Sunday, 15 April 2018

The London LOOP. Part VI:Banstead Downs to Kingston Bridge (Springs of the Wild Frontier).

"I see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night, and I think to myself what a wonderful world".

Bob Thiele and George David Weiss's words, as sung by Louis Armstrong back in 1967, seemed so fitting for the sixth stage of Shep and myself's London LOOP walk. After the blizzard, and after the torrential rain and mudbaths we had, both literally and metaphorically, emerged from a long dark tunnel into glorious technicolour sunshine. I felt good. I knew that I would.

Saturday was my first outdoor ice cream of the year and my first beer garden pint of the year. Two certain signifiers that the weather has changed for the better. It also saw beautiful vernal blossoms on broad suburban avenues, exposed shoulders, friendly exchanges with passing strangers, and a general all round lifting of the winter's gloom.

It needed to as well. After Shep's slide into Happy Valley last time we had a pretty big schlep ahead of us. I'd estimated it'd be about fifteen miles until we reached Kingston, and there, for the first time since the start of our walk, see the Thames again. That's a good 5+ hours on foot and we were bound to stop at a pub, and likely to get lost too, so we started an hour earlier at 11am.

In Coulsdon we found a genuinenly happy Valley, the Valley Café, where I had chips, beans, and a ginormous roll with a milky cup of tea. Shep had bubble'n'squeak and we chatted to a friendly local who seemed eager to turn the conversation around to how lazy and obese today's youth are. Hey, don't lump them all in together. I don't wanna be lumped in with a load 40 year old Brexiteers.

After my gutbusting breakfast we set off up hill towards Clock House which meant we entered our fourth, after Bexley, Bromley, and Croydon, London borough of the LOOP. It seemed too early for a beer but our book promised The Jack and Jill pub opposite Woodcote Park Golf Club had commanding views and I needed the loo. We debated stopping for a pint, maybe a softie, or if we should keep on - but on reaching the pub it was boarded up so that made our decision for us.

It didn't matter. We got the views anyway, London proper looked a very long way away, and, in one field, we saw the most enormous spotted pig either of us had ever set eyes upon. Perhaps he'd been fed on the bread rolls from the Valley Café in Coulsdon.

We slowly descended to a weird, tricky to negotiate, part of the LOOP which took us past an old caravan, a discarded mattress, a few stiles, and some fields of lavender. One of the Mayfield Lavender Fields (for that was their name) had a red telephone box standing proud in the middle. It was a pretty odd sight but seemed to be explained by the fact that the fields can be used for professional wedding photography. Because, of course, everyone likes a phone box in their wedding photos.

From the lavender fields we crossed the busy A2022 Croydon Lane into Oaks Park. The house there was demolished in 1960 but the gardens are beautiful. I took a (non-doggy) ice cream in the flavour of mint choc chip and read a little about the history of the place.

The Derby family took over the estate in the 1700s and gave it a colourful reputation as a centre for hunting and racing. Legend tells of the 12th Earl of Derby tossing a coin with Sir Charles Bunbury to decide the name for a new flat race. Derby won.

More recently Oaks Park was in the news when, in 1987, 13,000 trees were lost in the great storm. It seems many of them have been replaced now as it's as verdant as any tree lover could wish a park to be.

I'd like to have stayed longer but we still had some distance to travel. As we climbed up to Banstead Downs we got a view of the hugely depressing looking HMP Highdown, current residence of bacofoil clad paedophile non pareil Gary Glitter. The Downs themselves made for a much cheerier aspect.

We crossed railway lines, wide open expanses of green, bridges covered in grass, and even saw an abandoned LOOP fingerpost that had been uprooted and tossed into a siding. Either some other walkers got frustrated with the inconsistent signposting of this walk or some landowner got fed up of scruffy hiking types passing through their golf courses. And they are almost always golf courses.

Golf courses and private roads. Private roads with massive, expensive, houses on. Some modern, some with seemingly no windows, some old money, some new money. But all, very strictly, private. A passing dog walker warned me just for taking a photo.

So mean spirited are these millionaires they've not allowed the London LOOP to pass through their land so we were unceremoniously directed along a couple of miles of roads. We didn't mind though, we'd finally started stage VI proper of the London LOOP and it soon took us into the non-London borough of Epsom and Ewell.

If the modern St.Paul's church didn't scream out that we weren't in London anymore the sign notifying locals of recent fox and cat mutilations did. Judging by the locations this animal abuser has struck in he's a well travelled man. Well, he's been to Birmingham and St Albans.

Passing out of East Ewell beneath a railway bridge we're back in what appears to be the countryside once again but is actually Warren Farm, an area owned by the Woodland Trust, and populated with dog walkers and cyclists.

Nonsuch Park was even busier, as well it might be on such a glorious spring day. It teemed with kids on their new bikes, dogs running off the leash, and a man pushing an elderly lady along in her wheelchair at a fairly rapid clip. A Paw Patrol welly boot sat, sadly, on top of a marker post.

Henry VIII's exotic palace of Nonsuch stands no more and, in fact, it was not completed until after his death (Elizabeth I making far more use of it) but in typical autocratic style Henry had the local village of Cuddington destroyed so he could build yet another massive house for himself and his goons.

The park, now, is rather lovely and if, unlike the local Wimbledon FC fans, I was unable to taste onions we were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of the remains of the banqueting hall, in truth a place Tudor toffs could grab a quick snack before enacting further cruelty to the local wildlife.

A brief downhill section took us into Ewell proper. One of the nicest places we've passed through on the LOOP so far (though the weather probably has much to do with that). A pretty old church tower surrounded by a quiet graveyard sits opposite the former Victorian Ewell Castle which has been converted into a school. Just look at the castellations and crenellations on that critter.

Equally as fascinating was the Watch House. If you'd over refreshed yourself in the taverns of Ewell you could be locked in this place over night until you'd sobered up and seen the error of your ways. The caged window prevents escape but it didn't prevent one thirsty convict getting his mates to pass him a huge pipe and holding a drink for him so he could slurp it up though the prison doors. Latterly the Watch House has been utilised as a home for Ewell's fire engine.

Another lovely feature of Ewell is Dog Gate, the entrance to Bourne Hill Park, which is probably the largest dog sculpture I've ever seen. Bourne Hall Park is a treat too. A duck, a pigeon, and a squirrel were competing for a piece of bread (the duck won), as locals sunbathed to the sound of Canada geese.

Castles turned into schools, wildlife, dog gates, prisons were all good but none, on a day like this, could compete with the fttingly named Spring Tavern. Shep had a Doom Bar and I had a pale ale and we sat contentedly in the garden for forty minutes or so watching the good folks of Ewell go about their business and contentedly sighing at the upturn in the weather. It seemed to have turned from winter to summer overnight!

Bourne Hall Park is the source, or one of them, of the Hogsmill river and this, more or less, was the river we'd be following until it joined the Thames in Kingston. It's a pretty river adorned with numerous different bridges but it's barely more than a trickle in places.

It was well used, people drank, splashed around in the river, and just sat there taking in the rays. We seemed to have more purpose than most as we put our feet down and plodded onwards through muddy, yet sun drenched, riverside stretches.

The Hogsmill Tavern had been promised but, on arriving there, we saw it was a Toby Carvery so Shep used the toilets and we continued along the unpaved B284 into Old Malden.

St John the Baptist church in Old Malden is a patchwork mixture of various architectural styles and round the back of the graveyard you're quickly reacquainted with the Hogsmill. Malden gets its name from the Saxon mael-dun, a cross on the hill and it's believed that the cross atop St John's is the cross in question.

We soon reached the A3 Malden Way (aka Kingston Bypass), a six lane road that would be impossible to pass even if it didn't have a fence running along its centre. Broken household appliances and vans didn't do much to make the scene on the A3 any better. We took a subway under and soon dipped down to the river's banks again.

After a few hundred metres we left the river and headed to the Berrylands pub. The staff there seemed to be even more refreshed than the punters and once they'd stopped tickling each other they served Shep a Wimbledon Common and me a Twickenham Spring Ale. Keeping it local and keeping it seasonal.

The inside of the pub was like one of those coastal boozers where people only pop in to buy a drink before taking their plastic pint pots to the beach. Two screens blared out football, there was both a pool table and a dartboard. We sat on the curved patio, beneath a peeling sign, watching buses negotiate the roundabout, and breathing in the warm spring air.

The sludge beds of Norbiton and the Hogsmill Sewage Treatment centre weren't the prettiest sights we've seen, or will see, on the LOOP and it was a bit odd that, inside the sewage plant, lots of small children were bouncing on a trampoline. They looked like prisoners.

The path kept leaving, and rejoining, the Hogsmill for the last stretch into Kingston proper. Swan Path, Kingston University, Three Bridges Path, three bridges on Three Bridges Path, Denmark Road, Heron Court, and later an actual heron.

Said heron was standing stock still in the dark shelter of one of the Clattern Bridge's arches. The Clattern Bridge that spans the Hogsmill is believed to be the oldest bridge in all of London dating, or at least some of it dating, from the 12th century. It's a really pretty little area and it's just across from the Guildhall and the Coronation Stone that rests in the Guildhall car park.

By tradition seven Saxon kings were crowned on this cold block of stone, now surmounted by seven supplementary stone columns, starting in the year 900 with Edward the Elder, Alfred the Great's eldest son. Kingston is not King's Town for nothing!

As the Hogsmill peaceably enters into the Thames it seems that all of London and its dog have come out to play in the Kingston sunshine. It's an idyllic, Arcadian stretch this and it's no surprise it inspired both Millais' Ophelia and William Holman Hunt. It certainly lends itself to lingering, people watching, and reflection.

The reflection of the setting sun across the ripples of the Thames as pleasure boats silently passed certainly put me in a quietly contemplative mood. An ale from the redoubtable Ram pub supped by the side of the Thames aided contemplation and kept my mood good.

We eschewed Indian food to a trip to the Riverside Vegetaria. I'd visited with Tina, Tony, and Alex many years ago and was pleased to see (a) it was still there and (b) it hadn't changed. We ordered some ales, had a couple of felafels, and then Shep had a nut roast and myself an African sweet potato and aubergine stew that, predictably, defeated me.

We decided to take a final pint before heading back but after looking in a pub that was playing loud shit music (loud music is fine, shit music is bearable, but loud shit music - no thanks) and a Wetherspoons that had queues outside, bouncers on the door, and a disco going on, we ended up in The Wheelwrights Arms. A pub that had a 30-1 male female ratio (there were thirty men and one woman in there basically) and was blasting out long forgotten novelty tunes like Joe Dolce's 'Shaddap You Face', Black Lace's 'Agadoo', Bad Manners' cover of 'My Boy Lollipop', and 'Don't Look Back in Anger' by Oasis.

The trains on the way home were fucked too (it's Southern so to be expected) and by the time I finally reached a toilet I'd nearly wet myself but we weren't to let this unfortunate coda ruin the masterpiece that had been the sixth stage of the London LOOP. Next time we'll pass over Kingston Bridge to Hampton Wick, cut through Bushy Park and Teddington, before following the River Crane through Hounslow Heath to North Feltham. It'll be our first northern stretch of the LOOP. I hope I don't get a nosebleed. Perhaps I should, like Louis Armstrong, pack a hanky. What a wonderful world.

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