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

Pole Hill, Yardley Hill, Gilwell Park, Barn Hill to Enfield

With London wrapped in tragedy I needed to get to high ground, it’s a primal urge, safety, perspective. I remembered the walk of 3 years ago, I now realise on the same date – 18th June – an accidental derive over hills and down to Sewardstone for sunset. This time it was deliberate.

The walk down from Woodford was the pre-amble, a loosening that threw in an unexplored corner of the forest near the Warren Pond. Then along Chingford High Street, clocks forever set 30 years behind the rest of London it seems. No chips from Sam’s this time – straight up the side of the Kings Head to the top of Pole Hill – a marker of time, the centre of the world.

Path to Pole Hill Chingford

Path to Pole Hill Chingford

The fields sloping down the spine of Pole Hill were as beautiful in the evening light as I remembered them. A couple had pitched a tent beneath the trees and were sat eating dinner. The views from the top of Yardley Hill were stunning and difficult to wrench away from. The City skyline dwarfed by foregroud trees of Hawk Wood, the enclosure in the forest of pre-Roman times. I could imagine the great Forest of Kent stretching from the south shore of the Thames down to the sea.

Along Sewardstone Green, somehow deep with mud then up and over the final hill with fingers of god breaking out through sagging clouds onto Brimsdown.

footpath to Barn Hill Sewardstone

footpath to Barn Hill Sewardstone

Crossing the Lea Valley at Sewardstone I bisect the walk just before the winter solstice, setting out in pre-dawn from Leytonstone to Hertford, at this point stalked by horses. I give a nod to my winter self and push on along the sunset river banks for Enfield.

 

Knighton Wood Buckhurst Hill

You never know where your feet will carry you – in this case aided by a W13 bus and riding it to the end at Woodford Wells. Passing The Horse and Well, an 18th Century coaching inn established 1730, I dipped down into Knighton Wood, once part of the grounds of the grand house belonging to Edward North Buxton (1860-1924), author the classic Epping Forest guide book that I take on all my forest walks. Buxton had lived for a period of time at Leytonstone House (along with various other members of the Buxton family). He spent much of his life campaigning to preserve Epping Forest at a time when it was threatened with development using his considerable influence through his family (who were also part of the Truman, Hanley, Buxton Brewing empire and Barclays Bank) and as MP for Walthamstow.

Lord's Bushes Knighton Wood

I can find no mention of Knighton Wood in Buxton’s Epping Forest, published in 1885, but he does mention Lord’s Bushes which forms part of this glorious area of woodland, “conspicuous for its picturesque oaks and beeches, and dense undergrowth of hollies …. an hour may be well spent in exploring its beautiful glades.”

I spent more than an hour exploring its ‘beautiful glades’, now enhanced by some of the surviving landscaping of Buxton’s home at Knighton House with resplendent rhododendrons in full bloom. There are also the ornamental lakes, wilder, more untamed than the ponds in Wanstead Park. I had pleasant chats with the dog walkers and at one point stood inside a hollowed out tree staring up at the sky the ambient sound being processed through mould, bark, and insect colonies to create an organic mix. I would love to mic that tree up, a giant arboreal ear. For a moment I had stepped out of the day-to-day urban life and was backpacking once more, the musty woody aroma, the embrace of the forest transporting me back to jungle trekking in Thailand, Sumatra, Sarawak. Such is the magic and enchantment of trees.

Along the Loughton Brook through Kate’s Cellar – Epping Forest

Loughton Brook

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.

Loughton Brook Epping Forest

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.

 

a prospect of loughton brook

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.

 

Debden Slade Epping Forest

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.

Debden's Slade Epping Forest

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.

Kate's Cellar Epping Forest

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.

Lippitt’s Hill, Fernhills, Hangman’s Hill and Jacob Epstein at Loughton

The Friday after the Westminster Terrorist attack and flags are flying at half-mast over the public buildings at Woodford. I head down over the golf course to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge and pop into The View Visitor Centre where I buy a postcard of a painting by Jacob Epstein. The lady at the counter tells me that she thinks that it shows ‘The Lost Pond’ (the painting is untitled) – Epstein lived at Baldwin’s Hill, Loughton and often painted the forest. She has matched the image on her morning dog walks along the Loughton Brook. She shows me roughly where the Lost Pond is on the map covering the floor although it isn’t marked. ‘I’ll try and head back that way later’, I tell her, although I’m bound in the opposite direction – out through Bury Wood towards Fernhills.

Before I’d found myself lost in the forest in the dark the previous weekend I’d been tempted to follow the Cuckoo Brook north. Checking the map in the pub afterwards I saw how it would have led me to an area just outside the forest I’d never visited so today that was where I headed.

Epping Forest view

The views from Fernhills were as fine as I’d hoped for – stretching out over Waltham Abbey and to the Epping Uplands. The footpaths of the Greenwich Meridian Trail towards Mott Street also offered majestic views of the Lea Valley and led me to witness the curious anomaly of Hangman’s Hill. A mini reversed towards me from Pynest Green Lane and the young driver wound down the window, ‘Do you the story about this area?’, she asked. ‘No, but I bet you do’, I replied. ‘Apparently if you release your breaks your car is pulled uphill’, she told me, ‘this was a place where people were hung and they were dragged up here to the gallows’. She then released the handbrake and the car appeared to slowly roll back up the hill. As we stood there a couple of lads pulled alongside in their car and the same thing happened.

As I walked off I saw them both repeatedly returning to the same spot and surrender their vehicles to paranormal forces not wanting to mention that on foot you could see that there was a slight camber in the road that actually sloped away downhill.

Turning back across High Beach I decided to find the location of Jacob Epstein’s painting but had forgotten the directions the lady had given me to the ‘Lost Pond’. Arriving at Baldwin’s Hill Pond I matched it to the postcard and found a good enough likeness to declare in the video above that this was spot Epstein had painted. Subsequently it has been pointed out that the ‘Lost Pond’ is elsewhere, near the Loughton Brook. The hunt for the location of Epstein’s painting goes on.

Woodbury Hollow Loughton

Emerging from the forest I was greeted by the expansive views right across London from Woodbury Hollow, apparently reaching as far as Crystal Palace and Croydon.

 

On 2nd May I’ll be in conversation with Will Ashon at the Wanstead Tap about his new book Strange Labyrinth – Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London’s Great Forest

Lost in Epping Forest in the Dark

“The spirit of devotion for the woods, which breathes through the simple expression of the poet [John Clare], is akin to “that hereditary spell of forests”, which Robert Louis Stevenson describes as acting “on the mind of man who still remembers and salutes the ancient refuge of his race.”

From the opening pages of London’s Forest by P.J.S Perceval published in 1909 which follows on from a quote by John Clare. He continues:

“Such a refuge once was London. Indeed she makes her first claim on history as a mere stockade in the woods – the Llyndin of the ancient Britons. Her wood and fen and heath, with the sweet country which once surrounded her, have disappeared, while a part only of the Essex Forest remains to recall the once great forest of the East Saxon Kingdom, which once had Lundentune for its port and ecclesiastical centre.”

To me Epping Forest is still a place of refuge, a haven from the pressures of urban life, a step through time. I headed out on Saturday, departing the tube at Woodford, then turning down Whitehall Lane by Bancroft’s School. Perceval writes how Bancroft’s was once the site of a poor-house. Its annual fees of £16,323 are more in the tradition of the mansion belonging to the Earl of Essex that had previously occupied the same land. The Earl wanting to be close to his supposed love Queen Elizabeth I when she used the hunting lodge on Chingford Plain.

Warren Pond Epping Forest

My wander took me past the Warren Pond and Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge. I reflected that this is often where my forest walks end, in the bar of the Premier Inn next door but today I wanted to walk on into sunset. I crossed Chingford Plain and took a path beside the road for a short distance before turning into the rump of the trees past bushcraft shelters dotted amongst the undergrowth.

bushcraft shelter epping forest

The light started to give out as I crossed the Cuckoo Brook so I consulted my map to pick a route towards an exit and a way home. I decided to walk East towards Loughton, a simple case of staying on the path I was on till I hit the road by The Warren.

I got caught up in the reverie of being alone in the woods while people bustled around going home from the shops, pubs filled up, and streets were abuzz with activity. Then I came upon a narrow lane in the darkness and looked for the way across to head down towards Loughton but the far side was blocked by hedgerows and fences. I followed the lane what I thought was south till finally becoming slightly concerned that I was going in the wrong direction. My map reading isn’t the best but surely I couldn’t have gone wrong on a straight path. I checked my compass then the map on my phone – both indicated that I was heading north towards High Beach, placing me between Springfield Farm and the Field Study Centre. Impossible I thought, how could that be?

Epping Forest Chingford Map

I decided to follow my nose and turned away from the road back into the now pitch black forest and walked for 15 minutes or so using instinct, enjoying the quiet of the night trees. Something splashed in a pool beside the path then was gone into the undergrowth. A pair of green eyes looked out at me from a clump of holly. I started to feel like an intruder – the animals that avoid human contact during daylight could reasonably expect to have the forest to themselves at night but here I was clomping along the gravel path disturbing their nocturnal activities. I stood still for a moment hoping to sense some wildlife moving around in the trees – but there was just silence. Beautiful silence.

I checked my phone once more and it indicated that I was heading North East. I put this down to lack of GPS coverage in the forest and returned to my cheap old-school compass. It too told me that I was walking in a northeastern direction. I decided to head South for Chingford, and hopefully pick up paths familiar enough to be recognised in the dark. My concern now wasn’t spending a few hours walking in circles in the forest at night (actually very pleasant) but finding myself having to make my way along dark country roads to a station at the mercy of speeding cars not anticipating a stray walker.

I still couldn’t make out any familiar features in the gloom but simply kept following the compass needle south enjoying the quiet of the evening. It made me think it would be nice to spend an entire night wandering the forest if you could manage to avoid the doggers, cottagers, and deep ditches (if people stuck to having woodland sex in the ditches that would help to avoid all hazards in one go).

Soon I recognised the section of path leading down from the Long Hills towards Magpie Hill and Connaught Water. The sign for the Cuckoo Trail marked the route that I assumed I’d taken an hour previously, highlighting just how far off trail I’d been. The trees parted and the sky opened up over Chingford Plain.

Settled with a pint of IPA and packet of Prawn Cocktail crisps in the Premier Inn next to the Hunting Lodge I studied my OS Map trying to work out how I’d managed to get my location so wrong. It boiled down to one simple error – that when I’d crossed the Cuckoo Brook and checked my map in the poor light I’d assumed I was on a different path – one that ran east – west, when in fact I was beyond Woodman’s Glade heading north through Bury Wood across Ludgate Plain towards Lippitts Hill. The loudness of the helicopters from the Police heliport should have been a clue.

But it proved once again, that even what starts out as a simple walk in the woods can turn into a minor adventure as long as you manage to get lost.