A lengthy but fairly gentle stroll
around the outskirts of the capital.
London Outer Orbital Path (The LOOP)Henry Stedman2021-08-24T08:22:10+00:00
The LOOP (London Outer Orbital Path)
A lengthy but fairly gentle stroll around the outskirts of the capital.
WHERE IS THE LOOP? Following the outer limits of London, within the M25 (though occasionally within earshot) and largely within the Metropolitan Green Belt.
HOW LONG IS THE LONDON OUTER ORBITAL PATH (LOOP)? 150.75 miles/242.6km
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO WALK THE LONDON OUTER ORBITAL PATH (LOOP)? Though the walk is divided into 24 stages, most people take between a week and two weeks in total to complete the trail.
IS IT A NATIONAL TRAIL: No
WHERE DOES THE LOOP START? Erith, a former Kent village that, since the 1960s, has been part of Greater London.
AND WHERE DOES IT END?Purfleet, in the shadow of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge – and across the Thames from Erith at the start of the trail.
HOW HARD IS THE LONDON OUTER ORBITAL PATH? Straightforward. Yes, there are a few gradients, but ones at which experienced and inexperienced walkers alike will probably scoff. The walking is largely conducted on footpaths, though there’s plenty of walking on pavements and bridleways too. The only difficulty is finding your way.
The first and most important thing to say about the London Outer Orbital Path is that it cannot compare with any of the other walks on this page.
Beauty, adventure, excitement – it simply can’t compete with the other trails in any of these categories.
But then, that’s not really the point.
For not only was this walk designed by Londoners (an organisation called the London Walking Forum conceived of it in the early 1990s) but it was largely designed for Londoners too, to give them a chance to get away from the Big Smoke and to enjoy something that resembles a long-distance trail.
In other words, this isn’t a walk that was ever intended to be tackled in one go by hikers in full trekking gear taking their annual vacation. Instead, it was designed to be tackled in a series of leisurely afternoons out, a brief escape from the city
We had to say this at the outset, as we would hate for someone to travel from outside the South-East of England in order to tackle the LOOP. Or, even worse, for somebody to come from abroad to walk it, and to go home a couple of weeks later thinking this was the best this country had to offer. Because it really isn’t. But if you’re someone who enjoys walking, but is stuck in the capital, then the LOOP offers a real respite from the city.
One could say that the name of the trail is somewhat misleading. For one thing, the LOOP does not describe a complete loop or circle around the capital: between the official start at Erith and the end at Purfleet there is the small matter of the River Thames, which cannot be crossed easily from one side to the other – at least, not anywhere near there.
The name is also misleading for another reason: because while it may have London quite literally at its heart, it doesn’t stick wholly within the boundaries of the capital but instead regularly calls upon the neighbouring home counties. True, it largely succeeds in avoiding Kent altogether, but the LOOP does indulge in a dalliance with Surrey, flirts with Buckinghamshire, and becomes rather heavily involved with Hertfordshire – before finally settling down for a lasting liaison with Essex. The trail does, however, stay within the M25 – though occasionally you can hear the roar of traffic from it. And by-and-large it likes to stick to the so-called ‘Metropolitan Green Belt’ – that buffer zone of green, largely undeveloped land that encircles the city.
The first green belt around the capital actually dates back to the Elizabethan age, and was designed to stop the spread of the plague. These days, however, the green belt is a designed to combat what many see as an equally virulent pestilence – that of the profit-hungry developer looking to build on Britain’s diminishing stock of countryside.
In doing so, the designers of the LOOP have made the trail as attractive and tranquil as a walk within the confines of the M25 can be; indeed, the trail is sometimes called the M25 for walkers. It means that, scenery-wise, for much of your time you’ll be walking through fields, farms and parkland. Indeed, it’s only when you look at a satellite image of the walk that you realise that you are actually always pretty close to civilisation; because, for much of your time on the trail, it simply doesn’t feel like it.
That’s not to say that your walk around the LOOP will be one continuous 150-mile long rural ramble. London’s relentless expansion over the past 200 years has obviously had a deleterious effect on the countryside, and on the wildlife that lives within it. There are no hares in Harefield, for example, and no cranes swooping over the Crane River. And if there ever was a moor in Moor Park – well, there’s no more moor in Moor Park anymore.
But, having said that I must confess that I saw more wildlife on this walk than on any of my other treks in Britain! I certainly saw more deer – and not just in the parks either, but more often than not running free in the fields and woodland. I also saw more woodpeckers and little owls (yes, really) on this hike than on any other – and certainly more parakeets, those relative newcomers to the city that have colonised vast swathes of the capital’s greener sections. Nor was that the only foreign interloper on my time on the LOOP, with a terrapin also putting in an appearance in the ponds of Foot’s Cray meadows.
But it wasn’t just the wildlife that was such a pleasant surprise on the LOOP. Some of the scenery, too, was really lovely. I am thinking in particular of Happy Valley, on the edge of the North Downs, and the open expanse of nearby Farthing Downs. I am thinking, too, of the stillness of the former hay meadows at Totteridge Fields, and of the lovely undulating farmland near Harefield, where London abuts Buckinhamshire, and peaceful, unsung Salmon’s Brook – a river of calm and a lovely spot for a picnic lunch.
Nor is it just the natural features of the LOOP that entice. A few of the villages, such as cute Farnborough and grand Monken Hadley, are delightful, while the town of Kingston is as majestic and handsome as the former site of royal coronations should be. And the LOOP also takes you to places that may well have heard of, but perhaps never had reason to visit.
And I haven’t even mentioned the joy of walking by the Grand Union Canal, a vein of calm through the West London clamour.
So that’s the LOOP for you; a lengthy, straightforward stroll through some of London’s less well-known quarters. It may not feature the grand vistas or unconfined wilderness of some of England’s other long-distance trails and, when viewed on a map, it may not appear the most enticing region for a lengthy walk. But don’t be put off by any negative preconceptions you may have.
Because the LOOP will, I am pretty sure, surprise you.
It may lack the jaw-dropping sights and scenery of other trails, but there are certain sights on the LOOP that you just won’t find on other walks? Where else can you find barges made of concrete? Or a deep sea diver made of wire? A memorial that celebrates the grandfather of Coldplay’s Chris Martin? A trail that crosses the Greenwich Meridian twice? The house that was used in the TV series The Good Life? Or a field replete with vibrant lavender which, at the weekends in summer, are crowded with women in their finest dresses who’ve come just to be photographed frolicking amongst the rows? It’s only on the LOOP that you can see these sights.
This route is great for introducing you to places that you’ve heard about many times, but never actually known where in the world they are. The movie and TV Mecca of Elstree; the home of football’s VAR, Stockley Park; that perennial punchline to a joke, Cockfosters; the centre of heart surgery in the UK, Harefield; even the Grand Union Canal and its course through the capital. These are places that you have probably heard many times in news and sports reports, but had never actually had reason to visit or taken the time to discover where they were. Well, this route passes through all of the above and several more.
The cute village of Farnborough and grand Monken Hadley, where some of the residences are so grand they have their own Wikipedia page, were both unexpected delights and deserve to be more renowned than they are.
The amount and variety of wildlife that we spotted along the trail was the biggest surprise that the LOOP provided. But when you think about it, it does make sense. After all, the LOOP deliberately tries to stick to the greener parts of the capital’s perimeter, no matter how slight or insignificant – even if it’s just a scrap of woodland squeezed between a stream and a housing estate. The local wildlife, of course, tries to do exactly the same, which is why we shouldn’t be surprised, perhaps, by how many birds and animals we saw.
You get plenty of opportunities to overlook it from various viewpoints along the way, allowing you to get a better idea of how the capital all fits together, and how some of the taller landmarks – Wembley Stadium, Canary Wharf, the Shard – stand in relation to each other.
From the owls of Bushey Park to the woodpeckers of Epping Foreset and the parakeets of, well, just about everywhere, there’s plenty of avifauna to admire. And we haven’t even mentioned Rainham Marshes, at the end of the LOOP, the home of birdwatching in the South-East.
Everybody knows about Henry’s marital record, but what’s not so well known was his love for big houses. The LOOP happens to visit several of his grand houses, including Nonsuch Place (so named because Henry, so he hoped, thought that there could be ‘none such place like it’ in the whole of Europe, Bushy Park (the hunting ground of Hampton Court Palace), and, in North London, Elysing Palace. Unfortunately, only Hampton Court Palace survives and even that’s off the path – but it is interesting to know a little more about the man apart from his marriages.
I know it sounds odd but there’s some interesting public works of art along the way. Amongst them are some lovely carved benches – lovely places to sit, eat your sandwiches and take the weight off your feet for a few moments.
Given the excellent facilities along the way, the fact that you’re never far from your fellow humans this is perhaps a good trail to attempt if you live in or near London, have never attempted a multi-day hike before, and don’t want to commit to anything bigger. Not to mention the fact that there are transport connections everywhere, so you can always jack it in if you decide walking for fun is not for you.
Maybe it was because it was a very hot day and we were thus slightly delirious, or maybe it’s because we just happened to arrive on the day when they reached peak ripeness – whatever the reason, the blackberries we picked and ate on the very first stage, through the marshes of Erith, were the most delicious we’ve ever tasted.
While it has its merits, the LOOP fares badly when compared to all the other walks on this site. It just simply lacks any sort of WOW factor. Admittedly, the other walks on this site are all of a Premier League quality. The LOOP, however, is Championship level at best.
It may have London in its title, but don’t embark on the LOOP expecting to see London, or at least those parts of London that you see on postcards. This path sticks to the very hem on the outskirts of London – from memory, I can’t remember venturing any closer to the capital’s heart than Zone 4.
There aren’t many places where I couldn’t hear any traffic or other industrial noise. It makes you realise how it isn’t just the look of a trail that’s important – it’s the sound of it too. It also shows just how misleading photos can be. The picture at the top of this page, for instance, of the two people walking down the slopes from an old church, would appear to have been taken in some idyllic rural location. Not so, for while taking it, I had the constant roar of the A2022 and several other major thoroughfares roaring behind me. This conjunction of beauty and bedlam in very close proximity is very typical of the LOOP along its entire length.
Maybe it was because we were walking the LOOP during 2020 when lockdowns were frequent and public services were more limited, but the amount of litter along the way was just so depressing. It could make you lose your faith not just in the LOOP, nor in London, but in humanity itself.
There is at best maybe one or two campsites along the trail. You could try wild camping along the way, I suppose, but even the wildest corners of the trail are frequently visited by people, not all of them – particularly after dark – harbouring the most benign of intentions.
I don’t think we need to point out to people how expensive London is. When researching the book we stayed in Travelodges (using a 2-for-1 special offer), bought our breakfasts and lunches from supermarkets and our dinners from takeaways – and still spent at least £60 a day.
Much of the land the LOOP passes through was, in a previous life, the carefully tended estates of large mansions, manors and palaces. Seeing how this same land has been criss-crossed by highways, converted into housing estates, High Streets or industrial units, while the houses themselves have mostly disappeared, or been converted into flats, pubs or offices, does give you pause for thought and reflect on the path humanity is taking. (That said, it should also be pointed out that while the land may have looked much more beautiful a couple of hundred years ago, in all probability if we were around back then we would not have been allowed anywhere near it unless we were part of the household staff.)
As we mention in the Introduction, don’t walk in the LOOP expecting to see the Houses of Parliament, Tower of London, Piccadilly Circus and all the other attractions of the town centre. You won’t be walking near any of them.
The route is quite intricate as it negotiates the various roads, paths, parks, canals, golf courses and other features of the outer suburbs. Unfortunately, with the signage being so poor, this means you have to pay close attention to the map you’re using (preferably, of course, the ones in our book!) For this reason, it’s hard to make good progress – hopefully the book will improve matters for you, but while researching it we were forever retracing our steps to get back on the right trail.
Useful info for LOOP walkers
Transport to and from the path
With London the hub of the nation’s transport network, you won’t have any trouble travelling to the capital. And once you’re in the capital, you won’t have any trouble bouncing back out to the capital’s outer reaches in order to pick up the trail. But be warned: though the services are frequent, it can take an hour or two to travel from one part of London to another.
Transport along the London Outer Orbital Path
The London Transport network is vast, complex and far-reaching. One vital bit of kit to take along is your smartphone. The TfL (Transport for London) website has updates on train and bus times; best of all, type in where you are and where you want to go and they’ll come up with the quickest route. It’s very clever!
Walking the LOOP with a dog
It’s not a problem taking your dog along the LOOP, though you may not be able to let him or her off the lead as much as you can on most other walks. There’s a lot of traffic, of course, but several of the parks also ask that you keep your dogs on a lead.
If your dog struggles to behave when joggers run past, or there are other dogs around, or in crowds, or on public transport, then the LOOP is not the best trail for them.
There is also one place on the trail where dogs are not allowed at all. The Woodland Gardens of Bushy Park are off-limits; luckily, there is an alternative trail that hugs the fence of the Gardens.
One more thing: don’t forget your poo bags. You’ll be doing a lot more pavement walking on this route than on others and the local residents won’t take too kindly to your hound decorating their walkways.
So where might I get lost? The biggest difficulty with walking the LOOP is finding your way. Unlike nearly all the other trails on this site, there are a lot of people who live on or near the LOOP. Unfortunately, that also means you’re more likely to find someone who takes great pleasure in stealing footpath signs, or defacing them, or, perhaps worst of all, adjusting them so they point in the wrong direction.
We’ve been informed that the Inner London branch of the Ramblers Association are taking over the maintenance of the LOOP – and its little sister, the Capital Ring – and hopefully so we can look forward to better signage along the trail. But
So we still think our book will be invaluable for navigation. Because during the research of this book, we separated from the trail countless times, and many were the hours we spent trudging around a field scanning the horizon for a signpost. Annoying at the time, at least it enabled us to discover precisely where hikers are likely to lose their way – and provide detailed instructions on the map to prevent future walkers from doing so.
Or to put it another way: we got lost, so you don’t have to.
Camping and accommodation along the London Outer Orbital Path
Most LOOP walkers live in London, and so won’t be requiring any accommodation. But for those who do, please note the following:
There’s little to no camping along the LOOP. Leave your tent at home.
There aren’t many hostels along the way either, but it doesn’t cost much time or effort to catch a train or tube into Central London where you’ll find plenty.
As for B&Bs and hotels, there are several along the way, and some have some history too. We point out the more intriguing ones in the book. If you’re on a budget, you may find the accommodation offered by the national chains such as Travelodge (who also allow dogs, though for £20 a stay) to be both great value (rooms start at around £29, though you need to book in advance) and they have places dotted all along the trail.
Facilities along the London Outer Orbital Path
Supermarkets, banks, trekking stores you won’t have to walk far before you come across them. The stages usually end near shops. Usually, but not always. That’s no great hardship if the stage is only 3 or 4 miles, but is slightly more galling if the stage is 10 miles or more or if, as happens on a couple of occasions, there are no stops at the stage’s end. So do make sure you read up about your day’s walk before you set off, just so you know whether you need to take provisions with you or can pick them up en route or at the end of your hike.
Dangers and annoyances
I suppose the biggest danger on the trail is other people. Though most of the time the civilisation you visit on the LOOP is, well, very civilised, some bits, it’s fair to say, aren’t. I don’t think it’s fair to mention all of the more insalubrious places the trail passes through – though if I ever set foot in Cranford again it’ll be too soon. Suffice to say, there are some rough edges to London, and it might be wise to be off the trail before night falls – these pleasant parks, waterways that you pass through take on a much more menacing aspect after dark.
Tips and hints
It’s not worth rushing through the LOOP. There is a lot to see and plenty of pleasant cafes, pubs and parks where it’s nice to eat, sit and sunbathe for a while. Indeed, treating the LOOP as a series of ‘picnics’ bookended by some hiking is not a bad idea.
Take a book to read on the train or tube on the way to/from the trail – sometimes it takes a long time to get to/from the trail.
Take your smartphone with you and download the TfL app.
On that subject, don’t buy single tickets at train stations – just tap your payment card on the barriers on the way into the station. You’ll save a lot of money that way (as long as you remember to tap out again afterwards).
Finished the LOOP and want a similar challenge? The Capital Ring is like a concentric circle to the LOOP, lying wholly within the LOOP but still outside of Central London.
The LOOP Guide!
Comprehensive, all-in-one guide to walking the London Outer Orbital Path.
The walking guide includes:
* 48 large-scale walking maps at just under 1:20,000 – showing route times, places to stay, places to eat, points of interest and much more.
* Places to eat with reviews Teashops, cafes, takeaways, pubs, restaurants.
* What to see along the way Historical, cultural and geographical background information.
* Itineraries for all walkers Whether walking the route in its entirety over a week to 10 days or sampling the highlights on day walks and short breaks.
* Comprehensive public transport information For all access points on the path.
* Flora and fauna Four page full colour flower guide, plus an illustrated section on local wildlife.
* Green hiking Understanding the local environment and minimizing our impact on it.
* Downloadable GPS waypoints.
* The information is written onto the maps, so walking directions, tricky junctions, places to stay and eat, points of interest and walking times are all written onto the maps themselves in the places to which they apply. The maps are not general-purpose ones but fully-edited maps drawn by walkers for walkers.
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