This walk was the first Loop section I did, and what an introduction it is; this is a lovely walk, with plenty of variety in the scenery, a healthy dose of ancient and recent historical stories, and a good pub en route. It sums up all that is good about the Loop.
Even the link walk to the Loop itself is intriguing (well, it is for a link walk). The main drag in Petts Wood is lined with shops, and these shops are neatly tucked away under a long, triangular roof that's broken every few buildings by black-and-white striped gables. This would be unremarkable as a one-off, but when this repeated pattern stretches along the high street as far as the eye can see, it's a strange but not unpleasant effect. Soon enough, though, the path breaks through the suburban houses, winds through a small wood, and reaches the Loop at Jubilee Park, one of those sudden arrivals of wilderness that has you looking around in surprise, searching for the buildings, industry or roads that you normally associate with London. The Loop has a habit of doing this, of plunging straight from suburbia into wilderness, and it's one of its most endearing features.
Unfortunately the wilderness doesn't last, and there follows a fairly lengthy wander through houses. This may sound boring but I love wandering through the suburbs like this; it's a chance to see how other people live. Houses are as individual as their inhabitants, and when I walk through a place like Southborough on a weekday, I rather enjoy being nosy. Have a peek through people's windows as you walk past; snatch a glance through the hedges into the gardens; wonder at the immaculate house that's stuck next door to the one with three-foot-high grass and peeling paint, and imagine what kind of neighbourly arguments must take place over that. Suburbia's fun, if you know how to look at it.
After a pleasant little woodland walk and yet more suburbia in the shape of Crofton, the Loop shakes off its fairly standard start and rolls up its sleeves, leaving suburbia well behind; it's not until the end of the walk that houses make a significant impact on the route. After a hill with a bench that's well placed for a quick stop, it's down into the village of Farnborough, home to a picturesque village centre that soon leads to an atmospheric churchyard with a bench under an old yew tree; it's a good place for a rest.
From St Giles the Abbott the Loop winds downhill to a great example of what the Loop does so well – exploring the ancient seats of long-departed aristocracy. There's something deeply satisfying about wandering through estates that were obviously quite opulent in their day, but which have now dissolved into ruins and ivy-clad reminders of ancient riches. Perhaps it's the affirmation that it doesn't matter how rich you are or how self-important you think you've become, because time will always win in the end, eroding your follies and burying your memory. High Elms is fun because about the only thing that remains of the Lubbock family's estate is one of the first Eton Fives courts to be built; dating from 1840, it's managed to survive along with the stable block and lots of strange trees, but that's about it for the Lubbocks.
From the erstwhile grandeur of High Elms the Loop takes you through farms and fields towards the next delight of this part of the Loop, the Holwood estate. It's a delight because you never get a completely up-close and clear view of Holwood House, instead glimpsing it from the bottom of the hill on which the imposing house stands. It's this mystery that creates the atmosphere, an atmosphere that feels a long way from London; this is aristocratic countryside, and even when the Loop starts to climb the hill, it's not towards Holwood, but instead on a leftward tack that seems to avert its gaze from the stately pomposity uphill.
This feeling of being kept at arm's length from the rich and famous continues at the top of the hill, where the Loop passes the Wilberforce Oak. This is the site where William Wilberforce and William Pitt met to sort out the parliamentary bill that would abolish the British slave trade, and it's commemorated by a large stone bench that was built in 1862. Unfortunately for us commoners, it's all cordoned off behind a fence, and a fence that makes no bones about what it's there for. We're only allowed to peer in at the place where those more privileged than us made those momentous decisions. Ah well, that's life.
The Loop still has some lovely surprises left, even though it's not far to the end of this section. Wandering down the hill takes you to Caesar's Well, a spring that bubbles clear water even today, filling the pleasantly shaded Keston Ponds with water that once provided Holwood with its supply. If all these reminders of high society are making your head swim, don't panic; just down the road is the Fox Pub, a good spot for a pint of non-aristocratic real ale and a pleasant place to sit outside on a sunny day.
It's soon back into the rules and regulations, though, as the Loop enters West Wickham Common, complete with the first Corporation of London board on the Loop (but by no means the last). These boards contain all the byelaws that apply to the various commons dotted around London, and they're worth a read, especially for all the stuff about not cursing on the common, a sign of times that have most definitely gone by.
After a wander along the edge of the common, the Loop comes out onto the road, where some nondescript old oaks sit on a grassy corner by the A232. They might not look like much, but these trunks are possibly 700 years old (and maybe more), which is no mean age, even for an oak. It's a good way to end this walk, a lovely day that's full of life... some old, some new and some satisfyingly transient.