From the Forest to the Lea – Loughton to Broxbourne

A tragedy on the tracks near Brimsdown meant abandoning my plan to catch the train to Broxbourne and walk along the Lea to Hertford. I’d lost 2 hours at Stratford Station and decided to walk off my frustration in the Forest. Picking up my favoured trail at the top of Ollard’s Grove I headed over Fairmead Bottom and plunged into the Round Thicket which consumed me for a while. Somehow the forest delivered me to where I’d set my mark – Ludgate Plain and the paths leading out towards Lippitts Hill. I could still find my way down to the Lea Valley and regain something of the original plan for the day.

Safely navigating a passage across West Essex Golf Course I picked up Green Path, a track I’d been meaning to walk for a few years now. It brought me to a gorgeous meadow of tall grasses with a view of the eastern aspect of Barn Hill, from where up on the northern ridge, there were expansive views of the hills rising around Waltham Abbey.

Barn Hill

It always feels special crossing the north-eastern boundary of London and I stopped to savour the moment before picking up the Lea Valley path at Sewardstone heading towards Waltham Abbey. Passing beneath the M25 I remembered standing beneath the same flyover discussing London Orbital with the author himself, that book as much a marker in the Capital’s time as the opening of the road. Hungry and tired I stopped in McDonalds, munching a burger and fries on the Essex-Hertfordshire border.

From Waltham Abbey I followed the River Lea Flood Relief Channel. Great views open up across the waters of Hooks Marsh and Seventy Acres Lakes where otters hunker down in their holts and I imagine Viking boats sliding through the reed beds. The setting sun throws luminous rays across Holyfield Marsh, sometimes it feels as if the day’s walk is all about arriving at this moment, a swell of euphoria basking in the last light of the day.

Holyfield Marsh

From here I submitted to the Lea Navigation, the mantra of gravel under foot, steps releasing the spores of memories deposited on previous walks, the intoxication of reminiscence. I arrive at Broxbourne as a light drizzle greys the pavement. There’s a satisfaction that the walk ends where it had intended to start. The beginning becomes the end.

Epping Forest in the heatwave

It was probably unwise to head out into the Forest in the peak heat of the day at 3pm. The temperature rose to 30 degrees and stayed there well into evening. I needed shade, but first I required food so stopped for a Full English at Lamb’s Cafe at the top of Lea Bridge Road.

Heading over Whipps Cross, and along Forest Rise, I took the path beside St. Peter’s-in-the-Forest seeking the dark cool patches beneath the trees. I attempted to Livestream direct to YouTube from my phone as I’d done on a recent wander across Wanstead Flats, enjoying the dialogue with viewers as their comments popped up on the screen. But the forest wanted me all to itself and the signal dropped out after a minute.

St Peters in the Forest Walthamstow

Looking at the maps in E.N Buxton’s definitive Epping Forest guide first published in 1884, the raised area of grassland approaching the waterworks is marked as the ‘Poor Allotment’. When looking for the names of various areas in the forest, Buxton is the most comprehensive source. The proposed route of the ‘New North Road’ is sketched out cutting across the allotments (my edition is dated from 1923) – presumably the North Circular which left a much deeper scar upon the landscape.

The footbridge over Forest Road offers one of my favourite views in the area (the other not far away), down along Forest Road to the high ground rising on the far side of the Lea Valley. This stretch of the Forest Road is marked as Haggar Lane on Buxton’s map.

Epping Forest Walthamstow
I continued chuntering a monologue into my camera to be uploaded ‘Uncut’ to YouTube when I got home, to the point where the bridleway over the North Circular offers one of the most spectacular views in the whole of London, laying bare the Lea Valley rust belt. This vista makes me dream of lost highways and diners and drifters propping up lonely bars near closing time. It reveals the true endless expanse of the city. A London that stretches forever.

Traversing Rushy Plain into Upper Mill Plain you become aware of this as being part of a spine of high ground separating the two valleys of the Roding and the Lea falling away from either side. It’s a special spot.

I soon found myself at Woodford Green cricket pitch just as the final balls were bowled before a much needed drinks break. Then I followed Monkhams Lane down alongside Knighton Wood, once Buxton’s backyard, before following Forest Edge to Buckhurst Hill.

Retreat to Epping Forest

Nearing the end of a boiling Sunday afternoon I had the urge to be under the shade of Forest trees, so headed on the tube to Loughton. My preferred route into the forest from the station for the last few years has been via Ollard’s Grove – a vertiginous street of large Edwardian houses leading off the High Road. The name, Ollard’s Grove, apparently is of medieval origin referencing a tenant who occupied this parcel of land, which before the area was heavily developed, would have commanded fine views over the Roding Valley.

Epping Forest

The path leading past the Nursery is lined with tall stems of scorched thistles. A cluster of rabbits broke and headed for cover as I approached, with one particularly confident bunny sat munching grass beside the path as I passed. I stopped in the wide shade of an oak tree to check the score in the World Cup Final and watched Ivan Perisic fire in Croatia’s equaliser.

Crossing Epping New Road I walk through what must have been the grounds of Fairmead Lodge, which had already been cleared by the time that E.N Buxton was writing his definitive Epping Forest guide in the late 19th Century. The cool shade of the glades on Long Hills is like taking a dip in stream, welcome relief from the relentless heat, that at the far end of the forest, has set Wanstead Flats ablaze.

Eucalyptus Epping Forest

A lone eucalyptus tree stands in a clearing in Hill Wood. A bush ranger in Sydney once explained to me the folly of importing eucalyptus trees as they need bush fires to spread their seeds, dripping oil into the flames to intensify the heat to the temperature required to eject their spores into the surrounding scorched earth.

Epping Forest

The bikers’ tea hut at Cross Roads is doing a brisk trade but I resist the temptation to stop for a drink, bound as I am for Shelleys Hill. I descend through Kate’s Cellar into the part of the forest that I’m probably most familiar with, although more often than not I’m blissfully directionless. Soon I’m on the banks on the Loughton Brook leading me to Staples Pond and the route back out of the forest to the High Road and the news that France had lifted the World Cup.

Looking for Leytonstone’s Lost Lido at Whipps Cross

One boiling hot morning last week I returned to an overgrown patch of land on the far side of the Hollow Ponds in search of remnants of Leytonstone’s lost Lido. The Whipps Cross Lido was built in 1905 and closed in 1982. It was demolished the following year and the land left to be reclaimed by the forest. I’d gone looking for remains originally with my friend Andrew Stevens, a few years ago on a muddy winter afternoon. That day we mostly found thick undergrowth festooned with used condoms like a plantation of perverted Christmas trees. The location of the Lido had evidently found a new use.

What we hadn’t realised at the time was that the site is quite clearly marked on the Ordnance Survey map, and on this occasion I was able to properly scope the site out. Initially all I found were half lumps of concrete buried in the banks of bushes. Not conclusive enough. But soon I unearthed broken sections of clay pipes, and then large pieces of wire-mesh reinforced glass. Finally the smoking gun of a long length of metal pipe running along a high bank overlooking a large hollowed out area matching the size of the footprint of the pool.

Leytonstone Lido

Stood in the deep end being feasted upon by mosquitos I tried to imagine the scene on a boiling hot summer’s day such as this. The kids racing around the poolside and dive-bombing into the water to the rebukes of the life guards. People have told me of the odour of TCP that pervaded one corner, and of entire days spent here at the Whipps Cross Lido, the queue to get in stretching back to Snaresbrook Road.

The London Lidos that have survived are now treasured assets, with some such as Tooting, drawing in swimmers all year round. Brockwell and London Fields Lidos are ‘places to be seen’. If only Leytonstone’s Whipps Cross Lido could have weathered those dark recession years of the early 80’s – you can imagine how popular it would be today.

Epping Lower Forest & out through North Weald to Greensted

On a map, Epping Lower Forest has never seemed too appealing – separated from the main body of Epping Forest by the town of Epping, I’ve bypassed it on the way out to Harlow but never walked its glades. In that quiet week between Christmas and New Year I set out from Epping towards Ongar and stepped off Epping Road into the Lower Forest for the first time.

Epping Lower Forest
E.N Buxton, writing in 1884, describes it as a “pretty wood”, where, “a summer’s afternoon may be well devoted to its exploration; I say summer advisedly, as parts of it lie low and swampy”. It was fortunate for me that despite approaching midday the ground was still mostly frozen, the deep muddy trenches of footpaths solid glistening white, so walking was more like clambering across rocky ground. A man walking his dog told me of a herd of 40 or 50 deer his mournful looking hound had just scattered, ‘if you keep your eye out on the far side you may see them re-gathering’. And sure enough, as I munched my M&S Turkey sandwich on the Stump Road I became aware of being watched silently by a small cluster of grey deer. It was magical.

Norwegian Memorial North Weald

The planes from North Weald Airfield had regularly passed loudly above the treetops and that was where I was heading next. An important fighter station during WW2, and still a busy civilian airfield with small planes buzzing off all over the country, there is a campaign to save the site as the threat of development looms. An iconic Hurricane fighter plane stands guard at the front gate. The security guards let me come in for a wander round to soak up the atmosphere and feel the wind whipping in across the runway. Pilots for 7 countries flew from RAF North Weald during the Second World War, the memorial near main road has a carved stone tablet dedicated to the Norwegian airmen who lost their lives.

North Weald Airfield
Following a tarmac path into a thicket across the road there’s a pillbox peeking out from the dense undergrowth. The narrow tunnelled entrance is littered with the usual detritus of the suburban fringe. Lords knows what you’d find inside. Moving across the fields on the far side of North Weald Bassett I now kick myself for virtually walking straight past North Weald Redoubt Fort, part of the late Victorian defences of London and now beloved of urbexers and ghosthunters.

North Weald WW2 defences
I cross the disused section of the Central Line near Ongar Park Lodge heading into the last light and dash back down the farm track to see the last steam train of the day chugging along the line back to Epping. A sign on the gate warns that a bull with a pregnant cow is in the field although I’m reassured by the couple in the Lodge that they’re elsewhere.

Toot Hill Water Tower

Entering a narrow strip of woodland by the field edge I see movement on the other side of the tree line – a man holding a bird, a shooter with his kill I assume. But as I move towards him for a chat I see that the bird is very much alive and standing proudly upon his arm. He tells me it’s a Harris Hawk, a hunting bird, that he’s been exercising out above the fields. The rabbit leg it methodically tears apart with its yellow hooked beak was acquired from a butchers rather than a burrow. It’s a majestic beast. We walk together down through the wood, the three of us, to the water tower at Toot Hill where we part company.

Greensted Green sunset

The walk isn’t to last much longer, cut short by a deep irrigation ditch carved across a field cutting me off from the continuation of the footpath. Climbing up through deep mud to the high ground at Greensted, boots caked in mud, I catch the most resplendent sunset breaking over the facing hill and know that 2018 will bring a year of great walks.