It seems the London LOOP has within it another more sinister loop. Some sort of gravitational pull that, no matter how hard you try, pulls you back to the concrete of East Croydon. Imagine a Twilight Zone episode directed by Ken Loach, perhaps scripted by Samuel Beckett. Waiting for Godot is the play in which, famously, nothing happens twice. In Waiting for the 403 bus, nothing happens three times. Suck on that, Beckett, you optimistic fucker.
The day, as so often, began with hope. Hope in the face of adversity paired with a downright denial of weather forecasts? It's a recipe for a perfect storm but that didn't deter me as I strode purposefully to Peckham Rye station, fuelled by salt'n'vinegar crisps and a Good Friday copy of The Guardian. The train arrived on time and I reached East Croydon just as the drizzle began.
Shep and our guest for the day, regular TADS walker Kathy, arrived in waterproofs and once I'd been put to rights (I talk too much, dress incorrectly, and don't work hard enough apparently - guilty as charged, your honour) we wandered into the bustling dystopian metropolis of Croydonia to repair for brunch. Greasy spoons were thin on the ground and even the local branch of Wimpy seemed to have disappeared. So 'Spoons it was!
The George is one of central Croydon's two large temples devoted to drinking oneself to death and on a bank holiday Friday it was, predictably, doing a roaring trade. Nevertheless we secured ourselves a table and some soft drinks and I had veggie sausage'n'mash (complete with some completely unnecessary peas) and Shep and Kathy had a portion of chips each.
The rain had picked up some while we'd been ensconced in death's waiting room and by the time we'd boarded, and disembarked, the 403 bus to Hamsey Green it was hoying it down. First the snow and now the rain. But it was neither of these elements that was to finally cut short our adventures and send us back to East Croydon. It was something equally prosaic and the clues are everywhere.
The walk proper didn't even start until nearly 2pm. Tithepit Shaw Lane was more poetically named than it deserved but it soon opened up into Dipsley Field. The pitter patter of rain, the damp squelch of muddied boots, and the ever grey skies would soon be our constant companions. The book (with the map in it) was at first moist and soon as damp as a stash of discarded porno mags. Thumbing it would become increasingly problematic. Navigation would soon be reduced to guesswork and hunches.
A solitary mallard took solace in one of the field's largest, most circular, puddles. On production of my camera he took flight. Not even nice weather for ducks it seems.
We manoeuvred ourselves gingerly down an incline, crossed the Old Riddlesdown Road (an old coaching route between Lewes and Brighton), and, promptly, got lost. A familiar story on the LOOP and one that seems more prominent, and more annoying too, when the weather refuses to affect clemency.
Retracing our steps and cutting through a pastoral idyll we reached a building site, train lines, and, eventually, Whyteleafe. Our book noted that we may see sheep (both Jacobs and Southdowns) at this juncture but none were on show. Only idiots go out in this weather it seems.
Whyteleafe did, however, see the steepest ascent of the LOOP so far. Even Shep, oft remarked upon are his mountain goat like abilities for swift hill climbing, struggled a bit. We were all out of breath when we reached Kenley Common and said breath was further taken away upon turning back to view the chalk escarpment from whence we'd wandered. Sometimes, even in the most quotidian suburbs, nature can truly astonish. It's one of the reasons we walk. It's one of the reasons we live.
Kenley Common itself was populated by a peppering of Corporation of London signs. There are nearly as many of these on the LOOP as LOOP fingerposts. Kissing gates, oak trees, a squirrel, and mud, glorious mud made up the common. We got lost - again.
We came out on a private road festooned with enormous houses and pontificated on the jobs of those who lived there? Stockbrokers? Builders? I managed to convince myself one of them belonged to Wilfried Zaha.
We corrected ourselves reasonably promptly and entered Betts Mead where, even more promptly, we got lost again. My temper was frayed, Kathy's socks were wet, and Shep (the good humour man, he sees everything like this) remained phlegmatic. Possibly his inner pub locator was in action because we soon chanced upon The Wattenden Arms, a pub that both looked inviting and meant we were back on course.
We assumed it to be full of rich local citizens (though not Wilfried Zaha, a non-drinking Muslim athlete) but it wasn't that. Despite the extended stares of a few locals (including one dick in a Manowar t-shirt who managed to be in the way of both the bar and the toilet) it proved a friendly spot so Shep and I both took a Doom Bar as Kathy sipped a soda.
At this point Kathy removed her socks only to find them wetter than Francis Pym in the eighties. Her boots had leaked and though she could face the rain she didn't fancy getting trench foot and so a cab was arranged and she left us. It was soon to become clear she'd made a good call.
With the aid of two fellow hardy walkers we picked up the LOOP again and crossed the muddiest, squelchiest, wettest field so far. I even felt sorry for the horses and I'm no fan of those particular beasts.
With the ludicrously small, dirty, mossy, dome of the Croydon Astronomical Society our beacon we passed briefly through Old Coulsdon and crossed a busy road before passing by the very welcoming looking Fox pub. Its sign welcomed walkers and dogs. We should've gone in. We really should've gone in. It looks a place that would suit a future TADS walk and the surrounding countryside would be equally impressive.
After a metalled track and a schlep through the woods we opened up into Happy Valley. How green was our valley? Not very, truth be told. But on a sunny day this spot would be angelic. Picnic benches suggested locals were in the know.
It was at this point that Shep went for a proverbial Burton. Slipping in the mud, he regained composure uninjured but his jeans, his coat, his hands, his phone, his vape, everything was caked in unforgiving brown stains. He looked like the cover of a mud fetish publication but, most pertinently of all, I thought to myself "no fucking pub's gonna serve this muddy cunt". Priorities.
Shep's own thought processes had, unsurprisingly, been along very similar lines. Unless he could wash his clothes, or ideally buy new ones, the walk was over. A potential blessing in disguise as the rain was now reaching biblical levels. Our best hope was to find a clothes shop in nearby Coulsdon but the only one, according to the internet, was an army surplus store due to close at 5.30. It was 5.10. Good Friday, too, may affect opening hours.
Happy Valley had proved anything but. We rushed on and it was, in many ways, a pity. Because both Happy Valley and the next stretch, over Farthing Downs, proved to be amongst the most spectacular we'd witnessed on the LOOP so far. If the views weren't as impressive as they should be in the grey drizzle then six information boards, perched near a quirky circular bench, testified to the area's beauty and historical significance. The scenery was more akin to Dartmoor, Wales, or the New Forest than the London Borough of Croydon. Truly stunning. Even when accompanied by a surprisingly sanguine if obviously, and understandably, disappointed mudman.
The path led down to Coulsdon. A sorry looking town that has seen better days and certainly not the thriving conurbation our map had suggested (everything's relative). The Army Surplus store was shut and there were no other clothes shops. I grabbed us an ale each from a local offy (Shep was ashamed to even go in) and, avoiding a local eccentric, we took the train to Croydon. Shep unable to sit.
At Croydon we struck joy. Shep got himself kited out satisfactorily in Blue Inc, we supped a couple of ales in The Spread Eagle, and we took the train to Forest Hill where we met our friend Simon for a tasty curry in The India Gate. I squared this with my conscience by the rationale that this stretch of the LOOP was the nearest to my home. Shep headed back to Basingstoke and Simon and I headed off into the night to simultaneously correct all the world's ills and destroy our livers.
On this stage of the LOOP we came, we saw, but we did not conquer. However, things that have died a death on Good Friday have been known to reappear anew before and this should be no different. Next time we'll start early, finish this stage, and carry on stage VI on to Kingston where we'll see, for the first time since the start of our orbital amble, the Thames once more. The way things are going we'll probably be set upon by a plague of locusts and smitten from above by a plague of frogs. Happy Easter. Mine's a bag of Mini Eggs.