Today I decided to branch out and got out the as yet unused map of northwest London that I bought in the summer. It covers an area not known for beauty, including Watford and Harrow. I tick off part of the London LOOP (London Outer Orbital Path) and head to Carpender's Park station with a flask of coffee, a bottle of water and a hopeful expression.
Plus boots, natch.
Half an hour's walk sees me pick up the LOOP (this sounds like a knitting pattern). Walk up a nice path through a field, along a bit and come out by a golf course.
They have got the sprinkler on. The ground is sodden already. Why put the sprinkler on? Better class of water?
I don't play golf, do you take me for the idle rich? I do know it's dangerous to cross a golf course unheralded though. There's a signpost instructing me to follow the white poles but I can't see any. After some thought, start to edge along the outside of the field and after 100 metres come to a white pole. Keep going.
The weather's fab today, it poured yesterday and it's due to pour tomorrow but today's just what I ordered. I wasn't really in the mood for a walk, but given the dodginess of the weather I thought I'd better make the most. There are some good views and the sun is coming out.
Walk along a farm track, turn left into a wood as suggested by the map. It's . . . ahem . . . muddy. But not too muddy.
The map shows the path getting a bit loopy here - the quickest way from A to B is actually along the road but the path meanders about all over. There's a stream and I'm not sure which side of it I should be on. So I wade across the mud over the top of it (it goes through a pipe) three times while I decide.
Marked on the map are both Grim's Ditch and Grims Dyke, and at about this point I cross the ditch somewhere, but without an expert to point it out to me it's hard to recognise it. Anyway, you can read more about it if you want here.
Grims Dyke is now a hotel and was the home of William Gilbert (as in Gilbert and Sullivan).
I loved the name of this pub.
It's apparently a corruption of 'Casa Alta' but I like it because I used to read detective stories by Martha Grimes, named after different pubs and one of them had the same name as this pub. I've never seen one with that name before.
Eventually emerge on the road and walk along for 100 metres. I'm keen to see the viewpoint marked on the map and it's very nice though not as spectacular as some.
There's a car park and a group of teenagers wearing 'community payback' fluorescent vests which means they've been bad lads and lasses and have community service orders. They are litter picking, and there's plenty of litter to pick. Litter is a feature almost the whole way along this way, I see more today than in all the other walking I've done since June put together. Pity.
Cross the road and go back into the woods at a signpost.
This bit, Harrow Weald Common, is very nice. Keep walking, am inspected by a large golden retriever who looks more interested in walking with me than with his owner. Emerge on to the road, cross the road and follow a path down the side of Bentley Priory. This was where the RAF was based in WW2. The main building (which I didn't see, except for a glimpse) is 18th century. There's now a nature reserve in the grounds, which is an SSSI (site of special scientific interest) which often means some species of very rare plant or animal has been found there. If that's the case, they aren't saying what.
Walk along a meandering concrete path, admiring the amount of standing water there is. (We've got huge flooding problems in the UK at the moment. If I'd been coming back from Cornwall today, I wouldn't have made it. The railway line is blocked by landslides and flooding.) I've stopped being surprised at seeing water running across paths.
Get to the end of the nature reserve and I'm in the middle of a housing estate, clearly built in the 1930s/40s, full of huge 'mansions' with manicured gardens, and signs up everywhere saying do not do this, do not do that, neighbourhood watch area and so on.
Get to the end of the road, and it's actually a gated estate but they can't block off a public footpath. They do however ensure that builders use the tradesmen's entrance!
Bit naff that, if you ask me.
Walk down the side of Stanmore Common. Do you want to know what a common is? It's not straightforward but my understanding is that it is land that local people were allowed to graze their livestock on before the Norman conquest. More here:
Keep going between a hospital and a farm, and come out on a nice gravelly farm track. I'm walking slowly downhill and as I walk, a trickle of water in the track becomes a freshet.
To my left is a ditch that is full of fast-flowing water, but this freshet continues along the track. Walk on a bit past a manure heap and up a track through a gate. It's a good thing you can't smell what I could smell. Phowee!
The 20 metres of track that follow are going down in my personal annals as the worst bit of path I have encountered this year so far.
It's AWFUL. The earth is clay, so it's slippery and sticky. It's a steep slope so every step I take, I'm slipping backwards. I am sinking a good eight inches with every step. It's sloppy with water and sloshing over the tops of my boots. I labour up the slope at a snail's pace.
At the top, fresh hell.
There's a nice grassy hill and a signpost points up it into the middle of nowhere. No visible path, and because I'm looking up a hill, I can't see the lie of the land because the lie of the land is mostly the other side of curve of the hill.
Start walking along a tractor rut. In the distance is what I think is the M25 which shows you what I know because in fact it's the M1. I should have known this. My map says 'Watling Street' in gothic type. Watling Street is the road built by the Romans to move up and down England quickly. This bit of the M1 is more or less built on it.
Still no sign of a path. So there I am in the middle of a grassy field, at the top of a hill, hemmed in by the UK's biggest motorway on one side and a completely impassable quagmire (the one I've just walked up) on the other side. I can't possible walk back the way I came because I just wouldn't be able to keep my footing.
Why DID I come out for a walk today? I could be on a nice clean dry elliptical wossname at the gym, right now.
Walk a bit further, get out map, try to decide where the path is likely to have gone. It has to get under or over the M1. If I am looking at the bit I think I am on, the path must be to my left. Walk to my left. After ten minutes, realise I can see cars buzzing along a side road in the distance.
Oh frabjous day! Shortly after this I get to the path marker, and go under a large concrete bridge.
It's 1.30. Decide I've had enough walking for today. Since it's Sunday, and country buses are likely to be a bit thin on the ground, I head for Elstree and Borehamwood station.
By a coincidence, London Loop goes the same way, round by a lake with boats put away for the winter, and a pub with frankly incredible signage out front:
Words fail me.
I go across a road, then into a nice field full of cabbage. I know it's cabbage by the smell. The colour is quite pretty against the red of the earth which is clay.
The field is clay and muddy.
Very muddy. But well signposted!
Afterwards I estimate it takes me 15 minutes to walk about 300 metres across this field. Skis would have been useful. Or a hovercraft. I keep thinking I'm over the worst and then it gets worse. Clay being sticky, it attaches itself to your boots. You become as one with the earth. It's like stuffing your mouth with marshmallows and then trying to chew.
Beyond the cabbages is a field of horses. They are nice horses; they ignore me.
I get to the final gate. This is it.
At least I get to rinse my boots.
After this it's just a case of trudging the last mile or two to the station. Avoiding horse buns:
Four and a half hours all told, so I think about nine or ten miles.