Exploring the North Downs

The London Spiral is a 250 mile walk circulating around the metropolis to the Thames at Gravesend (more), which began in summer 2015 and is now in its outermost sweep, heading across the countryside, south of Croydon.

The spiral crosses the North Downs, an extensive, rolling series of hills, taking in the high ground, woods and farm land, then dropping down to the valleys, across arterial roads and railway lines.

For the traveler, whichever route south or north is chosen, highways and railways hug the valley floor: everything is hemmed in, everyone is in transit. But for the walker the landscape offers open views, undulating terrain, tree cover, fields, quiet old villages, and a sense of a rural past.

Whyteleafe recreation ground, with woods across the steep chalk behind 

Climb the escarpment

Scots pines and beech tree by Kingswood Lodge

St Mary’s Church Farleigh, 1000 years old

Coppiced sweet chestnut woodland

White Bear pub, Ficklehole

The most wiggly roman road I’ve ever seen

Approximate Route: https://goo.gl/maps/rwZsNbLcwoF2

This walk is at the onset of winter, starting at Upper Warlingham station, climbing to Farleigh, and on to New Addington, a fully planned town built in the 1960s like Sim City, which from the vantage of the Google Maps ‘satellite’, looks like an airbrushed animation, a piece of Pixar:

new addington

We had a couple of readings from John Grindrod’s book Outskirts, as John’s experience of growing up in New Addington has shaped his knowledge of the greenbelt, and the new buildings of Britain.


Meet at: Upper Warlingham (train from Victoria, Whyteleafe station is close by too)
When: Sunday 9 December 2018, 1pm
Distance: walk 5 miles to New Addington (tram back to Croydon)
Cost: free
Contact: email: tim.ingram-smith@virgin.net   mobile: 077932 00932

north downs

This snippet from Atlas Digital Maps shows we are walking across the North Downs geological feature, a rolling chalk upland which extends from Guildford to the Medway, and we follow this landscape until we’re near to Gravesend.

Sunset glow over the greenbelt

Stage 39 – Happy Valley

Sunday 11th November 2018, 1pm.

The next stage of the London Spiral should cut across Coulsdon and on to Kenley, but that would miss out on the joy of a climb to Farthing Down and descent into Happy Valley.

happy valley london loopSource: http://content.tfl.gov.uk/london-loop-section-5.pdf

So we will follow the London Loop for this stage.

farthing recceReconnaisancing the route.

Farthing Downs is an elevated hill offering wide views, before we drop down into the affectionately named Happy Valley. The area is owned by the City of London – more on their website – and Croydon Council.

Meet at: Coulsdon South station (train from Victoria)
When: Sunday 11 November 2018, 1pm
Distance: walk 5 miles to Whyteleafe (fast train back to Victoria)
Walk takes in: Farthing Down (“more of an up”), Happy Valley, Coulsdon Common, Kenley Aerodrome, Riddlesdown chalk escarpment.
Cost: free
Contact: email: tim.ingram-smith@virgin.net   mobile: 077932 00932

From Farthing Down you can see that the down to the east has been built on with rows and rows of Coulsdon houses, each with a view south over the trees. Similar settlements have been built across the Downs.

Walking along Farthing Down before descending to Happy Valley

Emerge from the trees into Happy Valley


Coulsdon Common woods

Cottage on Old Lodge Lane, Wattenden

Kenley Observatory, meeting place of the Croydon Astronomical Society

Stepping across the flooded concrete runway at Kenley Aerodrome. This was a battle site in World War II (more history) and today – November 11th, 2018 – was a good day to remember.

Kenley Aerodrome as seen by Google Maps

White cow parsley in the aerodrome grass

riddlesdown pit from kenleyView beyond a viaduct to the chalk quarry, from Kenley.

Stage 38 – Is it feasible to Re-wild the Land around London?

London Spiral  – START POINT – Ewell West to Coulsdon

Sunday 14 October, 1 pm

outer stages

Meet at: Ewell West station (train from Waterloo)
When: Sunday 14 October 2018, 1pm
Distance: walk 8 miles to Coulsdon (fast train back to Victoria)
Walk takes in: Ewell pond, Priest Hill re-wilded land, Banstead Downs, London Loop past HM Prisons High Down and Downview, Oaks Park where the Earl of Derby planned his horse race (coffee break), Mayfield lavender fields, Woodmansterne, Cane Hill redevelopment where once there was a mental hospital, Coulsdon.
Cost: free

rainbow above rowan priest hill ewell

On this walk from Ewell West station we pass across Priest Hill, until recently a grubby suburban playing field of no great loveliness, which was bought by Surrey Wildlife Trust, who tore down the buildings, ripped up the paving, shipped the waste off to some unspecified place, then just left the site to re-wild.

It’s all scrub right now, and seems empty of animals, except an occasional dog and walker, but some early adopter trees are making the most of it. In a few years it will be woodland, managed meadow, heath. It’s not like a park, it’s not roamable; the sky stretches wide across it, and birds swoop into bushes and tall grass clumps.

We’ve seen a few reclamations like this on the spiral walk; there was the semi-suburban house knocked down and turned into a tiny park in stage 13 Palace Road Nature Garden, south London, a little oasis; there’s the greening going on in east London along the Lee Valley and Mile End Park; a whole array of housing in Barking alongside the Abbey was bought back by the council to recreate the Abbey gardens, re-establishing an appropriate space around the ancient building; and often where developers start to put up blocks of flats, they are creating show-garden green corridors in the urban space, publicly accessible and sometimes inspirational, like in Battersea by the Thames.

Perhaps a charitable organisation could be set up whose job was to accept property bequeathed by people passing on, along with a fund to pay the cost of demolishing, and legal fees, and planting costs, until slowly but surely green gaps would appear in the housing belt and some of those would join up to make gardens, and community spaces, and parks. Some property couldn’t be turned into land, like an apartment, but it could be sold to raise funds for the other spaces.

And the value of these spaces would be huge, because you could immediately envisage a property in the space on the market for thousands of pounds.

But will these greening efforts last a hundred years? Trees live into deep time. When it comes to nature man moves too fast, too acquisitive, too rapacious, too uncaring. Best of luck Priest Hill.

Photos by Jane or Tim:

jane - cherry leaves

The London Spiral, a walk around London from the inside out, has reached its home straight along the south of the city, and over the next few stages will be crossing those parts of Surrey and Kent that melt into the edge of the metropolis, en route to Gravesend. We’ve reached Coulsdon, south of London, and will soon be home.


ewell pondPond at Ewell

crossing road banstead

HM prison high downHM Prison High Down

oak parkPalm tree at Oaks Park

lavender fieldLavender fields at Mayfield farm

jane - woodmansterne tree carving webCarved trunk at Woodmansterne

haws (1)Hawberries


ewell-coulsdon mapGoogle Map showing idealised spiral line and actual path taken  …map

Next walk Sun 11 November – Coulsdon




Stage 37 – Horse Country

When you get to the outskirts of London and reach the first fields, what do you find?


hinchley wood horses

Like a saddle belt strapped around the city  it seems every spare field is given over to the accommodation of horses. There’s not really space for them in those paddocks, not for an animal built to roam an open plain, but we keep them in their hundreds.

chantilly way paddock

The equine life reaches a crescendo here in West London – we already passed Kempton Park race ground on the previous stage of the walk, and crossed the Thames at Hampton Ferry to Hurst Park, now a suburb but until the 1960s the home of Hurst Park race track (Racecourse of the past – BBC archive), which drew tens of thousands of spectators on a bank holiday. Now we begin this walk at Sandown Park race course and continue south to Epsom Downs, domicile of the Derby.

10Sandown Park Racecourse. Photograph (taken from a train) 2006 by Jacqueline Banerjee. [image may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to http://www.victorianweb.org/art/parks/10.html.

Here’s my one, taken from the station platform at Esher:

sandown park esher

The Sandown course is a right-handed oval, a mile and five furlongs around … read more at https://www.freeracingtips.co.uk/sandown/

We walked from Sandown Park across Littleworth Common, now a pleasant woodland, up Telegraph Hill with Semaphore House at the top, which was one of the semaphore stations used by the Admiralty in the 19th century to get messages from Whitehall to Portsmouth (http://www.org2b.com/claygate/index.php?title=Telegraph_Hill). Jon Taylor walked the whole semaphore line in 2011 and wrote about his journey in www.JonT.org.uk/log/semaphore.htm.


Plenty horses:

pink food tub

pink food munch

claygate pony trek approaches.jpg

claygate pony trek

horses on horton lane

horses on horton lane (1)

Maybe you’d like to buy a horse yourself?

more on horton lane (1)

We crossed the A3 into Chessington and on to Horton Country Park. Many horses all around, and also other animals at the Hobbledown Farm Adventure Park.

pig hobbledown farmHow does he get into his hammock? (Sara’s joke)

Bit of a dull march into Epsom, but after a refreshment there, the walk along Chalk Lane to Epsom Downs was a revelation.

epsom clock tower (1)Epsom town centre clock tower

The land opened out onto a wide sweeping space, with long views of London spires, and a changing sky.

epsom two horses

statue of generousStatue of Generous, a popular Epsom Derby champion see him win the 1991 RACE

Epsom Racecourse is situated on the chalk ridges known as the North Downs, which cross the county of Surrey in southern England. The Epsom Derby course is a mile, four furlongs, and 10 yards in extent, and curved like a horseshoe.

Rosie said there are 22 yards in a chain; 10 chains in a furlong; 8 furlongs in a mile.

For a sense of the excitement of the Derby, search for Epsom Derby on Google images:

One of the most infamous incidents in the history of the Derby took place at Tattenham Corner in 1913, when militant suffragette Emily Wilding Davison climbed beneath the running rail and threw herself under Anmer, owned by King George V. She never regained consciousness and died a few days later from internal injuries … read more


Sourced from a Guardian article re-examining the footage.

Today it is peaceful: view over the racecourse from Tattenham Corner:

rosie bob tattenham corner


London Spiral

The London Spiral, a walk around London from the inside out, has reached its outer circle, and over the months ahead will be exploring those parts of Berkshire, Surrey and Kent that melt into the edge of the metropolis.

outer stages


Meet at: Esher station (train from Waterloo), KT10 8DY
When: Sunday 9 September 2018, 1pm
Distance: walk 8.5 miles to Epsom Downs (train back to Waterloo from several stations)
Walk takes in: Sandown, Littleworth woods, Chessington, Horton country park, Hobbledown zoo, Epsom town centre, Epsom Downs racecourse
Cost: free

esher horses


Stage 36 – Feltham to Hampton Ferry

Fire and Water – a walk from Feltham to the Thames

In this hot weather southern England resembles Tuscany, yellow and scorched, as dry as concrete. The parkland at Hanworth has been burnt, most likely by local lads trying their pyrotechnic skills; you can smell the carbon, and birds flit in amongst the seedlings.

hanworth park scorched

Although it’s hot the rivers are not all dried up, there’s been rain. Just as well for it’s here that Thames Water pumps water out of the Thames, filters it, purifies it, and sends it coursing through a network of pipes to our kitchens and bathrooms.

hampton WTW

At Hampton you can see the waterworks from the pavement, but it’s more impressive from the air – see this picture from Black & Veatch (PDF source):

hampton water treatment works black veatch

That yellow filter bed is sand; each bed has to be emptied and cleaned periodically.

tractor on filter bed sunbury

Here’s a Google satellite view:hampton water treatment works

If you’re interested in water infrastructure, join the walk.

hampton villageApproaching the village of Hampton

Meet at: Feltham station (train from Waterloo, Oystercard zone 6)
When: Sunday 12 August 2018, 1pm
Distance: walk 6 miles to Hampton Court station (train back to Waterloo)
Walk takes in: Feltham High Street, Hanworth Park, the reservoirs of Sunbury and Molesey, ferry across the Thames at Hampton.
Cost: free


The walk visits Garrick’s temple to Shakespeare:

garrick temple

garricks temple 2

I often say the London Spiral is defined by the crossings of the Thames, you can only continue where there’s a crossing (read more about this and other crossings Here), but the truth is that in west London the route was shaped more by where Heathrow airport is – I wanted to walk past it and not a trajectory half a mile inside – so the Hampton ferry is a little to the east of the spiral line.

feltham to hampton

Map showing idealised outer arc of the London spiral (black line), route walked (blue line).

hampton ferry

boarding the hampton ferry

passengers hampton ferry

swan and cignetsCrossing the Thames

The London Spiral is a monthly walk, each one picking up the path where the previous month left off, and covering the land and geography of the wider reaches of London.

Next time, Esher through Chessington to Epsom, 9th Sept.


Walk the flight path to Heathrow’s third runway

Go see something that will soon be gone – the countryside around Heathrow.

flight pathFuture flight path, how it looks today

This walk starts off a bit like last month‘s Hillingdon Trail, across marsh lands and meadows along the River Crane. But there’s a difference – the planes: they’re getting bigger and closer. This land will soon be gone, beneath Heathrow’s Third Runway.

In June 2018 the UK government announced its support for a new runway on the land to the north of the current site – https://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/uk-cabinet-approves-third-runway-for-london-heathrow-449221/

This walk is an opportunity to gaze into the future, seeing what is there now, and what is coming, as the quiet countryside and flat grassy fields give way to modernism and engineering on a colossal scale. If you’re interested in infrastructure, join the walk.

Meet at: Hayes and Harlington station (train from Paddington)
When: Sunday 8 July 2018, 1pm
Distance: walk 7 miles to Feltham station (train back to Waterloo)
Walk takes in: old Nescafe factory; River Crane; the soon to vanish village of Hillingdon; close up view of the planes taking off or landing; Heathrow perimeter and security; environs immediately around the high tech airport.
Cost: free
Contact: tim.ingram-smith@virgin.net

plane landing heathrow

heathrowMap showing idealised outer arc of the London spiral (black line), route walked (blue line); proposed third runway (grey line)

A look at the Bing satellite image shows there are plenty of green fields.

The London Spiral is a monthly walk, each one picking up the path where the previous month left off, and covering the land and geography of the wider reaches of London.

On this spiral walk we’ve seen 4 aerodromes on 4 stages,


Stage 34 – The Hillingdon Trail to Hayes and Harlington

The Hillingdon Trail (website): about the walk …

I had wanted to walk to Heathrow Airport, but it’s too far from where we left off last time, in Ruislip, in the suburbs. We’ll get there next time, let’s focus on this stage out west of London in flat, once boggy, now carefully managed Ickenham marshes.

Meet at: Ickenham station (Piccadilly and Metropolitan lines)
When: Sunday 10 June 2018, 1pm
Distance: walk 6 miles to Hayes
Walk through: Ickenham marshes (not so damp these days), woodland, hay meadow, botanic gardens
Cost: free

It’s an ideal summer walk, bushy and grassy, languid and empty. We follow the Yeading Brook through woodland and meadow. It’s quiet, but in places the peace of the flat land is undermined by the growls of the bikers in their field, and suburban indy gangs in Hayes fighting in the street for no good reason. Folks, that’s what I saw.

hillingdon trailGateway to Ickenham Marshes

crack willow ickenham marshCrack willow trees like this flat wet area

yellow board roadFollow the yellow board walk

ickenham new cut hay fieldNew cut hay meadow, Ickenham ‘marsh’. The bushes show the line of the Yeading Brook.

yeading subway beneath A40The Yeading Brook drifts under the A40 highway

bramble in yeading brook

police caution two smokers ickenhamTwo smokers sniffed out and cautioned by special constables, as we walk by.

birch groveGutteridge woods

album photoThis one could be an album cover!

ginkgo baloba lansbury driveGingko Biloba trees line Lansbury Drive

body builder hayesA strange sight in Hayes, British Body Building competition at the Beck Theatre. Youtube

wood carved sculpture botanic garden hayesSculpture in the botanic garden by Beck Theatre, Hayes

yellow concrete roadYellow concrete road, poured in sections, probably in the 1930s. Block paving more recent.

lake farm country parkHay meadow, Lake Farm country park

BMXers hayesBMX bike riders

fight on dawley roadStreet fight, Dawley Road

accident on M4Commemoration, and traffic accident beyond, crossing the M4 

hayes shelterHayes ‘gold disk’ canopy seat, to commemorate the EMI vinyl record factory nearby

Map showing idealised outer spiral (black line) and route walked (red line):