The biggest challenge with this section of the Loop is getting there. Hamsey Green is in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and if you're coming from west, east or north London, you're in for a hell of a journey. The guidebook recommends going via East Croydon train station, but that's the easy part; then you've got to find the bus stop for the 403 bus (you'll probably have to ask where it is as it's a fair walk from the train station), and even then it's a good 30 to 40 minutes to Hamsey Green. Alternatively you can head for West Croydon, where the bus stop for the 403 is right next door, though it's still a long ride to the start of the Loop. I ended up taking the bus from East Croydon and getting a bus driver who didn't know the route, but a kind old woman on the bus told me where to get off; it's at the stop just after the Good Companions pub as you enter Hamsey Green.
Luckily this walk is most definitely worth the effort of getting there; it's a lovely route that takes you through some beautiful chalk downs, past some interesting industrial scars and along the outside of an intriguing prison. The worst part is that it starts at the perfect end point – a pleasant pub on a village green – but you can't have everything, I suppose.
Into the Chalk
From the Good Companions pub the Loop takes you past some unattractive suburban houses, but at least they're interesting. When I walked past, there were a number of drives being used as makeshift car garages, with locals hacking away under oil-blackened bonnets while other drives were stacked with cars in dire need of attention. The road ends pretty quickly, though, and the countryside kicks in with a vengeance, opening up in front of you in the way that will be familiar to anyone who's done more than a day or two of the Loop.
The path bends round to the right, crossing fields and eventually passing the only trig point on the Loop. It's not a lot to look at – it's just a concrete pillar, not unlike a modern version of the coal tax markers you come across on the canal sections of day 8 – but it's interesting that the Loop doesn't come across more of these markers. It's an indication that the Loop isn't the sort of walk that goes over the top of mountains, but instead weaves its way pleasantly through a suburban green belt. The Loop ain't the Pennine Way, and that's part of its charm.
After turning down the hill from the trig point a large valley opens up in front of you. It's a beautiful sight, though I'd taken such a long time to get to the walk that the sun was way past the midday point and it shone straight into my eyes as I looked along the valley; this would be a great spot in the morning, though. The Loop dips straight down into the valley and through a surprisingly industrial part of Whyteleafe, and as it goes up the other side there's a great view back over town to a huge scar in the chalk cliffs that you've just walked along the top of; it's an old quarry, and at the top of the road I sat down and took in the views, while a wind chime blew pleasant tunes from the house at the end. It was a very pleasant and tranquil suburban scene, despite the sign on the house opposite that asked owners to stop their dogs from leaving unwanted deposits in their drive...
From Whyteleafe the Loop winds through a small forest towards a diversion that's well worth taking. When I did this walk the build up to war in Iraq was well underway, and Kenley Aerodrome was a particularly meaningful place to visit, with its long runways and its history as one of the places from where the planes took off to fight the Battle of Britain. Later on in the Loop, on day 10, the Loop passes Bentley Priory, the headquarters of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, and it's interesting to tie the two places together by foot: the commanders and the commanded.
Along the Ridge
After the aerodrome the Loop zigzags through some fields and past an incredibly ugly block of rooms that looks like it's been transported from an urban hell-hole and dumped unceremoniously in the middle of a perfectly pleasant village and right opposite a thatched cottage (I doubt the owners were terribly happy with this addition to their village). Quickly escaping this eyesore, the path crosses a field and arrives at an observatory, home to the Croydon Astronomy Society. As I wandered past, I spotted a bloke taking pictures of the observatory with a digital camera, and it turned out that he was taking pictures for the observatory's website. He invited me in and showed me round the telescope, firing up his computer to show me the results; it was a lovely little break in the walk, and a great setting for stargazing.
Through some woodland and across a road, the Loop passes the Fox, one of those pubs that you wish you lived round the corner from. It's not a bad idea to pop in for a quick pint, especially if the wind is picking up; although the walk gets really stunning from here, it also gets a little exposed, and if there's a cold wind, you'll wish you had some artificial help from a pint or two of ale to get you through. From the Fox you pass a bizarre collection of obstacles on a fitness course, and then it's into the chalk downs proper; there are great views along Happy Valley and a lovely picnic spot overlooking Farthing Downs, and then it's on to the downs themselves. The climax of the whole day's walk is without a doubt this section, which provides stunning views over Coulsdon while following the road along Farthing Downs to what's known as the Folly. This collection of beech trees provides a vista that you don't often get around London. It's wonderful.
Unfortunately the section through Coulsdon itself is boring, with a seemingly never-ending uphill suburban road that eventually passes a grotty pub before finally reaching the countryside again. This is horse territory, especially at the weekends, when lucky little girls get to ride their horsies through the countryside, chewing up the paths so walkers end up with mud-caked boots and heavy feet. Luckily there's plenty to look at, from the Little Woodcote Estate with its strange black wooden farmsteads and good views of London in the distance, to the lovely gardens of Oaks Park, a throwback to the days of aristocrats and horse racing that provides the Loop with a pleasant diversion for a summer afternoon. If you don't have time to explore Oaks Park, the path winds through some confusing turns that are thankfully well signposted, and eventually you find yourself walking past the walls of HM Prison Highdown. Check out the walls; they've quite obviously been designed to keep people out as well as in, and the combination of fencing, clever wall design and cameras everywhere makes it pretty obvious that this isn't the sort of place you want to live. But right there, next to the prison at the end of the path, is a house that's overlooked by the cameras, and what an odd place it is; it's built like a strange continental kind of villa, a bizarre house in a bizarre location.
Finally, the Loop ends with some winding greenery and a short stint crossing a golf course, until the turn off to Banstead Station. The station hides itself well; the only giveaway is the timetable outside, but it's a welcome sight after the ups and downs of the downs. What a lovely day's walk.