I first learned about the 'London Loop' via Instagram. Someone I follow had posted 'stories' (or video content) of them walking a stretch of countryside on the outskirts of the city. Intrigued, I started googling: the 'London Outer Orbital Path' was conceived in 1990, launched at the House of Lords in 1993 and its first section – at Farthing Downs in Coulsdon – opened in 1996. The route became fully walkable in 2001, but for some reason it had passed me – a London resident, on and off since 2005 – by.
There is a spontaneous – and indeed obsessive – aspect to my character, so the idea of walking more than 150 miles around Greater London immediately captured my imagination. I love cities, and love exploring large, sprawling metropolises like London or New York. Their outer limits, so to speak, fascinate me, finding the point at which an urban settlement ends and the countryside begins; where one of the London boroughs gives way to the Home Counties.
Within a week or so, I was on a train to Erith in the London Borough of Bexley, where the Loop began. Armed with route maps downloaded from the Transport for London (TfL) website, I decided to walk an average of 10 miles a day – mostly on weekends – which meant I'd be able to conquer all 24 sections in 15 days. I was to be guided on this journey by green directional arrows on white discs mounted on wooden posts, though I quickly came to appreciate that I couldn't always rely on these being consistent – or indeed visible.
I later learned that funding these signs, and indeed maintaining the Loop generally, was the responsibility of individual local authorities. This meant the quality varied hugely from one borough to the next, with some sections clearly signposted and in excellent condition, others overgrown and infuriatingly difficult to navigate. But then I like a challenge, and relying upon my slightly dodgy sense of direction – as well as Google maps when absolutely stuck – proved part of the fun.
Walking around Greater London gave me a completely different perspective on my adopted home city. I'd always appreciated its size – the Underground map is a daily reminder of that – but I hadn't expected the Outer Orbital Path to be so green. Although there were occasional, and frankly grim, detours along busy motorways, there was also surprisingly lush countryside, including some lovely marshland surrounding Heathrow Airport, not to mention scenic canal paths and urban parkland.
Several years ago, the Hackney-based writer Iain Sinclair walked around the M25, something J G Ballard described as 'that terrain of golf courses, retail parks and industrial estates which is Blair's Britain'. I certainly encountered lots of golf courses – indeed I tended to get hopelessly lost amid their bunkers and irregular paths – but mercifully few retail parks and industrial estates. Reviewing Sinclair's book, Ballard also warned that the 'mythological England of village greens and cycling aunts' might soon be buried 'under the rush of a million radial tyres'.
Happily, I saw much of that England once conjured up by Sir John Major, not so much cycling aunts but plenty of pretty village greens. At Havering-atte-Bower in Romford, I learned that its village green was once occupied by Edward the Confessor's royal palace, of which there's nothing left. The same is true of Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, thus named because there was said to be no such palace equal in magnificence. Built for Henry VIII, today there are just concrete obelisks marking its former location. In Pyrgo Park I found two rusting gateposts, all that remains of Pyrgo House, built on the site of Pirgo Palace, the childhood home of Elizabeth I. Striking to reflect that these now unfashionable parts of London were more familiar to the Tudors than they are to 21st-century Londoners.
Perhaps the prettiest slice of old England I encountered was the ancient country village of Monken Hadley, now in the London Borough of Barnet. An eponymous battle during the Wars of the Roses was fought there, while in 1857 the Scottish explorer David Livingstone took up residence in a white-stucco cottage on returning from Africa. It was surrounded by beautifully-maintained 18th-century houses, a welcome contrast after an unrewarding section of the Loop between Elstree and Cockfosters.
I walked all but one section of the London Loop on my own, enjoying the solitude and welcoming the head space to think through the arguments in a forthcoming book I'm writing about Scottish nationalism. On the entire route I met just two other London Loopers, although they only intended to tackle a couple of sections rather than the whole thing. At about the halfway point, a boy-racer asked, apropos of nothing, if I was following the Outer Orbital Path. I said yes, and he sped off looking content.
Not everything went to plan. Although TfL had taken care to begin and end each section near an Overground, Tube, National Rail or bus station, often services were intermittent on the days (usually Saturdays and Sundays) I devoted to the Loop, which made getting to and from Walthamstow, where I'm based, more challenging than hiking some of the rural terrain. The nadir came on a bank holiday, when it took me 2.5 hours to reach Hatch End – a journey that should have taken 45 minutes. Still, my reward on that section was a beer at Grim's Dyke, once home to Sir William Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) and now a Best Western hotel.
After a few months, I had managed to meet my goal of completing the route in 15 days. Having started south of the Thames in Erith, I finished up in Purfleet to the north on a glorious late-summers day in the middle of September. It’s not quite a full Loop, as someone was quick to point out on Facebook, where I'd kept friends updated with my adventures; the glistening Thames divided the two, but I wasn't about to swim across in order to seal the deal. As I headed home by train, I began researching my next urban adventure – the 78-mile 'Capital Ring Walk'.