Exploring the Ingrebourne Valley on the edge of east London

by Ian Tokelove
Ingrebourne Valley Nature Reserve

The River Ingrebourne is a blue ribbon which flows between Upminster and Rainham, and then into the Thames. The valley is rich in wildlife, home to nature reserves and rewilded-landfill. Section 23 of the London LOOP (the London Outer Orbital Path) runs here, but it pays to wander off the main path, to get lost and explore.

From Upminster, a short walk leads to Bridge Avenue. The majority of residents seem to favour soulless, car-friendly concrete as their ideal front garden, which makes for a dispiriting start. If the local council hadn’t yellow-lined their street, maybe the gardens would be greener. 

Hornchurch Stadium leads to Gaynes Parkway, and from here, it is green for most of the way. At this stage the river is tamed and channelled, and the paths are popular with cyclists and walkers.

Accessible path along the Ingrebourne Valley
An easy path follows the course of the Ingrebourne Valley

After the Hacton Parkway Play Area, the river gets a wiggle on, the flow untamed and sinuous. Easy paths lead to a popular playground and the Ingrebourne Valley Visitor Centre, which overlooks the river, now bordered by marsh and reedbeds.

Ingrebourne Valley, Berwick Glades and Berwick Wood

A footbridge over the Ingrebourne leads to Berwick Glades on the left, and Berwick Wood on the right. It is worth a detour from the well-trodden LOOP path to explore these wild and relatively new places.

The Ingrebourne Valley - with the largest expanse of reeds anywhere in Greater London
The Ingrebourne Valley - with the largest expanse of reeds anywhere in Greater London

The Glades are a large area of former farmland, planted by the Forestry Commission in 2003 to create a mosaic of woodland and grassland. You can wander here and not see another soul, with just the breeze and wildlife for company.

Berwick Wood is a former sand and gravel quarry, restored to meadows and woodland. Although privately owned by Tarmac Southern Ltd, we have free public access and it is worth exploring.

Hornchurch Country Park

Returning to the footpath over the River Ingrebourne, the path passes through Hornchurch Country Park, overlooking the river and marshes. This landscape was home to an airfield which saw service during both World Wars, a base for biplanes and then Spitfires.

Concrete pillbox and command bunker, with
This is the top of a two-storey command bunker. Lots more down below (and out of reach)

Several defensive WW2 pill boxes can be seen, and also much rarer Tett turrets. Tett turrets were basically one-man pill boxes, a circular, rotating defensive position with only one way in-and-out, the open top. They were not popular, and only a very few were ever installed.

Tell turret
This is a Tett Turret. A soldier would be stationed here during attack, armed with a machine gun and relatively protected from enemy gunfire or bombing

The RAF station at Hornchurch closed in July 1962, and the landscape got the usual London edgelands treatment. Gravel extraction created large, open quarries, which were then filled with 1970s landfill. Landscaping work in the 1980s created the Hornchurch Country Park we can enjoy today.

The path leaves the former airfield behind and passes a small fishing lake, and then skirts a field. If you wander along the field edges, you may spot a depression in the soil, very likely a bomb crater from the Second World War. Hornchurch Airfield drew plenty of enemy attention and was bombed on at least 20 occasions.

Bomb crater on edge of field
A probable bomb crater; the airfield came under frequent attack

Ingrebourne Hill

Rising as a low hill beyond this field is Ingrebourne Hill, a bulky monument to London’s landfill. This was yet another former sand and gravel quarry, repurposed as a huge dump. Following restoration and rising to some 20m, Ingrebourne Hill is an expanse of seemingly wild heathland, with panoramic views over the Thames Estuary. To the west, London skyscrapers puncture the distant horizon in a jagged line.

Ingrebourne Hill
The distant capital skyline viewed from Ingrebourne Hill. The entire hill is literally built-up from London's rubbish, a huge landfill site now rewilded as heathland

The River Ingrebourne, which we have followed this far, becomes Rainham Creek, and flows beyond our reach, into a Thameside industrial zone.

As with the neighbouring Beam River to the west, the river’s flow into the Thames is controlled via sluice and is strictly one-way, to protect against tidal flooding. Boats used to navigate from the Thames up to a wharf in Rainham, but now not even fish can make the journey, considerably impacting on the aquatic wildlife of this little river.

The rail station at Rainham offers a return route to London, or if you feel fit you can continue to the River Thames, roughly 30 minutes away.

Ingrebourne Valley
A midway view. This is looking east from the Ingrebourne Valley Visitor Centre

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