Shiny golden circles adorned the forecast for today and it would have been criminal not to have taken advantage of the conditions to finish off the LOOP, especially as one opportunity had already been passed up last week.
I made my way out to Sidcup to pick up the LOOP for the last time, but before I joined the trail, a small detour was called for. Somehow, last time I neglected the nearby summit of the London Borough of Bexley, so now dived into the residential estate to try to find it. With very little to go on apart from a grid reference, a name and the sense that it seemed to be on the boundary between playing fields and the residential area, I stuck to the streets, one of which shares a name with the top itself – a clue that the top may be on the road itself, and not the more problematic, in terms of access, school grounds.
Finding it with any certainty though, was a different matter and I found myself in the south-west corner of the road exploring a hard-surfaced track that from the road looked like it may take me to the fields themselves. It only took me up against the fence though, but this was enough for me to see that if the summit wasn’t on the road, then this was the closest it was possible to get.
As I stood there to allow the GPS to record the location and hopefully confirm the peak on Social Hiking, a resident poked her head out of the last house and asked if I needed any help. She then promptly disappeared as I went to go a bit closer to talk to her – London Borough top-bagging is not one of those things that is easily explained shouted the length of a resident’s garden. It turned out in this instance that it wasn’t going to be easily explained up close either. Having lured me onto her property with the offer of help (that in reality she probably wouldn’t be able to provide anyway), I felt it was only polite to go and speak to her, but all this resulted in was her telling me that I was on a private driveway (yeah only because you lured me, idiot). I have no time for people messing me around like this, and I made this amply clear, and then left, adding another person to the list of people I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire.
The other side of the A222 felt like a sanctuary, with grass underfoot and the comfort of LOOP waymarks. I slipped around the back of Sidcup Place, past the playground that was always part of the agenda for family meals at the restaurant when the kids were younger, and down a slight slope.
Once again, following my nose and the OS map extracts in the guidebook were proving more reliable than the waymarks: several times waymarks only appearing after I’d made a turn. This is great if you’re doing the path the correct way when these waymarks are just before the turns, but for me there was the added element of danger.
The path took me around the back of some houses and allotments and past a football ground before leading me down a residential street into Foots Cray. I crossed over the crossroads and headed down a lane to join the Cray Riverway that would see me most of the way to the end of today’s walk.
A degree of tranquillity returned as I followed the River Cray. A cloudless deep blue sky above and the emerging colours of autumn around me helped dull the memory of the earlier altercation. Even the inevitable dog walkers weren’t a problem – no hungry snarling lunges at me today. There were plenty of mothers and kids out though, it being half term.
The relative peace and the amount of greenery next to the gently flowing river were a much needed tonic and I started to enjoy the walk. It’s segments of the path like this that have proved such a revelation, especially as they don’t look much on the map.
Shortly, the river opened out into an almost-lake as the waters backed up to flow down through the Five Arch Bridge. Geese, swans and ducks frolicked on the willow-edged waters, and I paused for a few minutes to take it in.
Further downstream, I crossed the river, looked up and could see the top parts of the Dartford Bridge. The sense of the walk nearly being at an end now starting to build and my head a curious mixture of grief for the end of the adventure, excitement about the next project and simply enjoyment of the glorious conditions I was completing the walk in.
Into Bexley briefly, I stopped for a few moments to photograph the odd-looking spire of the church and then continued on my way.
Ahead now was the growing hum of the traffic on the A2, the next obstacle to get past. The LOOP dropped down to run unseen alongside and below the level of the road and then shared the underpass with the railway. And here I went wrong, missing the fact that I was supposed to take a sharp turn back up to join the other side of the A2 in order to cross the railway. No waymarks here to help either. The upshot of this was I soon found myself half a kilometre in the wrong direction looking at a fly tip.
Clearly this wasn’t right, so I retraced my steps and tried to translate the directions in the guidebook into something intelligible for the reverse direction I was walking in. I soon picked up what should have happened and was on the right side of the railway walking through the grounds of Hall Place.
Now back on the other side of the Cray, a surprise awaited me. My watch showed I’d done about 7 miles of the 10 or 11 I was expecting today, but the sign-post now cheerily informed me that there was another 6 and a bit still to do. Thoughts that had been starting to grow of maybe even finishing in time for lunch, rapidly disappeared.
I walked through Crayford to pick up the river walk again, now determined to get to the marshes before I stopped for lunch. I crossed the final A road and the final railway, exited the industrial estate and was literally in sight of the finishing line – I just had to walk the long way round to it.
The last part of the LOOP is shared with a number of other waymarked paths and tracks – the Cray Riverway I’d been following for most of the day, obviously, but now National Cycle Route 1, and later on it would be the Thames Path Extension. This had the advantage of improving the frequency of signage – not that I needed it now as all that needed to be done was keep water on my right all the way to the end.
Across the marshes there was a clearer view of the Dartford Bridge, a traffic jam on it as usual. On my left, land marked as a quarry on the map was on the ground a much more pleasant meadow that provided the most inviting spot available for a lunch break.
I sat on the gently rounded meadow taking on fuel as I spotted a handful of people heading in the opposite direction on the path below me – most likely having just started the LOOP. That’s one thing on this walk – walking in reverse you do encounter more people doing the walk as they’re all coming towards you. I’d not seen anyone doing it backwards like me.
It was pleasant sitting just off the path in the meadow, but the desire to finish the walk got me going again. A short way down the path, the Cray joined the River Darent, or Dartford Creek as it’s known locally.
As the river widened, slowed, and twisted and turned its way to its inevitable demise in the waters of the Thames, the other side of that more major river came into clearer view. A mile or so away, Purfleet where this whole walk began, and darting swiftly across the view an HS1 train to plunge into its tunnel to cross the river.
Near the flood barrier that dominates the view down the Darent, I stopped to chat to a cyclist for a few minutes before taking a look at the concrete structure.
Just past the barrier and I was at the Thames itself and now walking the Thames Path in addition to the LOOP. Brief thoughts of continuing once I got to Erith were quickly pushed aside – I’ve already decided to head downriver to my hometown of Gravesend to do the Saxon Shore Way.
I walked around to Erith, at every turn finding a myriad of signs.
A short detour away from the river to get around some industrial sites and then I was on the final stretch of riverside, not entirely sure where the actual end point would be. As a precaution, I walked out onto the pier, London’s longest.
The actual end, though, was a little further along, finding it marked by one of the information boards that I’d seen at various points along the route. This one clearly stated that this was the start though.
A few yards away a red sign-post stood out and being of a very different look to the others around, I went closer to have a look. It turns out Alexander Selkirk, whose 4 year marooning on a remote South Pacific Island inspired Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, landed here when he arrived back home. The signpost points to the island and the opposite way to his birthplace of Lower Largo in Scotland. The riverside gardens I was standing in are also the site of the old Tudor dockyard where Henry Grace à Dieu, a contemporary of the much more famous Mary Rose, but actually in her own right the largest warship in Europe, was fitted out. Erith now is a poor shadow of its former maritime importance, the comedian Linda Smith having once joked it was not twinned with any town but did have a suicide pact with Dagenham.
With the LOOP now complete, I stood for a few moments at the start board working out what to do. Part of me felt like a celebratory pint, part of me wanted to spend a few minutes in contemplation in the gardens. In the end though, I simply headed for the station and got on a train back to London.