A strange walk from Hayes & Harlington to Moor Park where I contend not only with the path but with my own character.

I’ll get this off my chest right now – I walked this route but I really wasn’t in the mood. Through almost no fault of its own I have to say that it just didn’t live up to what I wanted it to be. On the day at least. Now, several days later, I can view it with some objectivity and say that it was actually a very lovely route in places. My mind was muddied and ungrateful, too preoccupied and stressed to be able to wind down properly. That makes me pretty sad actually, so please bear in mind that if this review doesn’t seem overwhelmingly positive that is not a fair reflection. That said I will point out the parts where I was flippin’ pissed off with it for good reasons…

Starting point: Hayes & Harlington railway station, trains from Paddington.

Finishing point: Moor Park underground station, Metropolitan Line zone 6.

Distance: 17.4 miles (28 kilometres).

Ordnance Survey Maps app route link here

Download the GPX file for this route here Hayes & Harlington to Moor Park

Narrowboat on the Grand Union Canal just west of Hayes & HarlingtonAs usual for a weekend morning just getting to the trail’s staring point was a pain in the arse. At Victoria the bus stop that TfL directed me towards turned out to be out of service due to the massive new tube station excavations. So I hunted for the correct one for a few minutes. Then at Paddington I forgot how to get in to the station and ended up running full-pelt up the platform to catch the dinky little shuttle train that goes to Heathrow Central. On the train the robot lady announcer told us something different every 30 seconds. In short, I was getting short already. When I got off at Hayes & Harlington I tried to let my mind disconnect from all that. I had been too easily annoyed perhaps. I let autopilot carry me the short distance up the road to the Grand Union Canal, and took the stairs down to the towpath, where I left off several months ago.

Within seconds I felt a little asterisk appear in my mind, annotating the view with a little bubble “*That’s better isn’t it Chris?”. And yes, yes it was. Just joining the towpath tears you away from that mangled pathetic weekend transport network and puts you amongst the simpler pleasures. Like watching mallard ducklings. Oh yes, that’s a lot better, thank you for asking, brain.

I headed west and tried to let myself detach properly from the things that had been playing on my mind. The previous two days I had been involved in a chronic DIY renovation, I am starting a new job at the end of June, I’m now in quite a bit of debt because of necessary expenditures but not enough time to save up. You know, everyday things.

The towpath was damp but perfectly stable underfoot, something I expected to be utterly different by the end of the day’s hike so I changed my points of concentration again, partly in dread of what kind of slurry might be in store. The Walk London website had posted a notice saying that Section 13 of the LOOP was extremely muddy. I had never seen a notice like that on there before but I had experienced a lot of unheralded mud in the past so I was not looking forward to the final four miles.

All this in just a few hundred metres. The canal was serene and perfectly amiable. Other cyclists and joggers seemed to be having a nice enough time. When I found the first junction of the day I was a little bit depressed by how fortified it looked.

The fortified gates onto the LOOP from the Grand Union Canal

Beyond there the path was still in very good condition as it ploughed between medium industrial buildings. At the road I spotted the LOOP blaze pointing westwards, down the road. I was suspicious so I checked the woeful official map of Section 11, and promptly discarded the seeming advice of the blaze. The LOOP actually runs beside the day’s first golf course at Stockley Pines. You go down a dark tunnel of trees, well shielded from the golfers.

Keep following the path until it spits you out at a car park. Here there are no blazes any more. The path seems to carry you into the golf course itself so I gazed at the map again. Nope, useless. To avoid potential trespass problems I headed into the car park and scanned for a blaze. There were none but I did witness a BMW driver take five attempts at a turn that should have taken two, and also nearly squashed me. So, “Yay”.

On the far side of the car park is a dirt road leading away from a small pond and in the general direction of where I knew I was supposed to be heading. By now I knew that I should have avoided the car park and risked trespass because that was actually the right direction. In fact I had probably now trespassed after all. The dirt road curves north until you find a huge suspension bridge over the A408. Cross over and keep going. Eventually the blazes take you in a steady arc south again.

This rather nice little piece of woodland necessitates you keeping your eyes peeled because otherwise you will miss the blaze hidden in bushes which indicates a right-hand turning. Into a badly overgrown side path. Thwack your way through and you find another fortified gate lets you out into dull as dishwater Horton Road.

I carefully navigated around a tanker attempting to pump the drains clear and turned south again, past a rather incongruous pub, to rejoin the canal a few hundred metres on from where I’d left it. I understand why the route designers opted to send us off-piste, citing ‘tedium’, but really I’m not sure that diversion was worth the hassle after all. But perhaps I just have an abnormal aversion to golf courses?

'Cirrhosis of the River' narrowboat on the Grand Union Canal

The Grand Union Canal is actually pretty nice for the next mile or so. Past West Drayton railway station and then gently turning north again. Around here there are plenty of narrowboats moored by the large Tesco. I watched a man labouring a trolley along the stony towpath, its wheels flapping maniacally against his audacity. Once the trolley headed into the store it was very peaceful.

The turn off for the Slough branch of the Grand Union Canal, LOOP section 11

The LOOP turns west just before Packet Boat Marina. The Slough branch of the Grand Union Canal points laser-like for a long way. In the distance you can just about observe the rushing of cars atop an M25 bridge. Happily the noise barely reaches you. About half way along this branch there is a bridge over the canal, pointing north. Again there are no signs that this is the time to change direction, but trust in your instincts and cross over.

The track winds through damp woods with the River Colne supplying pools of water on each side of the path. The air was thick with fluffy seeds ejaculated from the same type of trees I choked over almost exactly a year before, a few miles away at Brent Lodge Park. My beard snagged them but my sunglasses kept them away from the bits that count. It felt like I was walking through slow-motion snowfall. Very surreal.

Little Britain Lake was as pleasant as I had been led to believe so it is a shame that the LOOP actually doesn’t edge the lake itself but nips off behind the River Colne and into bushes. This is where mud started to rear its manky head and I spent a fair bit of time jumping over the worst of it. Even with walking boots on I didn’t want to test the depths of some areas.

I wandered north along the Colne Valley Trail until I was completely arrested by a picturesque but very noisy weir. I had no control of myself when I raced to sit on the lump of concrete jutting out, and dangle my legs about an inch above the weirdly rhythmic torrent. A ‘bakewell flapjack’ was consumed on this break and for the first time that morning I felt happy. I could have sat here for hours had my legs not started going numb and had I not remembered that I still had around ten miles of walking to do…

The weir on the River Colne, along the London Outer Orbital Path

Just before I got up I spotted a stunning blue mayfly and took about a zillion photos of it.

A stunning blue mayflay beside a weir on the River Colne, LOOP section 11

Cherry Picker trucks worshipping the sun, section 11 of the LOOPWith a heavy heart I compelled myself out of this little idyll. The LOOP coincides with the Colne Valley Trail for a long time, and it’s not really very pretty.  At Iver Lane I did find this surreal set of cherry picker trucks seemingly worshipping the sky.

Good for them!

But then the path squeezes itself beside their massive industrial pen and the bushes beside the Colne. You trudge on with little of interest apart from a couple of picturesque willows dipping above the water.

The River Colne along section 11 of the London LOOP

The Colne Valley Trail sign along section 11 of the London Outer Orbital PathWhen the path turns right you eventually follow Culvert Lane to rejoin the Grand Union Canal. A few metres on there is a fair bit of bustle as there is a boatyard for the narrowboats. A new one sat in a cradle hanging in mid-air, freshly painted and shining prettily. Opposite is the General Elliot pub, and I decided I needed to sit down and think about whether I was going to continue with the walk. I just wasn’t enjoying it enough.

Perhaps the pint of Doombar gave me a little Dutch Courage and tipped the balance but I determined I was going to go through with it all, as planned, and to hell with what I thought about that. So I became a little bit schizophrenic for a minute, battling with myself, against myself, championing myself, and berating myself. The triumphant reasoning ran thus: It is supposed to be one of the prettier parts of West London, it took you a damn long time to get out here in the first place, make the most of it, yum beer.

One of several pillboxes beside the Grand Union Canal and London LOOP

So I upped and atted ‘it’. I finished Section 11 on a minor high as I really started to revel in the idea of defeating my own defeatist leanings. Beyond here the London Outer Orbital Path, section 12 gets a lot more remote and lonely. I overtook a fat man sucking on a spliff and gobbled some peanut butter sandwiches as I walked. I had a swan hiss at me because it had elected to bring its children into a stagnant pond right next to the path and was hemmed in. But I didn’t break stride.

This part was a little monotonous but I actually felt good in myself for a bit.

And then after turning right to go around a barbed wired narrowboat marina I kind of lost that vibe. A strange man with a dog was just standing staring into the bushes and I felt exposed and vulnerable. That Dutch Courage was gone and I wanted to get out of these woods as fast as possible. When I saw a discarded foil survival blanket billowing in a nettle bush it felt like I was miles from anywhere, not half a mile from Harefield.

Rejoining the canal was a mood lifter, even after I spotted a sign bemoaning the fact that a totem pole had been stolen from the local cafe. A couple of kids were trying to ‘help’ at the lock and ended up shouting at each other as weary parents chastised them for battling. The houses on the opposite bank were a bit ugly, but I envied a woman sitting on her patio with a cold drink and a paper.

The Grand Union Canal north of Uxbridge along the London LOOP

The canal streaked north as I seemed to up my pace and close in on the end of Section 12. In no time at all I was beside The Coy Carp pub and waving bye to another section of LOOP. It passed quickly, at five miles, but it was certainly the nicest of the three sections I walked that day.

Onwards and upwards! Literally. I crossed the canal back into Greater London (this route actually dips in and out of the capital on several occasions) and started the climb up the valley wall.

The LOOP takes the most direct route and cuts straight for over half a mile up the hill, through woods. I was sweating in the muggy afternoon and as I passed two rambly ladies I tried to raise a friendly smile. When I took my hat off moments later I found that two patches of sweat on my forehead had soaked through the fabric to leave two devilish horn crescents on the front of my hat. So I probably just looked odd. Or evil.

The hamlet of Hill End passes in seconds but it is the gateway to the first real countryside feelings I’ve experienced on the LOOP since way back on Section 6, with the hills around Woodmansterne showing me Wembley in the far distant future. Since then it has dabbled in suburbia and light industry to the extent that I might actually be persuaded to announce that the Capital Ring can feel more rural in West London. Despite it being much further in.

A bare tree beside the LOOP, section 13

The mile or so of tramping through long grass, within sight of cows, and with rolling hills blocking all sight of London, did tick all the boxes I was after. I felt excellent for a while. Despite a growing headache. I still couldn’t let that stress dissipate.

Rolling fields along the London Outer Orbital Path section 13, south of Rickmansworth

A few minutes of southbound road walking didn’t deter me. I’m getting much more used to that chore. I crossed over when I reached the Rose & Crown and headed into the dark fly-filled path heading east. At the end there were three bollards that looked like cricket stumps, and beyond lay a beautiful meadow.

I was stopped in my tracks and even didn’t really mind the golf course sitting on the top of the hill opposite. Follow the trail through the grass towards the bottom end of the field and swipe off the large and imaginatively shaped insects who come to investigate you.

Prepare.

The day got rough at this point.

Where the path entered the woods on the right I noticed that the slick clay slope betrayed recent incidents involving people falling over and sliding down the hill. Smears, weird patterns, crushed grass, hoof and footprints. The signpost had clearly been replaced recently as it was yet to be adorned with any blazes. Deep breath. Find happy thoughts. Fight the headache. Dive in.

Abysmal is the word I choose to apply to Bishop’s Wood. I return to a point I’ve made before: It’s all well and good having people like myself going out and using these walks, but if we are EVER going to get people walking recreationally in larger numbers then we simply have to do better than the kind of situation you currently find in Bishop’s Wood.

Horses use this path too. Horses turn a little bit of rain on soil into an unholy skidding Somme. In places the mud was over four inches deep, I found out, and often there is no way around. You just have to head onwards. Focus on the floor. Find a path through the horror. Don’t fall, you might never get up again.

It took a very long time to get to the little footbridge over the stream in the middle of the woods. I crossed over and went up the hill, happy that this bit seems a bit less muddy because the gradient allowed the water to drain off. On I went. A shadow of doubt fell over me. When I found a signpost making no mention of the LOOP I realised I must have missed a turning. And I had.

Yes I could have downloaded the route directions to my phone and used that to navigate the correct way, but that really isn’t the point. I reiterate that these walks need to be damn near mindless for people to want to use them. The public don’t want to print off or carry instructions, they want ease and security. Hikers will get out of London for an ‘authentic’ hiking experience.

When I found the turning it was down by the bridge and the blaze was literally hidden in the bushes. Simply not good enough.

Into the murk I went and struggled over mud for ages. This time without the help of horses it has to be said. I did almost miss another turning because I didn’t spot this blaze:

Never ending mud along the London LOOP in Bishop's Wood, with the trail blaze marker hidden in bushes to the right

(It’s there on the right if you didn’t spot it)

By the time I heard the noise of  a road on my right I was swearing liberally. When I rounded another corner and found a wall of nettles and a slick of mud I told the LOOP to go procreate with itself. If it’s this bad in June, what the hell must it be like in January?! I clambered out onto the road and sped away from the Heart of Darkness.

Free again! I turned right at the A404 and passed a little pub which turned out to be an exotic dancing venue, before dropping into the woods once again. The flies were getting thicker as the day wore on and it was getting unpleasant. I was tired by now. My head was throbbing. As I entered pristine Moor Park Conservation Area I thumbed my nose at this weird little gated community and became a little despondent when I found yet another golf course beside Moor Park tube station.

The golf course next to Moor Park station

I had to run through the station to catch my tube, and when I threw myself down onto the seat I was glad I had conquered this walk. It was unreasonably difficult for a number of reasons. It never should have been that way. I have a feeling I will harbour guilt about my attitude towards it, but at the same time, with time and distance, I can appreciate the beauty I found. Section 11 is a means to an end, few highlights but one beautiful weir making it worthwhile. Section 12 is very lovely, overall. Section 13 gives you the countryside you asked for, but extorts a great price when you consider the torment of Bishop’s Wood.

I’ve broken the back of the LOOP now, I can sense the home straight as I round into north London proper. I must remind myself that I’m not doing this simply to say I’ve done it, but for the journey itself. Hopefully next time my mental state will be more conducive to walking and I will be back in the state I enjoy.