Saturday 21 January 2017

The LOOP (London Outer Orbital Path) - Part 1 of 2


Over eight or nine days I'm running round the LOOP - the London Outer Orbital Path. A 152 mile circuit around London split into 24 sections and designed for walkers, with the start and finish of each section being convenient for public transport.

The route starts at Erith, on the southern bank of the Thames estuary, and runs right round London in a route that takes in many green spaces and less urban areas, to finish on the North bank of the estuary at Purfleet.

The purpose of this post is partially to record the journey, but mainly to share some of the photos I took on the way round. So far I've done half of it, I'll publish another post for the second half when I've done it.

Day 1, Monday 12th December 2016
Sections 1 and 2 - Erith to Petts Wood, 26.5km, 03:16:53

I'm starting where the LOOP officially starts. It's a short run out East, then South West - skirting round Dartford and heading straight toward Bromley.

Not too many navigational challenges today

General upward trend, as you'd expect heading away from the river and towards Kent

On a cold December morning I hopped on an early train to get the LOOP underway. With Christmas coming up, and Country to Capital soon afterwards, I know I'm not going to get the whole lot done within the same fortnight, but let's get started anyway.

First LOOP sign

Although I had the route well planned in advance using my mapping app of choice, OS MapFinder, and I'd spent some time thinking about the route, I was still surprised at quite how industrial and remote it felt at the start of this first day.

Looks a bit unloved out here

The LOOP follows the Thames Path Extension, the extra bit that runs from the Thames Barrier out to Crayford (if the previous 184 miles weren't enough Thames Path for you).

The commemorative marker signalling the start of National Cycle Path 1

It also shares its first few miles with National Cycle Path 1, though to be honest I wouldn't bother unless you're on a mountain bike. The first mile or two are well surfaced, but it gets a bit muddy after that.

This is where your recycling goes, along with old cars, white goods, and all sorts of other stuff

It's a fairly smelly and deserted industrial zone out here. There's plenty of machine activity in the recycle and waste processing plants, but I couldn't see many people. I saw no other walkers or cyclists on this stretch.

The Queen Elizabeth II bridge

I have looked down from the top of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge many times, at the widening Thames and grey brown industrial areas - I like the bridge, and it was a pleasure to see it from this side for the first time. I've never been on foot in this part of London before.

Looking behind me, back towards the Thames

The path curves to the right and heads up the River Darent, a tributary of the Thames flowing in from South East London.

<Insert usual rant about accessibility>

You know you're on a National Cycle Way when you reach a horrific anti-cycling machine and this one was no different. I never cease to be amazed by the bizarre scaffolding contraptions designed to keep everyone off the path apart from able-bodied humans with no luggage.


Shortly after the annoying scaffolding, I came across some muddy but friendly miniature horses. A couple of them trotted along side me for a little while - it would have been a spiritual experience had it not been for the big chainlink fence in between us.

2D bar codes get everywhere

The route took me over the A2 and through Bexley Village which was beautiful, I must go back and explore properly. A final climb up and over Scadbury Park Nature Reserve and then down toward Petts Wood station. The day was drawing in, I just about made it without being caught in the dark!

Day 2, Tuesday 13th December 2016
Sections 3 and 4 - Petts Wood to Croydon, 20.8km, 03:02:42

I like routes like today - where although it takes about ninety minutes to get to the start, and I have to go via Central London mainline stations, the finish is pleasingly easy to get home from - in this case just a tram from Croydon to virtually the end of my road.

The LOOP heads West now, across South London and towards Croydon

As every South Londoner knows, this is where they keep the hills

I set off bright (dark) and early (very) and almost over delivered as I arrived back at Petts Wood in the first rays of the day.

Bit dark in the woods, plenty of fairy tales start out like this!

Thankfully the first mile or two was on nice spongy leafy trails and not a root-laden trip-fest. It soon brightened up to a slightly lighter shade of grey and the pace picked up.

There was an eerie feel to the morning, still dim and misty

Running in the morning through parks is lovely, so quiet and peaceful. I saw remarkably few people, only the occasional dog walker.

Going for some kind of adventuring/manic/Blair With Project look here

Pausing briefly to remind myself why I don't take selfies very often, the day was now well under way. The route was a bit fiddly, but worth it - staying nicely in parks and away from major built up areas as much as possible.

Great change comes from innocuous chats in the forest

One of the best views in London, apparently... Addington Hill viewpoint

Coming up to 2/3 of the planned 30km distance I was starting to lose the love for the day - whilst deciding if I should cut short or not, I rounded a corner straight into a tram stop. There's a tram stop just a few hundred metres from my house - I couldn't resist such an easy journey home, so I called it a day at 20km.

Day 3, Friday 16th December 2016
Sections 5 to 7 - Hamsey Green to Ewell, 31.2km, 04:10:06

Continuing the tour across South London, from East to West

Bit bumpier today

Today was supposed to be 25km or so, but I had the end of Day 2 to complete first (which turned out to be almost 7km). Good job I got cracking early on - it's a bit distracting for evening commuters when a sweaty runner arrives in their midst.

I love the way these headphones make my ears stick out

A brief pause for another selfie (my last, I promise) and then I found myself on more familiar territory. The LOOP follows a small section of the Vanguard Way, which I've run most of, and this section in particular as it's also part of the Croydon Ultra route - the first Ultra I finished).

Full marks to who did this - a choice of three paths, and I've got the wrong one more than once

I was delighted to find some guerrilla signage on one of the trickier junctions, I know I've gone wrong here before and I always have to stop and double check. I made good progress here on familiar territory - spirits are high!

Roundshaw Downs  parkrun venue, and one of only four events I've done more than once

It was to be a day of familiar places as before long I came across Roundshaw Downs parkrun venue. I have fond memories of this place, it being the parkrun I made by the skin of my teeth on the famous New Year's Day triple in 2012.

Nonsuch park, home of the first inaugural parkrun I attended

Round a few more corners and another parkrun was before me - this time Nonsuch Park and another one of the New Year's Day triple events.

Day 4.1, Sunday 18th December 2016
Sections 8 to 10 (part 1) - Ewell to Kingston-upon-Thames, 12.6km, 01:38:18

Somewhat truncated today, but nice and local from Croydon through to Kingston

Mainly downhill for this section, with a lump at half way

Today's run just never got going. The first few km went well, but quickly I felt fatigued and uncommitted - a rare run experience, but it happens from time to time.

Launch tube 13

As I wasn't running particularly quickly, I had trouble warming up. It was a cold Sunday morning and it wasn't showing any signs of warming up.

Another cold and misty morning in a London park

I decided to stop at the next convenient point and get a coffee. Shortly I arrived at Kingston-upon-Thames where there are a multitude of coffee options. Stumbling coldly into the local Bill's Restaurant I found myself ordering a breakfast as well as coffee. Only 10km in, but that's enough for today - time to warm up, and feed up.

Yup, this was the right decision today

Day 4.2, Thursday 22nd December 2016
Sections 8 to 10 (part 2) - Kingston-upon-Thames to Hayes & Harlington, 23.9km, 02:39:40

Heading up the Western side of the LOOP, some very familiar areas today

Gradually rising, but only 25 metres in almost as many kilometres

Back to Kingston-upon-Thames, a convenient 15 minute train ride away, and on a much brighter and clearer day it was time to pick up my Day 4 route in a more positive frame of mind.

Don't stray from the path

The famous Bushy park parkrun starting straight - imagine a thousand parkrunners thundering bye!

Before long I had arrived at another parkrun - this time at the spiritual home of parkrun and where it all began over a decade ago - Bushy Park. With around a thousand runners every week Bushy Park needs a wide and straight first kilometre, and some military precision when it comes to managing the finishers who arrive at a rate of 100 per minute at the peak.

It's no wonder many parkrunners have a run at Bushy Park on their bucket list. There's something special about this course, and it's well worth the parkrun pilgrimage.

Guerilla Christmas decorating in Bushy Park

A little further on I came across some decorated bushes. There didn't seem to be anything special about the bushes, they were just the lucky recipients of some festive colour.

Hard to run in London without being saddened by all the rubbish

One thing it's hard not to notice is the amount of rubbish on the route. Most of the parks and forests are clean, but as the LOOP grazes more urban areas the rubbish gets really obvious. The volumes rarely get as bad as in my photo, but I felt sad and wanted to capture the mess.

Maybe on these long runs I should take a big bin liner and fill it up each day? Maybe if we all did that we could make a difference? Of course, it would be far better if everyone cared about their environment in the first place...

Board walk across the marshes

The closing few miles of today's route go right past Heathrow. You don't really understand what a plane every 45 seconds is like until you run under the approach path (or live there, of course). I live under one of the final approach routes, but I don't get every single plane. Living here must be very draining.

Almost literally running past the end of the runway at Heathrow

Full disclosure: Yes there's a little digital zoom in the pic above, but not much!

Launch tube 7

That's the end of Day 4 - and the first half of the LOOP. Some familiar areas, and some very new and different. I am enjoying these runs - London can be a lot greener and pleasant than you may imagine. Get out there and run, walk, or cycle and see for yourself.

Bring on 2017 and the second half!

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