river was more intensively used than it is now. One of them looks initially like industrial junk, but closer up resolves into a sculpture of a diver, placed it turns out to disappear with the tide.
Half way along is Coldharbour Point, a wholly unremarkable turn in the river – except that it is precisely opposite Erith where the London Loop begins. It is an odd feeling looking half a mile across the river to the stretch I walked three years ago and haven’t set eyes on since.
The weather was getting hotter and muggier. I had hoped that there would be a breeze when I reached the river, but the air was barely moving and there was not an inch of shade. The last couple of miles, past what were once the Purfleet rifle ranges and are now an RSPB reserve, were increasingly heavy going. Thunder started to rumble at a distance, gradually getting closer and bringing the relief of rain. I took refuge in the RSPB cafe, with the surreal sight of a row of birdwatchers, cameras and binoculars to hand, looking through a picture window from the comfort of a line of sofas. The only sign of movement was the occasional Eurostar hurtling through the middle distance.
And so finally to Purfleet, the wholly unremarkable and unmarked end of the Loop. It’s taken 17 walking days, unevenly spread over three years to do. It’s officially 152 miles long, though I have somehow managed to walk 164 miles without ever intentionally diverging from the route (except for the stretch made completely impassable by the flooding of the River Crane).
It’s an odd mixture – idyllic landscapes, canal towpaths, rolling farmland and innumerable parks giving way unpredictably to banal suburbia, light industrial grot and arterial roads. It’s taken me to parts of London I would never have got to for any other reason and given me a perspective on my home city I couldn’t have got any other way. But now it’s done. Time to move on.