Thursday, 22 October 2015

London LOOP - Day 3

Hayes to Coulsdon

16.58 miles / 741m Ascent / 635m Descent

Monday morning in the capital: thousands of workers crammed into trains and buses, headphones on, no social interaction except by phone, everyone alone in a crowd, heading into work. We, on the other hand, are heading out of town in a half-full-at-best train carriage, returning to Hayes to rejoin the LOOP. That's the sort of commute I like!

By 8.00am, we were on the way again, backtracking from Hayes station to West Wickham Common to pick up the LOOP once again. After following a narrow path behind shops, we crossed the road and entered Coney Hall Recreation Ground, where we crossed the Prime Meridian (0˚ Longitude) on a line directly south of Greenwich, one side being the "east" and the other side "west". Imagine that: walking two hemispheres in the same walk!

Crossing the Prime Meridian near
West Wickham Common

We spent the morning passing through a series of open spaces and woods: Sparrows Den Playing Field, Spring Park, Threehalfpenny Wood, Shirley Heath and Kennel Wood, crossing the Borough boundary from Bromley to Croydon along the way. 

Checking the way in Kennel Wood

After a half-mile stretch along Shirley Church Road (nice houses) we skirted a school, crossed into Oaks Road and turned left into Addingham Hills, London's largest surviving area of heathland, with great views across the capital from the viewing platform, including Canary Wharf and the 02 arena.

Coombe Lane, Heathfield House and Bramley Bank Nature Reserve came and went. We stopped for elevenses about an hour early, sitting on a bench by Broadcoombe. 

As we crossed an open grassy area on the way to Littleheath Woods, we were halted by an elderly couple. "Are you doing the LOOP?" they asked. We got chatting: they had done it and really enjoyed it, had gone on to do the Capital Ring as well, and were in the process of walking the Thames Path. It seems that those who undertake these walks are often pleasantly surprised and inspired to do more!

Sweet Chestnuts, Littleheath Wood

The path through Selsdon followed a gravel path between the houses before climbing into Selsdon Wood. We stopped briefly for something to eat. Since starting at 8.00am, we had been expecting to pass some shops where we could buy bread, but such is the desire of the path to avoid "civilisation" it was five hours before we passed one!

Through Puplet Wood, past Elm farm, across Mossyhill Shaw: we picked up Kingswood Lane, eventually coming out in Hamsey Green - the end of Section 4 of the LOOP. By now we had completed over 10 miles and were quite hungry, so we stopped at a nearby greasy spoon for lunch and topped up our food supply at the adjacent shop.

Looking across Riddlesdown to Whyteleaf 

Back on the path, we were soon back into the countryside - crossing Riddlesdown, descending to Kenley, the steep climb up again to Kenly Common, by Betts Mead Recreation Ground. Just after the pub on Fox Lane, we walked into a large open space and down into Happy Valley.

A happy chap near Happy Valley

Happy Valley

After passing through Devilsden Woods, we came out into the open on Farthing Downs. The end of our trip was in sight, but the all round views were a real treat at end the day. 

Descending towards Coulsdon

The descent into Coulsdon was easy enough, and a few turns later we were crossing the bridge to the station, just in time to catch the 4.30pm into London Victoria.

Coulsdon South station

From Victoria, we caught the tube to Euston and walked to St Pancras. On the way, we called in at the British Library, and ate our snack in the plaza outside.

Statue of Sir Isaac Newton outside the British Library

As Sir Isaac Newton, mathematician, physicist and scientific genius, sat concentrating on his geometry, so we sat and contemplated the 3-day arc of the London LOOP circle we had just described. Started as something of an experiment on our part, we had really enjoyed our long weekend. The transport links had worked well, the path was interesting throughout and greener and more rural than we expected, and the going underfoot ideal for a wintertime walking project.

There and then we decided: we'll be back for more. And it didn't take a genius to work out why!

Sunday, 18 October 2015

London LOOP - Day 2

Sidcup to Hayes

15.01 miles / 484m Ascent / 385m Descent

Our second day on the LOOP began inauspiciously with the negotiation of a complex underpass beneath the Sidcup Bypass, and the entrance into Scadbury Nature Reserve offered little in the way of promise. 

Entering Scadbury Nature Reserve

As happens so often on this walk, though, appearances can be deceptive, and in but a few moments we were back amongst the trees with only the distant drone of traffic to remind us we were actually on the fringe of a city of eight-and-a-half million people.

Walking through the trees

A slight detour took us to the ruins of Scadbury Manor, a medieval moated manor house with a 600+ year history, currently undergoing excavation and resoration. It is most associated with the Walsingham family (from Walsingham, Norfolk) who purchased the house in 1424.

Scadbury Manor

The next few miles were given to wandering through an assortment of woods. Some of the land is owned by the National Trust, including Petts Wood.

Marker stone, Petts Wood

After crossing a series of railway lines, we reached Jubilee Country Park near Petts Wood station - the end of Section 2 of the LOOP - and took a break to eat. This was the only point we really went wrong over the entire three days: in looking for a seat, we missed the turn and the description fitted our "wrong" route as well as the right one, so we didn't spot that for a few minutes.

No damage done, we were back on track shortly afterwards. On that note, we found that although there were numerous paths in some places, the route notes and maps supplied by TfL, along with the on-path signage, were pretty good for navigating by cleanly - as long as you checked them regularly and kept your wits about you. There were also occasional information boards along the route to add extra information. 

Information board, Crofton Woods

Beyond Jubilee Country Park was a section of road walking - one of the few we encountered - along the quiet residential streets of Southborough. What was a revelation to us was just how little road walking there was on the LOOP - obviously, there was some, but wherever possible, the route kept to paths and tracks through woods, common land, meadows, heath, etc, and today we walked for 15 miles with maybe 10% of that on pavements.

Meadows beyond Darrick Wood

We stopped for a break at an open grassy area beyond Darrick Wood, with Farnborough in the near distance and the North Downs on the horizon. Autumn is a good time of year to tackle the LOOP: there is so much woodland walking en route that a colourful display of foliage is almost guaranteed - especially when the sun shines.

Autumn colours, Darrick Wood

Crossing Farnborough Way was a slow business - where was everyone going? - but eventually we were safely across, making our way through the village.

The flint-and-red-brick-built church of St Giles the Abbot

Shortly afterwards, we entered High Elms Country Park, and stopped for a cream tea at the BEECHE Centre - an environmentally-friendly building housing a cafe and education centre. Naughty, but nice: we had walked a fair way, though, and were in need of a tonic!

Past the High Elms Golf Club, we entered a rural section passing through fields and green lanes (surely Bogey Lane, the green lane running beside the Golf Club, must have been named after the course was established?). 

Holwood House

Next, we skirted the grounds of Holwood House. It's for sale (yours for £12 million) but we decided against it (too far from our friends and family). This particular incarnation of the house was built in the 1820s, but the previous house had belonged to William Pitt the Younger, and it was here that William Wilberforce is said to have told Pitt of his intention to abolish slavery.

Notes from Wilberforce's diary

The Wilberforce Oak marks the spot. The original tree is rather worse for wear, but a new tree has been planted in continuing commemoration of the event.

The original Wilberforce Oak

Descending to Westerham Road, we crossed to pass beside Keston Ponds - like many of the recreational spaces today, busy with familes and dog walkers - and on through Keston village. A mile or so later, we reached west Wickham Common - the end of Section 3 of the LOOP and our stopping point for the day.

We made the 10 minute walk to Hayes station - our accommodation was a couple of stops away - to find a rail replacement bus service was running. They were frequent enough, so gave us time for a delicious curry before heading to our hotel.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

London LOOP - Day 1

Erith to Sidcup

13.77 miles / 252m Ascent / 185m Descent

If you'd have told me three months ago I'd be walking in London by choice and enjoying it, I'd have recommended you get your head tested. My dislike of towns, and of the outer reaches of our capital in particular, are legendary.

But back in August we were visiting friends, and were enjoying a nice little walk round Kingston and Bushey Park when we came across signs for the London LOOP (London Outer Orbital Path). Further investigations proved interesting, and before we knew it, we'd decided we might give it a go sometime.

Well, that sometime is now!

The route runs in a clockwise direction from Erith in Kent all the way round to Purfleet in Essex, and has been described as "the M25 for walkers" (not a great way of selling it to those of us who have spent considerable time parked on said road). But aside from the fact it encircles the capital in similar fashion, there is little resemblance as the LOOP has been designed with discovery in mind and interest aplenty, linking green spaces and quiet thoroughfares, and not simply taking the most direct route.  

The whole route has been designed to be doable using public transport, and has been divided into 24 sections each of which link with overground rail, the underground system and local bus networks. The full walk is detailed on the Transport for London (TfL) website - each of the 24 sections has a downloadable pdf with walk descriptions, maps, notes, transport details and other useful information, and along with the on-path signage, these are sufficient to navigate the path successfully (click the TfL link on right hand side of the home page for more details).  

Erith Station

After an early start, we alighted at Erith Station under a leaden grey sky. It isn't perhaps the most auspicious of starting points, but we found signs for the walk straight away, which is always handy.

The obligatory start-of-walk photo

We passed through some municipal gardens, made a quick stop at Morrisons to grab a few vittals, then picked up the path beside the Thames - initially heading East towards Crayford Marshes. The tide was out, and across the muddy banks and sluggish brown water we could see Canary Wharf one way and the Dartford Crossing the other. In the foreground, the river was peppered with small sailing boats, whilst the odd large tanker slid slowly by in the middle distance.

Looking back towards the capital beyond a flotilla of small boats

Checking the way

Seals lazing on the muddy bank

On reaching the Cray River, we turned away from the Thames - the last time we would see the river until we cross Kingston Bridge some 70-odd miles later. Initially tidal, we followed the course upstream towards Crayford where a slim river pushed it's way between tree-fringed banks.

These initial miles were interesting, but not always pretty. Besides Seals, we saw Kestrels, Cormorants, assorted Waders and Little Egrets - there was no shortage of wildlife. It would have been nice to say that the flashes of bright blue and orange we saw by the river were Kingfishers, but sadly not - empty pop bottles and old footballs were the culprits here, strewn amongst the cliche of abandoned shopping trolleys.

Playing fields near Crayford

However, this didn't last for too long. Beyond Crayford, where we stopped for coffee in a greasy spoon, things improved. Crossing the playing fields to rejoin the river, we followed this towards Hall Place (a Tudor mansion, built in the reign of Henry VIII for the Lord Mayor of London).

Hall Place from the gardens

Cottage garden, Hall Place

Reality intruded again briefly as we crossed over and under the main A2 road, but soon all that was noticable was the thrum of traffic receding into the distance as we delved deeper into Churchfield Wood. 

Bexley Village was a pleasant surprise. We don't really know this area, and much of this was new to us. We rested a while on a bench in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, at some lunch and watched squirrels playing. 

Autumn hedgerow near Bexley Village

Bexley Village marked the end of Section 1 of the LOOP. With it's air of bohemian chic and a wide range of interesting-looking eateries, it would be a fine place to end the day. But we were carrying on to complete half of Section 2 as well - past Bexley Cricket Club, across an open field and down to join the River Cray once again in Foots Cray meadows.

River Cray

We'd already seen a variety of wildlife during the walk, but Foots Cray meadows provided a first for us - Parakeets! We knew that birds like these had escaped from captivity or been let loose and had survived - even thrived - in the wild. But we'd no idea it was here!

Parakeets in the wild! Hard to see against the colour of the trees,
but there are 3 or 4 birds in this photograph

Passing through Foots Cray, we negotiated a short urban section as we skirted the ground of Cray Wanderers Football Club (formed in 1860, and one of the earliest football clubs in the country). Soon, though, we reached the open grassy area of Sidcup Place. It looks a bit like a golf course, but with no one struggling to propel a little white ball into a small hole with a stick.

Mature Redwood Tree, Sidcup Place

Mark Twain is reputed to have claimed that "golf is a good walk spoiled". Well, I don't know about that, but we'd certainly had a good walk. Sidcup was our stopping point for the day, and our hotel beckoned. 

Never having been to Sidcup before, we were unsure of what to expect. In fact, it's nice enough - we had pizza for dinner, and enjoyed an evening trundle along the high street. We popped into a nearby Waitrose store to buy provisions for tomorrow and were amused to find that "Rosemary and Sea Salt Focaccia" was considered part of their "Essentials" range. I don't know - what is the world coming to that it that considers such an exotic foodstuff "essential"? 

Tasted nice, though!   

NB. This post was originally blogged "live" - the first time I've done so "on the go" - using my phone and the blogger app. Seems to work quite well for short posts, although I still like to tidy them up and flesh them out afterwards.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Zermatt September 2015 - Day 11

To Furi and back, and departure

After a quick breakfast, we finished the packing and prepared to leave. It’s always a sad moment after a great holiday, but there was an upside: we had a whole morning to use up before we had to catch the train back to Geneva Airport.

As if in recognition of our departure, the weather had turned – it was cold, misty and mizzly, and snow had accumulated overnight on the lower hills as if winter had suddenly decided it could hold off no longer.

Snow on the lower hills

Never mind: we took a walk up to Furi and back by the most direct route, then stopped for lunch on the way back down, reflecting on a wonderful holiday.

As we were celebrating our 25th Wedding Anniversary, there we a few things we decided we wanted to do to mark the occasion: an anniversary Top 10, if you like – stay overnight in a hut, go for a meal at Chez Vrony, walk the high level path to Trift for apple pie, do the 5 Lakes Loop, pick wild raspberries, see the lights on the Matterhorn at night, watch one of the Matterhorn-related films at the cinema, buy an anniversary Swiss Army knife, visit the Klein Matterhorn.

There was just one thing left on our “to do” list – eat a hearty Rosti! – and this we did at the café du Pont at the top end of Zermatt high street.

Inside the Cafe du Pont, roughly translates as "if you
think you are at the end, then comes the turn"

Then it was time to leave. The train journey itself is interesting, with plenty of scenery to look at along the way. We also did a bit of a recce from the carriage: our next Swiss trip is only a few months away, and although the reason for it is not walking related, you never know! 

It would be great to walk Switzerland’s mountains again one day, so maybe this was an omen - perhaps it was not the end of our Swiss adventures, just the turn!

In total, we did approx. 201km (125 miles) during the holiday.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Zermatt September 2015 - Day 10

Blauherd, Fluhalp, Riffelalp & Blatten

17.41km / 496m Ascent / 1454m Descent

Our last full day began with an early start and a trip up to Blauherd, the second stop on the Rothornbahn lift system.

At almost 2600m above sea level, the promised sunshine hadn’t yet taken effect, and there was a distinct chill in the air as we set off towards Stellisee. Apart from these guys, we were about the first there, although they didn’t seem to feel the cold quite as much.

Goats beside Stellisee

From Stelisee, it is a fairly short walk up to the Bergrestaurant at Fluhalp. We had coffee on the terrace, and chatted to the owner for a while: he was staying open until early October before closing until the winter season. The food here is good, if the cake we had last time is anything to go by, and you can overnight here – a fact we filed away for possible future reference.

Coffeetime view, Fluhalp

We set off again in the general direction of Grindjisee, hoping to take the moraine-top path. We’ve walked it before, and it’s an interesting if slightly insubstantial path. However, gravity and erosion are two relentless forces acting on the landscape in these parts, and the path had succumbed. At moments like this, it is perhaps best not to dwell too long in the vicinity – or on what might be happening underfoot!

Time to turn back

So a hasty retreat was made, and we followed the lower path down to Grindjisee. In the right circumstances – a sunny day and still waters – this is one of the spots where classic reflection views of the Matterhorn can be photographed. In fact, we’ve done it ourselves in the past, but today conditions were not conducive, although the view was still more than acceptable.

Matterhorn from Grindjisee #1

Matterhorn from Grindjisee #2

For the next while, our route took us along paths walked a few days earlier – past Grunsee and the Berghaus, and on along the contour path to Riffelalp. Here, we decided to use our lift pass for a quick trip up to the Gornergrat and back, mostly to check the views that were hidden by cloud when we walked from there four days ago. There was so much sunlight reflecting from the snow and ice, it was difficult to see properly, even with sunglasses.

Back at Riffelalp, we passed through the village – less busy today, as the season there finished two days ago – and began to descend towards Furi. Approching the bottom of the descent, we stopped at a pleasant-looking café for drinks.

Drinks break in afternoon sunshine

By now, the sun was fully out, and it was a warm afternoon. But that was not the only reason to stop for a drink: lingering enabled us to spend a little more time out in this wonderful area, on what was the last full day of our holiday, and we were determined to soak up as much in the way of fresh air, sunshine and views as possible.

From here, we took the path towards Blatten, stopping to look inside the little chapel before continuing down to Zermatt on a path running beneath the cable car.

After dinner, we took another stroll round the village (3.70km) then turned our thoughts to packing. 

Zermatt September 2015 - Day 9

Trockener Steg, Gandegghutte, Schwartzsee, Stafelalp & Zmutt

21.67km / 713m Ascent / 1958m Descent

During the second half of the holiday we had enjoyed much better weather, and according to the forecast another cracking day was in store. So we were up and away quite early, catching the gondola from Zermatt via Furi to the Trockener Steg (a ski station on the way up to the Klein Matterhorn).

We had given this walk a recce from the gondola yesterday, and had a plan of sorts in mind - walk up to the Gandegghutte (3029m), walk back down to Schwartzsee along the Saumerweg and see what to do after that depending on time/weather/inclination.

On the way to the Gandegghutte

We had started quite early and made the 25 minute walk from the Trockener Steg to the Gandegghutte by about 9.45am. The chap was there, but was closing today for a break before the winter season started at the beginning of December. Still, he was able to rustle up two coffees, and threw in a couple of leftover croissants for good measure.


Sign indicating the continuing path into Italy
over the Theodulpass

This hut is near the Theodulpass, the pass leading over the mountains from Switzerland into Italy (part of both the Tour du Matterhorn and Tour du Monte Rosa routes). It looks difficult in that it is snowy, and everywhere all round seems glaciated, but there is a walking route - clearly signed from the hut - which presumably offers no fundamental problem to walkers with the right gear, the right knowledge and a fair forecast.

Heading off along the Saumerweg

A last look back at the Gandegghutte, with the Breithorn
and Klein Matterhorn behind 

From the Gandegghutte, we almost doubled back on ourselves, and followed the Saumerweg through rocky terrain. Despite the early sunshine and that of yesterday, a thin film of ice still existed in one or two places where shallow puddles lay.

Looking down into the Mattertal

Passing beneath the Trockener Steg, we carried on down to eventually arrive at Furgg - a small flat space at the top of a ravine where all the little mountain streams nearby coalesce to form the Furggbach - then made the last 30 minute slog up to Schwartzsee and a break for lunch. After the quiet of the Saumerweg, it was noticeably busier here - not entirely unexpectedly given its proximity to the cable car.

Our lunchtime view: I never realised just how
cake-shaped the Matterhorn actually is

With time and good weather on our side, we again had choices - which way back? Via Stafelalp seemed a good idea, so we set off down the track, stopping only to watch a helicopter unload construction materials for the new Hirli gondola.

At Stafelalp, we stopped for a lengthy break, with cake and beers to consume in lovely surroundings. A final choice then offered up: straight to Furi and back, or the longer route via Chalbermatten and Zmutt? No contest! 

The path through the moraine, not in the rain this time

On such a fine day, we really wanted to make the most of it, so the long route it was, and a very good choice too - a few days earlier we had walked some of these paths in the pouring rain on the way back from the Shonbielhutte.

A last look up the valley

We were back about 6.00pm, and apart from a stroll up the main street (2.0km) to see what was going on (some kind of organized travel trade fair in the streets) that was it for the day. 

Zermatt September 2015 - Day 8

Around the head of the valley

18.17km / 875m Ascent / 1531m Descent

After a couple of quite tough days, we opted for something a little easier on the face of it, although we still racked up a few decent stats along the way.

Matterhorn from Sunnegga

A quick ride on the Rothornbahn to Sunnegga kicked the day off. Our plan was to contour round the head of the valley, keeping roughly on a level as far as possible. It's not always easy given the nature of the terrain, but it was a plan of sorts, and we were happy to give it a go.

Resting at Leisee after all of 200 yards

From Sunnegga, we passed the Leisee and headed for Grindjisee on a path staying part way up the hillside. It was coolish, but clear and bright (sunscreen was a must) with potentially excellent views all day in prospect.

Looking up the valley towards the Adlerhorn

Erosion on the lateral moraine

From Grindjisee, we joined the track and followed part of the 5 Lakes Walk as far as Grunsee, where we had a coffee break at the Berghaus nearby.

Beside the seeside: Grunsee

For the next section we followed the lower of two options towards Riffelalp - a good choice, as it's a beautiful forest path with fantastic views to the Matterhorn and across the whole valley. Because of this – and the fact it is fairly level, easily reached from the station at Riffelalp on a sunny Sunday and the end of the summer season – it was very busy! Not to worry - it was worth it.

Path from Grunsee to Riffelalp

Shady woods

Across the valley: Chez Vrony


Matterhorn through the trees

We passed through Riffelalp and began to descend towards Furi when a convenient bench tempted us to stop and eat lunch - much quieter than the tourist trap village only five minutes away, even though the birds were making a racket we christened the Nutcracker Suite!

Continuing down, we reached the village of Furi. It was a glorious day, and we had spare time, so we opted for a ride up to the Klein Matterhorn on the gondola system. The lift system takes you in three stages to the highest easily available spot in the area, for great views on a clear day and summer skiing and other icy fun on the glacier outside.

Looking from the Klein Matterhorn across Italy to Mont Blanc

A different view of the Matterhorn

Looking north over the Mattertal and beyond

|Twin peaks


We spent a while up there. Even though it was cold, it was such a clear day that we could see for miles. From the Breithorn and the Matterhorn next door either side to some of the key alpine peaks - Weisshorn, Grand Combin, Gran Paradiso and Mont Blanc, to name but a few - away in the distance.

After a detour of around 90 minutes, it was back down to Furi where a quick shedding of layers ensued (it was about 20 degrees warmer!). At this point, we could just have headed for home - either by taking the easy walking route back or even hopping on the gondola - but it was a beautiful afternoon, and after all the poorer weather earlier in the week, we wanted to make the most of it.

So we took the long route back via Zmutt and Hubel, dropping into town by the main Church and popping into the shops for food on the way back to the flat.

After a clear day, a clear evening beckoned, and one of the things we had wanted to do was see the Matterhorn at night. 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the first ascent by Edward Whymper and his team, and to mark the occasion a series of lights has been placed following the line that the team took.

Hornli ridge to the summit: lights showing the
route taken by Edward Whymper and team
during the first ascent in 1865

The lights come on for 11 minutes three times each night. We timed our evening stroll (3.70km) to coincide with the 9.15pm lighting-up time. We were in luck: after a couple of failed attempts, we finally got to see them, and it was quite emotional to see them clearly following the line up from the Hornli ridge to the summit – success before disaster all those years ago.