Walk 17 ALBANY PARK to DARTFORD
3 hours plus visit of Hall Place
Routing note: This walk connects in Albany Park with walk 16. It connects in Crayford with walk 18. It connects in Dartford with walks 10, 11 and 14. Dartford is outside of London travel zones, but is served by a bus accepting normal London tickets and passes.
If the walk is too long for your purposes, you can stop at Crayford after visiting Hall Place. The section from Crayford to Dartford takes a bit more than an hour.
This train line is the so-called Dartford Loop Line built with a view to reduce congestion on the main line to Kent via Abbey Wood. It was opened in 1866. Interestingly, this is now the main line for fast trains to the Channel Coast while the original main line via Abbey Wood is now used for semi-fast trains and local trains only. In order to enable trains to run from the one line onto the other without having to reverse at Dartford, a junction was built in 1942 between Crayford on the Loop Line and Slade Green on the Kent main line. This junction is used regularly by suburban services.
In addition to the Kent lines I mentioned, there is a third line joining the two main ones at Dartford. This third line is the so-called Bexleyheath line opened in 1895 between Blackheath and Dartford via Eltham and Welling. Only one united line continues into Kent beyond Dartford.
The station opened in 1935 when the area became sufficiently developped to justify a new station. The building is not much more than a brick cube although the white awnings give it a rather appropriate appearance for an Art Deco building.
Exit on the south side of the tracks
L Longmead Drive, turns R as
L End section of Riverside Road turning into a track
The landscape becomes surprisingly open here as you are entering the Green Belt. I am not sure whether the fields are all farmed as the path looks very rural and may be muddy on occasion. You are now following a section of the London Loop, a very well marked long-distance path signposted with green roundels showing a kestrel. As the path is well advertised and has a guidebook, it is very popular and you will find many reports on this section on the Internet.
Ahead all the way to a railway underpass.
Detour sharp L for
The station opened in 1866 like the train line itself and was originally used primarily to load farm produce for sale in London.
The station building is the original one and is one of the few clapboard station buildings still in use in London. Most burnt down at some point. We tend to like the design nowadays while they were decried originally for being very cheap-looking.
The station was the location of a goods train derailment enjuring four people in 1997. It was due to a pattern of shocking behaviour by all companies involved. As usual in business-friendly England, the companies were fined about 200,000 £ (some 0.1% of their quarterly profit, I suppose) and that was it. Here the behaviour in detail:
– the train driver had not been schooled for goods trains and therefore did not know that a signal marked 60 may only be passed at 40 with a goods train
– a carriage was overloaded and this had not been noticed either by the supervisor at loading point or by the railway inspector at point of entry on the line
– the speedometer in the locomotive was defect and showed the wrong speed
– track inspectors had reported repeatedly “very urgent” needs and “extremely rotten bridge timber” but maintenance planners did not prioritise the works
– the contractors in charge with the actual maintenance work “did not carry out their contracts adequately”.
At the time, Railtrack was regulated by a gentleman who was criticised for being too lenient and tougher oversight from 1999 on led to temporary insolvency. In the end, the Labour government bought back the company the Conservative government had privatised without sufficient safeguards. The problem was that Railtrack as a newly privatised company had maximised profit by outsourcing actual maintenance works to all sorts of contractors who had no motivation to deliver more than the strictly unavoidable amount of work needed to secure payment. Railtrack had got rid of most experienced staff able to estimate whether the contractors were doing their work properly – saving money and enhancing profits on a short-term basis but causing its ultimate demise.
Come back to the road and resume following the London Loop signs
R Bexley High Street
Note on the L side of the street a large building called Freemantle Hall. It was built in 1891 on ground donated by Mr Freemantle and was later used as a film theatre under the nice name of “Cinema De Luxe”. It has been turned into a community centre where you can attend delightfully suburban activities like Get Thrifty’s Craft Fair and Little Missy Pamper Days.
The road turns R and crosses the river
The large building to the R that straddles the river looks like a former mill. There has indeed been a mill on this location from the Domesday Book in the 11th century until 1907. It was later turned into a factory for sacks and burnt down in 1966. The present building is therefore a reconstruction and houses a pub.
Nearly on the opposite side of the road, you pass a stately Georgian house with a very lush garden. It has a blue roundel because of a local historian living here in later times (Mr Thorpe), but it is supposed to have been built in the 1770s for the owner of the mill.
L into the churchyard
Ahead past the church
Bexley parish church is rather ancient with most walls dating back to the 14th century but it has been completety remodeled in Victorian times. It is normally closed so that you cannot have a look at what the Internet site describes as a typical example of anglo-catholic “high church” style. The more interesting features of the church are the view from the lychgate and the tower.
Lychgates have their names from a Saxon word akin to present-day German “Leiche” for “corpse”; as mass for a deceased person was not to be said in church, the gate (like modern-day funeral halls) protected the hearse in cause of bad weather during the last rites. In this case, the lychgate leads to an unusual alley of impressively thick yew trees. Victorians loved yew as a symbol of everlasting life but would normally plant only one in order to let it grow nicely.
The church tower has something of a double roof: an octogonal roof sits above a four-sided one. Many French churches have cubic masonry transitioning into an octogonal tower (typical of Gascony for example) but it is less usual to do the transition at roof level.
Ahead Paved footpath along the cemetery until you enter a small wood
Please do have a short walk around the overgrown part of the cemetery. This is now a nature reserve and the toppling monuments smothered in ivy will look romantic at the best of times and downright spooky on a dark winter evening.
L footpath along the lower edge of Churchfield Wood (still following the marked London Loop), continues all the way to a motorway embankment
There was a bit of excitement in local papers in 2005 when someone reported seeing a “large black cat” in Churchfield Wood. The “Beast of Bexley” haunted impressionable walkers for a few months with someone even pretending to see a black leopard scaring horses in their paddock. Of course, it is highly unlikely there was anything to it.
L along the motorway embankment towards the railway tracks
R underneath the motorway
Lots of graffiti here and I think you cannot really call it street art here (as opposed to graffiti underneath Queen Elizabeth Hall on South Bank in Westminster).
Strongly recommended detour for Hall Place:
R and again sharp R climbing the embankment
Cross the railway tracks along the motorway
R down the embankment
Continue away north from the motorway between the railway tracks and a fence
L along the fence crossing the river
L into the grounds of Hall Place
Hall Place is one of my favourite places in all of suburban London. The buildings themselves take about half an hour but touring all the grounds will take more than an hour and they are highly worth your time, particularly in spring and to some extent in summer.
The original palace was built by a former Lord Mayor of the City of London in 1540 and the building was extended significantly by an other merchant in 1650s who was important enough to be made a Baronet. You can easily see the two buildings as no attempt was made to hide the contrasting appearance.
The older building is closer to the road; it is built in a mosaic of stone and flint, which is typical for this period. You can find a number of churches built in the same way at the same period. Interestingly, the mosaic effect was not popular on the Continent where plain stone walls were affordable. The newer building has a much more regular appearance and is made of bricks as was usual under the Stuart kings.
Later owners included a politician who was rumoured to be engaging in immoral behaviour. This was caused by his membership in the “Hellfire Club”, a rather secretive private club whose aristocratic members indulged in drinking, politicking, mocking religion and possibly unashamed womanising. It is difficult to know exactly what they did as they protected themselves against outside scrutiny, but people were probably unduly harsh in their judgements as they also were against that other secretive club of the period, freemasonry.
The Hellfire Club of the 1750s was probably less scandalous than the original one from the 1720s (quotation from Wikepedia about the behaviour of two members: Sedley and the Earl of Dorset preaching naked to a crowd from an alehouse balcony in Covent Garden as they simulated sex with each other – note that such behaviour is quite accepted nowadays at a stag party held by typical English blokes in Vilnius or Sofia or at your average rugby after-game drinking session). Members of such clubs are called “rakes”, a multiple-meaning word confusing for a foreigner like me.
The last owner was a leading society Lady, the Countess of Limerick, and the Prince of Wales visited her at Hall Place on occasion in the 1920s. She sold the property to the borough in 1935 and the buildings were used by the Army during the war before being turned into a school and later into council offices. A trust was given responsibility for restoring the buildings in 1995 and it now houses a small borough museum.
An extension was built in 2010 to house the cafeteria and an information desk. It is quite interesting to see the contrast between the steel-and-glass pavilion and the older buildings. Old buildings I like are the old barn now used by a restaurant and a mysterious small building out of black wooden boards set on stone feet, possibly a former larder as being raised above the ground would protect better against mice. At any rate, this is the use of such buildings in Norway or Spanish Galicia.
If the museum is open (it is sometimes closed for private functions), you can see several restored rooms -the rooms are more interesting than the pure museum section (although I did find the collection of wedding dresses interesting as it is unusual). The entrance hall at the lower level is suitably impressive with a ceiling made of heavy wooden beams painted black; this gives it a Tudor look although it is in the Stuart part of the building.
The hall opens onto the main Great Hall with its Minstrels Gallery. It is a bit too clean and regular to give off a feeling of antiquity, but I can imagine this is a nice location for a wedding or special anniversary.
On the first floor, there is a very nice Parlour with walls entirely panelled in wood as in medieval times. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I enhances the impression and there is a magnificent chimney with fancy brickwork put together in Saxon style – Saxons had copied the Roman habit of laying bricks in opposing oblique rows as this improved stability. There is something strange about the panelling; as Tudor panelling is normally moulded in a specific design reminiscent of plaited textiles, the present panelling is more 17th century, but this does not fit with the portrait of the queen. It is possibly all fake anyway !
An other impressive room is the Jacobean Room with superb ceiling plasterwork. The complex scrolls are indeed typical as you can see similar designs in actual Jacobean houses like the façade of Charlton House and the lounge of Boston Manor. They have been renovated recently but I don’t know how old they really are.
The Jacobean Room gives access to a Long Gallery, a traditional feature of Tudor houses, but this specific example has been completely redone and the ceiling decoration actually reminds a little of William Kent in the early 18th century. If you want to see an authentic Long Gallery, go to Ham House. If you want an original Kent design, go the Madejski Rooms of the Royal Academy. If you want a stunning Jacobean ceiling, go to Boston Manor. But Hall Place is still worth a visit.
I recommend you don’t spend too much time inside as the real attractions are outside. I suggest you begin by walking all around the East and South sides of the building to an aluminium staircase possibly meant as an emergency exit. Climbing the stairs, you can look at the closed Tudor garden that you normally can only see from the main road. It has a neat geometric design reminiscent of Elizabethan knot gardens.
Next is the apparently haphazard collection of box trees groomed in starkly geometric shapes. It is quite a lot of fun to meander among the trees, being quite enclosed in dark green foliage with unexpected shapes at every corner. I have read that the last owner had decided to grow shapes that would remind of Art Deco chess pieces. The borough received a lottery grant in 2010 and part of this was invested in recutting the trees so that they are stunning on my picture taken just after the work was finished.
Walking along the Western wall of the garden, you will pass a grass labyrinth. As opposed to those at Hampton Court or Crystal Palace, this one is supposed to remind you of similar designs on the floor of medieval cathedrals. The spiral is a symbol of infinity and walking round into the spiral was supposed to help pilgrims to meditate about coming ever closer to God. In addition, the church could reinterpret in this manner an ancient Celtic design.
Walking to the corner of the grounds, you should begin to see the entry to what I would call the hidden garden. The flower beds are protected by high hedges and the design of the garden creates a set of separate beds. There is a similar design at Queen Mary’s Gardens in Regent’s Park. This garden is at its best in summer as you can see if you compare my April 2010 and August 2008 pictures.
Continuing along the fences, you will reach a garden with brick pavement and regular shapes where gardeners grow medicinal herbs. This is not the most exciting section as nearly all boroughs have this kind of garden.
A little further on, a partly sunken garden is reached by descending a few steps between tall hedges. This is the Italian garden popular with romantically-inclined teenagers at not too many people venture this far.
If you look back to the main house from the Italian garden, you should be able to see a row of yew trees grown painstakingly into weird shapes. As signs will tell you, the 10 figures stand for the heraldic beasts that appear on the coats of arms of the English kings at different periods. I give you a 2010 overview after the reshaping, but I also give you three examples of the more amusing 2008 state of things.
The lizard, monkey and teddy bear were supposed to be a greyhound, a crowned lion (of England) and a dragon (of Wales). The set of topiary is one the major attractions of Hall Place and a fitting reminder to the gardening efforts of the Countess of Limerick.
Between the beasts and the River Cray, there is a rose garden, but I have never been there at a time justifying a picture. If you visit in spring, I suggest you pass the river into the informal park. There is an excellent display of early heather and you will also find some azaleas and rhododendrons (although they cannot of course compete with Dulwich Park). At the very back of the park near the railroad, there is an orchard with very nice blooming trees in season.
You are not supposed to attempt to leave the park through a hole in the fence although this would put you back on track for the walk to Crayford station. If you do this, you miss on a significant part of the rich Hall Place offering. I did notice that planting was less impressive in 2010 than in 2008, probably because of the financial crisis affecting the borough revenues, but the borough nursery just outside the normal Hall Place entrance is not to be missed.
At the very back behind the glasshouses, there is a halfhearted attempt at a Tudor garden. It has the geometric shapes and some simple planting because it is actually a learning garden and not a show garden.
Going back towards the glasshouses, you pass on the left a series of long beds, some with perennials needed for the flower decoration in borough buildings and some with saplings of fruit-bearing trees. The separate small garden facing the glasshouse entrance is a specialised garden showing a number of plants from the Southern Hemisphere.
Having been in New Zealand, I was disappointed at seeing no tree ferns, but I admired the huge cabbage tree (called so because Captain Cook fed the leaves to his sailors as he knew vitamins were necessary to avoid scurvy on long sea voyages).
The one glasshouse you can visit is worth a look as it has beautiful colour schemes. My two pictures show how different those were from one year to the other. The central plant bed is more educational with interesting examples of tropical flora. The surrounding plant beds show that the gardeners are not frightened by strong colours.
In 2008, it was popular to be nationalistic because of football and the gardeners had also planted an English flag in front of the glasshouse. I remember considering the design a bit obnoxious as you could see similar planting eveywhere including in cemeteries.
After visiting the glasshouse, you can have a look at a few small enclosed gardens set up against the nursery wall. These gardens are actually very interesting as they are planned by young landscaping students as a means to give ideas to owners of typical suburban plots. On my pictures, there are a sort of rookery with an excellent colour scheme, a rather abstract design with lots of white stone, a garden with little earth but lots of hanging plants and a comfy pergola design.
After visiting Hall Place, come back the way you came and cross back above the railway tracks, but do not cross underneath the motorway again.
End of the detour
Take the wide path parallel to the railway tracks. It runs a few hundred yards through bushland above the train line through an area called Old Orchard.
Later on, it runs directly along the tracks and leads all the way to
The train station was opened in 1866 like Bexley station and the train line itself. The main line runs from London to Dartford, but a junction was added in 1942 so that trains can also run from Crayford to Slade Green.
The original station building was similar to the one in Bexley as wooden clapboard buildings were particularly cheap. Because of a fire, the station was rebuilt in 2000. It is a clean brick design but is a bit boring.
Pass the station
R Station Road (uphill)
L Swan Lane
Ahead across green spaces, cross (with due caution) busy Old Bexley Lane
Ahead into Dartford Heath
This is a large common in a prominent location. It was already popular in prehistoric times as graves have been found here. Wikipedia pretends that the first recorded match of cricket is supposed to have taken place here in 1723 but there are many records of cricket being played throughout the 17th century.
Aim for the motorway and then for a bridge carrying a minor road across the cutting
Cross the motorway on this bridge (Heath Lane)
L Oakfield Lane
Continue ahead for nearly 1 mile until the end of this road
Just after passing the motorway again, the sprawling complex on the left is the campus of North West Kent College, a public institution with a good reputation. It has courses in performing arts and you can attend plays and dance events at the Miskin Theatre directly near the campus. By the way, they have a pretty convincing website.
R Hawley Road
L Powder Mill Lane
L track between two artificial lakes
The left-hand lake, Brooklands Lake, is very popular with anglers as you are allowed to buy day tickets. The lakes are probably partly artificial like most lakes in the area as this was a very busy industrial zone until the 1970s.
Ahead underpass along the river
Originally, both tunnels were used by the river Darent. They were part of the construction of the road bypass above, Princes Road. It is called after the Prince of Wales who opened it in 1924. It is interesting to note this very early bypass at a time when road traffic was still very moderate and this may point to how busy the industrial city of Dartford was at the time. The tunnel you use was opened to pedestrians in 2009.
Ahead paved path along the river across Central Park
The river Darent is interesting. You will be rather surprised to hear that it was used by boats carrying goods to and from the factories in the early 19th century. The boats were small, but it is still a sign that there was much more water flowing at the time. Apparently, part of the water is diverted by the River Medway which springs in the same area and is undercutting the Darent because its upper valley is lower in altitude than the Darent’s. In addition, massive use of water from the watertable by both industries and households reduced the reserves considerably.
As the lack of water was killing wildlife, the Environmental Agency dug boreholes in the 1990s in order to increase the flow. I don’t know what this does to the watertable, but it may be compensated by the fact that all industry has disappeared so that regular use of water is lower.
At a footbridge marking the downstream end of the park, walk L along the park edge to the library building
R cross the formal garden passing the library
The formal garden is worth admiring, particularly the flower clock, so that you get several pictures. The design of the flower clock shows a plane propeller because Dartford had a large Vickers factory, a very important aerospace company until the 1960s.
The library is a very ornate Edwardian building that could nearly pass for an orangery in a princely residence in Germany although the somewhat oversized columns and heavy cornice are giveaways.
If the museum is open, you can spend a few minutes exploring the one room. There are two particularly interesting items. One is a very peculiar contraption that is attached to the walls above your heads by hangers looking similar to those of power transmission for electrical trains. A bucket attached to pulleys was forwarded on overhead lines between the sales counters and the cashier’s office of a large local shop.
It is still normal for sales assistants to lead you to a cashier for payment, but many shops on the continent had a simpler system: you would chose your goods, go yourself to the cashier with your order and come back to your sales counter with the payment receipt. The disadvantage was that you queued three times if you were unlucky – I remember experiencing this problem in communist East Germany in 1989. The Dartford contraption was much more convenient.
The other exceptional item in the museum is a glass cup with a christian inscription dated 450. I am quite fascinated by that period so excuse me for some details.
– The Roman empire had just fallen in 416 and there are very few signs that such a fine technique as that needed for the cup was mastered by the incoming “Barbarians” although they learned it later on around 600.
– The cup bears an inscription to a rather obscure saint who died in 287 in the Soissons area. This was the core area of the Southern Frankish realm and the item is therefore certainly not typical for the Jute kingdom who controlled Dartford although the Angles from Eastern Kent are known to have had some trade contacts with the Franks.
– The Jutes and Angles were definitely heathen until about 550 and why would an important person from the Jute kingdom consider a christian cup so important as to put it in his/her grave ?
Experts wonder whether the cup might have been part of the dowry of a Christian princess from the Frankish kingdom who would have married a Jute or Anglian chief. Most Franks were heathen until 505 but a few of the princesses converted before, partly because the new religion felt good against the machism of their husbands.
An other explanation may be an exceptionally educated Jute with knowledge of and facination for the remnants of the glorious Roman civilisation.
A third possible explanation is that the cup would belong to a Briton warrior as some Britons (from Ireland) were paid by the Jutes to defend them against the Picts of Scotland. Some Britons were already Christians at the time as the first bishop for Ireland was named in 431.
Leaving the library, continue R on Market Street towards the parish church. The oldest section was built around 1100 but most parts are rather early gothic and date back to about 1300. Dartford was an important stop on the pilgrims route to Canterbury and this gave the church significant income. I have not been able to enter the church and I suspect it is usually closed when there is no service. If you are able to enter, you may see a large fresco from about 1475. If the church is closed, the more interesting view is from the bridge over the River Darent.
Take High Street westwards (away from the river bridge)
R Pedestrianised area
Ahead past Orchards Shopping Centre
In the pedestrianised area, note the tall clock tower with a delightful animated display showing two scenes from fairy tales (one is Hansel & Gretel but I am not sure about the other one). The clock is obviously quite new and is part of the efforts undertaken to revitalise the town center. After all industrial employers closed their factories and moved production to China in the 1980s, the town went into a very deep decline with unemployment reaching mass proportion. Most shops closed as the population was unable to afford anything but the cheapest necessities.
The town had some income from suburban shopping malls (particularly Bluewater a few miles East) and tried to revitalise the town center. Unfortunately, the shopping centre is unable to fight successfully against the Bluewater outlet centres and is just about surviving. Nonetheless, Dartford feels less chavvy and better kept than Gravesend, Tilbury or Basildon.
Aim for the footbridge over the circular road called Home Gardens
Ahead past Civic Centre for
The station is a major interchange as all three Kent railway lines meet again here after their separate routes via Woolwich, Eltham or Sidcup. The oldest line started 1849, linking Gravesend in Kent with Woolwich, Lewisham and London Bridge. The next line was opened in 1866 between Lewisham and Dartford via Sidcup as the new main line; it was shorter and less congested as it crossed rural areas while the Woolwich area already had the very busy arsenal. The third line via Eltham opened in 1895 because rich landowners wanted better service for their properties on the high ground between the two older lines; they had to build the line themselves and the line fell to the main train company when their company went bankrupt.
Like some other major train junctions around London (Watford for example), Dartford has lost its original imposing station building. The present version is rather small, particularly ugly and boring. The only attraction is the view from the unusually high, enclosed footbridge.
If you wish to use London transport buses rather than a train (as Dartford is outside of London Transport zones), these stop on Home Gardens underneath the footbridge.