09 October 2013 by Sarah Gardner
Walking into Epping Forest is a bit like walking into an enchanted forest. Beech, birch and oak stretch into the horizon, plates of fungi jutting from their sides, and yellow leaves carpet the forest floor like tarnished coins.
Stretching from Manor Park in East London to north of Epping in Essex, Epping Forest is the largest open space in London. Two thirds of the forest is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, due to its large numbers of ancient trees, grasslands, heaths and freshwater ponds, which support a wealth of wildlife.
But by far the most special thing about the forest is that it’s protected by law to remain “an unenclosed open space dedicated for the recreation and enjoyment of the public” (Epping Forest Act 1878).
Granted to the City of London to act as Conservators to maintain the natural aspect of the forest, it’s held in trust as a place for people to enjoy forever.
That’s a fact worth celebrating, which is why every year the Friends of Epping Forest - a charity set up to support the preservation of the forest - hold an organised walk (well, what else?) from the southern edge of the forest at Manor Park to the northern tip at Bell Common.
I’m rather ashamed to say I’ve never been to Epping Forest, so the chance to walk the entire length of it in one go is too good to miss. On a damp Sunday in September, I travel to East London to meet up with approximately 200 other people, masterfully kept in order by walk leader Mike Whiteley of the West Essex Ramblers.
As we walk through the forest, I get chatting to some of the people who’ve come along and their affection for Epping Forest and its protected status becomes clear. One walker tells me that his parents were involved in the first centenary walk in 1978, and have volunteered ever since. A local resident tells me she walks here as often as possible to unwind and de-stress. Members of the Newham Striders, a group that holds short walkers, have challenged themselves to complete the entire 15-mile walk, which they do, to their (weary) pleasure.
The walk is superbly organised. Not only are there guest speakers, places of interest (such as the brilliantly informative Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge) and refreshment stops (including at the County Hotel, who have provided coffee for the walkers, free of charge, for every annual walk held), there are also a series of interconnecting shorter walks for those who want to drop in and out.
History and interesting facts come from the City of London Conservators and officers of the forest. How did Epping Forest come to be protected for the people? It all dates back to ancient rights accorded to the commoners, including the right to gather wood (which – fact alert - still exists), the right of pannage, which allows pigs to feed on fallen acorns and the right of intercommonage, enabling the grazing of cattle across parish boundaries. When landowners began erecting fences to enclose the land, the lords of the manors were successfully pursued in court for obstructing the right to graze. After the Epping Forest Act was passed, the forest was dedicated to the people by Queen Victoria in 1882.
The City of London takes its duty seriously. The M25 had to be encased in a tunnel south of Epping so as not to disrupt the natural aspect of the woodland. Not only do they guard against development, they also keep facilities in tip-top condition for the recreational enjoyment of visitors. It’s not just about walking – you can cycle, horse-ride, take part in athletics, play tennis, cricket and football too!
There are apparently an astonishing 1600 species of fungi in Epping Forest, including rare and protected species. It’s an offence to pick the mushrooms (and wildflowers), yet it’s difficult to police. The fungi-collectors used to be blatant, filling their shopping bags with mushrooms, but they got more cunning, now taking rucksacks so as to be mistaken for a rambler enjoying a walk through the woods!
Autumn is the best time of year to see fungi: bearded tooth, beefsteak, shaggy inkcap, Dryad’s saddle and fly agaric - as bizarre and wonderful to look at as they sound. Also flourishing in the forest this time of year are garden spiders, also known as cross spiders for their expert spinning of webs; jays and squirrels starting to collect acorns in preparation of winter; and ivy, a bane to some, but a welcome source of pollen and nectar to others. Fallow deer and muntjac can also be spotted (no longer roaming free to reduce road collision) as well as the aptly named Longhorn cattle and the beautifully glossy Red Poll.
Once upon a time there were also East-End gangsters roaming the forest - apparently Genesis did a song called "The Battle of Epping Forest" which refers to a gang-fight. And then there are all the Dick Turpin legends… a different kind of wildlife.
At a time when demand for housing in Greater London is high, it’s fantastic to think that the complete 6,000 acres of forest will exist untouched for people to enjoy forever. Not many other forests have survived so well – as we walk, my mind turns to the Great North Wood, an ancient forest once stretching from Croydon to Camberwell, now an area of Greater London suburbia called Norwood.
As one walker told me, "This is the most fantastic resource in London - vast green space for everyone to enjoy, walkers, cyclists, families, horse-riders, dog-walkers... it's full of history too. I love it!"
Thanks to the City of London and the Friends of Epping Forest for doing such an amazing job to keep it that way.
Find out more about the Friends of Epping Forest and Essex Ramblers. You can also read more of Sarah's blogs and find out what inspires her.