“Some showers” read the weather report on my smartphone. “This doesn’t look like ‘some showers'” was the text I sent to my wife whilst on my way to today’s walk.

And indeed it wasn’t. The rain was atrocious. On the bus the small child next to me laughed and pointed in awe at the flooding in Blackheath and Charlton, I merely tried to see through the waterfall obscuring my view, and think happy thoughts. I considered turning around, but I’d been looking forward to this walk. I was wearing my waterproof jacket so I reasoned that the worst I could experience would be sodden feet and legs. And perhaps a rain-washed nose too. Today I would explore the end of the River Thames and the start of the Thames Estuary, before heading inland along the LOOP, following the Rivers Darent and Cray to Old Bexley.

Starting point: Woolwich Arsenal station or bus stops.

Finishing point: Old Bexley Village, Bexley train station

Length: Approximately 16 miles (25.8 kilometres).

Ordnance Survey Maps app link here

Download the GPX file for this route here Woolwich to Old Bexley

As I bounced off the bus in the centre of Woolwich I noted that the rain had softened slightly. Nevertheless I pulled my hood up and headed towards the Thames. A van drove through a huge puddle as a man ran across the road, he was quickly drenched and I chuckled to myself as I saw he’d run out from ‘Spray Street’.

For some reason I walked down a back street behind the Woolwich Arsenal and missed the avenue lined with artillery that I’d followed when walking the Capital Ring from here back to my house in Beckenham. I rejoined just as it reaches the Thames and looked about me. The river and the path were bathed in sombre greys and browns. The distant trees to the east were diffused and only the odd flash of blue railings broke up the dreary scene. One man walked with his back hunched under the renewed pounding of the rain. So off I went.

After a few hundred metres of dodging dog shit the hard paved surface gave way to unmade track. I reached for my trekking poles immediately, determined to give them a proper test over a long distance. My grip technique was poor all day and right now I can’t think why I didn’t adjust myself. I guess I was just enjoying the stroll and deliberately working my upper body a bit harder. Nevertheless the poles powered me along at a respectable pace and I gobbled the next few miles of grey vistas quite quickly.

Trying to shelter along the Thames Path, in the blue 'hull' shelters.The odd boat chugged past me and altered the scene a little. I saw almost nobody on the path at all though, the weather was forcing people to stay at home. I passed by signs telling me that Crystal Palace was a hefty 17 miles along the Green Chain from here, until now I’d not realised there was a link to this point. Duly noted…

There was no shelter to speak of along this path. I came across some bright blue shelters in the shape of up-turned hulls but the slant of the drizzle was easily overcoming the serious design flaws of these ‘shelters’ so I only stopped briefly to take on water and snuffle around in a pack of damp Fruit Pastilles. I managed to get my mobile phone out of the rain long enough to take a photo, the first of the day, but I resigned myself to it being a fairly unrecorded walk today.
Stopping for tea under a bridge near CrossnessI rounded the next bend and took in the view of wondrous Belvedere. This part of Southeast London must surely seize the title of Ugliest Part of the City? The Crossness sewerage treatment works are pretty in a Victorian dark-brick-with-flourishes kind of way but the inevitable lingering pong detracts from this all the time. Beyond this is the Crossness Sludge-powered Generator, in all its sparkly metal glory. Information boards describe this as a ‘Cathedral in steel’ – hmm. Yes, they clearly aimed to get that look. It’s not the most unattractive building along here though. That award might go to the large industrial building just east of here. Its one saving grace was the huge bridge that swings over the Thames Path and out to a jetty. The width of this bridge is such that it provided the first actual shelter of the route. I downed a couple of cups of tea and snapped some gloomy photos but remarkably I felt pretty good still. My feet were beginning to get a bit wet though. I was seriously considering calling it a day at Erith because I didn’t want trench foot and I suspected the LOOP section to Bexley might be utterly waterlogged.
Streaky drainage in the mud banks of the river Thames
Signage at one of the Thames Path start points of the Green Chain
Packing the flask and trudging on I mulled over this decision for at least another mile of endless industrial properties. Across the river I spotted what looks like a Eurostar service blurring through the Essex countryside, heading to sunnier climes across the Channel. Around the same time the rain stopped and the sun started to tear the clouds apart. Erith lay in the distance and looked more inviting at this point than I reckon it ever will again. Church spires were picked out by the growing light and the trees above the town looked fully green instead of resembling pond murk. This spurred me on and thoughts of abandoning early were banished. Even the industrial buildings here have more interest than before, plus they are accompanied by some ramshackle river furniture along the lines of crumbling cranes and splintered jetties.

The sun forcing its way through clouds over Erith
Ramshackle waterfront at Erith

As I entered Erith town centre I spotted a huge rat in the Riverside Gardens, the only one I’ve seen along the Thames. I put away the trekking poles for the short walk through the town. My senses were put on alert as I associated the Subaru Imprezas with the huge puddles in the road. Careful navigation and timing kept me away from any splashing incidents and very soon I stood triumphant on the crest of the path through gorgeous Crayford Ness, a wide salt marsh.

My shadow finally coming with me along the Thames PathThe sun was now full shining and I spied my shadow for the first time all day. I perched on a bench and admired the young foals flopping around in the paddocks below whilst their parents nibbled between the masses of purple flowers. Birds exploded from bushes as I walked on and I admired a dinghy being sailed out on what had now become the Thames Estuary. At the end of Crayford Ness (‘ness’ means promontory or headland) you have to skirt the edge of a huge junkyard but you scarcely care with the beauty of the marsh to the left. Far behind me I heard and then saw moto-x bikes ploughing through puddles and sending huge muddy arcs into the sky, but they never ventured closer than a hundred metres away. As I reached the River Darent flood barrier I stopped to poke the signage back into position – the wind was pointing unwitting walkers 180 degrees the wrong way.

Before and after shots of my 'fix' of signage at Crayford Ness

Foals gallivanting on Crayford Ness marsh, from the Thames Path

The Darent flood barrier from Crayford Ness

The QEII bridge over the Thames Estuary, from Crayford Ness

Inland I crept, along the course of the Darent for about a mile. The path here is well maintained and seemed to have resisted the strongest unwanted advances of the lashings of rain. My legs felt fine even after about 10 miles of walking so I decided to avoid the (unmarked) turn off to Slade Green train station and committed to walking all the way to Old Bexley, only another 5 or 6 miles along Section 1 of the London Outer Orbital Path (LOOP).

The meandering River Darent from the London Outer Orbital Loop, section 1.

And this is where things started to go wrong.

About half an hour later I had negotiated a sodden and unkempt path of brambles and other sundry weeds and turned off from the Darent onto the River Cray. My shoes were wet from the rain clinging to foliage blocking my feet. Every step exploded a myriad of concealed snails underfoot. But worse by far I’d noticed a growing pain. A shadow in the back of my mind told me what it was – my knee was going wrong again. I used the trekking poles as much as I could but the surface was so bad that I couldn’t help but twist and turn my afflicted knee. At least I was getting a good upper body workout but I’ve never been so happy to see tarmac as when I exited this stretch of track just northeast of the town of Crayford.

The deep pool under a railway bridge near Crayford

I continued alongside a tree-lined length of the River Cray and had an old woman smilingly tell me that I was ‘Missing the mountains’ whilst pointing at my poles. I told her I was recovering from an injury (or re-igniting an old one) and she said ‘You’re too young’ whilst lifting her own wooden walking stick. Thanks for that. Most unhelpful.

The LOOP passed along the Cray, hugging the back of rows of houses or flowing through the centre of Crayford. A glance at a sign told me I was a mere mile and a half from Old Bexley Village so I opted to tough out the final stretch and pass on the opportunity to catch a train from Crayford station.

Boy was this a foolish mistake. If the niggle was just an annoyance before it suddenly went full-blown agony as soon as I was too far from there to double back. A signpost in Hall Place Gardens lied outright to me about which direction I was supposed to be going in and I ended up off course for half a mile I really didn’t need.

I limped alongside the horrific A2 dual carriageway and almost wept when I saw my way down from it was a set of steep steps. Onwards and upwards, literally, as the path rose and became muddy once more. The worst was yet to come as I reached a stile. I collapsed against it and hung my head. Even standing still hurt by now and I was really not sure whether I could make it on my own. The signs kept lying about how far things were so one disappointment after another piled up to beat me down. I piled some Kendal Mint Cake into my mouth and distracted myself for a second as I hauled myself over the stile. My left leg felt amazing, it could have kept going on and on. Why couldn’t the right be as good? At this point I had endless mud and woodland around me. I stifled tears of pain as I shuffled on. The recognition that long walks might be over for me came into clear focus and this hurt even more.

Eventually I made it. Old Bexley Village came into view and I dragged my sorry carcass up towards the train station where I’d begun Section 2 of the LOOP earlier in the year, past a rank of staring and strangely incongruous Asian cab drivers. Another cruel twist saw me having to cross to the other platform by subway but when I got to the bench on the other side I melted into the seat and thanked whatever force I had that I’d made it to civilisation and transport again. The train took me to New Eltham where I narrowly missed a twice-hourly bus home. I stood literally and metaphorically under a huge dark cloud and waited for the next one. Kristina eventually picked me up where the bus dropped me off, I was wrecked and couldn’t face another half mile.

So, roughly 16.5 miles in all. I saw only 23 people on the path from Woolwich to Old Bexley that day, which is incredible really. I enjoyed everything up to the Darent/Cray confluence, including the rain and the grey of the Thames Path, but the LOOP after this is rather an unhappy blur for me. I do know it’s pretty reasonable overall, with only small bits of non-green walking, and you do see a lot of the rivers. Maybe I tried too hard to make good progress, or maybe I just made some bad decisions at crucial but unexpected times. It’s hard to blame my conscious decisions entirely but I know now that I’ve done something serious to my knee and I’m going through the process of GP referral and scans to discover just how bad it is. I’m thinking it’s a torn meniscus, of some unknown severity, but I’m hoping with all my heart that it’s just a simple strain that can be fixed with rest and care.

We shall see, but I hope this isn’t the last ’10+ miles’ category walk I file on this site. There’s so much more to see and do.