The London Countryway – Day 14

July 12, 1987: Theydon Bois To Brentwood

Horses at Coxtie Green

Horses at Coxtie Green

Nine months passed before I was able to return to the LCW – a very long time without a London walk. In the interval I had completed four days of walking in Derbyshire and six days on Offa’s Dyke Path, but I could never find the opportunity of gathering the troops for an assault on day fourteen of Chesterton’s route. Now, on this sunny Sunday in July, with Dorothy working at her college and the Lees in Thailand, my companions were to be Bill Vincent, his former student Beth McKay (a grade school teacher from Anchorage), M.S.U. colleague Howard Anderson, and Toby the Schnauzer. We had each agreed to leave our separate domiciles at 8:00 for a rendezvous at the Theydon Bois stop on the Central Line. The Underground was particularly slow this morning, with several long pauses in stations en route. Beth, whom I had never met, approached me when I arrived and asked me if I were here for the walking tour. She had been on the same train that Toby and I had been using. She went to look for some snacks while I waited for two more trains, the last of which brought Howard and Bill.

Bill then also wandered off for snacks and pubs signs worth photographing, leaving me with Howard ­– disappointed in his eternal quest for coffee. Howard didn’t look a day older than our last walk together in 1981. He was as trim and neat as ever – wearing a maroon short-sleeved shirt, tan trousers, and brown brogues. At the end of the day, when the rest of us were covered in scratches, nettle rash and plant stains, he looked unchanged – the crease still apparent in his cavalry twills.

Walking in earnest did not begin until shortly before 10:00, when we crossed the railway line and followed a path along its eastern side. From the bridge we could see “Theydon Bois” spelled out in alyssum below us. The first of innumerable route-finding problems soon faced us. The directions to look for a gate just before a sports field did not help very much – there was no gate and a stile came much earlier than expected. We backtracked a bit and crossed a stream, which we kept on our left. Toby was unhooked here. All of the others took their turns re-hooking him when another animal or traffic approached.

I used my compass frequently today – first locating a stile at 80 degrees across an open field. Then we charged down to the edge of some woods – with motorway activity off in the distance. It was quite warm and sunny at this time. I tried wearing my red sweatband but it was too tight and I had to do with my Greek sun hat. We had to follow Chesterton’s directions closely here but there were useful landmarks on the horizon. A track led us into a tunnel beneath the M11. On a small footbridge we caught our first glimpse of the Theydon Garnon church. We followed a yellow arrow into the churchyard – some of these signs had been useful in earlier stages – but perhaps we should not have entered at all – for the exit on the other side put us out too far to the south, and we had to backtrack on tarmac, heading north past the church’s access road and down to Hobbs Cross Farm.

Howard was getting peckish and Bill and Beth were getting needlessly nervous over a few dark clouds. I started to look for a place to rest, but first we had to go through the farm – open to visitors today – and begin a long stretch under the M25 and forward on a leafy track. Here we sat down and Toby had his first (of many) drinks of water. Beth found an iridescent bird feather and put it into the back of her headband. When others were found throughout the day she added them – looking more and more like Sacajawea. I had brought some blackcurrant yoghurt biscuits – which went down very well with the Whole Earth crowd.

We continued walking north, off the edge of the OS map temporarily – the foliage having prevented the sun from drying out the mud at our feet. In spite of my clues on the straightness of our line no one could guess that we were, in fact, on an ancient Roman trackway. At its terminus we reached a telephone call box and turned right for an uphill slog on tarmac. We paused to puzzle out the route opposite the entrance to Hill Hall. I could see where we were supposed to go – the landmarks in Chesterton’s own map were easy to see on the hills opposite. But there was no evidence of any path through a tall barley field and no one (least of all Howard, ex-Minnesota farm boy) wanted to wade through. It appeared that we could rendezvous with our route by continuing along the tarmac road to the access road to Coleman’s Farm.

I was frustrated by the delays and chided Bill for falling into the Gerald Ford syndrome – the inability to talk and walk at the same time. Or walk and pick – for he was gathering blooms for his potpourri collection. He was not amused by my suggestions, and made several remarks about marching songs but, in fact, we needed all our concentration to get to a pub before closing time. I would be thanked for this strategy later on.

We passed through the farmyard and ploughed through a section of rapeseed – barely trampled on by some equally desperate walkers before us; at least we were on route again. We climbed a hill and edged upward on a track next to another barley field and beside a finger of woodland. I was now anxiously searching for a way across the field in the direction of Stapleford Tawney church – whose foundations I thought I could see off in the distance. I found such a track and proceeded across it, but the others were far behind me and I had to wait. I had a momentary shock when I checked my compass – we were heading southwest when I though we should have been heading northwest! No, we were all right  – it was just that Chesterton didn’t have north at the top of his page. In the event we came out through Great Tawney farmyard, not the churchyard.

The next stretch – heading due east on tracks through potato fields and along the edges of woodland, was a bit more straightforward, perhaps because our route was on a section of the Three Forests Way. We reached a tarmaced road and headed south. I should have followed my initial instinct and continued on to the A113. But a public footpath sign encouraged us to creep around a garage where a stile invited us into the next field. Beyond this there was a ditch and a gate that had to be climbed – Howard lead the way forward over these obstacles. We had climbed into the elegantly landscaped grounds of Tracey’s Farm. We kept south of a series of ponds while dogs barked at us from the opposite side of wire fences. It was like walking on a Gestapo golf course.

We reached the access road to Tracey’s Farm and here too we should have headed south to the A113, but there was a good track heading across the field so we took it. To cross the stream at the end there was a desperate plunge through nettles but on the opposite side there was only vegetation – no path through Murrell’s Farm as hoped for. I chose to turn right here along the edge of a field where there was a small open space next to the streamside hedge. Fortunately there was an easy gate at the end of this, onto the A113. We climbed over it and headed east – at the top of the hill was the Woodman pub; it was 1:40 and last orders were taken at 1:50!

All tables were taken in the garden so we plonked down under a tree. The others went to get drinks while I sat with Toby. The latter was bedeviled by a boisterous pub dog, a frisky Doberman dying to engage our Schnauzer in play. We were too close to traffic to permit this; every time the Doberman danced too close Toby would send him packing with a furious barking charge – much to the amusement of all the onlookers, delighted to see such a large dog sent scampering by such a small one. As the garden emptied we were able to claim a table. I was the only imbiber and very good my pint tasted too. We had some sausages – the only food available today, and supplemented these with all sorts of goodies from our pack. (I was carrying everyone’s gear today and a lot of liquid.) We had a jolly lunch, with much photography. Toby had an egg, but disdained a banana chip from Uncle Bill. I refilled one of the canteens for the little fellow before we left. At 2:30 we were the last to leave.

An easier pace could be afforded now. We strolled past the White Bear, practically next door, and turned south behind the pub, crossing a field to a footbridge over the River Rodding. We faced none of its occasional flooding problems today, and a line left in the barley (as high as an elephant’s thigh) took us across a large field and around to a track through a gap in the trees. We were now on a dirt lane that led up to the church at Navestock. I lay down on the grass in front of the church fence and had a rest while the others took turns having a look around. Directly behind the fence was a crater from a German land mine. Toby raced around the churchyard and into the church and came back with a mysteriously wet muzzle. An ancient Lab and his middle-aged son showed up to greet us and Toby was driven quite mad with jealousy when Howard had a cuddle with Old Shep. A peacock dared to cross the road too but Toby sent him to the ridgepole of a nearby barn with a great lunge. After fifteen minutes we continued south, hooking the dog for a walk along tarmac.

Bill had been reading about an “obscure path” to be negotiated soon, and fretting about this since lunch. A strand of barbed wire beckoned us into a field as advertised, but the guidebook instructions made little sense for the next fifteen minutes or so. Fortunately I also had my compass and OS map. We proceeded along the edge of a woods until it started to curve too far to the right, and retraced our steps to a gap that sent us along the north side of the next stretch of woods. Here I waited for the others to catch up. Bill seemed to have gotten over his panic, Beth was allergically sneezing every few minutes, and Howard had taken his shirt off.

I told him I needed to find a gap in the woods permitting an easterly progress and sure enough it appeared. We seemed to have recovered the “green road” mentioned in the text – its three exit points weren’t clear until the very end, when we took the middle one to begin another stretch of field walking – emerging at the Green Man in Navestock Side. Howard asked me to take a photo of the pub sign because of the Kingsley Amis connection. On the far side of the green I had another lie down while Bill chased a balloon with a ticket suspended from its string through a field. He caught it and earned a chance to win a bottle of champagne.

We caught up with him on a track leading to Bentley, but this petered out a field before the end and we waded along the narrowest of slits in the vegetation to reach the A128. Howard (who had gotten off a plane from the States only two days earlier) would have opted for the bus here (my original plan for the day) but while Bill was paying a fruitless visit to a service station up the road the bus whizzed by without stopping. So we decided to continue with Plan B, and finish with another three miles into Brentwood. Bill took the pack.

Chesterton says that the Brentwood Church isn’t very interesting but it seemed quite charming in the late afternoon sun. Howard discovered some tiny black and white kittens across the street. We turned south on Footpath 13 and southwest of Footpath 14 soon thereafter, but in spite of this official encouragement the route finding through the next fields was perilous. A man raking his hay asked Beth if she had just killed a pheasant – a reference to the collection of feathers in her hair. Three or four horses pursued us through the next two fields, nudging us for attention. Bill fed them grass. Just before reaching the Coxtie Green road we met a mare and a colt, who both rushed up to visit. The colt, a frisky fawn-colored chap, was wonderful.

We followed a track south and soon entered Weald Country Park for a splendid woodland stroll. Games were taking place at a fete on a nearby green. Dogs were everywhere and Toby had a great time. At the bottom we rounded a lake and had another lie down on the grass, our last. A little boy greeted Beth with, “How!” It was 6:15 and we were going to make it to Brentwood just as the pubs reopened. There was a long climb uphill in the sun now. At the top a cricket match was in progress. Toby had to be hooked for the road walk – one and a half miles in an easterly direction. At first we had no verge or pavement and this wasn’t pleasant. For the last half mile we had some pavement but also a good deal of uphill to negotiate. Bill kept nagging us about the promised pub.

At the traffic signal we found the Sir Charles Napier, which was having a golden oldies hour on the jukebox. We found seats in the garden and I got down most of another pint. Bill drank two Cokes and a cider. For the first time in thirteen miles Toby actually lay down – on the flagstones. Behind us some fledgling birds were hopping around on the ground while their mom hovered on a branch above us.

I tried to phone Dorothy as we descended to the train station at 8:00 but the call box was out of order. We had a twenty-minute wait before our Liverpool Street train arrived and we had reached London by 9:00. More broken phones. On the Circle Line I emptied out the knapsack and apportioned shopping bags to the original owners. The other three got off at King’s Cross – having done very well on what had proved to be a lengthy and tiring day. Toby and I changed at Paddington and I was able to combine our return from Maida Vale with his last walk of the night.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day 15: Brentwood to West Horndon

Day walks from London:

If you are looking for additional London-based walking opportunities you may want to have a look at our experiences on the following routes:

The Chiltern Way

The Green London Way

The Greensand Way

The London Countryway

The London Outer Orbital Path

The North Downs Way

The Ridgeway Path

The Saxon Shore Way

The South Downs Way

The Thames Path

The Vanguard Way

The Wealdway