Out on Sunday for one of those late afternoon/early evening wanders in Epping Forest – that time of the day and the weekend when ventures further afield have been ruled out by domestic dithering. My son is feeling lethargic but still up for a stroll and we’re keen to find a new route that doesn’t take us back to the unlimited soft drink refills in the Royal Forest at Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge. Following the Loughton Brook seems like a good place to start.
The Loughton Brook meanders through this lower portion of Epping Forest before making its way through the suburban streets of Loughton to its confluence with the River Roding. The steep sandy banks and gentle curves of the brook are beguiling and we criss-cross our way over the wooden bridges and hopping across narrower sections. According to the Essex Field Club, “the sinuous curves may be the result of the balance between energy and friction when a low energy river moves fine sediments down a shallow gradient.”
From looking at the paper Ordnance Survey map the source of the Loughton Brook appears unclear – it could either emerge in Wake Valley or perhaps percolates through pebbles, gravels, and bagshot beds in Great Monk Wood. From there it flows down through the Forest feeding Baldwin’s Pond to the spot where we stand south west of Loughton Camp.
Searching online for a definitive answer to the source of the Loughton Brook takes me to a series of GCSE teaching resources where the Loughton Brook apparently features in the GCSE Geography paper. My inquiries also lead me to Spaceship’s hypnotic and richly evocative new album ‘a prospect of loughton brook’.
The album traces the course of the brook “from source to mouth” and in the sleeve notes Mark Williamson of Spaceship gives a precise description of the location of the source, “rising just over the Epping New Road from Wake Valley Pond. On the opposite side of the highly embanked road Lower Wake Pond is drained by a clay culvert from which springs a trickle of water.” Added serendipity to this glorious discovery is given by the fact that the binaural and hydrophone recordings of the forest and the watercourse that blend beautifully with the instruments on the album, were recorded over a January weekend when I too was walking in the forest around Loughton Camp.
Spotting a narrow footpath leading alongside another rivulet running downhill to the Loughton Brook, we change course heading uphill through Debden Slade, said to be a corruption of ‘Deadman’s Slade’, and Kate’s Cellar. This area of the forest was apparently named after a hermit named Kate and Google Maps seems to attribute Kate’s Cellar as the name of the stream that we walk beside. Oddly neither Debden Slade nor Kate’s Cellar are marked on the Ordnance Survey Explorer 174 Map.
We rest on a tree root just the other side of Epping New Road and I reflect back on the event I hosted last Tuesday evening with Will Ashon at the Wanstead Tap discussing Will’s new book Strange Labyrinth – Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London’s Great Forest. Will Ashon was a great person to chat about Epping Forest with in front of a packed room, and now I imagined him walking with us in the forest. I kept seeing him clambering up trees and answering my stream of questions about pollarding, the enclosures, and a whole host of things we didn’t get to on that great evening at The Wanstead Tap.
Strange Labyrinth takes you on a ramble through Forest lore not unlike a good schlepp in Epping Forest. It presents many facets of our beloved woodland – as a place of solace and reflection, a place of fear, and a landscape of magic. The persistent theme for me was of the forest as a last resort of the Outsider – from the Elizabethan playwright Mary Wroth through Dick Turpin, TE Lawrence, actor Ken Campbell, and anarcho punk guru Penny Rimbaud.
I visited Penny at the legendary Dial House near Ongar, as it happened a few days after one of Will Ashon’s visits there, in 2015. I asked Penny why he thought there was an increased interest in Epping Forest. He said he thought it marked “a form of return, a return to enchantment”. And Strange Labyrinth captures that “enchantment” perfectly.
Aware that it was approaching the last hour of daylight we started to make our way back down Broom Hill and through Loughton Camp. The wonderful Dave Binns had mentioned in the Q&A at the Strange Labyrinth event how he had stumbled upon a set of low mounds and trenches outside the main boundary of Loughton Camp. Now with my son I thought that we had accidentally ambled into the same location – perhaps a secondary enclosure beyond the wooden palisade that would have topped the exterior of the Iron Age earthwork. We looked at it from various angles and checked our positioning on the Ordnance Survery app but it was inconclusive. Epping Forest, this ‘Strange Labyrinth’, still retains its mysteries. Perhaps that is part of the enchantment that keeps drawing us back.