Epping Forest Wanderings (after E.N. Buxton)

I don’t need much of a push into Epping Forest, but on this occasion it was hearing the Epping Forest Rangers give a fascinating talk at the Forest Residents Association AGM. They handed out some magazines that listed great view points in the forest – so accompanied by my son we set off nominally for Fern Hill.

E.N. Buxton Epping Forest

I rarely stick to a set route in the forest – it seems to fly in the face of the idea of abandoning city life amongst the ancient boughs. I’m also a terrible map reader. I always take an OS map and my 1923 copy of E.N. Buxton’s Epping Forest but I rarely use them.

Willow Trail Epping Forest

We let the woodland spirits take over as we ascended the hill out of Loughton – and then let road safety guide us across the chaotic forest roads. Resting on a log somewhere in the vicinity of the Cuckoo Pits and Cuckoo Brook we decided to head for Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge and refreshments in the Travelodge next door.

Fern Hill will be for another day …. or another year.

The magic of the forest

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The impact of time spent in the forest doesn’t hit till I emerge from Leytonstone Tube Station – that’s when the quickening pace of people heading for the bus stop, the four-bags-wide shoppers, and coagulation of Sunday loafers smart-phone illuminated in the early evening dark comes as an uncomfortable JOLT.
I am back.

The other Sunday I wanted to walk the virus out of my heavy legs. The forest had been calling for a few days. I could have gone anywhere but a quick look at the OS map and a flick through Buxton’s Epping Forest narrowed it down to a route from Loughton to Theydon Bois. Buxton comes with me on all my forest schleps – the maps are good although the directions can be vague – this is what he has to say about the walk I followed:

“Follow the ridge of Baldwin’s Hill as far as Golding’s Hill ponds…. At Golding’s Hill cross the Loughton road and take the green road along the eastern boundary of the Forest. The views in all directions over the woodland make for a charming walk.”

That is a slightly truncated quote but the parts I’ve omitted simply offer alternative routes and indicate the road to Theydon Bois station at the end. However, in conjunction with an OS map I was able to follow Buxton’s walk, which can’t have changed much since he plotted it in the 1880’s.

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I ducked off the path leading up from Loughton, beneath low hanging boughs into the scrub and picked up a muddy track leading to a dried up streambed. I continued along the natural contours of the ground guided by intuition which usually serves me so poorly as I have the directional sense of a Lemming but this time it took me to Loughton Camp – a place that seems to exert a magnetic pull on me these days. Maybe I pine to live in the Iron Age. I walk the deep southern outer trench of the earthwork, up over the bank that would have originally supported high timber walls, and pace along the mounds and ridges of the interior then push north-east above a small stream that fed the camp.

Loughton Camp
I later discover that my journey echoes that of B.H. Cowper Esq. in the summer of 1872 when he appears to have been the first person to survey and document Loughton Camp as an ‘ancient earthwork’. He wrote in the Archaeological Journal:

“In the summer of 1872 I made an excursion to Epping Forest, and selected Loughton as my starting point. On reaching some elevated ground which overlooks a deep valley stretching from the north-west to the south-east, I came upon what appeared to me at once as part of an ancient earthwork. I found on examination that an external trench enclosed an internal ridge running parallel with it, and that these took the course of a segment of a circle.  At that season the trench, the ridge, and the interior space were not easy to investigate owing to the vegetation, but I saw that the trees were as old as others in the locality, and grew upon the earthworks just as they did everywhere else. This cursory survey of a portion was all that was then practicable, and the matter rested until on inquiry I found that no one seemed to know of any entrenchments thereabouts. Subsequently I mooted the matter in ‘Notes and Queries,’ but with no satisfactory result, inasmuch as it only led to references to Amesbury or Ambresbury Banks, a large and comparatively well-known earthwork of oblong form and early origin, in the Forest it is true, but over two miles to the north of this in the direction of Epping.”

I somehow stick to Buxton’s route and cross Goldings Hill bound for Theydon Bois. People recede – Furze Ground is deserted. Approaching the campsite at Debden Green loud music whirls through the beach and oak boughs. I follow The Ditches Ride and look out across Copley Plain.

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I’m not ready to descend to Theydon Bois and so cross Jack’s Hill and forward to Ambresbury Banks – the forest’s other recognized ancient camp. The trees around the earthwork loom like sentinels, imposing, powerful, like Tolkien’s giant walking trees the Ents, custodians of the forest and the oldest living things in Middle Earth. I wait for them to say something, or lift me up for a better view but they just stand there rustling their leaves in the autumn breeze.
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It’s thought that Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp were part of a chain of enclosures and hill forts that marked the boundary between the territories of the tribes of the Trinovante and Catuvellauni. Lately I’ve been deriving great comfort from coming out to these sites – I think it’s the sense of continuity in a time when London seems to be in a state of flux and great change. Maybe they easily facilitate an escape into an imaginary realm of the past, that, let’s be frank, would have been bloody harsh. I dwell for a bit remembering the time I came here with my son and he was having none of my attempts to play a game of Trinovante vs Catuvellauni as I rushed the banks with a stick-sword.

Ambresbury Banks

The walk finishes in golden sunshine past millionaire gangster-banker mansions on Piercing Hill. The leaves are turning, fruit fallen by the roadside. I wind up in the Bull by Theydon Bois tube.

Midsummer in Epping Forest

Walks sometimes lead themselves. I left home around 4.30pm on Saturday with no destination in mind. Stopping to grab a Percy Ingle pasty I felt drawn along Kirkdale Road then pushed past Tesco and beneath the Green Man Roundabout.

Leyton Stone

There are roads that seem to contain a mystery even though you know where they lead. They speak of other times and places and suck hard on your imagination. Hollybush Hill from the Leyton Stone has that quality for me so I followed its lead to South Woodford (passing Hermitage Court which will have its own blog post).

I nearly got sidetracked into a musical performance celebrating Magna Carta at the Church near the cinema at South Woodford but decided to stay true to the walk still not sure where to go. Then the forest called me – and that is where the video above begins.

Punk history of Epping Forest

A relatively simple act of collecting a punk rock record opened up an odyssey into a secret history of Epping Forest.

Gary of the Bermondsey Joyriders had a copy of their Noise and Revolution LP to give me on vinyl. It features the voice of legendary Beat poet and manager of the MC5, John Sinclair, narrating links between songs, giving an additional voice to the album’s theme of the destruction being wrought on the urban realm by rapacious property development.

I arranged to meet Gary at Loughton Station to do the hand-over, exchanging the 12inch vinyl for a dvd copy of the Joyriders gig on the rooftop of the old Foyles building I filmed for Drift Report. The theme of the gig – Save London (from destructive development) perfectly in sync with the Noise and Revolution record.

Ant Farm Studios

Gary Lammin at Ant Farm Studios

Instead of wandering along to a chain coffee shop on Loughton High Street Gary drove me to a café on the banks of the fishing pond at South End Farm in Epping Forest – chosen for more than its great bacon rolls and picturesque location. It was in one of the old farm buildings in the carpark that the legendary Detroit beat poet revolutionary John Sinclair recorded his narration for the album, that deep smokey drawl dropped into the mic in this nondescript corner of the London fringe.

Waltham Abbey Zodiac
From there Gary wanted to show me the curiously pagan Zodiac mosaics on the roof of Waltham Abbey. In the crypt I bought a map of the area as it was when built in the 11th Century.

Driving back through the forest to Buckhurst Hill Station Gary entertained me with more punk history of the area – of Malcolm Maclaren coming out to meet the Joyriders for a drink in Manor Park circa 1975.

The Noise and Revolution album (featuring John Sinclair) has opened up a whole new seam of Forest lore.

Leytonstone’s Lost Lido

In this meditation on the Hollow Ponds there are two mysteries left unresolved. Firstly the sign on the boathouse that reads, “Have You Seen the Hollow Pond Bear”. I assumed at the time that it was a reference to the area’s long heritage as a gay cruising spot but on reflection wonder if it might actually refer to a Grizzly. Over at the Welsh Harp Reservoir between Barnet and Brent an actual bear escaped from a menagerie there in 1871. So there is precedent for this kind of thing.

Whipps Cross Lido

Opening of Whipps Cross Lido in 1932 From the Waltham Forest Guardian – credit Vestry House Museum

Absent from the video is the Whipps Cross Lido created in 1905 and returned to the forest in 1983. Wikipedia mentions that it was known locally as “the Batho”. I had half a mind to find the footprint of the site but had spent so long filming the geese in slow-motion that I’d used up my time – the sojourn was over. But somewhere beneath the grass north of the Hollow Pond between Lea Bridge and Snaresbrook Roads there lurks the lost lagoon of Leytonstone.

 

Here’s an interesting article about the creation of the Hollow Ponds from the local paper

Forest to the Lea Valley – walking video diary and ‘psychogeographical sound sandwich’

Here’s a video of the walk I did last weekend from Leytonstone to Ponders End. I’ve collaged a soundtrack from some old records, field recordings I made on my phone and some music I quickly knocked up on my laptop using Garageband – it more accurately reflects what’s going on in my head as I walk. Bob and Roberta Smith talked of creating a ‘sound sandwich’ when I interviewed him at the Barbican during the Cultural Olympiad where he was performing with his Apathy Band, and he related the idea, using lots of overlapping records playing, to the psychogeographical walks I was undertaking – but in audio form – a ‘psychogeographical sound sandwich’.

Eric Simms BBC

Eric Simms

The first ‘found sound’ on the video is from a gem of a record in the BBC Wildlife Series featuring recordings of birdsong made by Eric Simms originally broadcast on the Radio 4 Countryside programme. It’s a selection of Spring choruses – ‘a busy rookery’ recorded in Sussex, 1960. In the sleeve notes Simms writes, “For me perhaps the quickest way to evoke memories of places is to listen to recordings that I have made of their background sounds”. For me when I walk the sounds of the present are mingled with sounds, voices and memories of other places.

There was a serendipitous moment when I grabbed a bit of a recording of ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses-In-Between’ performed by John Foreman when I just happened to skip to the lines:

Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
And Chingford to the Eastward could be seen
Wiv a ladder and some glasses
You could see to ‘Ackney Marshes
If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

Which is a fairly accurate description of the view from the footbridge over the North Circular between Walthamstow and Woodford, except the song was talking about the overcrowded East End of the 1890s, harking back to some rural idyll just beyond the rooftops. Is this what draws me out into the forest?

 

Read the blog post about this walk here

Walk from Leytonstone to Ponders End

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The urge was to walk without any particular destination and let my feet decide which way to go. They pulled me in a familiar direction – up Wallwood Road and past the Hindu temple to the Hollow Ponds. The merest drop of rain turns Leyton Flats into a bog and a crow paddled in a large pool of rainwater.

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Rooks decorated the bare boughs making rook sounds (is it a Corr or a Raww) gathering for their late afternoon parliament. I can only distinguish the rooks from the crows by remembering my Dad saying ‘A rook on its own is a crow’.

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A rust coloured rivulet trickled near the overflowing Birch Well leading to/from the Eagle Pond, this area is cross-stitched with a tapestry of nameless seasonal ditches and brooks.

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RS Lounge is looking rather sorry for itself these days – I black bin-liner was wrapped around its once glowing neon sign fluttering in the wind like a harbinger of doom. RS was built on the site of the Rising Sun pub which dated back to at least the 1850’s before the £2million refurb that transformed it into an Ibiza style luxury bar and dining thing.

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The thwack of tyres over the cattle grid scares the wildfowl from the pond. The footbridge crossing the North Circular offers one of my favourite views of London a north-western slice across the Lea Valley, tall chimneys spewing out fumes, the tower blocks in the distance set at angles I suppose to maximise sunlight. It’s an expansive, varied vista, industrial London, broad freeways, a carpet of housing, the river, reservoirs, the forest, green plains, hills on the horizon.

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I pick up a stick to help steady my progress through the ankle deep mud. I skit between the path and the undergrowth not so much walking to Woodford as sliding and skating, with my stick and greying beard I feel like Gandalf on Ice.


The Ching gurgles blissfully between steep river banks as it slips round the edge of the lake at Highams Park. Now I have my sights set on Chingford Green – a place that seems incongruous in modern London, like one of those out-of-place artifacts that defy the conventional understanding of human history. I leave the forest sludge and rest my trusty staff against a bench by the pavement and ascend Friday Hill once I’ve acquired a Double Decker from the petrol station to fuel my climb.

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Friday Hill House has the forlorn look of a place that was once loved but now abandoned and unwanted. Built in 1839 by Lewis Vulliamy for the Boothby-Heathcote family, they eventually sold it to the London County Council who constructed the Friday Hill Estate in the grounds and the house became a Community Centre and later an adult education college. Its fate now remains unclear.

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The Chingford United Services Club though appears to be thriving and the Seafood stall in the carpark had a short line of customers eager for cockles, winkles and crab. After admiring the ‘Second Empire’ architecture of The Bull and Crown coaching inn (now a branch of Prezzo) I retire to Sams ‘quality fish and chips restaurant’ – notice the ‘chips’ in plural.

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It’s not been the brightest of days and now 30mins before sunset it’s positively gloomy. I’m drawn along the path beside the parish church to the crest of Kings Head Hill and a close-up of the view I’d taken in earlier from the bridge across the North Circ. I keep plodding on, my destination reached but my feet aren’t ready to quit just yet.

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Halfway down the hill past Sunnyside Lodge and opposite a fine cottage-style electricity substation there is a brass plaque set in the pavement commemorating the 1986 Year of Peace. An odd place to celebrate an international event unless of course Chingford has a hidden link to the Baha’i Faith that seems to have instigated the event. Is the substation a temple pumping out peace around the world? Nothing would surprise me about Chingford.

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Looking across the Lea Valley at sunset this corner of North East London always makes me think of America – open spaces, wide roads, car lots, Wim Wenders directing Paris Texas, David Lynch weirdness, possibility. The sodium lights of the industrial Lea Delta after a muted sunset. Pylons, sheep grazing on the grassy banks of the reservoir. A Harvester pub and restaurant which I would love to enter but my boots are caked in London Clay which has also splattered up my legs to my knees.

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Now I am bound for Ponders End in the dark. The tower blocks of the Alma Estate (Kestrel, Cormorant, Merlin and Curlew House) guide me in by the few lights still shining, with the estate slated for a £150 million regeneration scheme I guess they must have started to move tenants out.

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A Roundabout of Death tricks me to walking along the hard shoulder before doubling back to find my way to the Station – cars zipping past at speed heading for the desert, for Vegas, or more likely Waltham Abbey and Cheshunt. My feet led me well on this walk – I should trust them more often.