There's a definite theme to this section of the Loop, a theme that's surprisingly lacking in most of the rural walking of the previous few days. Today is most definitely a day for wide-open spaces and large skies, and although the scenery isn't breathtaking and things go a bit askew for the last couple of miles, this is another pleasant piece of Green Belt walking.
The first sweeping view kicks in pretty quickly, especially if you already popped into the pub in Chigwell on day 13 and aren't tempted to grab a morning pint. It takes a while to get there, as the Loop mucks around with an annoying zigzag across the fields, but where the path stops following an orthogonal route and cuts diagonally across a field, turn round and soak in the view. Fields stretch into the distance, and although you can still see plenty of evidence of man in the undulating landscape, it's an especially pleasant view on an October morning as the autumnal winds bring the first real chills since spring.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the next obstacle on the map is one of those repugnant sewage farms that we met on day 6, but don't panic; this is a water works, and it doesn't smell one bit. Indeed, it's rather well hidden, and the large round tank the Loop wanders past provides a welcome resting spot for birds, no doubt to the management's irritation. One word of warning: as the path rounds the tank and comes to a stile, you might have to watch out for deep mud. I got muddy feet and it hadn't rained for some time, so there might be something else feeding the mud here; whatever, be warned.
After a short but intriguing passage through Chigwell Row, where the Loop seems to pass straight through people's private gardens, the path crosses an A-road and plunges into Hainault Park, a lovely stretch of parkland and forest that's quite rightly in the process of applying for Nature Reserve status. Initially the Loop strides along pretty birch woodland and along a broad bridleway, but suddenly it bumps into a lovely little lake that's home to plenty of wildlife. You might see the odd fisherman casting away, but a large portion of the lake is protected from human interaction with the express purpose of encouraging wildlife, and if you ignore the high-rise blocks in the distance, it's a pleasantly rural scene.
Heading past the lake things open up yet again, though this time it's not so much a vista as a huge area of open grass. On a summer's day this would be an excellent place to bring the kids and the dogs to tire them out completely, and the walk up past the golf course is another enjoyable experience, especially as it's the kind of park that makes people friendly. Remember friendly? Remember people saying hello to complete strangers? It happens in Hainault Country Park, you know, and it's wonderfully refreshing.
From the park the Loop ducks into a golf course and follows yellow paint marks on the trees to take you back onto the fields, this time within sight of Romford. Luckily the section through the golf course coincides with the first London Loop sign of the day – the first part doesn't have any, though there are plenty of footpath signs to help you on your way – so you're unlikely to get lost. The same goes for the section past Romford and into Havering Country Park, which goes through fields before turning left and going uphill to a bench with a great view over east London. You can't miss Canary Wharf; it's amazing how close London is, especially given the park the Loop now enters.
Into the Redwoods
Try not to take any notice of the build-up that the official guidebook gives to Havering Country Park; calling it an 'awesome moment' might be pushing things, but there's no denying that this, the second largest plantation of redwood trees in the country, is a great place to explore. There are apparently 100 trees in the park, and although they're relatively young, they're easy to spot as the Loop wanders through the trees. London feels a long, long way away.
This feeling continues as the Loop passes through the pleasant village green of Havering-atte-Bower – make sure you check out the village stocks and whipping post at the far corner of the green – and it's not long before the path winds through the village and back out into the fields. There's a fair bit of dithering around here and it's worth keeping an eye on the map, but it's well signed and the rewards are worth it. The views are delightful and the sense of space is huge; at one point the feeling of open countryside is intense, something you might not expect from London, but that's one of the delights of the Loop.
Unfortunately, this is where things start to go a bit tits-up. There's a pleasant wander past country houses and farms along Paternoster Lane, but at the end the Loop strikes for the heart of Harold Hill and then Harold Wood, and for the last couple of miles it's dismal. This is not a great part of the world – it's the kind of place where the pedestrian signs have graffiti genitalia – and even more depressing is the fact that here the Loop meets the poor, unloved Carter's Brook, which forms the mainstay of day 15. Apart from a short section where the Loop ducks into an urban dell to follow the trickling brook, this final stretch follows the route of the river without ever letting you see it through the choking brambles and rubbish that blight so many of London's streams.
Never mind; the rest of the day is worth it, even if Harold Wood isn't.