As you leave Hayes Station, you will see why the railway stops there. In front of you is a fairly steep hill - the open spaces we are seeking are at the top of this hill. Two parks on either side of Pickhurst Lane - The Knoll and Husseywell - are remnants of the grounds of Hayes House which were saved in the thirties when the estate was being developed as housing. The layout probably dates from 1771. The Knoll has a series of ponds and many old trees, including a large hollow oak. Husseywell has another pond, which has a walkway around it and an island. There are several fine trees in the park and there is some play equipment on higher ground at the east end. Husseywell is named after Dr Hussey, rector of Hayes 1831-54. The original well is in the wall of 7 Pickhurst Lane, and there is still a small flow of water from it. Further up the hill is the parish church of St Mary, dating from the thirteenth century but heavily 'restored' in 1856-62 by Sir Gilbert Scott, and there are later additions. The churchyard is neat and tidy with some areas kept as long grass for wildlife. Next door is the old rectory, listed as Grade II, which was built in 1757. The Council bought it in 1937 and started converting it into a library. During the Second World War the building was used for various functions and was eventually opened as a library in April 1946. The gardens form a public park, which has some formal rose beds and tennis courts.
Beyond the town is Hayes Common, a remnant of the old common grazing land. It is acid heathland, now a rare habitat type that was once widespread around London. It has characteristic grass and heather. Much of Hayes Common and the adjacent open areas are wooded, but work is being carried out to return more of it to the open grassland that would have been maintained by traditional grazing. One area is designated SSSI. The London Loop runs along the southern edge of the Common. If we were to follow it for about a mile and half (as I did many years ago), we would come to Keston Ponds, which are the source of the Ravensbourne and which we come to at the end of this exploration.
From West Wickham we can walk to Eden Park, visiting three open spaces that were once part of a great estate. In Ravenswood Crescent look for a public footpath sign by a clubhouse: this leads into Blake Recreation Park. This is mainly grass with some mature trees and a row across the middle may be the remnants of a field boundary hedge. Although surrounded by houses, the park is well screened by perimeter trees. There is a play area for young children and the fence surrounding this is decorated with children's posters about looking after the park. There is an active friends group who have plans to improve this open space. Leave the park at the south-west corner and follow the paths between the houses to the roundabout, which has splendid formal bedding provided by a sponsor. There are ample grass verges. You may just spot the Beck, by a small building with a grand portico.
Bethlem Royal Hospital, designed by John Cheston and Charles Elcock, is in Monks Orchard Road. The hospital moved here in the thirties. It is laid out in the villa fashion with each ward being in a separate building. The original buildings, including the administrative and service buildings, are in red brick. There is also a small chapel. Recent buildings are less architecturally interesting. The hospital is in the grounds of Wickham House. At some stage the area gained the name Monks Orchard. The house was in a poor state after the Great War and was pulled down. The original landscaping is by William Sawry Gilpin. Many of the trees are probably part of the original layout and the rhododendrons and laurels most likely added later. Clumps of bamboo can also be found. The public are permitted to walk in the grounds and there are signed walks through the woodlands; notes on these can be borrowed from the Museum. The Museum displays historic artefacts and work by former patients, including Louis Wain and Richard Dadd. There is also a gallery showing work by current patients. Some of the artwork covers the walls of the studio and lines the paths nearby. (Visit museumofthemind.org.uk for opening times.)
Leave the hospital by the main gate, cross the road and go a few metres south and into Eresby Drive. Ahead of you is one of the entrances to High Broom Wood, where you will find a map and interpretation board; these are sited at all the entrances. The Beck flows through the woodland, which provides a rich haven for wildlife, and there are some wood sculptures along the paths. To get to Eden Park Station, aim for the most northerly exit in South Eden Park Road.
Elmers End offers us two contrasting open spaces. Beckenham Cemetery, opened in 1877, and designed by Alexander Hennell has a lodge and very good iron gates that are still in place. There were also two chapels. The one that survived the war was converted into a crematorium in 1956. The other was demolished in 1960. The old grave area is well maintained and has a variety of monuments. The edge of the cemetery has a border of mature trees and there are individual trees among the graves. Around the crematorium are the usual range of memorial sites: columbaria, rose beds, and a water feature. There seems to be a tolerant approach to memorial design and decoration, which adds individuality to the memorials.
The second open space is South Norwood Country Park, which occupies the site of the old sewage works of 1862 that went out of use in the twenties. It was left more or less unused until it was officially closed in 1962. In 1988 it was made into a country park. There is a large lake at the north of the park, which consists of areas of woodland and swathes of tall (waist high) plants. There are clearly defined paths through the landscape. Once you are well into the space there are points where (except for communication masts) you can see no buildings. This gives a sense of being in deep countryside. The moat of a thirteenth- century house is still discernable. Towards the south of the park is a more managed area with café, play area, pitch-and-putt golf and a visitor/educational centre.
The next group of parks start at Clock House Station. It was named after the residence of the Cator family. The station has a clock on the back of the ticket office that can be seen from the platforms. The ticket office still looks much as it did when it opened in 1890. It is the only station on the route worth mentioning. Our first park is Churchfield, which is reached by going down Sidney and then Kendall Road. It is an expanse of grass with some trees and shrubs. The east side has been allowed to grow tall to provide natural habitat and to screen the railway. It was land once owned by the Church and obtained by the local authority and opened as park in 1907 to meet the needs of the increasing numbers of people living in the area.
Return to Beckenham Road and go east past the station. The library and leisure centre have some good shrub planting around them. There is a piece of Lewisian Gneiss from Lochinver. This is one of the oldest rocks in Britain. Bromley placed pieces of this rock in various parks as part of their Millennium celebration. In the centre of Beckenham is a large roundabout with a war memorial and good planting. From here we go down Croydon Road to Croydon Road Park. The park is locally known as Bec Rec. This is a splendid example of a late nineteenth-century municipal park that looks little altered.
What catches the eye as you walk through the main entrance are the many circular beds of colourful flowering plants. The gates have their original pillars and railings and there is a square lodge with a circular series of windows giving the park keeper, in the days of resident keepers, a good view of the park. The elegant Edwardian bandstand is also still there. The leaflet produced by the Friends of Croydon Road Recreation Ground indicates that some repairs are needed to protect its future. There are many fine trees in the park and some areas of shrubs. There are two areas of rose beds, one hidden in the shrubbery and the other open in the northeast corner. There is a full range of sports facilities, including a paddling pool in the young children's area. Return to the centre of the town and head up Rectory Road making for Bridge Road and to an entrance to Cator Park. On either side of the path are areas of rough vegetation marked 'Private - trespass at your own risk'. Although the gates were not locked, I decided not to investigate. Just as you enter the park, you cross the Beck, which we saw earlier. There is a large area for young children with some mounds and some play equipment. The river Chaffinch runs through the park in a deep concrete channel. Finding the confluence of the Beck and the Chaffinch is not easy. The Beck runs in the shrubs behind the children's area and a large blackberry bush hides the place where it joins the Chaffinch. The combined river is called the river Pool. The park was part of the Cator Estate and, when the area was developed for housing, the park was laid out as a pleasure ground for the tenants who paid a subscription. In 1931 it was taken over as a public park, but it retains that private estate quality. Cator Park is on the Capital Ring route. New Beckenham is the nearest station to the park.
The last section of the walk starts at Lower Sydenham station with a visit to Southend Park. This is a small park originally opened in 1950. It has undergone a number of redevelopments that has left it with the remains of a water feature that recalls the river Pool. There are plenty of trees and a good range of games facilities. It is a hidden green space surrounded by housing. The main point of this part of the walk is to follow the river Pool through a connected series of walks. The functions of the open spaces are to manage the flow of water and to provide wildlife habitat. The first part from Southend Road, called River View Walk, is rather over-engineered with the river in a concrete channel and planters for vegetation. There are some large boulders at one point providing an informal play area. At a metal bridge we join an older part of the river walk. There is a community art mural by the bridge and nearby a play area for young children. The older part, called the River Pool Linear Park (a rather formal name) is more natural with the grass now managed as meadow. When I first explored this some 15 years ago, it was all trimmed grass. As we reach the end of the park, the Pool joins the Ravensbourne. A series of bridges leads to Catford Bridge. This is the end of our route from Hayes, but a signed Waterlink Way will take you through an urban landscape to the Thames.
Unless you are after a long walk, it is best to do this walk in sections, as I did. The Croydon tram, buses and other National Rail routes all provide access.