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.

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.

Neolithic Trackway through Epping Forest – walk to Cheshunt

The cold biting down on the winter dark towpath out of Waltham Abbey to Cheshunt, turned out to be the perfect ending to this walk back at the end of November. It seemed a folly to eschew the cafe warmth of Sun Street to head out along the road to Waltham Cross as the sun was setting at 4.15pm. A mile-and-a-half up the Lea Navigation to Cheshunt seemed reasonable, and I needed a little more to tag onto the schlepp from Theydon Bois. A fella slugged beer from a green bottle on the deck of his barge. A single white bike headlamp zig-zagged in the distance til it fizzed past me. An illuminated barge looked impossibly cosy, like a floating Hobbit Hole. The red lights flashed at the Cheshunt level crossing where I started my Ermine Street walk in the snow in February. I like this stretch of the towpath and was a little sad to give it up – but it was time to go home.

Epping Forest

The aim had been to cover a small pocket of Epping Forest I’d somehow bypassed on previous Forest wanders – north-west of Theydon Bois, beyond Amesbury Banks – around Crown Hill and Warren Wood. Crossing Epping Road I discovered that the asphalt path I was walking along followed the course of a raised Neolithic trackway that ran across boggy ground that had recently been carbon dated.

Potkiln wood path

Potkiln Wood path

I picked up a narrow overgrown path beside Crown Hill Farm, crossed the M25 and waded through deep muddy ruts along the edge of Potkiln Wood towards the outskirts of Waltham Abbey. Open countryside gave way to scrubby fields abutting 80’s housing estates navigated via reluctant footpaths. Mangy horses chewed grass down to the roots. The sun set perfectly over the Abbey, casting it ablaze in a heavenly endorsement of the 11th Century vision that led to the establishment of the Abbey by Tovi the Proud. Popping inside the Abbey just before closing, a CD of choral music and a 2018 Diary were pressed into my hands by a member of staff for the exchange of a few pence. And then it was out to that dark winter towpath.

Cobbins Brook

Cobbins Brook, Waltham Abbey