Walk 23 ORPINGTON to KNOCKHOLT
Routing note: This walks connects in Orpington with London Bridge networks walk 23 and it will also connect there with Victoria network walk 6. Note also that the walk ends at Knockholt station, far from the village.
The route uses a number of unpaved footpaths than can turn muddy after rain. Because footpaths are unnamed and therefore not as easy to describe, I suggest you take along the Local Cycling Guide number 13 available for free from London Transport as a backup map.
This train line is the so-called South Eastern Main Line opened in 1868 to shorten the travel time to the Channel ports. Before this time, trains first ran through Croydon, encurring a significant detour because of restrictions imposed by Parliament on building train lines through London suburbs. A competing line later ran through Woolwich and forced the train company to seek a quicker route.
The station opened in 1868 on the new train line. It became an important interchange and terminal in 1904 when the train company opened a junction near Petts Wood enabling trains to go from Orpington either to London Bridge (via Chislehurst) or to Victoria station (via Bromley).
The station building dates back to 1905. It is a rather plain, long building in pale yellow brick with no decoration, no upper storey and an ugly metal awning. It seems this particular train company was not interested in impressive station buildings. There are actually two station buildings of very similar appearance, one smaller on the eastern side towards the town and one longer on the western side with the main road access. For the present route, you should exit the station on the western side (Crofton Road).
Just opposite the station at the corner with Crofton Road, you pass a large corrugated iron shed marked Crofton Roman Villa. This is indeed an archeological site open to the public in summer for a modest fee. I did not visit as I have seen more impressive roman villas in Europe, but it is the only one you can see in London.
According to the website, archeaologists have uncovered the walls of ten rooms and a typically roman heating system called a hypocaust (they would set the tiled floor on small brick pillars and let hot air circulate in this void – I know hot air is more commonly produced by politicians, but it was being produced here by slaves tending a fire in a sort of basement room). Unfortunately, no mosaic floors or painted walls have survived and only everyday goods were found.
You also pass an imposing brick building with a Georgian portico sitting on a hill. Apparently, this housed borough bureaucracy in the past but I have not checked the present use. Orpington is since 1965 just a location within the Borough of Bromley.
R Crofton Road
L Newstead Avenue
R Footpath into Newstead Wood
L across the playing field, walk around the fenced grounds of a school turning L again
You are joining here the route of the London Loop, a long-distance path well marked with green roundels bearing a kestrel. I give you the usual detailed routing, but it follows the London Loop for a while.
You manage to cross within about five minutes no less than three green spaces, Newstead Wood, Darrick Common and Darrick Wood. Newstead Wood is mostly known for giving its name to the nearby girls school. As Orpington is seen by most analysts as the epitome of lower middle-class suburbia while this school caters to gifted, ambitious girls, there are a few rather amusing jokes about Orpington hoodies being rebuked by Newstead Wood geeks.
Exit near small ponds in Worleys Drive
R Tubbenden Lane
Cross the main road
Ahead Gladstone Road (look for the London Loop sign)
Cross High Street
Farnborough is a very ancient village already mentioned in a royal donation in 862. It does not have a separate entry in the Domesday Book and is therefore likely to have been considered part of the nearby manor.
As the village is located on the old coach road from London to Hastings, it has an inn already mentioned more than 500 years ago. I took a picture of a passage underneath a house which was certainly the access to an inn courtyard in old times.
This Farnborough has nothing in common with the town in Hampshire well known for an annual air show. As Farnborough means a “village in a fern heath”, it is a rather everyday name.
L Church Road
R into the churchyard, pass the church
St Giles the Abbot church is nice because of its location and there are not many village churches clad in flint in London, but it is otherwise not remarkable. There are some remnants from a Norman church but they are only visible to experts. The church is normally closed.
By contrast, the churchyard is exceptionally interesting in addition to being a lovely wooded area. The very imposing yew tree directly near the church is not a Victorian planting as is often the case as it was planted in 1643 at the height of the Civil War.
Many churchyards in England are considered to be “rectors’ freehold”, meaning that the rector would get a fee for each burial but could not sell the burial spot to the family as would be done in a private cemetery. This ensured that the consecrated ground could be reused after an appropriate time span.
The system was derailed when rich people began to set up large monuments as it became either impossible or embarrassing to remove memorials of well connected families. Here is a good example of an overcrowded churchyard that had to be extended.
In Farnborough, you have an exquisite collection of memorials such a magnificent grieving angel in bronze, a delicate eight-columned Greek temple and an imposing mock-Celtic cross. I guess such crosses became fashionable from the mid-19th century onwards with reference to romantic novels like Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” and music like Felix Mendelssohn’s “Fingal Overture”.
This cross mixes composite foliage scrolls with sculpted medallions showing i.a. prehistoric battle axes. The cross is a memorial to the family Lubbock, owners of nearby High Elms Estate, whose head had published a reference handbook on prehistoric tools.
Continue downhill out of the churchyard still following the marked London Loop along a field and across a country lane
Enter ahead the grounds of High Elms Country Park
The London Loop enters the grounds through a gate in the hedge. If you wish, you can also walk a few yards left along the road (beware of speeding traffic on this narrow road) until you reach the main gate with nice pillars bearing classical urns.
The Estate was the country home of the influential Lubbock family who owned a bank from about 1800 on. The bank was sold to Coutts at the beginning of the 20th century. There is a distinctive air of dynasty about the family: for over a century, all family heads were not only bankers but also contributors to science and members of Parliament. Family tradition also ran in political matters as they were all progressive in social matters but cautious on financial issues and conservative regarding Ireland. A descendant of the family still sits in the House of Lords as a respected Liberal peer.
The neo-classical mansion built by the family in the 1840s was bought together with the estate by the Kent County Council in 1937. Considering how many estates were bought by public authorities during that period, it seems local governments must have bailed out many capitalists who had lost their fortune during the great financial crisis. This also made sense from an urban planning point of view as London continued to grow quickly, threatening green spaces.
You will not find any mansion inside the grounds as the building burnt down in 1967 like a conspicuously high number of other publicly-owned mansions in London. I don’t know whether arson, neglect by the boroughs or insufficient fire protection all played a role in these numerous fires. The one remaining construction of interest is a three-sided concrete court supposed to be one of the earliest squash court in existence. It is nowadays more a yuppie sport but must have been a fashionable novelty akin to tennis at the beginning. It actually reminds me of a traditional sports in the Basque Country and Catalonia (pelota or its American variant jai-alai).
As the estate is now used as a country park, you will find a pleasantly landscaped park at the start of the grounds around the location of the former mansion. There are beautiful conifers and a few sculptures such as wooden mushrooms.
Like all mansions, High Elms had formal gardens. You can still look at a few remnants of the terraced gardens in Italianate style. The lower one gives a very pleasant feeling of relaxed gardening, the middle one is more formal although the flower beds are not very exciting.
Come back to the nature centre after touring the gardens. You can have a look at the pond in summer. I was able to take the picture of the fox sitting quietly here in September 2010 in full daylight, something that really astonished me. This is where you will now leave the London Loop markings.
There is a path at the back of the pond. Take this eastwards (away from the access road) and turn L whenever in doubt. There should be a field on your L throughout.
L again on footpath along an other strip of wood between fields
Cross the country lane
Take the R-hand footpath of two, then keep going ahead
Cross the main highway
R (short section) High Street
You are here in a hamlet bearing the strange name of Green Street Green. The actual name is Green Street (for a village among green pastures) and the second “Green” marks the village centre. There is a church throning quite conspicuously on the crossroads. It is not the parish church but you need to pass the baptist church using the close along it.
L Wellhurst Close, continues as a footpath to the parish church (look at my picture, this is really a rural footpath).
L Dowlerville Road
R Vine Road
Ahead Windsor Drive
I noticed an interesting methodist church in this road. It has a conspicuously square shape instead of the traditional shape of a nave. It does have some sort of a church tower or spire, but a bit too spiky for my taste. As the earliest Christian churches were in underground caves or former market halls (“basilicas”), there is definitely no special reason why churches need to be in lengthy form except if it helps the congregation to see and hear better during the service.
The station was opened in 1868 together with the new train line. It remained a small, rural station as development was severely controlled in order to keep enough green spaces around the London metropolis in the 1930s.
As the original station building burnt down in 1973, the current one is obviously a recent construction. It was probably cheap to build as I think the aluminium and glass panels could be prefabricated and set together quickly by unskilled immigrants. It is probably less cheap to clean regularly if you want to keep the glass transparent.
Such airy structures were first promoted by leading architects of the Bauhaus tradition like Mies van der Rohe who thought that there should not be more opaque walls than what is really need to bear the structure. In the 1960s, Jean Prouvé elaborated on the theme using novel systems of pillars in order to limit even more the number of sight-obstructing walls. Applied to oversize monsters like corporate towers in city centres, it turns oppressive and boring. Applied to man-size structures like this station building, it is pleasing to the eye and inviting. I don’t remember seeing any other suburban London station with so clean Bauhaus references.
Cross the train tracks
R Warren Road
A strip of land along this road, Chelsfield Green, is a public space. It is obviously much safer and more pleasant to walk along the Green keeping parallel to the road.
You also have a grand view towards the Thames Valley from the Green. If you happen to have binoculars or a zooming camera, you will recognise easily the two clusters of towers in London (the City and Canary Wharf).
Take shortly after Court Lodge Farm
R Public footpath across a field to the church
The parish church of St Martin’s Chelsfield is a venerable building with some parts (the tower and the rear wall with the three thin windows) being about 800 years old. The church was closed when I walked past it but the main attraction is probably just the peaceful location and the aura of centuries past.
Pass the church
L Church Road, cross the main road and continue ahead
You are in the old village centre and I was delighted by the pub and neighbouring houses with white plasterboard façades.
R into the small recreation ground
Follow the public footpath out of the recreation ground (at the back of the allotments)
At the first opportunity
R Public footpath due south
The footpath crosses the main road, the edge of a golf course, a motorway and the train line
You really get the feeling that you are far away in the countryside. The borough of Bromley extends quite far beyond the urbanised parts of London and is the greenest of all. Actually, you step for a few yards into Kent just before reaching the station. The station itself is zone 6 but is on the very limit of London.
The station was opened in 1876 after local residents complained that there was no nearby station despite the opening of the line in 1868. The train company agreed but had them pay a sizeable contribution to the cost. The station was first called “Halstead for Knockholt”. It is actually far from Knockholt village, but nearer hamlets like Pratt’s Bottom, Well Hill and Badger’s Mount were just too small. Halstead is a bit larger and indeed closer than Knockholt. A bus service had to be organised between the station and Knockholt although it ran only once in the morning and late afternoon.
In 1899, a recent Knockholt resident who happened to be a member of the board of the train company suggested that “Halstead” could lead to confusion as there is a station using this name in Essex. The company could not refuse the board member’s wish and the station was renamed plain “Knockholt” after the village where he had bought a property.
The station building is a plain, small brick structure but is not shocking for such a rural setting. As the train company usually preferred cheaper clapboard station buildings, it is probably not original.