|Five Arches Bridge, Foots Cray Meadows. Can't think why they call it that.|
THIS SECTION OF THE LONDON LOOP digs deeper into Greater London than is typical for the trail, but still manages to keep to remarkably green surroundings. It resourcefully threads its way through the remains of mediaeval estates, preserved as oases of green belt deep within built-up suburbia, with only a couple of short sections along roads and streets. It includes one of the most exquisite beauty spots on the route, where parakeets flutter over an 18th century footbridge, as well as a surprisingly verdant rubbish tip, the site of one of the oldest football clubs in the world, the ruins of a moated manor with links to Christopher Marlowe, and a monument to the father of daylight saving time.
Towards Albany Park
|Across restored gravel pits near Bexley|
Once under the railway there are open meadows and then the grounds of Bexley Cricket Club, founded in 1805 and on this site since 1866. The club plays in the premier division of the Kent Cricket League, still organised to the old county boundaries. A little further on you pass a small rustic-looking terrace, College Farm Cottages, dating from a more agricultural age.
Then the path runs across a broad, flat area of rough grassland which, in season, is bursting with colour from wild flowers. This area is known as Upper College Farm and was dug for gravel until the 1970s, after which it was left unrestored, although that's since been remedied, as when I first walked this way in the 1990s it was looking much rougher than it does today. Currently it’s an informal open space well-used by local dog walkers, but the presence of (widely ignored) notices stating this is private land and walkers must keep to footpaths shows someone is reserving rights to put it to a more formal use in future.
Beyond the rough grass, there’s this section’s first working field, which when I passed in mid-August was planted with ripening maize. The fenced-off building ahead, which resembles a 1960s modernist church, is a water pumping station standing beside a covered reservoir, a clue as to why this strip of land has resisted development. Risk of flooding and the needs of water management and abstraction to supply a thirsty population have helped preserve green ribbons like this alongside many London rivers. Water company sites always look so pristine and so detached from their surroundings, with their neat and very green lawns and their sturdy and well-maintained fencing, and this is no exception.
The Loop then grazes the edge of Albany Park, a big 1930s housing estate on former farmland between the Cray and the Shuttle. It was built by New Ideal Homesteads Ltd, better known as Ideal Homes, a company founded in Erith in 1929 which was at one point the biggest private housing developer in Britain, responsible for creating seas of suburbia in southeast London and northwest Kent in an era when the capital sprawled with unprecedented rapidity, largely unhindered by planning controls.
Like most such developments this one was promoted as an idyllic rural retreat, with publicity claiming that “the charming countryside shall permanently retain the rural character of its vistas and shall not suffer disfigurement in any way.” But in reality NIH built cheap and dense, using prefabricated components and making little provision for services other than a station to enable commuting, opened on the Dartford Loop in 1935. The name Albany Park given to both station and estate was entirely made-up. Potentially worth a detour is St Andrew’s church on Maylands Drive, only a little off-route, a genuine modernist church from 1965 which resembles folded paper on a spike.
Foots Cray Meadows
|River Cray in Foots Cray Meadows, approaching Five Arches Bridge|
At first the public land is just a strip along the river, which has by now become thickly lined with alders, willows and vegetation that stretches to rarities like creeping restharrow and devil’s bit scabious. But where the playing fields end the green space opens out into watermeadows of tall grass and wild flowers. As often in such circumstances there’s a skein of near-parallel paths, including some right by the water’s edge over gnarled tree roots that threaten to tip you into the stream. It’s a delightful way to arrive at the popular local beauty spot of Five Arches Bridge, one of the Loop’s prettiest features, at the heart of Foots Cray Meadows (which also has an active Friends group).
At almost 100 ha, the Meadows is the largest public green space in Bexley borough and a Local Nature Reserve. It was created from the grounds of two now-vanished mansions, originally the manor houses of Foots Cray and North Cray. The larger contribution is from the estate of Foots Cray Place, which stood across the meadows on the other side of the river, in the southwest corner of the site. Mentioned in the Domesday survey, it’s the first parcel of land along this section held in Tudor times by the Walsingham family, whose seat we will shortly encounter at Scadbury. The E-shaped Tudor house was demolished in 1754 by then-owner Bourchier Cleeve, a prosperous London pewterer, who had it rebuilt under the inspiration of Andrea Palladia’s design for the Villa Capra near Vicenza, creating one of the four original ‘Palladian’ mansions in England.
A smaller part of the park, in the southeast, downstream of the bridge on the Loop side of the river, was attached to the most important of North Cray’s many mansions, North Cray Place, off North Cray Road. These grounds were re-landscaped in 1782 by celebrated landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the newly naturalistic Arcadian style: the bridge, on a drive that connects the two estates, dates from this remodelling.
Politician and then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Nicholas Vansittart, Lord Bexley, bought Foots Cray Place in 1821 and then North Cray Place, amalgamating the two estates. Eventually the property fell into local authority hands, but Foots Cray Place was largely destroyed by fire in 1949, and North Cray Place, badly damaged by bombing in World War II, was finally demolished to make way for a housing estate in 1962. The stable block of the former still stands a short detour away across the bridge but isn’t open to the public; an information centre is adjacent but only infrequently open.
Vegetation, water and architecture combine round the bridge to create an exquisiteness reminiscent of Japanese landscape aesthetics, the sort of scene that forces you to stop, look and luxuriate in the visual balance. A dam immediately upstream of the bridge has created an expansive lake into which willows weep gracefully, while downstream the Cray cascades through a weir into shallows where children dabble fishing nets with rapt concentration.
To add to the exotic atmosphere, overhead you’ll very likely hear ring-necked parakeets, the UK’s only naturalised parrots, and likely spot their bright green plumage and distinctive red beaks. Bexley was one of the original strongholds of feral parakeets back in the 1970s, though the birds, originally native to southern India and brought to Britain as pets, have now spread as far afield as Scotland.
Foots Cray to Sidcup Place
|All Saints Church, Foots Cray|
The church, only a few steps away, is well worth a look. Likely on a Saxon site, the current building is largely from 1330 and includes a Norman font, a Tudor arch and a door from Cromwell’s time. The box pews were removed in the mid-19th century, and the distinctive spire, which now gives the building such a Kentish look, was actually only added in 1931 at the behest of a rich donor keen to commemorate Edward VII’s coronation.
It’s set a little away from the village it serves, which was focused on the point at which the old road from London to Maidstone bridged the Cray, near to the crossing we shortly reach. Foots Cray takes its name both from the river and a personal name: one Godwin Fot is recorded as having an estate here in the Domesday survey in 1086. In the mediaeval period it was a large and important village that spilt into neighbouring Chislehurst, much more significant than its neighbour Sidcup. After 1718 the Maidstone road was turnpiked under the authority of the New Cross Turnpike Trust, also responsible for the Dover Road.
Classified as the A20 in 1922, the road soon lost its through traffic when the Sidcup bypass was opened in 1926, when it was renumbered A211. Today Foots Cray is a relatively obscure locality with an almost entirely post-1920s appearance. In a sure sign of how much supermarkets have usurped inns and pubs as geographical markers, it’s served by the 321 bus, which proudly proclaims it links Foots Cray Tesco with New Cross Sainsbury’s.
|Oxford Road football ground, linked to Cray Wanderers FC, one of the world's oldest soccer clubs.|
Past allotments and playing fields tucked behind housing on the other side of Foots Cray the Loop reaches a small football field, a patch of grass overlooked by a tiny and rather dilapidated stand which looks like it’s been placed there like a Monopoly hotel. But Oxford Road, as this ground is known, is a site of some significance to the history of Association Football, as the former home ground of Cray Wanderers FC, nicknamed the Wands.
One of the oldest soccer clubs in the world, it was established in 1860 by migrant workers building the London, Chatham and Dover Railway at St Mary Cray. Up until the 1950s the semi-professional club drew solid support from industrial workers at the various mills on the river, though never played at national level. The team took up residence here in 1973, but was forced to move out at the end of the 1990s, ironically as a result of its success, as Kent League rules stipulated the facilities weren’t adequate for this level of football. Cray Wanderers now competes in the Ryman (Isthmian) North Division, the eighth tier of English football and the team’s highest since World War II: it even reached the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup in 2005-06.
The reserve and youth sides still play here, while the First Team home games are played at Bromley FC’s Hayes Lane ground; meanwhile the club is looking to redevelop Flamingo Park on the A20, a neglected private sports ground now best known for its car boot sales, as a new home stadium.
|Sidcup Place: from private fort to public house.|
Sidcup Place was built around 1743 by a military man who designed it after a ‘star fort’ complete with bastions, a scheme which is only just about still detectable. The disadvantages of living a normal life in a fort evidently prompted numerous alterations and extensions, including the colonnade, walled garden and tower seen today.
The estate went through numerous private owners and in the first three decades of the 20th century housed a school, which opted to escape creeping suburbanisation by relocating to East Grinstead. Redevelopment threatened, but instead the property became the headquarters of the newly combined Sidcup and Chislehurst Urban District Council, with rooms knocked together to form a council chamber, and the grounds opened as a public park in 1934. The house is now a big family restaurant in Whitbread’s Brewers Fayre chain, though the grounds remain public, these days partly maintained by volunteers due to council cuts.
Next door is the site of another 18th century stately home, Frognal House, built early in that century. In 1917 a facility for treating military personnel injured in World War I opened in a collection of ‘temporary’ buildings in the grounds under the name the Queen’s Hospital, which despite its modest accommodation became renowned for its pioneering facial plastic surgery. The site continued in use as a general hospital after the war and was renamed Queen Mary’s Hospital in 1930. The temporary buildings remained in use until 1974 when they were replaced with the massive modern hospital that still stands today; the original house, meanwhile, has become a private residential nursing home. The hospital has been battered by successive NHS reforms and currently has services provided by no less than seven separate agencies, no longer including an Accident and Emergency department.
|Apple trees among the footbridges and flyovers at Frognal Corner.|
Now it’s a split-level interchange with the A20 below, the A22 above and the London Loop threading through them, up and down ramps and steps and over a footbridge. Amid all the roaring traffic and concrete geometry, an apple tree has established itself, and is heavy with fruit in season. Across the A20, the Loop traverses its first council boundary, finally leaving Bexley to enter the London Borough of Bromley, then plunges into the woodlands and fields of an even more fascinating old manor.
|Rural idylls in Zone 5: Scadbury Park farmland|
Archaeological evidence shows that Scadbury was a manorial estate since at least 1200, held by the mid-13th century by the de Scathebury family. In 1424 it was bought by Thomas Walsingham, a wealthy London merchant trading in wine and wool. Thomas also had links to the royal household and many of his descendants were courtiers, politicians and civil servants. We’ve already encountered the family name at North Cray Place, which was bought by his great-great-grandson William Walsingham.
Perhaps the most famous, if not notorious, of the clan was William’s son Francis (1532-90), MP, persecutor of Catholics and later principal secretary and loyal spymaster to Elizabeth I, who played a key role in the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots. Meanwhile the family seat at Scadbury passed to the next generation, in the person of Thomas Walsingham IV, also a royal courtier and a keen patron of the arts.
Among Thomas’ friends and protégés was poet and dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). Though born to a humble Canterbury shoemaker, Marlowe flourished in the increasingly urban, culturally vibrant and socially mobile city of London, and he became one of the most renowned creative talents of his era, a contemporary and associate of and an influence on William Shakespeare. He was known as a guest at Scadbury, a convenient stop on the journey from Canterbury to London. It’s clear Marlowe sought romantic and sexual relationships with men, and some have speculated he and Thomas Walsingham were lovers.
Kit Marlowe’s association through Thomas with cousin Francis’ network of spooks and assassins likely led to his downfall. Although the details remain murky, it seems Kit himself was recruited as a spy while still at Cambridge University, and his degree was awarded partly in return for unspecified services to the Queen that might have involved infiltrating Catholic circles. In 1592 he was arrested at the Dutch port of Vlissingen on a counterfeiting charge but never tried. The next year a warrant was issued for his arrest in London on suspicion of authoring Catholic propaganda, but although he gave himself up, he was allowed to walk free.
Ten days later, Kit was drinking in Butt Lane (now High Street), Deptford with Ingram Frizer, one of Francis’ associates and working at the time as a business agent for Thomas, and two other dodgy characters with connections to the Walsinghams. Following an argument over the bill, Frizer stabbed Kit to death – in self-defence, according to the coroner, but there has been much speculation that the incident was a set-up. The playwright was buried in an unmarked grave at St Nicholas’s church, Deptford, not far from the Thames Path.
In 1597 the Queen gave Thomas a knighthood and granted him extensive additional land in Chislehurst and Dartford. His less prosperous successors were forced to sell up in 1660 and the estate eventually passed by marriage to the Townshend family, whose most famous member, Whig politician Thomas Townshend (1733-1800), Viscount Sydney, had the Sydneys in both Nova Scotia and New South Wales named after him. From 1749 the family also owned neighbouring Frogmore House, mentioned above. Plans to sell off the estate for residential development were blocked in the 1930s by emerging green belt legislation, though some of the land towards St Pauls Cray was compulsorily purchased for a housing estate in the late 1940s.
Thanks in part to its relatively small number of family owners, the rest of the estate retained much of the character of the original mediaeval manor, with ancient woodland and archaeological remnants now marooned by urban sprawl. Recognising its value, Bromley council bought it from the Townshends’ descendants in 1982 and three years later opened over 120 ha of it to the public as a Local Nature Reserve (and see also the Friends Group), with another part leased to tenants as a working farm.
This character is immediately obvious as, leaving the A20 sliproad, the trail plunges downhill through a rough grassy field and meanders through patches of woodland. Then a sweep of farmland opens up alongside a broad gravelly track, one of the original estate drives, before the Loop diverts along a more modest path that hugs the contour of a densely wooded slope along the Cray valley. It’s an astonishingly rural scene given we’re still in TfL’s fare zone 5.
|Moated manor at Scadbury Park: some of the prominent brickwork is|
actually an early 20th century addition.
By then the complex included a detached kitchen with two ovens, stables, barns, a dovecote, a walled garden and a gatehouse overlooking a stone bridge across the moat. But by the 18th century the house had become neglected and in 1738 it was demolished by one of the Townshends, who took to living in Frogmore House instead. The island site was ignored until just before World War I, when then-owner Hugh Marsham-Townshend carried out amateur excavations and attempted to reconstruct the house using timbers from another mediaeval manor at St Mary Cray which had been demolished to make way for the Morphy Richards factory. His work inadvertently damaged some of the original brickwork, and has since largely been dismantled following vandalism. The site is now on Historic England’s schedule of Ancient Monuments and register of at-risk sites, and the council is puzzling out how best to conserve it.
It has to be said that the visitor experience is not what it could be: you’re looking across a moat at a set of ruins, and the interpretation boards aren’t especially useful. When I last visited, the site was disfigured with numerous scrappy laminated A4 notices warning of the perils of deep water and crumbling masonry, I suspect more to discourage potential damage from unofficial visitors than to protect life and limb. Significant investment will be needed to increase both access and appreciation and on balance I’m in favour of this, even if it undermines the experience of stumbling on this little treasure from a woodland footpath.
Habitués of British walking routes may be puzzled by the waymark posts carved with an acorn design strongly reminiscent of the National Trail logo. These are not some previously undocumented branch of the North Downs Way but a local nature trail with numbered stations. From first entering the reserve, Loop walkers will pass the following posts in order:
15. Little Wood, probably ancient woodland, as indicated by bluebells, yellow archangel and wood anenomes.
14. A good place to spot more parakeets.
13. Old fruit trees either side of the path from an orchard removed in 1971, popular with butterflies.
12. An avenue of English oak trees.
11. The turning for the moated manor.
10. A pond surrounded by Japanese knotweed.
9. Large growths of male fern.
8. Ivy-covered oak and ash trees.
7. Dead wood, a vital habitat for invertebrates.
6. Oak trees either side of the path that are over 400 years old. Some once grew in open parkland, with their timber harvested for shipbuilding.
5. Young birch trees near the path. By now you will have noticed the character of the woodland changing, with more of these short-lived, early colonising trees, a sign that the woods here have grown more recently.
Though unhelpfully there’s no signing to confirm this, the Loop now parts company with the nature trail to leave the site, crossing Foots Cray Road and almost immediately entering another zone of public woodland.
Commons and woodlands
|St Pauls Cray Common|
Where commons survived, it was usually because people campaigned and fought for them. One early achievement of campaigners was the the Metropolitan Commons Act 1866, intended to retain green space in the London area, which assigned the management of remaining commons to independent boards of conservators or trustees.
At the end of the 16th century the adjoining mediaeval commons of Chislehurst and St Pauls Cray were consolidated into the large slice of northwest Kent owned by the Walsingham family following Thomas Walsingham’s knighthood. Their successors didn’t inclose the commons, but they did extract gravel for building. Local campaigners were disappointed that the 1866 act didn’t apply locally, so lobbied for a supplemental act. This followed in 1888, since when the lord of the manor has continued to own the freehold of the land, but an independent charity known as the Trustees of Chislehurst Common is obliged and empowered to manage it “to preserve the turf, shrubs, trees, plants and grass.” This it now does with the help of a grant from the council.
In fact the Loop has already passed through a part of St Pauls Cray common, which extends on both sides of Foots Cray Road: the last part of the path through the thinner woodland leaving Scadbury falls within its boundary. A few centuries ago the common was open heath managed by grazing, but this practice diminished from the mid-19th century and new ‘secondary’ woodland grew up over most of the area: oak, silver birch, rowan, hawthorn and yew, with glades of ash and beech. The Trustees are now working to re-establish areas of heath.
|Willett Memorial Sundial|
Born in Farnham, Willett spent most of his life in Chislehurst running the family building business. The story that goes that when out riding one summer morning in Petts Wood, Willett noticed most people still had their blinds down. He came up with the idea of resetting clocks to take advantage of early summer sunrises, publishing a 1907 pamphlet called The Waste of Daylight where he argued that clocks should be advanced progressively by a total of 80 minutes over successive Sundays in April.
Willett wasn’t the first to propose this idea: something similar had been advanced independently in 1895 in a paper by New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson. But Willett can be credited for campaigning energetically in its favour, and recruiting numerous MPs to the cause, including a young Winston Churchill.
British Summer Time (BST) was eventually introduced by Act of Parliament as a wartime coal-saving measure in 1916, though with the simpler formula of putting the clocks forward by an hour on a single day. By then Germany had already introduced a similar measure and the practice has since spread to many other countries, although it’s by no means universally popular. Willett never lived to see his success as he died of influenza in 1915: he’s buried in Chislehurst churchyard. Coincidentally, he’s also the great-great-grandfather of Coldplay’s Chris Martin.
It’s worth the short detour away from the main north-south bridleway through the woods to visit the Willett Memorial, a pillar of Cumbrian granite with a sundial permanently set to BST, also unveiled in 1927. Back on the main path, the open field on the right where sheep sometimes graze is known locally as the ‘Soldiering Field’ as it was once used to drill military volunteers. Beyond it, to the west of the wood, is another old agricultural estate known as Hawkwood. Also in 1927, its owner, Francis Edlmann, bought another portion of the woodland specifically to save it from development. In 1957 this woodland was also donated the Trust, which then bought the rest of the estate in 1975 on the proviso that it would continue as a working farm. You pass a memorial to Edlmann and Robert and Francesca Hall, the last private owners of Hawkwood, further along the trail.
|The Kyd Brook (river Quaggy) near Petts Wood|
The trail now cuts across the delta of railway lines just southeast of the tangle of Chislehurst Junction on a series of footbridges, linked by paths through remnant woodland between the lines. First is the Chatham Main Line, which you’ve been walking alongside for a while, opened in 1860 by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR) to complete its connection from London Victoria to Faversham and Canterbury. Soon afterwards a second footbridge crosses a single track line, one of the links opened in 1902 following the merger of the LCDR with its arch-rival the South Eastern Railway (SER), enabling Chatham Line trains to access the SER’s terminals at London Bridge and London Charing Cross.
|South Eastern main line at Petts Wood looking towards London.|
Note the steam loco waiting at signals to join the main line on the left. I think
this is 70000 Britannia recreating the historic Golden Arrow boat train.
Petts Wood village
|Village sign and floral displays at Tudorbethan Petts Wood.|
Petts Wood is a planned garden suburb dating from the interwar years and largely the work of a single developer, Basil Scruby. He began by part-financing the new station, opened in 1928, laying out the main shopping area around Station Square and then the housing, working with builder Noel Rees. The style is unashamedly Tudorbethan, a comforting nod to a myth of rural England in a world of change that seems particularly ironic for a development that supplanted parts of country estates with a genuine Tudor heritage. But it has a pleasing unity and, nearly a century on, its own charm, best exemplified by the Daylight Inn, the landmark pub originally built for Charringtons in Station Square and named with a further nod to Willett.
Charles de Gaulle, exiled leader of the Free French and future Président de la République, was strictly a five bob man when he lived at 41 Birchwood Road in the 1940s. More recently, the local Woolworths made history in 2009 when, as the store chain went into liquidation, it had the privilege of selling the last ever bag of Pic N Mix sweets. For the princely sum of £14,500 at a charity auction.