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Stage 13 - Thorndon Park to Thames Chase Forest Centre (7.15 miles)


The stage starts at the south of the car park next to the gate to Thorndon Park North Countryside Centre. As well as the park, the route takes in many other properties owned by the Thames Chase Community Forest, including Harts Wood, Donkey Plantation, Warley Gap, Codham Hall Woods and Franks Wood. We pass through Little Warley, Great Warley and skirt the outside of Upminster on our way to the finish at the Thames Chase Forest Centre at Broadfields Farm.


Thorndon Park Countryside Centre is built from timber blown over in the 1987 storms in the park. It has a permanent exhibition including interactive displays, a shop selling gifts and a café. There are public toilets just south of the centre and many things of interest close by. They include a 130 million year old tree fossil, a community garden, many footpaths going off into the woods and much more.


Thorndon Park is divided into two, the North Park and the South Park. There is an ancient deer park area dating back to the 15th Century, ancient woodlands, three lakes, Thorndon Hall Chapel and many footpaths.  The design of the parkland was reorganised, by Capability Brown, in the late 18th Century. 


Go north to exit the car park and turn left along the road and after 350 yards out through the main gate of Thorndon Park North. Before reaching the main road, stay left onto a footpath through the wood and parallel to the road. After 100m turn right onto a path which after 50 yards leads to the road. Cross straight over (with care) and into Harts Wood. Follow the path north through the woods and after 70 yards as it veers slightly left. After another 400 yards cross a small footbridge over a stream and turn left along a path leading to a road. Cross directly over (taking great care) onto a path through Donkey Plantation. Follow the path / wide track straight through ignoring any paths off to the right. After 700 yards (and at 1 mile into the stage) stay left with the main path – another path goes off too the right.


The path then winds through the trees but is easy to follow. It eventually emerges at an open recreation ground. Go straight across the edge of this open space onto an enclosed path through woods. This soon veers left and after 150 yards comes out onto a road. Turn right to a T-junction with a residential road, then left towards a huge office building. This building is home to the UK headquarters of the Ford Motor Company.


At the T-junction with the main road, and in front of the Ford building, turn right along the road (Eagle Way). After a short distance cross over the road using the traffic island and continue right along Eagle Way. At the junction and the far end of the Ford building turn left into Clive Road - Ford is still to the left. Continue along Clive Road staying on the pavement on the LHS.


To the right, at the end of the Clive Road and, is the Essex Regimental Chapel. It was built in 1857 for the British East India Company, but with the establishment of the Essex Regiment Barracks and Depot at Warley it became the regiment’s home church in 1925. It was unique as the Essex Regiment was the only one to have its own freestanding church. The barracks and depot were demolished in 1961 to make way for the Ford Building which was completed in 1964. By 1967 the building became the Ford Motor Company’s European HQ and at its peak in 1975 around 2,000 people worked in the building. In 1958 the regiment joined with the Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regiments to form the 3rd East Anglian Regiment, which in 1964 was merged into the then new Royal Anglian Regiment. Today all that remains of the Essex Regiment is the chapel. However, the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment does maintain its links with Essex. The church is a Grade 2 listed building and its interior contains displays of regimental history, memorials, heraldry, and old regimental colours.


Just past the chapel Eagle Way becomes Warley Gap. To the right is the “Brentwood Karting Centre”. Also known as Brentwood Leisure Park, it has a kart circuit, a dry ski slope, a golf driving range, an indoor children’s adventure playground and much more.


Turn left along a lane behind Ford and after a few yards turn right onto a footpath into the woods of Warley Gap. There is soon a choice of paths, take the one to the left. This goes downhill through the narrow woods. At points there can be tree trunks deliberately laid across the path to stop cyclists going down here at speed. The trunks are low and are easily stepped over.


The Warley Gap is part of Thames Chase Community Forrest and is an old narrow belt woodland running south from Ford at Little Warley and steeply downhill. It is mainly made up of oak, beech and silver birch and on the ground are the remains of pits and banks created by old gravel works. Some of these are very popular with mountain bikers doing stunts – hence the trees across the paths.


In 1903 Warley Gap was the scene of a crime of passion. Bernard White, a 21 year old soldier of the Essex Regiment beat his 20 year old ex-girlfriend Maud Garret to death after finding out she was seeing someone else. He was found guilty of the crime and executed on 1st December 1903. It was the first Springfield Prison execution at which the famous hangman Henry Pierrepoint had officiated.


After 0.6 miles the path comes out onto Magpie Lane. Turn right taking the left fork to a T-junction with Bird Lane. In front is St Faith’s Farm owned by the Pennorth and Stockdale Stud.


Turn left into Bird Lane and immediately past the farm buildings turn right to cross the road and go over a stile on a footpath with the farm to your RHS and soon straight on and downhill along the edge of a field and with a fence to the LHS.


To the left are good views across southern Essex towards the Thames Estuary. The path is narrow with hedgerow to the right and a wire fence to the left separating the horses in the field from the path. At one point an old oak tree almost blocks the path.


The path leads to a footbridge over a stream and into another field. Continue straight on across the field to a stile at the other side and climb this to follow the path straight on along the LHS of a third field.


At the other side of the field climb another stile to come out onto Great Warley Street (B186). Directly across the road is the Church of St Mary the Virgin. Cross over the road and turn left along the pavement (at 2.75 miles into the stage).


Warley comes from the Anglo-Saxon “Wareleia” meaning “wood or clearing near a wear”. In Norman Times there were the two manors here, the Manor of Warley Abbess (or Great Warley) and the Manor of Warley Franks. The manors were rural, mainly agricultural and land use has not changed greatly since, apart from the building of the M25 and A27 (T) through it. The original parish church of St Mary dates from the 13th Century or before. It was a mile further south along the B186 on the southern side of the A127 (T) in Church Lane and next to Great Warley Hall. From reports, parts of it kept falling down and thus needed many repairs during the years. People eventually gave up on it and all that remains today are some old gravestones. In 1892 Rector Bailey built a wooden church in the grounds of his home “Fairsteads” near the north end of Great Warley Street. This seated 140 people and was much more sensible as it was on higher ground and at the centre of the community. The old church did continue to be used for burials. The wooden church was used until 1904 when a new church was completed. On Bailey’s death (in 1900) he bequeathed the wooden church to the parish of Balidon in Yorkshire. In 1904 it was taken down and re-erected there.


The new parish church at Great Warley was built between 1902 and 1904 using lands and money donated by Evelyn Heseltine. The design and furnishing were under the control of the architect, Charles Harrison Townsend, with the sculptor and interior design by William Reynolds-Stephens. The result was this magnificent church which is believed to be their best work.  St Mary the Virgin, Great Warley is listed Grade 1 and its lych-gate Grade 2. The Art Nouveau interior needs to be seen first hand to be properly appreciated. Materials used include many metals, marble and mother of pearl, together with walnut furniture. The elegant windows blend in beautifully with the rest and the attention to detail is incredible. During World War II the church was damaged by bombing and again in 1975 by an act of vandalism. However, everything has been painstakingly restored. Locals often refer to it as “the Pearl Church” because of the extensive use of mother of pearl. At times other than when there is a service the church is kept locked. However, visits can be pre-arranged by contacting the caretaker. I was very lucky in 2008 when I first came across the church, as the caretaker was tending to the grounds and happily gave a few friends and myself a guided tour.


The website is by a descendant of the Heseltine family. It gives a very good account of the history of all three churches. There are also some good photos of the art nouveau church.


Another story worth a mention, before leaving Warley, happened in 2001 and affected the whole country for most of that year. It was on 19th February 2001 when the first case of foot & mouth disease was detected at Cheale Meats abattoir at Little Warley. This was the first signs of an epidemic which would basically close down the whole countryside of the UK, resulting in many sporting events such as horse-racing meetings being cancelled and international rugby matches postponed. Ramblers were banned from going off-road and public parks were closed. In total millions of animals had to be slaughtered and British meat was banned throughout the world. The total cost to the country was estimated at £8 billion. It also resulted in the cancellation of our run, the Green Belt Relay, that year.


Go south along Great Warley Street for 750 yards, staying on the RHS. Then turn right into Codham Hall Lane.


To the right in the rear garden of the house on the corner is an interesting outhouse or stable. On the other side of the garden is the old Great Warley Water Works or Pump House. These have restored and converted to offices.


Follow the lane for 600 yards to where it turns sharp left. To the right is a narrow lane (leading to Hole Farm) and in front is the entrance to a field, with a large green metal gate. Go around the gate and into the field. Then immediately turn right on a wide path, past a public footpath sign with a large concrete block next to it and along the RHS of the field. Follow this path around the RHS of the field for 0.4 miles – it goes north, then west, then north, then west, then south. It eventually turns right through a gap in the hedgerow to a footbridge over a stream. Once over the footbridge turn left (now 4 miles into the stage).


The small woods, just passed, around the north of the large field just exited are for some reason called “Un-named Woods”.


Continue straight on along the path along the LHS of a field, the through a gap and along the LHS of a second field and going directly south. After another 90 yards a track to the left leads to Codham Hall Farm. Ignore this track and continue straight on past it, towards and eventually into the Codham Hall Woods in the distance.


To our right, along this path, the constant hum of traffic can be heard. This is due to the M25 being only a short distance away and running parallel.


The path through the woods is pleasant and well maintained. It leads to a picturesque wooden footbridge back over the stream and nestled amongst the trees, then further through the woods to come out onto a road.


Continue straight on through Codham Hall Wood, soon over a footbridge and eventually out onto quiet road - there seems to be just one path through here.


A few yards in front of on exiting the wood is the busy A127 and to the right are the M25 and the intersection of these two major roads. Don’t get confused with all the hustle and bustle of the surroundings as somehow the route manages to keep to a quiet and well protected course screened off from those who are speeding back and forwards in every direction.


I don’t think I would have ever found this route without the help of pleasant young lady who at the time was the Essex County Council Public Rights of Way Officer – and it works so well.


Turn left along the road, the busy A127 is just to the right and running parallel. After 200 yards a road going off to the left leads to Codham Hall Farm. However, stay on straight past this and soon gradually climbing uphill to turn right over a wide footbridge / road bridge over the A127. Once over follow the track as it turns right again and descends to another wide track parallel to the A127, but this time west and back towards the M25.


It seems obvious from the size of the track, width of the bridge and the large storage park immediately south of the bridge that this was all originally built to give farm machinery and other vehicles access. However, through the work done by Thames Chase, in providing the public with more access to the countryside, this is one of the new routes which have been opened and it serves us really well.


Follow the track for 450 yards to just south east of the busy A127 / M25 intersection.


This was the junction we turned away from three quarters of a mile ago as we left the Codham Hall Wood. In real terms, as the crow flies, it’s only an actual distance of just over 150 yards, but there is no other route and we should be thankful.


From the track it is easy to read the motorway signs and see the expressions on the faces of vehicle occupants as the speed past. Luckily the track turns left to run parallel to the M25 as it climbs above to hide on an embankment. The hum of the motorway is almost removed and to the left is pleasant countryside stretching off in the distance. I often wonder if man had found this route before now as I have never come across another human being along this stretch. However, there are a few tell-tale signs to contradict my theory.


When I first walked this route in 2005, accompanied by Mike Hutchins, then a young and active 87 year old, I had a few reservations as to where all this would lead. When we eventually came out the other end his first comment was “That was remarkable, and it works very well”. This made me realise it was good, it did work really well and what a varying mixture of landscape it was.    


NOTE: During 2010 / 12 there has been a lot of road-works going on in the area of this busy road junction. However, the route is still accessible and the track maybe now a small road. I don’t know when work finishes, but have been assured by the local council that the public right of way will remain in place after work has finished.


Stay straight on along the track as it runs parallel too and below the M25, and at soon under a large electricity pylon.


The crop fields to the left and the width of the track make it obvious that farm vehicles also come this way.


After half a mile the track reaches a railway line. Here turn right to follow the path next to the railway and under the M25. Stay straight on, along an enclosed path, with the railway to the left and a field to the right. After 400 yards, follow the path straight on into a wood (Franks Wood). The path is basically straight through, never going more than a few yards from the railway, but at times veers left and right around the odd burnt out car. It emerges from the woods into an opening. Stay left, at a small clearing, on a path between some more trees and out into a field (a recreation ground called Cranham Playing Fields). Follow the path straight on and along the southern edge of the field and next to the railway. At the far corner climb a high metal stile, on the left, and cross over the rail line to another stile directly opposite. Even though the line is a quite single track branch line, please take care and make sure no trains are approaching before crossing.


Franks Wood is owned by Essex County Council. According to the British History Online website it gets its name from Frank Scotland who owned land here in the 13th Century and also gave his name to the Manor of Warley Franks. The wood is dissected in two by the railway and is classified as a “Site of Importance for Nature Conservation”. The trees are ancient hornbeam coppice and to the west is the built up area of Cranham. I just wish the caretakers of the site would make it less accessible as a local dumping place for stolen and burnt out cars and motorcycles. Immediately north-west of Franks Wood is a new local nature reserve “Cranham Brickfields Nature Reserve”. You can read more about this at Havering Resident’s Association.


As for Cranham, the area to the north-east of Franks Wood grew up after World War II. It was one of the towns built to take the overspill of the population from London and is now one of the most easterly suburbs of the capital. On the next stage we’ll see a different side of Cranham, the older, more rural and more historical side.


After climbing the stile, to leave the railway, go directly south and away from the railway along an enclosed track (at 6.3 miles into the stage). This soon leads through a gap and into a field. Go straight on along the LHS of the field and after 500 yards to a stile at the southeast corner of the field. Climb over the stile to come out on a road (St Marys Lane).


Directly across the road is the entrance to Pike Lane and to the right are some houses and the Thatched House pub, one of many which we pass on our route managed by Vintage Inns.


Cross over the road, veering to the left corner of the junction of the two roads. Here climb over a wooden stile and turn right onto a path going south along the edge of Cranham Golf Course and next to Pike Lane. After 450 yards hundred yards (with a gate to the right) turn left to follow the path across the golf course – it goes along what was the original lane to Broadfields Farm. Soon past a lake to the right and after 250 yards veer right in front of a golf tee and to a wooden gate with a kissing gate next to it. Please be wary of golfers as you cross and try not to distract them from their game.


Go through a kissing, to leave the golf course, and onto a lane. Turn left along the lane, towards Broadfields Farm (now the Thames Chase Forest Centre), and finish at the entrance to the Forest Centre.


The Thames Chase Forest Centre, at the end of the stage, is absolutely beautiful and completely built of wood. It is one of my favourite buildings on the whole course. I will talk more about it and let you see some photos of it on the write up for the next stage. I was really disappointed to hear the building got struck by lightning on 6th August 2008 and burnt to the ground. However, I am pleased to say the Forest Centre has been rebuilt to the same specifications and re-open in late 2009.


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