An oak leaf flutters to the forest floor. There is a faint rustle of leaf mulch as the icy breeze picks its way between beech and hornbeam. The forest is sweet and cool, so I stretch the rattle and thud of the Underground out of my bones and draw the air deep into my lungs. A grey squirrel scurries across the track. It seems hard to imagine that less than half an hour before I was passing through Stratford. In minutes I’ve swapped towering cranes for majestic oaks and rumbling cement mixers for the cornflake scrunch of the forest. I sniff. The familiar Underground scent of brake-dust, sweat and morning breath has given way to wood-smoke and a damp, peaty tang. There are no graffiti tags sprayed on bridges and lockups in silver and pink. Instead I find heart-shapes, dates and initials carved into tree trunks, bloated and obscured by years of growth. They are snapshots in time for young lovers. Peter loves Sally ’97….. Terry 4 Heather ’84. But does Peter still love Sally?
You don’t need a car to enjoy Epping Forest. The Central line runs along the eastern fringes all the way to Epping. I opt for Theydon Bois because I can go on a four-mile ramble through forest and Common and pick up the Tube again in Epping. Theydon Bois – pronounced ‘Boys’ or ‘Boyce’ by locals – has a couple of pubs and a great village bakery. I stop for a sausage roll and scoff it as I cross the road onto the huge village green. A black Corporation of London sign means I’m already on the edge of the forest. This comes as a genuine surprise – so close to London I’d expected a gentle phasing-out of the urban landscape to block-paving and gravel, perhaps. But here, after a few hundred yards striding along Coppice Row, I pass St Mary the Virgin’s Church and duck into the trees. The path is deep with fallen leaves. The black, peaty ground is rutted by walkers’ boots and mountain bike tyres.
I lean into the slope of Jack’s Hill, named after Jack Rann, a notorious highwayman who graced the Old Bailey with sixteen coloured ribbons streaming from the knees of his breeches. Epping Forest has long been associated with the criminal underworld. The most famous highwayman of them all, Dick Turpin, was rumoured to have a hideaway here. Turpin graduated from deer stealing to robbery as a member of the Gregory Gang. And there are always those whispers of bodies buried deep within the forest. It’s a thought that causes me to glance over my shoulder. Although it’s only a little past midday the giant, gnarled oaks and hornbeams are beginning to enclose the path so it already feels like twilight. It’s eerily quiet, save for the flap of a wood pigeon or scramble of a squirrel. Fallen logs, sodden with damp, have been overrun by a lush, velvet carpet of moss. Fungi grow from tree trunks like Frisbees. There are holly bushes with scarlet berries. Fallen leaves cover the valley in all the beautiful shades of autumn: bronze, copper, russet, custard, rust and tobacco. The ground falls away to a thick wood of silver-birch trees rising from the earth like a thousand spear-shafts. In a clearing birch logs have been felled and stacked. I have been walking for an hour and I haven’t seen a soul.
The track drops into a boggy dip. Away to my left, through a cluster of coppiced oaks are the Iron Age earthworks of Amresbury Banks. Deep trenches were dug from the earth with animal bones in 500BC and still remain, despite the ravages of horses and mountain bikers. They could have been dug to create animal pens, or they may have been an ancient boundary between the Trinovantes and Catevellauni tribes. It feels very cold in this part of the forest. The trees have gaping hollows for eyes, vegetable noses and grossly misshapen ears. They are grotesque, like specimens in a Victorian surgeon’s jars. I shiver and my breath rises in white plumes. The trees appear coal-black and slate-grey in the fading light. They are slick with damp. One giant, disfigured oak has the look of a death mask. I press on, casting an anxious glance back. I’ve paused for too long and cold sweat runs along my spine. I’m relieved when the track rises onto harder ground. Wood-smoke drifts into the clearing ahead. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, drawing in the pleasant memories of childhood bonfires. A few yards further on the tree cover gives way to common ground and the rumble of cars and trucks. A wellington boot has been left, upturned on a bollard. A note on a board warns people it is an offence to pick fungi in the forest. I cross towards Bell Common and, for the first time, get a sense of Epping Forest’s elevated position as the land falls away sharply beyond Ivy Chimney Road towards the distant snaking traffic of the M25.
The Forest Gate Inn is busy and enjoys a wealthy clientele, judging by the Mercedes and BMWs crammed into the lane. It has paperback books stacked in the window giving it an appealing, slightly dishevelled appearance despite the obvious wealth. Bell Common is boggy and muddier than Epping Forest, but thanks to a group of determined protesters it is still Bell Common and not the diesel-choked lanes of the M25 which lie in tunnels far beneath. It seems entirely appropriate that this corner of Epping Forest should have been saved by burying the road within its own soil. There are plenty of secrets, sinister and charming, resting within the shadow of Epping Forest’s oaks and hornbeams. Discovering just a few of them, within half an hour of the City, was a pleasure and I will return.