Exploring the Heathrow hinterlands, Uxbridge to Staines

by Ian Tokelove
Colne Brook footpath sign in Uxbridge

Walking from Uxbridge to Staines on the western edges of London. This low-lying landscape has been carved by rivers & canals, dug for gravel & heaped with London’s unwanted waste. The M25, M4 and Heathrow dominate, but in the gaps between, nature flourishes.

From Uxbridge, a path follows the Grand Union Canal, before crossing the River Colne and Colne Brook via the A4007. A footpath then follows the Colne Brook, but we found it too overgrown to follow, so we went off-path.

A detour across a scrubby field and past a derelict gatehouse led us to the M25. Here, the Colne Brook flows beneath the motorway. This isn’t a public right-of-way. The ceiling gets lower as you go; we went from an awkward, crouched shuffle to a claustrophobic crawl.

Crawling alongside the Colne Brook as it flows under the M25
Crawling alongside the Colne Brook as it flows under the M25

We followed the Colne Brook south, then took a lane over the M25 towards Palmers Moor Farm and Huntsmoor Park. A footpath meanders alongside the River Colne, weaving between submerged gravel pits, now repurposed as fishing lakes.

Layers and landfill

The Slough arm of the Grand Union Canal slides over this wet landscape, flowing along a late 19th century aqueduct. This canal once carried bricks from Slough to fuel London’s growth. When the brick pits were exhausted, London sent its waste back along the canal, filling the pocked landscape with its unwanted rubbish.

A footbridge crosses the Slough arm of the Grand Union Canal, which flows in an aqueduct over the Colne.
A footbridge crosses the Slough arm of the Grand Union Canal, which flows in an aqueduct over the Colne.

Landfill is a constant companion on this walk, the soil a shallow layer over black clinker, crumbling bricks and broken bottles. This is pre-plastic dumping, relatively benign compared to the rich petrochemical mix and pollutants of later landfill.

A close up photograph of a landfill bottle with a distant, warped silhouette of my walking companion.
Landfill bottle and the warped silhouette of my walking companion.

The path continues alongside the Colne Brook, passing under raised railway tracks and entering the manicured lawns of Thorney Park Golf course, where all signage vanishes. Wandering the golf club’s fringes, we eventually picked up the correct path and followed the River Colne towards Frays Island Nature Reserve.

Long, dark foot tunnel under the railway tracks
Under the railway tracks

Frays Island is a wonderfully unkempt nature reserve, a tangle of fallen trees, crack willow & lost paths. Losing the path again, we followed the water. The Colne flows south, passing expensive back gardens and low level industrial estates.

Snowdrops growing alongside the Colne Brook
Snowdrops growing alongside the Colne Brook
Scarlet elf cup fungus
The distinctive scarlet elf cup fungus, seen on the path.

Uxbridge to Staines, via Heathrow

Passing under the M4, the river splits and the path follows the Wraysbury River. This is Harmondsworth Moor, a former landfill site which has been re-landscaped to create a pleasingly wild public park. It’s beautiful, and it will be obliterated by the proposed Heathrow expansion.

Walking under the M4
Walking under the M4
Harmondsworth Moor
Harmondsworth Moor

The path crosses the A4 and Longfordmoor, and onto the ‚ÄėHeathrow Biodiversity Site‚Äô. This is essentially a large expanse of landfill below the Heathrow airport flightpath, blighted by aircraft lumbering into the sky above.

The landfill leads to a path under Airport Way, and we then followed Horton Road into Stanwell Moor, grabbing welcome refreshments at The Anchor. Heading south, we picked up the footpath along the north-western border of the enormous King George VI Reservoir, before branching out onto Staines Moor.

Staines moor at dusk
Staines Moor and the River Colne at dusk
Looking back along the River Colne, on Staines Moor
Looking back along the River Colne, on Staines Moor

Even with the light fading fast, Staines Moor is a magical place. We followed the shimmer of the River Colne, the moor a pool of darkness, an unseen emptiness bordering the M25. Then onto Staines, with its drive-through Maccy Ds, endless car parks & bright shopping malls; and a train home.

My thanks to Graham Hood for company on this walk, undertaken in February 2020.  

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