The Loop doesn't start off on a particularly high note, though that's not to say that the first day's walking isn't interesting. Thankfully the last half of this short introduction to the Loop contains enough treasure to make it worthwhile; the only problem is the first half from Erith to Crayford, which is a little bit depressing. Luckily it's not that long; at 8.5 miles, day 1 is one of the shorter walks on the Loop, so it's not long before you can get stuck into happier places like Hall Place and Bexley.
Erith itself is pleasant enough, though it can be desolately windswept. There's obviously a market for newly-constructed blocks of flats overlooking the pasty green Thames, and the promenade along the river front has the markings of an up-and-coming area; but while Erith has a pretty little public garden and a lovely pier that sticks out into the river, it's marred by incredible amounts of industry just a stone's throw from the town itself. Wandering past the flats, an easterly wind brings familiar sounds from ahead; it's the sound of heavy industry, in this case the worthy but noisy metal recycling plants that line the road out of Erith. It's just a taste of what's to come.
The Great Wrecker's Yard in the Sky
As the metal factories grind to a halt at the edge of town, you're plunged straight from suburbia into greenery, a familiar event on the Loop. The Crayford Marshes are at the very edge of London, and they feel like the ends of the earth; indeed, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge that carries the M25 over the Thames at Dartford is clearly visible in the near distance. Huge ships chug up the river at this point, and littering the landscape are obvious signs of man's endeavour; the Dartford power station stands erect in the distance, and over the river the mounds of greenery aren't natural hills, but the results of landfill. However, the most obvious imprints from man's big-soled hobnail boots are the car wreckers' yards that line the last mile of the River Darent. They're fascinating, and oddly profound.
I took some time to sit there, hair blowing in the wind, looking at the stacks of cars lining the river. Every car wreck tells a story, and it's harrowing. Over there is a white car that has quite obviously driven straight into a lamp post, with the lamp post winning hands down; that green car looks like it's hit something, flipped over and landed on the roof, ripping the top off and crumpling the bodywork into a concertina of crushed metal; and the red one over there has obviously been hit from the side, caving in the driver's side while the passenger seat is still pretty much intact. Every car in the Crayford Marshes tells a story, and a large number of them look like graves. Out there on the windy scrub of the outer Thames, the car yards are undeniably sad places, a monument to boy racers, drunk drivers and the genuinely unlucky.
The River Darent and the tributary of the River Cray are much the same; they flow through scrubby marsh that's speckled with factories that seem to be recycling everything from wood to earth, and by the time I reached Crayford, I realised what it was that was bugging me. At many places on the Loop you come across man's disregard for nature, mainly in the shape of rubbish lining the path, or litter choking an urban stream, but from Erith to Crayford the problem is subtly different; yes, there's a litter problem out here, but it feels like industrial litter. Every few steps there's a new eyesore, whether it's a burnt-out car rusting by the River Cray, a discarded half-empty bag of cement that's spilt into the grass verge and hardened into an ugly modern sculpture, or a path that looks as if the earth is desperately trying to regurgitate the rubbish that's been stuffed into the landfill sites over the river.
But then, quite suddenly, I crossed a bridge over the Cray and spotted a picturesque little scene on the river. It's only for a moment, but there on the western outskirts of town are some houses that back onto the river, and for just a few yards the river looks loved; boats lap against the banks, tended gardens slope down to little patios, and only the nearby electricity pylon hints at the surrounding industry. I didn't know it at the time, but this signals the end of the desolate industrial graveyard of the marshes and the start of the kind of pleasant suburban walking that makes the Loop what it is.
Wonderful Hall Place
It doesn't take long to wander through Crayford, with its pleasant park breaking up what would otherwise be a fairly nondescript town centre. Luckily the Loop soon ducks off the road and back to the River Cray, where I bumped into a group of elderly walkers who nodded with the friendly recognition of fellow walkers; the full backpack I was heaving round the route in training for Land's End to John o'Groats was a bit of a giveaway. But I'd decided to check out nearby Hall Place as a good spot for lunch, so waving goodbye I plunged along the river, weaving through crowds of kids who'd been let off school early to enjoy the blossoming spring weather that was making this walk a real pleasure.
Hall Place requires a detour from the Loop, and it's a highly recommended diversion. Entry is free, and if you ignore the fact that there's a Beefeater pub shoehorned into one of the outhouses, this council-run stately home is a great place to rest your aching feet. Hall Place is a bizarre combination of 16th Century stone and 17th Century red brick, the two types of architecture stuck together like a child's experiment with Lego. In the gardens an hilariously overblown collection of topiary hedges looks over a pretty garden, while the River Cray flows through the grounds and gives groups of boisterous children plenty of opportunity to ignore the signs asking them not to feed the ducks. It's discovering places like this that make the Loop so rewarding; it's almost a shame to have to hit the trail again.
The next stage takes you to Bexley and the end of this day's walk. The walk itself is fairly nondescript, with negotiations of roads and railways leading to the edge of Churchfield Wood, which lives up to its name by combining a field, a wood and eventually a church. This church, St Mary's, heralds your arrival in Bexley, a lovely little village that is full of ancient buildings, lots of traffic, and a huge collection of enticing pubs. It's a great way to finish the day; it's a world apart from the industrial nightmare east of Erith, and is much more conducive for the obligatory post-walk beer.