Out of the Woods by Charlie Allenby

Charlie Allenby grew up believing that Epping Forest was a place to be avoided, full of ghosts and criminals. It took a global pandemic for him to give Epping another chance. Join him on his morning bike ride as he recalls earlier memories of this ancient woodland

7.30am. Tyres are squeezed and topped up with air in long strokes of the pump. A light breeze whispers against my bare legs, but the empty blue sky and rising sun suggests they won’t be cold for long. Shoes clipped into pedals, transforming man and machine into one being, the journey is underway. Destination: Epping Forest.

*

There was a time when, for me, Epping Forest was altogether an elsewhere place. 

“My cousin said that if you get to the bottom of the hill and leave your car in neutral, it gets dragged to the top.” It’s Year 7, Maths first thing on a Monday after a hot spring weekend, and there’s an excited buzz in the air. Ross Barnwell, my fellow top-of-the-register dweller, is excitedly retelling how a tonne of metal and four pubescent passengers fizzing with hormones were able to defy the laws of gravity in a scary part of the Forest. “It’s called Hangman’s Hill by High Beach. He said the ghost pulls you up the hill with his noose.”

*

7.45am. Cutting east, the bustling streets of Tottenham stand between me and the tranquility of the Lee Valley canal. The sun gleams off of the football stadium’s roof and catches the golden cockerel perched on its south stand. I pass two cemeteries – one for people, the other for cars. The ticker of a black cab has finally given up. After a life spent navigating the arteries, veins and capillaries of the capital, it sits atop a trailer, awaiting its passage to the afterlife. A breaker’s yard on an industrial estate where smog and grime fills every crevice seems like an understated send off.

The footbridge across the Pymmes Brook acts as the fault line between asphalt and escapism. I carefully pick my way through the flotsam that has washed up on the outskirts of the Marshes – two big cement blocks not enough to stop the canny fly tippers.

fly tipping on the outskirts of the marshes

Passing through the barriers and up and over Chalk Bridge, I feel a wave of relief. The satisfying crunch of gravel tells me there’s not long to go now. I’m almost there.

*

The tale of paranormal activity wasn’t the only thing that defined Epping Forest in my childhood. As I grew older, the stories turned darker. Gangland murders, buried bodies, remnants of clothing found within the decaying mulch. “I heard that if you dig a hole in Epping, you’re going to stumble across some bones,” said another friend, Liam Lockwood, who like me, has found it hard to shake the area’s notorious reputation. The Wikipedia entry for Epping Forest has a separate section on ‘murders.’  It currently includes 11 incidents over six-decades. 

Growing up in Chelmsford in Essex, less than 30 miles from Epping, I never had a desire to put the rumours to bed. My horizons extended north and east: screwball ice creams with their bubble gum ending on the promenade in Maldon, avoiding the tide on Frinton’s concrete sea wall, the salty waft of Leigh-on-Sea’s cockle sheds. The nefarious goings on, on the outskirts of London, were a reason to steer clear; the ancient woodland remaining an uncharted territory that I had no urge to uncover

*

7.55 am. The River Lea is glistening in the morning sun as I make my way north on the canal path. A black cat scampers across my path, diving into one of the nomadic canal boats that line the water from the Thameside mouth to its source in Bedfordshire. The touring bikes and pannier racks of the elders usually found perched on the benches by Alfie’s Lock are nowhere to be seen. No doubt they will be in their usual spot in an hour or so on my return journey.

At Ponder’s End Lock, it’s time to leave the tranquility of the river and rejoin the traffic. Flanked by the banked edges of the William Girling and King George’s reservoirs, the tops of oaks flicker into view on the horizon.

*

My first adult visit to Epping Forest didn’t exactly change my boyhood opinion. In 2019, on my 27th birthday, my girlfriend Izzy and I had gone to hire a rowing boat at Hollow Ponds. Our excitement was soon punctured by a gruff middle-aged man with week-old stubble and the hallmarks of a heavy night, who told us that he doesn’t take cards and we’re going to need to go to the hospital if we want to get cash out. In hindsight, he was just telling us that the nearest ATM was in Whipps Cross hospital, but there was a menacing air to his directions – as though he’d be only too happy to give me another reason to visit A&E if the mood took him.

Having dodged Hollow Pond’s collection of swans, Canadian geese and coots, we jumped back in the car and decided to head deeper into the unknown. The feather-shaped block of dark green stretched its way across my phone’s screen from Forest Gate in the East End to the Essex hinterlands. Stabbing my finger at a car park in its centre, it was time to immerse ourselves in the real Epping.

*

8 am. Approaching gate 101 along Hawksmouth, the tarmac falls away and becomes a rugged, pothole-strewn path. Weaving my way through the craters, I feel my serotonin levels return to normal as soon as the grassy fields come into view. My focus shifts from the actions of the drivers to my new environment – roaring engines replaced by wind rustling through leaves – and a maze of trails unfurls in front of me. I have a roughly plotted regular route but the beauty of knowing somewhere intimately means that, even if I end up on new ground, I’m never truly lost.

The Obelisk at the top of Pole Hill is a necessary, if thigh-burning, pilgrimage – especially on a clear day. Sitting at 0° longitude, it was installed in the 1800s by geographers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, who would set their telescopes by searching for the granite landmark exactly 11 miles to the north. A neighbouring trig point marks the hill’s peak, but I’m not here for the monuments – in fact, I turn my back on them. Laid out in front of me is a visual history of London. Although a couple of centuries of population and vegetation growth mean you can no longer see as far as the Meridian Line, the latest additions to the city’s jagged skyline hover on the horizon, while in my immediate vicinity lies woodland that stretches back thousands of years.

Obelisk at the top of Pole Hill. Charlie rests his bike after a ‘thigh-burning’ ride
London’s current skyline just visible above trees that have been there for centuries

Photo snapped, I jump back on my bike and let gravity do the work as I descend into the darkness of the forest. A dog appears out of nowhere, a boxer chasing my shadows until I come to a stop in a clearing. Realising the blurred shape wasn’t fair game, it turns on its heels and scurries back to the increasingly desperate voice in the distance.

The tracks from here vary in shape and size – bridleways pockmarked with the U-shaped shoes of horses, down to openings in the undergrowth no-wider than a rabbit. I settle for something in the middle. A patch of wood anemones in full bloom catch the speckled rays that have broken their way through the thick canopy to the forest floor. The trail hugs the outskirts of the golf course until it is intersected by Bury Road. Despite being in the depths of nature, the brash hand of humanity – the manicured greens and macadam roads  – is never far away.

wood anemones

*

Even now I know the place better, I don’t think I could tell you where we parked back on that birthday visit in 2019. Rucksack filled with sandwiches, we set off in a westward direction, navigating bomb holes and jumping ditches until we came to a clearing. Our ears were met by the growl of motorbikes – the cracks of the carburettors punctuating the low level hum of riders out for a bank holiday run.

Settling down on High Beach’s grassy opening, it was hard to escape the closeness of the other revellers. Tinny, distorted music blared from cheap portable speakers. The smell of burnt meat wafted from disposable barbeques. Giddy children with bright red faces queued for blue ice pops from the rumbling ice cream van. It was a far cry from the place described in John Clare’s poetry – of airy bounds and left feeling high. Retracing our steps back to the car, my opinion of Epping had hardened.

*

8.15 am. I make my way northwards, loosely following the forest’s ‘Main Path’. Runners, walkers, hounds and horses share the wide dirt track. The gnarled trunks and branches of hornbeams are awash with catkins, ready for the wind to spread their seeds.

The undulating up-and-down of the appropriately named Hill Wood gets my heart rate pumping before I find myself back at High Beach. The cooler temperature and earlier time mean it’s a shadow of the bustling hub I encountered on my first visit. Recounting ‘A Walk in the Forest’, I can now see things through Clare’s eyes. I too love the break neck hills, that headlong go, and      leave me high, and half the world below.

Back on the Main Path, I whizz along Claypit Hill’s gravel-lined forest roads, stopping only to take in the views across the Lea Valley from the lofty heights. The expansive opening and its falling gradient is a brief sensory overload for my eyes, which have become accustomed to navigating the narrow, enclosed trails.

Farthest northern point reached, it’s time to make my way back towards Chingford. The Green Ride path I’m following south was built especially for Queen Victoria’s visit to the Forest in 1882 (although she stayed firmly in her horse-drawn carriage). The mounds to my left are in fact ‘Tank Traps’ built during the Second World War by the local Home Guard as part of the perimeter defences surrounding London. And that’s before you get to Loughton Camp – a collection of banks and ditches that were once the site of an Iron Age fort. Used by countless legends of British folklore – whether that was a base for Boudica during her uprising against the Romans or as a hideout for Dick Turpin – it’s hard to escape the feeling that stories are woven into the fabric of the forest.

The Green Ride built for Queen Victoria’s visit to Epping Forest in 1882

*

Since March 2020 when the pandemic first brought me back to Epping, I’ve uncovered a different side to the forest. This circuit now forms the basis of my near-weekly trips to the wild corner of north east London. The dark and murky side to the ancient woodland still simmers away in the background, but its natural beauty has come to the forefront.

*

9am. The final stop of my Epping Forest loop is Connaught Water. One of more than 100 lakes or ponds that dot the heaths, woodlands and grass, it’s another thing we have to thank the Victorians for. Created in 1880 to drain a marshy area of the forest, it soon became a popular spot for paddling and boating, and was named after the first ranger of Epping Forest – Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn.

Connaught Water

The only thing swimming in it now are the birds that call the lake home, but it’s still one of my favourite spots in the entire forest. Sitting on a bench, tucking into a slightly bruised banana, it’s a great place to watch the world go by. Mallards scrap over bread thrown into the water by a young family, before the resident Canada geese and Mute swans muscle their way through the maelstrom, bringing calm and grace to proceedings. The sun is fully beating down on my bare calves now, providing a welcome warmth after a long and layered locked-down winter.

Food finished, I join the Ranger’s Road and the start of my journey back home. Loose mud flings from my tyres like mortar boards on graduation day as soft dirt paths are replaced by unforgiving, onyx-coloured roads. Retracing my pedal strokes through Chingford, hills seem easier, passing traffic quieter, my world rebalanced thanks to the restorative power of the forest.

I never thought the darkness surrounding this notorious place could be banished, but there is now a lightness and warmth where there was once fear and trepidation of the unknown.

Charlie Allenby is a freelance journalist for various publications including the Guardian and the Independent and is the author of Bike London: A Guide to Cycling in the City. He is currently working on his second book, a cycling-based memoir.