The Forgotten Forest of London

Hainault Forest

It was deep into the heart of Hainault Forest that I realized why I am drawn into the woodlands during summertime – I mean the urge is particularly strong in the summer months. I went walking with my Dad over the corner of the South Chilterns near our home throughout my childhood but it was in the cool shade of the beech and oak, and I can’t recognize any other trees sadly but let’s take a punt on hornbeam, that I reflected that we only ever walked in the autumn and winter as my Dad was a dedicated cricketer and so weekends from April through till the end of September were spent playing cricket and I went along to watch until I was old enough to play for the men’s 3rd XI. So summertime woodlands are an exotic treat for me. Or at least that was the idea that occurred to me this Sunday afternoon.

Like Epping Forest, Hainault Forest is a remnant of the once mighty Forest of Essex. The 336 surviving acres representing just 10% of the forest of Hainault that was recorded at the time of Henry VIII. If Edward North Buxton hadn’t led a campaign that resulted in the purchase of the forest in 1901 then even this tiny portion would have been swallowed by the tidal wave of bricks that cascaded out of London.

Hainault Forest
I had walked across a corner of the parkland before – on a random excursion one morning when I strolled around the boating lake and over Dog Kennel Hill. Today I wanted to make my way towards Lambourne End in the District of Epping.

Hainault Forest
Sitting in the Two Brewers Pub in Chigwell Row at 8.15pm I spread out my OS map on a table in the car park and tried to work out where I’d actually been. Even by sticking to the well-marked forest trails I’d somehow significantly over-shot the boundaries of the forest. I’d assumed the beautiful meadow at the edge of the woodland was Three-Cornered Plain and took the scenic path that ran down one side past an abandoned mobility scooter. Eventually I reached a fenced in enclosure and realized my mistake. Still the views eastwards were majestic from the high ground and I made my way along the field edge path assuming I’d emerge in Lambourne End.

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You can imagine my surprise when I encountered the abandoned mobility scooter in the path – I still can’t work out how that was possible – the path even looked completely different. Was this the forest sprites at play? A lady walking her dog pointed me back in the right direction and I found my way to the beguiling named Camelot Car Park.
Hainault Forest
I wonder if one day I’ll fathom how to properly read an OS Map or will they always remain a pretty fold up picture to make my walks more interesting.

Walking the Central Line Loop – Leytonstone to Woodford via Hainault (and back)

Central Line Loop Tube Map

I’d toyed around for a while with the idea of walking the Central Line Loop that cleaves off after Leytonstone and skirts the Roding Valley through Redbridge. Initially I’d spoken to some fellow travelers about some kind of Redbridge modernist architecture walk before we realized that many of the buildings were either the Central Line stations or close by.

So on a cloudy day during the Easter School Holidays when I was looking for an excursion the idea re-presented itself and off I went. From previously taking random journeys to stations on the loop I’d noticed the different character to the areas along the line once you left Wanstead and headed through Redbridge – from there through to Hainault had a post-war feel, more working class than the old West Essex ambiences of Snaresbrook, South Woodford, Buckhurst Hill, Epping. The Central Line Loop feels like a displaced satellite of the East End as opposed to say Loughton or Theydon Bois which clearly have Essex in their DNA. But that’s just my projection, although Hainault was mostly built but the GLC after the war and Barkingside became home to a large section of London’s East End Jewish population – so there is some substance to this ‘vibe’ emanating from the redbrick.

When undertaking a set expedition with a designated beginning and end I nearly always leave home too late to complete the walk in daylight. This gave the walks in This Other London an added jeopardy as there was often a location that I needed light to see properly and document. And so it was again – although it only takes 26 minutes to travel round the Loop by Tube I estimated it was roughly 11 miles and with detours and time for photos etc could take me around 4 hours to walk.

Although I pass them every day the Hitchcock mosaics took on added significance when putting them into the context of this yomp – they are one of Leytonstone’s very few recognizable attractions, its almost solitary tribute to its famous son Alfred Hitchcock, but other than that you’ll find little else. I’ve made the point before that when I’ve told Americans about my home suburb’s claim to fame and how little is made of it they are astonished – were ‘Hitch’ from just about anywhere in the States they tell me, you wouldn’t be able to walk more than 5 yards without ducking under animatronic Birds, every second window would sport Psycho silhouettes and there’d by jowl-faced masks and Hitchcock director’s chairs in just about every shop in the high street. The mosaics are beautiful though as is the mural on the building near the Jet garage that replaced the building on the High Road where he grew up.

Wanstead Tube Station
At Wanstead I stop to admire not only the design of the station but have a gander at the crudely painted murals that I’ve never taken much notice of before – Make Art Not War one says.

The footbridge over the Eastern Avenue has great views of some of the terrain ahead, offering a vista across the Roding Valley, that river fast becoming my favourite of London’s watercourses (the submerged Fille Brook still has the edge but it’s neck and neck with the Lea).

Walking beside the A12 Eastern Avenue is brutal – a heavy metal assault upon body and soul, a full-frontal confrontation with autogeddon.

Gants Hill tube ventilation shaft
Sandwiched between the pollution caked houses at the roadside between Redbridge and Gants Hill I spot a tall red brick monolith radiating mystery. It’s just sat there between bow-windowed semis trying not to attract attention as if it must hide some secret project. I remark as much in the video I record. Just now I received a comment on the video on YouTube with a link to an excellent article on Ian Visits who researched the history of the building and another on Cambridge Avenue in Wanstead. During the Second World War this section of the Central Line was used as a secret munitions factory and the monolith was a goods lift and now functions as a ventilation shaft. Despite shedding its top secret status in 1945 it can’t leave behind the air of wartime secrecy like a spy who never came in from the cold.

Gants Hill station
By the time I reached Gants Hill the steady rain had hardened into hail stones that bounced off the paving slabs. Charles Holden’s tiled subterranean tunnels leading into and around the station beneath the roundabout provided shelter before I had to plough on in the storm. There is a strong similarity between the parades of shops at Gants Hill and the other Central Line station buried beneath a roundabout at Hanger Lane – its cousin out towards the western end of the Central Line – designed by a former employee of Holden’s studio.

I was wet and miserable by the time I took in the Ilford War Memorial Gardens and took shelter in another of the Loop’s architectural masterpieces – Newbury Park Bus Station which was honoured with a medal at the Festival of Britain in 1951. I pushed on regardless.

Aldborough Hatch
The bend of Oaks Lane was matched by a glorious rainbow rising behind Aldborough Hatch Farm, sunlight broke through the clouds. The A12 felt like a bad dream as I walked the country lane past barns and farm machinery – the walking gods rewarded my persistence through the rain and hail.

At Barkingside the Central Line hugs one side of Fairlop Waters Golf Course so I took the opportunity to stick with the green space. Bluebells nodding in the shade of the trees lining the fairway hiding stray golf balls.

Grange Hill
The sun was starting to set as I came out on Forest Road near Fairlop Station – it would be dark by the time I reached Chigwell if not before.

I turned off the road past Ilford Wanderers Rugby Club coming out near Hainault Station. It was then into a grid of peddle-dashed streets where it is always Sunday. I rested in a bus shelter opposite open fields in the last of the light near Grange Hill Station.

The footpath running along Chigwell Cemetery looked like a good prospect on the map – a twilit holloway, but after 20 yards I was ankle deep in mud. The path skirted a farm field with a solitary tree on the brow of the hill, the purple sky invoking memories of the ends of childhood walks with my Dad.

Chigwell Tube Station
I crossed the Central Line over a caged metal footbridge and into the Essex Golden Triangle bound for Chigwell and the last of the loop. That colourful moniker was foisted on the zone between Chigwell, Loughton and Buckhurst Hill in the 1980’s when the dominant cultural association was the popular sitcom Birds of Feather before TOWIE dragged the epicenter of Essex bling further East to Brentwood. The area worked its weirdness frying my navigational sense as I managed to turn back on myself and halfway to Hainault in the pitch black. It was a fortunate accident as I was presented with a spectacular view from a park on the edge of an estate looking Westwards across north London – the twinkling lights of the Lea Valley and beyond like the Los Angeles basin viewed from the Hollywood Hills.

The Chigwell mansions were inscrutable in the darkness save for the odd illuminated sweeping staircase. The station platform glowed sodium yellow from the bridge. It was apparent the walk was up. The route to Roding Valley wasn’t clear on the OS map – a truncated lane that could lead to an unmarked footpath but could equally become a dead end. The alternative was a huge detour by road that seemed to defeat the object of following the train line. One stop short (or two depending on whether you consider Woodford part of the Loop) seemed cruel, but sitting on the platform waiting 15 minutes for the next tube I thought of Bill Bryson quitting his 2000 mile Appalachian Trail thru-hike at the beginning of the last short leg in the 100-mile Wilderness. That blank portion of the OS map between Chigwell and Roding Valley was my 100-mile Wilderness.

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The next morning I realized I had to go back and complete the walk – it should only take an hour I figured. Instead of returning to Chigwell by tube I walked from Hainault where the train terminated. The transition from Hainault’s postwar ‘Homes for Heroes’ to Chigwell’s ‘City Boy Bling Villas’ was more noticeable in daylight. Pensioners having a chat with the council workers mowing the grass verge gave way to locked gates and warnings that private security were on patrol. The same company seemed to be protecting all the houses in Chigwell and I noticed one of their vans slide past me as I took a photo of their sign embedded in a hedge.

Luxborough Lane crossed the brutal M11 – the road that broke the heart of Leytonstone. To walk out of London is to cross a series of arterial roads and motorways – the North Circular, the M11, the M25. London is encased in this halo of pollution that we live within. To finally break through this asphalt collar into open country is a liberating experience.
The lane was a classic edgeland landscape – water treatment works, waste disposal, some run-down old cottages forgotten by time and then the river Roding with the Central Line passing overhead on a majestic brick viaduct. This pattern is repeated all around the outskirts of London – motorway/A-Road, scrubland, public utilities, water, train tracks.

River Roding
This point on the Roding has been the end and beginning of two previous walks along the river – my Huckleberry Finn riverbank. From here it’s across the Rugby pitch and up to Roding Valley Station – the station so slight and discrete it almost isn’t there. The last of the stations solely on the Central Line Loop – but not the end of the walk.

It’s a short distance to Woodford along a straight suburban street that would be nondescript if it weren’t for the fine views it afforded across the Roding Valley at every cross street and break between the houses.

It’s a sultry afternoon and I seemed to have been walking in the rain for the last couple of weeks so I decide to walk on home to Leytonstone turning the loop into a straight-sided ‘O’.

Although the character changes on this branch of the line it’s still marked with some modernist architectural gems – the Odeon Cinema at South Woodford and Hermitage Court near Snaresbrook. The tiling on the underpass beneath the North Circular Road not only matches that at Gants Hill but also out West at the Hanger Lane gyratory, some design features that knit the city together.

The old coaching inn – The Eagle is already filling up and a trickle of commuters are starting to dribble out of Snaresbrook Station. I pay homage to the High Stone marking the return to ‘Leyton-atte-Stone’ and slide back down through the passages beneath the Green Man Roundabout to a table at the Wetherspoons and a pint of pale ale from Leyton.

Strange things afoot on the Redbridge border

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Ill omens littered the roadside as I passed from Redbridge into Barking & Dagenham along this death road. A cement mixer parted my hair in the wrong direction. The wild East. The twin towers of Ilford shimmered in the distance across fields of newly sown wheat.

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The signs had been there when I’d staggered out of the woods on the muddy slopes of Dog Kennel Hill, my trainers caked in mud. Naturally, this was an unplanned excursion.

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Hop on the Central Line eastwards – have a wander round Hainault – a tube station marooned in swell of pebbledashed suburbia. The footpaths were numbered – a code.

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A gap in the hedge beyond Yellowpine Way offered an escape from this model of postwar suburbia, of the city spilling out into all available space. Down the muddy track, plastic bags hang in bare trees like Red Indian scalps.

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Pulled across a wide green field, lured by the offer of open spaces, flung out of the orbit of the city. I sat on a log at the end of the field and looked back at London – vast, diverse and unknowable.

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It must have been the euphoria of that moment that led me to trust the footpaths of Redbridge (my dalliance with Barking and Dagenham had been brief). London Transport bus stops isolated amongst fields are beguiling and uncanny, the chance to have a look at one should never be passed up. The view the other way was of a labyrinthine housing estate.

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I was away from the death roads – back amongst beauty (Billet Road had daffodils on the roadside rather than ill omens) – following Footpath No.86 straight to Arcadia.

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How easily we are deceived. But I am a stickler for sticking to the footpaths when out in the countryside – even on the Redbridge borders. The farmer looked to have a field of succulent greens at a tender stage of growth and I wasn’t about to trample all over them.

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I confess that this was the low point of the walk – thankfully the only one. After all if you get to experience the ancient forest of Hainault and walk along Whalebone Lane North and glimpse the Caesar’s Palace of the East at the City Pavilion, then there’s going to be the odd sticky moment.

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Somehow I found my way through a gap in a hedge after a precarious clamber over a deep muddy ditch. I tentatively sloped along the Hainault Road, my trust in the numerical code of the Redbridge footpaths dented but not entirely diminished.