The completion of the M25 London Orbital Motorway in 1986 totally encircled the metropolitan county of Greater London. Despite its well-deserved reputation as a highway to hell, the motorway actually passes through some pretty first-rate countryside, but unfortunately the bucolic idyll can't be best appreciated in bumper-to-bumper traffic jams. Which is where the London Countryside Experience comes in. This tour shadows the M25, crossing inside and outside of the loop at a totally different pace of life (even when the traffic comes to a standstill on the motorway, it's hardly tranquil and stress-free!). Tiny country lanes and small villages barely a mile or two away from the M25 somehow manage to maintain their rural character.
The high quality of countryside immediately outside London is a tribute to the foresight of the post-war Green Belt legislation, which has prevented the capital from encroaching into any more of the countryside and encouraged infill development on brownfield sites, rather than allowing developers to "pave paradise and put up a parking lot".
Being so close to the homes of ten million people (and that's just London itself, not all the other towns that surround it) it's understandable that there are immense pressures on the Green Belt. So it's even more important to document the state of the countryside in the year 2010. Who knows what these beautiful landscapes will look like in twenty years? Hopefully much the same as now. But just in case future governments attempt to relax the strict planning regulations and allow more fields and woodlands to disappear, let us without further ado enjoy the London Countryside Experience.
ARRIVING AT THE LONDON COUNTRYSIDE
The book "London Orbital" by Iain Sinclair covers a similar circuit around London, although he and his cohorts were more on the lookout for dysfunction and weirdness rather than beauty and tranquility. Whereas Iain exited London via the Meridian to Waltham Cross, we are going to leave via the the south bank of the Thames. Coming from outside London you might as well take the M25, to remind you of what you're not missing once you start the circuit! Either way, our starting and finishing point is the Dartford Crossing.
Although it's doutbful anyone would start the trip from Tower Bridge, the City of London is the central point of the circle we'll be travelling, at no point more than thirty miles away.
Greenwich is a diamond in the rough of South East London, while all around are decidedly less salubrious districts like Deptford, Lewisham and Woolwich.
The public sector vs the private sector: The Millennium Dome vs The O2 Arena. You decide!
The Thames marshes start well inside the city limits. Thamesmead was an attempt to build a utopian "New Town" in the marshes, but something went a bit wrong...
Finally the massive Queen Elizabeth Bridge comes into view, signalling the beginnings of a very different world outside the urban area. Unfortunately the bridge is southbound only, so in order to cross the river we have to use one of the two Dartford Tunnels directly underneath.
CIRCULAR STAGE 1: DARTFORD CROSSING - BRENTWOOD
On emerging into Essex we skirt the industrial north bank of the Thames before hitting the countryside at Wennington. From there we follow an unbelievably sparsely populated route in the gap between East London and the grim Thurrock conurbation.
Purfleet: trying its hardest to reinvent itself as a more visitor-friendly place, offering great views of the Thames.
Wennington: the first of several villages administratively part of Greater London but not joined to the main urban sprawl. Not much of a village apart from this fine old church.
North of Wennington is a landscape of fields, woodlands and fishing lakes (most of them former gravel pits).
The Thames Chase Community Forest is an attempt to make this area of countryside more accessible to the inhabitants of East London and South West Essex.
Great Warley retains its olde worlde village atmosphere.
CIRCULAR STAGE 2: BRENTWOOD - EPPING
Our route only just skims the very edge of Brentwood before entering horsey country. The narrow, windy lanes are interspersed with a couple of nice villages and some beautiful country parks.
South Weald is another unspoilt village despite its proximity to both the London-Colchester road and the M25.
Weald Park is a traditional English country park.
Abridge is a big village/small town with some fine old pubs.
Bell Common looks like any other cricket ground, except just a few foot beneath the pitch zoom six lanes of motorway traffic in a pair of cut-and-cover tunnels.
Epping is an old coaching town on the original London-Norwich road, now superseded by the M11. Immediately south of the town lies Epping Forest.
CIRCULAR STAGE 3: EPPING - HERTFORD
Some really open countryside revealing the best Essex has to offer before crossing the River Stort and entering Hertfordshire.
A far-reaching view typical of those west of Epping.
Roydon is a picture-book village on the Essex side of the county border.
A few miles into Hertfordshire and we cross the River Lea at Stanstead Abbots.
Great Amwell is a small village just off the old London-Cambridge road.
Hertford is an interesting county town with several narrow streets and historic buildings, such as The Shire Hall.
CIRCULAR STAGE 4: HERTFORD - RADLETT
South of Hertford lies an extremely spooky stretch of dark woodlands and secretive villages. West of the Great North Road the views open up.
Northaw Woods are very eerie indeed.
It's a welcome relief to emerge into daylight at Northaw village.
There is a fascinating archway at Swanley Bar.
Shenley is a picturesque village on a hill.
This stage ends in Radlett on Watling Street, the Roman Road between Dover and Holyhead.
CIRCULAR STAGE 5: RADLETT - HAREFIELD
A labyrinth of tiny country lanes allows us to avoid Watford and enjoy the unspoilt scenery of the Chiltern Hills. We leave Hertfordshire at the end of the stage to arrive at the last remaining village in Middlesex.
The first, but not the last, we'll see of the River Colne, which flows down to the Thames near Heathrow.
Some countryside near Bedmond. The forest is called Potters Crouch Plantation.
Croxley Green has a very long, wide village green.
Despite being on the tube and sitting almost adjacent to Watford, Rickmansworth retains its own small town atmosphere.
Since the abolition of Middlesex as an administrative county, Harefield has become a unique "orphaned" village. Although adopted by the London Borough of Hillingdon, it lies well outside the Greater London urban area.
CIRCULAR STAGE 6: HAREFIELD - WINDSOR
Almost immediately we enter Buckinghamshire and some very old, immaculately kept villages. The route just touches the periphery of Slough (formerly Bucks, then Berks, now a self-contained unitary authority...nobody else seems to want it!) before dropping down to the Thames at Datchet. The river is radically different in character from where we last saw it at Purfleet.
Chalfont St Giles is probably the nicest of the Chalfonts, despite its name being the Cockney rhyming slang for a rather painful medical condition.
Winner of many a Best Kept Village award, Fulmer is located in the Chiltern Hundreds, a densely wooded rural strip running between the more built-up A40/M40 and A4/M4 corridors.
Pinewood Film Studios have been at the centre of the British film industry for decades, and recently the complex has had an impressive facelift.
We finally catch up with the Thames at Datchet, a lively little town that has narrowly avoided being swallowed up by the village-eating monster that is Slough...
Is there anyone who doesn't know that Windsor Castle is one of the Royal Family's three official residences (the other two being Buckingham Palace and Holyrood Palace)? The castle dominates the town. Across the river, Eton is home to the country's best school.
CIRCULAR STAGE 7: WINDSOR - RIPLEY
From Windsor to Ripley the scenery is as lovely as you could hope to find anywhere in England. The idyllic landscape is only briefly interrupted by a short five-minute stretch through the leafy suburbs of Woking.
Windsor Great Park can be busy on a summer's day, but it's a huge enough open space for visitors to easily wonder away from the crowds.
Virigina Water lies on the southern perimeter of the Great Park.
Chobham Common is much more expansive and open than this crowded corner of the map would suggest.
The remains of Newark Priory stand out dramatically from the water meadows of the Wey valley.
Ripley was on the route of the original London-Portsmouth Road. Since being bypassed it has now reverted to being a sleepy village.
CIRCULAR STAGE 8: RIPLEY - GODSTONE
The route gradually climbs the gentler north-facing slopes of the North Downs before a series of steep downs and ups along the south-facing escarpment.
Impressive panoramic views from the top of the North Downs near Effingham.
Box Hill is one of Surrey's best-loved viewpoints.
Bordered by Croydon to the north, the M25 to the south, the A217 to the west and the A23 to the east, it's a wonder that the countryside around Chipstead is so rural and scenic.
The A25 used to bear the brunt of traffic now using the southern quadrant of the M25. Villages like Bletchingley can breathe a sigh of relief!
Godstone is the archetypal English village. Amazing to think the outskirts of London start barely three or four miles away.
CIRCULAR STAGE 9: GODSTONE - CHELSFIELD
This stage is particularly empty as we leave Surrey to penetrate one of the most rural sections of Greater London. The northern half of the London Borough of Bromley is built-up, whereas the southern half is traditional Kentish countryside. The tractor-driving farmers who live in these remote outposts are able to vote for the Mayor of London, whereas the public transport-using commuters of suburbs like Chigwell and Epsom (both administratively outside Greater London) get no say whatsoever! That's democracy...
At 882 feet above sea level, Botley Hill near Woldingham is the highest point of the North Downs. The skyscrapers of Central London can just be seen in the haze.
Welcome to London!
Downe is famous for being the home of Charles Darwin.
"Butt" of many a joke, Pratt's Bottom would probably find its house prices increasing if it changed its name! The busy A21 London-Hastings route runs through the lower part of the Bottom, but away from the main road the upper sections ("Where do you live? Upper Pratt's Bottom?") are still pure country.
Rural Bromley isn't short of lovely country pubs! Chelsfield is the circuit's final village in Greater London before heading into Kent "proper".
CIRCULAR STAGE 10: CHELSFIELD - DARTFORD CROSSING
At last the tour reaches its conclusion, having taken over 100 miles to arrive back where it started at the Dartford Crossing. The final stage sees the countryside becoming gradually more industrialised, though right up until the bitter end there are still some vestiges of rural tranquility.
Swanley is horrible so our route avoids it, but Swanley Park, on the northern fringe of the town, is beautiful.
Open views northwards just east of Swanley Village. The village is separate from the town. The chimney in the distance is next to the Thames, meaning our destination is looming.
The River Darenth flows through North West Kent, meeting the Thames just beyond Dartford.
Stone Church is by far the oldest surviving building in a landscape dominated by retail parks, warehouses and housing estates.
Two worlds collide, and the London Countryside Experience comes to a fitting climax.
LEAVING THE LONDON COUNTRYSIDE
The obvious way out is via the M25, if you can bear it. Those heading back into London might as well use the A2, as interesting an approach to town as any.
The Dartford bypass was itself bypassed by the A2, a six-lane almost-motorway. The highway traverses Dartford Heath, border country between Kent and Greater London.
Suburbia kicks in suddenly after crossing the River Cray at Bexley.
The A2 gradually drops lanes until at Blackheath it becomes a single-carriageway. This is where the traffic jams really begin (if not earlier), but at least it's a great place to sit and look at the views of London.
After New Cross the A2 becomes the Old Kent Road, the lowest of the low on the Monopoly board.
The A2 ends just south of London Bridge. We're back at the centre of a circle whose diameter stretches from Datchet to Dartford, from Godstone to Hertford.