Slipping through the membrane at Epping Forest

Epping Forest is one of the most famous the UK’s commons and a great deal of ink has been spilled about it. It slices through East London from Zones 3 to 6 between the Central line and the Lea Valley, stretching around fourteen miles from Wanstead Flats in the densely populated area around Forest Gate to the south, to Bell Common on the semi-rural outskirts of Epping. In places, it’s just a few hundred yards wide, in others it’s a couple of miles and it becomes gloriously easy to get lost. At over 8,000 acres, it’s by far London’s largest green space and been the subject of two memoirs in recent years, William Ashon’s Strange Labyrinths (2017) and Luke Turner’s Out of the Woods (2021) as well as appearing on the hit 1973 Genesis album Selling England by the Pound. It’s also been long favoured as a home and hideout for artists, deviants, the marginalised and criminals. 

Beech pollards, Epping Forest.

There is deep, rich history here – two massive hill forts, its use as a Norman hunting Forest (hence its name, which has nothing to do with trees) and then by Tudor royalty. Poet John Clare was locked up in an asylum here, and it’s believed The Krays disposed of bodies here. There are groves of ancient, writhing pollards and fungi so delectable its forbidden to pick it. In the late c.19th, Epping Forest marked a decisive turning point in the saving of common land for public amenity when for the first time an Act of Parliament, responding to a major protest movement which crossed class divides, was created to preserve a common beyond the Metropolitan area. It was swiftly followed by a slew of others – Tunbridge Wells in Kent, The Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, The Malverns in Worcestershire, Great Torridge in Devon and many more besides. Ironically, while its salvation was a huge boon and a victory for East Londoners, it also marked the end of the woodland commoning practices of grazing and coppicing which had been carried out for centuries. To be saved as a common, open to all, Epping Forest had paradoxically ceased to be a common as a place of subsistence and work. Curiously, the verges which one follows from Epping High Street to Bell Common, are a registered common – Land Including Epping Town Greens. 

Epping Town Greens, Epping.

There is a great deal to say about the place, and a great deal has already been said. There even seems little point talking autobiographically about Epping Forest because it turns out I’m far from the only person ever to wonder around it in despair, looking for a point to my stupid useless life and to leave elated and full of direction – only to return depressed a few short weeks later to start the cycle all over again. So I’m not going to dredge up that aspect of it one more time.

Epping Forest.

Rather, what interests me is how a common became so important to me as a common without me even knowing it was a common. What I mean is that the material traces of Epping Forest as common land made possible a distinct, intimate, personal and, importantly, uncultivated relationship. 

Epping Forest at Chingford.

Epping Forest has remained unenclosed throughout. There are no fences, no walls, no gates, no doors, no screen through which one passes. There is no portal, no divide between one’s everyday vernacular and the ancient forest. One simply crosses a road and steps off the pavement. One is not invited nor welcomed, and one is not directed nor has one’s experience curated. From the moment one enters Epping Forest, at any point, the decisions as to what to do next and where to go are entirely one’s own. 

Epping Forest.

One of the reasons that Epping Forest became so important to East Londoners was a rejection of the social engineering aspect to the parks created for them. Parks, it was believed, would make the rough sort more gentile, more mannered, more civilised, whereas East Londoners, especially those relatively recently arrived from the countryside, wanted opportunities to pursue their revels and debaucheries away from disapproving eyes. They wanted gambling. They wanted drink. They wanted bawdy music. They wanted sex. Interestingly, Epping Forest is still a favoured destination for the latter two. 

Higham’s Park, Epping Forest.

Most commons remain unenclosed – indeed that’s historically, politically and materially a defining feature. There are no fences around Tunbridge Wells Common and one can slip into it wherever the dense woodland will let you. When I was looking for the precise location of a key shot in the classic folk horror (ish) Penda’s Fen (1975), noticing that the field in which it took place was unenclosed led me to a common and correct identification. There is a sense of slipping inside an unenclosed common through a porous membrane, rather than entering through a hard barrier. A common is like a body, yielding and mysterious, whereas a park is like a machine, orderly and logical. And as such, it is a place for the imagination, a place for a reordering of things, and a place of risk. 

Epping Forest.

A few days after the UK’s record-breaking 2022 heatwave, when the mercury passed 40 for the first time, I walked the length of the Forest, getting off the Central line at Epping, and walking around fourteen miles to Leytonstone, also on the Central line. While I’d walked longish stretches – Leyton Flats up to Chingford, Chingford up to Epping – I’d never done the whole lot before, but then I’m a lot fitter at 49 than I ever was in my twenties. What the walk showed was the sheer diversity of the Forest, which I’d never appreciated before. One starts in suburban scrub and playing fields near to Epping, passes through vast miles of ancient beech wood, which slowly fades into woodland clearings and mixed woodland – oak, birch, hazel – and after the golf courses and playing fields of Chingford Plain, one is funnelled through a succession of tracks, ponds, scrub woodland, reservoirs, even traffic islands. 

Hollow Ponds, Epping Forest, Leyton,

And yet even crossing a bridge high above the North Circular, one feels the Forest to be continuous, as if the ten lanes of roar and stench were some chasm containing a raging torrent. Well – it is, isn’t it? The woodland feels largely left alone to get on with being a woodland – although of course that’s doubtless an illusion as there are certainly detailed and complex management strategies tucked away somewhere elusive beyond the reach of a quick Google search. 

North Circular, Epping Forest.

It’s only when one reaches the southern extremity of Leyton Flats that the illusion falters, for a wide cycle path and some spindly oaks take one through what is essentially an urban subway system under a modern roundabout where the A113, A1199, A12, A114 and A106 rage at one another. A gesture at continuity is made, but it’s contrived, half-hearted, and the fairly substantial and rather lovely Wanstead Flats is severed from the main body of the Forest. A completest would have continued on to Manor Park station, the end point of the Epping Forest Trail, but I was hot and a little unnerved by the grassland turned savannah yellow, the dying trees, and the drifts of green leaves which had found the heat all too much and simply fallen to the ground without bothering to return their life-giving chlorophyl to their parent tree. I grabbed an iced tea from Costa and jumped on the tube. 

Epping Forest at Leytonstone.

Until this year, Epping Forest had been an important but discrete part of my personal history, a closed chapter. It was a beloved landscape between 1997 and 2003, when my wife and I lived in Leyton, a fifteen-minute walk from Leyton Flats. It was framed by the depression and elation of those years, its truth-seeking and delusions, and people who have long since drifted away. My walk brought the Forest back into present, and though many of the features I found fascinating then remain so, their meanings have changed for the most part. Nevertheless, on the cusp of fifty, Epping Forest is still a place for me to dream, to find purpose, but more quietly and with more self-awareness, and with a great deal more sympathy for its history and how it came to be the place it is today.  

Loughton Camp, Epping Forest.

Published by andythatcher

Photographer - filmmaker - writer - researcher Environment - wellbeing - politics

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