I love walking along canals, and this walk is a delight for anyone who loves the gentle chug-chug of narrow boats. Not only that, it winds through a fascinating business park – fascinating if you don't work there, that is – and towards the end passes some very pretty lakes. I wasn't expecting it to be this interesting, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Right from the word go things start to improve. After the downward spiral of day 7, where the Loop goes from the posh corner of London into the flight-path of Heathrow, today starts by heading directly away from the invasive pounding of the jets and through some fairly forgettable suburban walking along the River Crane. Soon enough, though, the Loop arrives at Cranford Park, where things open out into pleasant grassland and the River Crane starts wandering through some wonderfully isolated countryside... and this time the constant drone in the background is the M4 motorway, which isn't very far away.
Try to blank out the white noise of the cars, though, because there's a great example of a pretty church and an old aristocratic estate right by the motorway. If St Dunstan's Church was in the middle of the countryside it would be a delight, especially with the stables of the Earl of Berkley's old estate still standing nearby, but urbanisation hasn't been kind to this corner of the country; even if you can ignore the incessant droning from ahead, the sign at the entrance sums things up nicely:
Anyone caught taking drugs in the park will be reported to the police
It's a brave new world...
The Union Canal
The noise from the M4 doesn't last long, but there's still a short suburban hop before the Loop starts enjoying itself again. When I wandered past the Crane pub after a strange roundabout loop along the edge of a field, the local wags were slumped along the fence, sucking on pints of Stella and cracking wise ones about whether I was lost; one can only assume they don't see many long-distance walkers round these parts, but that's a shame, because on the other side of a large roundabout is the Union Canal, and it's great for walking.
When you first get to the canal, don't be put off by the monstrous Nestlé building looming in the near distance; sure, this part of the canal is industrial, and it becomes industrial again as the Loop reaches Uxbridge, but make sure you take the short diversion to Bull's Bridge, just along the canal where it branches off to Paddington Basin. If you're lucky enough to catch the bridge in the sunshine, beware; it's a bright sight in the sunshine, but it's a beautiful little bridge.
When I did this walk back in the towpath was closed off for emergency repairs, and I was lucky enough to be directed through the diversion by two charmingly drunk fans of Tennent's Super. Not surprisingly they ended up sending me down a blocked alley around the back of Barclays Bank, but hopefully the work has finished by now and you can stomp along the towpath of the canal, enjoying the easy walking and relative peace.
There's a chance to celebrate, too, because at the turn-off to Hayes and Harlington station the Loop signs return, the first since day 6. They make the right-hand turn into Stockley Park unmissable, and although a quick look at the map shows that you can cut out a serious amount of walking by sticking to the towpath, the official Loop route through the business park is well worth doing, especially if you aren't one of the lucky people who spend their entire working life in a sculptured environment like Stockley Park.
To someone like me who's more used to the grit and pollution of central London, walking through Stockley Park is a revelation. I daresay that the novelty soon wears off, but I found the whole experience quite bizarre. There's a golf course beyond the manicured lawns, and spotless and completely empty roads lead to mirrored office blocks that occasionally spit out an office worker wearing the standard uniform of white shirt, black trousers and short hair. Three men were hacking the first tee to bits as I walked past, no doubt heading off to make or break a deal in the sci-fi landscape of future business, and I found the whole thing quite amazing. Perhaps I'm out of touch with modern office culture; whatever, Stockley Park really is something.
Best of all, the Loop takes you through the park and up to some very pleasant viewpoints, before reaching an industrial park where the biggest surprise of all awaits. This whole area is dedicated to business and industry, but clinging onto their existence in the middle of all this commerce is a row of old houses, which would be pretty pleasant in the countryside but which are mind-boggling in the middle of all this industrial hell. It's amazing.
Never mind, the Loop soon heads back to the canal, and for a mile or so it's a pretty little part of the world, a long way away from the cut-throat world of golfing deals. Along the Slough Arm of the canal is an aqueduct over the Frays River, a strange sight if you've never walked along one waterway and over another, and soon enough the Loop leaves the canal and joins the River Colne at Little Britain, a very relaxing series of lakes that are a delight in good weather.
But it's not long before the Loop has to get stuck into the suburbs of Uxbridge, and the last section of the River Colne is pretty miserable. Rusting cars and rubbish are the order of the day as the river winds along the back of industrial unit after industrial unit, but eventually the Loop gets back to the canal again, just in time for a pint in the handy Swan and Bottle pub that marks the end of this pleasant and easy section.