Go into orbit without leaving London

THE SUNDAY WALK: Mark Rowe explores the Loop - a new, and surprisingly rural, long-distance path around the capital

In the last five minutes I had spotted three squirrels, a woodpecker, and two donkeys among the woods. Then the trees gave way and I was confronted with the more common beasts of Britain - including the BMW, Escort and other overpopulated species. This was the London Outer Orbital Path - or London Loop - and the cars where we crossed the A1 were the exception rather than the rule. The route we took was a small section of the long- distance path which, by the year 2000, will run for 150 miles round London.

Even in London, nature defiantly fights its corner and throws up vast swathes of green. My main emotion when ambling along a section of the walk in the far north-west of the city was disbelief that I was so close to the homes of seven million people.

We were walking the Elstree to Cockfosters leg, the second of 24 sections of the 150-mile Loop to open. The first stretch of the 10-mile route is sandwiched between the M1 and A1. And yet just a few strides from the tarmac I found myself immersed in woodland that seemed to have soundproofing qualities: the drone of the cars evaporated and there was silence apart from the snapping of twigs underfoot.

The weather added to the slightly surreal nature of the experience. As we jumped off the train at the starting point in Elstree, an almighty downpour was just coming to an end. On three sides the sky was pitch black but ahead - the direction of the walk - was magnificent blue sky. Our spirits were immediately lifted by the sight of the first signpost for the walk (the whole route, in fact, is excellently marked).

The first mile involved a stiff struggle up Beacons Hill Road to take us out of Elstree. We turned left into Barnet Lane, passing the breather vents for the railway on our left before crossing to a small post box and woodland. After 45 minutes we came to Scratchwood, passing an astonishing horse barrier, an eight foot cross-hatch of wood that resembled an ancient pagan symbol. Scratchwood is familiar to motorists because of its nearby M1 service station, but less than 100 years ago Scratch Wood was an estate managed for game shooting. The rhododendrons planted at the time to provide cover still survive.

We passed a model aircraft flying area before coming to open land. A downhill stretch through younger woods brought us to the A1. Until a tunnel is built underneath the A1, you have to walk half a mile south to cross this busy road - and half a mile back the other side. But do not be deterred: the verges of the A1 are covered with horsetail, a plant that was once munched by dinosaurs. One can only hope it will outlive the A1 too.

The Loop signposting guided us through Moat Mount open space, and just 200 yards from the A1 we had reached peace and quiet. From a gentle hill by the Dollis brook we looked down over undulating land, with not a sign of urbanisation. After a series of stiles we crossed Hendon Wood Lane, which took us in to Totteridge Fields nature reserve, a mass of undisturbed brambles, with sloes and blackberries.

The walking was flat and we passed horses and farms following the Dollis brook for about a mile, before arriving at the bottom of Barnet Hill by Barnet Football Club. Turned away from the nearest pub (it was 2.01pm), we crossed the road to the New Barnet Curry Centre. Here I spotted a certificate on the wall stating that the restaurant was one of the top 100 curry houses in Britain - no mean achievement for Barnet, that. The chicken biryani was indeed the best I have ever had.

Thirst and hunger subdued, we followed Loop signs behind Barnet Underground station through King George's playing fields where we had a magnificent view over London as far as Canary Wharf. Beyond here were an assortment of sights: at Hadley Green we passed Livingstone Cottage, where the intrepid explorer once lived, while the open ground to the left was the site of the 1471 Battle of Barnet, one of the biggest battles of the Wars of the Roses. Passing the delightful Monken Hadley Church, we then followed a straight line for Cockfosters; Monken Hadley Common and the woods beyond were part of the great hunting forest of Enfield Chase. Stopping for a drink at the Cock and Dragon, we walked the final few yards to Cockfosters tube station.

8 For details write to the London Walking Forum, c/o Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, Myddleton House, Bulls Cross, Enfield, Middlesex EN2 9HG. The Elstree-Cockfosters leg of the Loop opened in July 1996. Other legs include West Wickham Common to Croydon in south London.

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