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.

Unto the Fields (of Chigwell and Loughton)

Chigwell

Sometimes unplanned excursions are the most rewarding. After running an errand to Woodford Bridge I decided to take a short stroll along the road to Chigwell, when I spotted these signs on the metal fencing around a patch of woodland. Permissive access to a former landfill site was too good an invitation to turn down, so through the half-open gate I went …. into another world.

Chigwell walk

The woodland soon opened out into a network of footpaths weaving through tall wild grasses and meadows resplendent with flowers that I sadly can’t confidently name, but will speculate that these are wild foxglove.

Chigwell walk

A high point in the meadow opened out into a glorious view across the Roding Valley to the upper ground of Buckhurst Hill.

Chigwell walk

Footpaths branched off in all directions heading through thickets or up onto hillocks with not a soul around.

Chigwell walk

Through a bramble tunnel I came face to face with a young fox, who froze for a moment before darting off into the undergrowth with a high jump in the air.

I could hear the traffic whumping down the M11 as the path ran parallel for a while before bringing me to a garden gate in a wooden fence and out onto Luxborough Lane.

River Roding tube viaduct

The clear waters of the River Roding were incredibly enticing on such a hot day – I fantasized about floating away in the small abandoned boat beneath the Central Line viaduct.

Roding Valley Recreation Ground

My Australian wife says this looks like a Eucalyptus tree – stood on the parched earth of Roding Valley Recreation Ground it looked quite at home.

Roding Valley Recreation Ground

By this point I was feeling the heat and had nearly drank all of my water, so I sat down by the lake to absorb the coolness coming off the wide expanse of water.

Unto the Fields Gillingham

Making my way to Loughton Station along Roding Road, I spied a blue plaque on the far side on a semi-detached house. I dashed across the road to see who had been honoured in these Loughton backstreets and saw it was for D.W. Gillingham author of Unto the Fields. I immediately looked the book up on my phone, my eyes falling on the sentence, “a meticulous and exquisite record of the woodlands, streams and rivers of the Roding Valley”. I quickly found a 1953 edition on ebay and bought it stood in front of the house where Gillingham lived.

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

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.