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.

Riding a steam train on the Epping to Ongar Railway

Every Londoner at some point should take a trip on the Epping to Ongar Railway – think of it as a reward for all those times you’ve had to change at Bank during morning rush-hour or been booted off a bus at Agar Grove on a wet Tuesday night in order to “regulate the service”.

The volunteer run trains operate on the defunct section of the Central Line that continued east from Epping through North Weald to Ongar stopping along the way at the tiny Blake Hall Station )which had the distinction of being the quietest station on the Underground with just 6 passengers a day till it closed in 1981). Tube services between Epping and Ongar stopped in 1994 but a band of passionate Railway enthusiasts run trains on the old line regularly throughout the year.

Routemaster Epping Ongar Railway

I cajoled my youngest son into the trip with tales of the golden age of steam which relied heavily on references to the Harry Potter films. The adventure starts in fine style with a journey by Routemaster from Epping Station to North Weald where we boarded a train chuffing out steam. It was interesting to see how my son was more taken by the Routemaster than the train, making me realise that he’s grown up in a post-Routemaster world whereas once you’re sat down in the train carriage it’s only the sound of the hissing chugging engine that makes the train experience distinctive.

Ongar Station

Ongar Station

North Weald Station has been loving and beautifully restored to its 1940’s grandeur complete with vintage advertising and dark wooden ticket office. Ongar Station, built in 1865 and Grade II listed, dates from the time when this was the eastern outpost of the Great Eastern Railway before being transferred to London Underground in 1949, and has been returned to its original state.

Epping Ongar RailwayThere was something magical about watching the steam billowing out across the Essex fields and getting caught in clouds around the bare tree boughs making them look like candy-floss trees.  I think next time the trains are running I’ll walk the route to experience it from the fields.

More info about the Epping Ongar Railway can be found here

Eastern (London) mysteries

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Strange goings on out east of Leytonstone – in that mysterious hinterland around Epping Forest before you emerge into the bosom of Essex proper. Two bulletins from this eldritch zone appeared in my reading today.

First this:

“Maybe it’s time I cleared up some misconceptions and actually allowed some genuine facts about what I’ve done come to light,” Stefan Jaworzyn announces, from deep within his inner sanctum in Chingford, on the outskirts of East London”Wire magazine, Feb 2014

The ‘noise guitarist, improviser and extreme film connoisseur’ had apparently been holed up in Chingford for 17 years in ‘self-imposed solitude’. After ending a recent forest yomp myself in Chingford one Sunday evening it appears to be the perfect place to look inwardly – or even to further an appreciation of ‘video nasties’ and ‘transgressive art’  as Jaworzyn has done from what I can glean from the first two pages of Edwin Pouncey’s enlightening article.

Possibly more alarming though is this vision of the future prophesized in last week’s edition of 2000AD. These panels in Strontium Dog lept out at me.

2000adOngar

artwork – Carlos Ezquerra, script – John Wagner. 2000AD prog 1865

The future neo-Nazi Brotherhood planning a slaughter of mutants “south of Ongar”. Luckily Johnny Alpha successfully rumbles this genocidal scheme and hopefully in this week’s comic we’ll see the mutant army kick some future neo-Nazi butt in a battle Royale at Ongar.

Ongar was for a long while the eastern terminus of the Central Line till its station closed in 1994. According to wikipedia the Navy codenamed a top secret torpedo ‘Project Ongar’ as they thought it would be ‘the end of the line for torpedo development’. Let’s hope that at the end of the 22nd Century, Ongar is the end of the line for the nazi Brotherhood.