Will Ashon, author of Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and A Coward in London's Great Forest, takes us on an alternative tour of Epping Forest. Grab your walking boots and get stuck in.
Wedged between east London and Essex, Epping Forest is usually viewed as nothing more than a wasteland for walking dogs — or for dogging. If people know anything about its cultural history, it’s usually limited to the Elizabethan hunting lodge with a nice café next door to it.
While I would be the last person to dismiss a nice café as a reason for getting your wellies on, in the process of researching my book, Strange Labyrinth, I discovered a more nuanced landscape, a place in which dissenters, radicals and outlaws have come to hide since at least the start of the seventeenth century, a haven for bad behaviour as well as new ideas. And yes, a lot of doggers.
From its start in Forest Gate up to the town of Epping itself, the Forest is spread out over sixteen or so miles, so taking in all these sights in one day might prove a bit taxing. Instead, I’ve split the walk into two so that you can make a weekend of it. Day one runs from Wanstead to Chingford — the home of such delightful, generous and free-spirited MPs as Norman Tebbit and Iain Duncan-Smith. You can then camp at Debden Campsite — where the bonfires burn long into the night and you are never too far from an off-licence — before looping from Loughton in a horseshoe north and then back south to Chingford again. If you don’t fancy the campsite, I’m sure there must be a chichi boutique hotel somewhere. I just can’t think of it.
1. Wanstead House
There is no Wanstead House, that’s the point. There’s a lodge or two but no manor. In 1812, Catherine Tylney-Long, whose family owned the house, married William Wellesley-Pole, the brother of the Duke of Wellington. While Wellington himself was busy fighting the French in Spain, his younger sibling had more pressing matters to attend to — mainly pissing up the wall whatever money came into his possession.
He is, indeed, responsible for one of my favourite quotes in Strange Labyrinth. An obituary for Wellesley-Pole ran in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1857, which stated that, having been ‘a spendthrift, a profligate, and a gambler in his youth, he became a debauchee in his manhood.’ That’s what I call career progression. Once he’d married Catherine and got hold of her fortunes and property, he sold it all and spent every penny. The story is (though there’s some dispute as to its historical truth) that Wanstead House eventually had to be demolished and sold as masonry to recover some of his debts.
2. Claremont Road
Is it in Epping Forest? Well, not really, but I don’t think we should let a little detail like that derail us. After all, this end of Epping Forest is made up of a succession of occasionally scrappy bits of woodland and plains, crosscut with roads galore, so it probably doesn’t do to be too picky. Claremont Road — or at least what’s left of it — is the site of one of the biggest roads protests in British history. The fact that the road now stops very suddenly at a wall, beyond which is the A12 dual carriageway perhaps tells us something about its eventual success. But the protestors here held the road builders at bay for the best part of a year, as well as pioneering a form of protest which would lead to the Reclaim the Streets movement and, beyond that, to Occupy.
They also had a huge amount of fun, which is surely how we would all want politics to be? A genuinely popular uprising that took in many local residents as well as hardened eco-activists, there should be a campaign to erect a statue by that wall of the 92 year old Dolly Watson, a lifelong Claremont Road resident who made common cause with the protestors. As for the road, this brave new world of transportation? Walk back to the Cathall Road bridge just north of here and you’ll often find the traffic below has ground to a halt.
3. The Green Man
First drink stop of the day (it must almost be lunchtime, right?) is at this legendary forest boozer, previously known as The Green Man. Philosopher John Locke passed through here and was told of bandits and thugs lying in wait ahead, ‘and our ladys hearts went pitapat.’ The landlord in the early 18th Century, Richard Bayes, was an associate of Dick Turpin (more of whom later) and went on to write the definitive account of the highwayman’s eventual capture and hanging. Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe stopped in for a drink once when he was researching his novel, A Journal of the Plague Year. Alfred Hitchcock’s family used to call through for a loosener after Sunday mass.
These days though, it’s an O’Neill’s chain pub. What can I tell you? It’s an ugly building near to a massive roundabout. If you’re there before midday you can get a very large breakfast for a very reasonable amount of money. It’s not really Irish.
4. The Gypsy Stone
Ostensibly a memorial to Gipsy Rodney Smith, an evangelist preacher born on this very spot, the Stone functions in our walk as a memorial to the traditional Gypsy way of life. Social changes in the late 19th century placed great pressure on the Gypsy community, the Enclosure of common land limiting their stopping places while legislation in Parliament sought to educate their children out of the lifestyle.
Rodney Smith’s relative, George ‘Lazzy’ Smith — who took his Gypsy encampment to the Liverpool International Exhibition and charged visitors entry to it— claimed Epping Forest as a Gypsy ‘Mecca.’ Unfortunately, the Act of Parliament in 1878 which saved Epping Forest from Enclosure and preserved it for the nation also barred Gypsies from camping there. The Stone’s history took a much darker turn in 1991, when two young girls claimed to have been raped on this spot by their parents and a descendent of Rodney Smith as part of Satanic rites, rites which they claimed including the killing and eating of babies. The case went to court but was thrown out after five days for lack of evidence.
5. Pole Hill
A bit of a schlep to get here from the Gypsy Stone, but hopefully your O’Neill’s breakfast and pints of Guinness will have sustained you. Although you should never go into a wood expecting or looking for a view, Pole Hill bucks the trend by offering you a cracker of one. Its name comes from the fact that a marker was placed here so that the telescope at the Greenwich Observatory could be aligned with true north. It’s a beautiful, rather soft-focus London vista, particularly pretty in the dark.
The land was given to the nation by none other than T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. He bought it after his college friend, Vyvyan Richards, built a hut here, in which the pair intended to live and house a printing press. Although it’s generally believed that Lawrence never had any sexual contact with anyone (other than an appetite for the odd whipping), Richards was in love with him and hoped they might live together as a couple. That never happened, Lawrence eventually dying after a motorcycle crash in Devon (coincidentally, Sir Hugh Cairns, the man who tried to save his life and who then campaigned for the introduction of motorcycle helmets, lived in nearby Loughton at the time). When the land was handed over, the hut was removed, dragged off to…
6. The Warren
This rather grand house is the administrative centre for the Corporation of the City of London, which has been running Epping Forest since that Act of Parliament in 1878. There’s something ironic about the saviours of the Forest being the local authority for London’s financial sector, as it means that the Act merely transferred power from the landowners to the bankers. The Warren was once a posh hotel called the Reindeer Inn, specialising in rabbit pie (hence its current name).
Somewhere out the back, behind some petrol pumps, is the Lawrence Hut, Vyvyan Richards’s beautiful shed whose proper name is Cloisters. Unfortunately you need special permission to view it, so you’ll just have to peer at the large white house and the obelisk down on the lawn — it was reputedly bought from the sale of bits and pieces when Wanstead House was knocked down.
This is where you’re having your dinner, though you may need to get a cab as it’s out by Chigwell, on the eastern side of the M11. Also, you may need to book in as a private party, as the restaurant seems to have closed down in favour of events (I’m not sure what the smallest number they count as a private party, but I think it might be more than two). The reason to round up your friends and family is that this is an absolutely legendary Essex spot. Until it burnt down in 2008, this was the location of Woolston Hall, bought in the 1970s by Bobby Moore and Sean Connery and run as an exclusive, members-only establishment, The Epping Forest Country Club.
Having been taken over by new owners in the 1980s — it turned out that, despite Moore and Connery, there weren’t enough exclusive members available — the site (still known as the Epping Forest Country Club) was opened to the public as three nightclubs, The Jungle (later renamed Atlantis), The Casino Club and The Country Club. The first became one of the main outlets for jungle music in the 1990s, and various people have even claimed the style which morphed into drum & bass was invented here. It seems more likely that a bloody-minded literalism may have brought the venue and the music together. All three clubs were eventually closed after a number of brawls and shootings, though these seem to have had more to do with Essex gangland problems than the inner-city menace commonly projected on to the Jungle scene at the time.
8. Turpin's Cave
Bit of a wild goose chase, this one. Renowned highwayman and Essex boy, Dick Turpin was, in reality, little more than a mugger. He had already tried his hand at butchering and selling stolen meat, smuggling and poaching. The crew he was part of, the imaginatively-named Essex Gang, took to breaking into houses and shops and robbing the people inside (the similarly-monikered Essex Boys were fingered by the tabloids for much of the trouble at the Epping Forest Country Club a few hundred years later).
Most of the gang was caught, so Turpin turned to highway robbery, which needed less manpower. Eventually, he and his new associate, Tom King, decided to build a hideout in Epping Forest: ‘In this Cave they liv’d, eat, drank and lay; Turpin’s Wife supplied them with victuals, and frequently stay’d there all Night’ (that quote’s from Richard Bayes, the landlord of the Green Man). The only problem is, even though Turpin eventually shot a man outside the Cave, no one seems to know where it is. The earliest accounts place it near to Loughton Camp, an Iron Age hillfort up above the town. Skirt round the fort’s southwestern flank, try to the north of the Camp. Take a moment to admire the Camp, because you are not, ever, finding Turpin’s Cave.
9. Ken Campbell’s Chalet
Heading north and east a little, come back out of the Forest to take a look at Baldwin’s Hill. Kind of a shrugged shoulder to Loughton’s ingenuousness, Baldwin’s Hill is where Essex bohemians have tended to gather. The sculptor Jacob Epstein, for instance, had a house here for the best part of thirty years. Today we’re concentrating on Ken Campbell, though, who lived the last years of his life in the chalet a few doors down – a building reputedly dragged all the way from Switzerland.
You might know Campbell from long running sitcom In Sickness and In Health, in which he played Alf Garnett’s neighbour, or his cameo appearance in Fawlty Towers. Equally, it’s possible you remember the popular science series he fronted for Channel 4 in the late nineties. Alternatively, maybe you saw him in a film by Derek Jarman or Peter Greenaway. Ken is one of the guiding spirits of Strange Labyrinth, a very funny and very radical man. If you know nothing else about him, I suggest you begin by watching him discussing a “DIY Séance” inside this very chalet:
10. A path near Theydon Bois Golf Club
Who knows which path? That’s where the body of Wally Geoff Moonlight was discovered, ‘on his back with his left hand tied to a tree, a joint (unlit) in his right hand, and a bottle of wine (half full) next to his elbow.’ (International Times) in 1974. Moonlight’s death was never explained, the local police claiming he may have committed suicide, his family denying this and his friends suggesting something more sinister going on. He was, after all, a friend and associate of Wally Hope, leader of the ‘Wally’ collective, the man who founded the Stonehenge Free Festival.
Penny Rimbaud, who would go on to form the anarcho-punk band Crass (and who still lives just east of the northern tip of the forest at Dial House), would later claim that Wally was assassinated by the state. Like Moonlight, his demise was attributed to drug taking – his own rather than the huge quantities of Largactil he is alleged to have been fed while on remand in Salisbury, having been arrested for possession of a small quantity of LSD. While the truth will never be known, Hope’s demise definitely acted as an impetus for the birth of Crass, four decades ago this year, a key part of the punk movement, though largely written out of current ‘celebrations’ of the genre.
11. Ambresbury Banks
Rumoured to be the last stronghold of Boudicca (not true, apparently) and to be named after King Arthur’s uncle, Ambrosius Aurelianus, Ambresbury Banks is the second Iron Age hillfort contained in Epping Forest. The reason for including it here, though, is due to rather more recent signs of human impact on the landscape. There was a car park next to the Banks for many years and, where there’s a car park in the Forest, there are lots of carved trees.
Those trees on the main lip of Ambresbury Banks (especially at the southern end) are particularly fine and you can find all kinds of unusual messages, including “WE ARE FROM GRAVESEND,” homages to Elvis and the Sex Pistols and some rather beautiful (though slightly indecipherable) cursive writing. Although tree-carving is bad for the trees and very much frowned upon and what have you, it does provide a lot of pleasure and amusement, wherever you are in the Forest. Time to turn south…
12. Bradley's Tea Hut
The Forest tea huts are something of an institution and this one is probably the most famous of them all. A short walk from the Robin Hood pub, where Jacob Epstein took his son Jackie to tea in the forties, it’s mainly renowned for its bikers. Most weekends, the car park teems with a wild variety of hogs and their owners, but on the weekend nearest to 19 February it’s absolutely rammed to bursting. This is because on that date in 1928, the first ever speedway race in Britain was held at a track just up the hill, behind the King’s Oak pub. It’s been a place of pilgrimage for two-wheeled petrolheads ever since. Drink proper builder’s tea, eat a bacon butty and watch out for the cowboy.
On your way here you will have passed the last possible site of Turpin’s Cave, on the slopes of Wellington Hill, where a pub of that name existed until the 1970s and used to exhibit some old tat claimed to belong to the highwayman. Even the pub isn’t there anymore, knocked down and replaced with a house, so there’s no good reason to stop.
13. The Doom Tree
As far as I know, the Doom Tree is only called the Doom Tree by me, but I’m hoping if I go on about it enough, eventually it’ll be generally adopted. One of the biggest and oldest extant beeches in the whole of the Forest, the Doom Tree is a short walk from the tea hut. Massive, gnarly, angry looking and carved to within an inch of its life, I call it the Doom Tree because when you climb up into it, you find a carving which proclaims: ‘Thou, who treadeth on this tree, thou, shall be doomed.’ Just as the fear grips you, you notice, scratched in underneath, a reply: ‘Bollox you c**ts.’
14. St Paul's Chapel
Our last destination on the gentle stroll back to Chingford station is, much like our first, a non-destination. St Paul’s Chapel fell out of use in 1873, when the new church up the road at High Beach opened, and was pulled down in 1885 after ‘excursionists’ broke in and ‘behaved very disgracefully.’ If you search long enough you’ll find a yew tree and a lump of old brick. The reason for including it is that the poet, John Clare, was held in an asylum just up the road from 1837-41. The patients were brought to chapel here every Sunday, but Clare, a true outsider, refused to go in to pray, preferring to sit outside, amongst the trees, and devote himself to poetry. In 1841 he ‘escaped’ and walked his way home to Northamptonshire, something which I will now allow you to do, too.
Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and A Coward in London's Great Forest by Will Ashon, published by Granta Books, 6 April 2017.