THIS SECTION OF the London Countryway is the most London-flavoured of all. Not only does it include the route’s closest point to central London, and the second closest point to the Greater London boundary, but it also features two big and famous green spaces which both reach deep into London, providing corridors of open country that link rural Hertfordshire and Essex uninterruptedly with the East End. These two green spaces – the Lee Valley Park and Epping Forest – are among the brightest jewels in the capital’s extensive countryside, well used amenities that contribute to the character of their area, and have fascinating stories to tell not only of the social and industrial heritage of east London but of the long and sustained efforts made over centuries to preserve, improve and create breathing spaces for its densely concentrated and often poor and disadvantaged population. But they contrast greatly in other aspects, including geography, history and management.
The river Lea (or Lee)
The river Lea is one of the Thames’ most important tributaries, one of the longest, at 68km, and with the biggest catchment, at 1,400 km2. It rises on the edge of the Chilterns at Leagrave north of Luton – both names etymologically referring to the river itself – and runs roughly east and southeast through Harpenden, Welwyn and Hertford to Ware, where it takes a sharp turn south, passing Broxbourne and into east London through Enfield, Edmonton, Tottenham, Clapton, Hackney Wick, Stratford and Bow. Its lowest reaches form a tight meander as tidal Bow Creek, joining the Thames at Leamouth, Poplar, right opposite the O2 Arena. Over the millennia, this lower north-south water channel has smoothed out a broad, flat, marshy floodplain which, thanks to its dampness, has largely resisted residential development. Low hills of gravel, clay and sand rise on either side. To the west they’re topped by old Middlesex villages like Enfield, Stoke Newington and Hackney, now subsumed into the London sprawl. To the east the hills are a bit more rugged and in their natural state covered in woodland and heath.
The river enjoys the further distinction of having two different accepted spellings surviving from the time before such things were standardised, ‘Lea’ or ‘Lee’, both pronounced identically (/li:/). The name likely derives from a Celtic root meaning ‘bright’, via the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Ligan’. You occasionally meet people who passionately argue for the correctness of one spelling or the other, but even the Ordnance Survey, usually a reliable arbiter of variant place names, is agnostic, labelling the watercourse ‘River Lee or Lea’. Some sources insist that the upper part of the river is ‘Lea’, the lower part ‘Lee’, while others say the spelling ‘Lea’ is correctly applied to the whole natural river and its associated features, while ‘Lee’ refers to artificial accretions such as canalised sections. I tend towards the latter distinction and hope I’ve done so consistently.
Like many rivers, the Lea is an ancient boundary. Sometime between 878 and 890, Alfred, the Saxon king of Wessex, drew up a peace treaty with Guðrum, his Viking counterpart, which made the river the limit of their respective jurisdictions. The Danelaw, the portion of eastern England from Yorkshire to Essex which was self-governed by migrant Danes from the 880s to the Norman Conquest in 1066, influenced the development of both English language and culture, and the force of that dividing line still echoes, if faintly, almost a millennium later. The lower Lea still divides Hertfordshire and the London boroughs of Enfield, Haringey, Hackney and Tower Hamlets (once in the now-defunct county of Middlesex) on the west bank, and Essex on the east.
The fact that the boundary line doesn’t always match the most obvious waterway today is evidence of how the natural course of the river has been mucked about with over the centuries. In 894 it was wide enough for a party of Danes intent on expanding their territory to sail their boats all the way to Hertford. Alfred, ever imaginative, had the lower reaches drained, reducing the water level and stranding the Danish boats. This action reputedly moved the tidal limit back from Hackney Wick to Old Ford. From the 12th century the Cistercian monks of Stratford Langthorne abbey, also known as West Ham abbey, re-engineered the river in the area that’s now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Three Mills into a tangle of channels used to power mills grinding flour for London’s bread supply. The abbey grew hugely wealthy and influential on the proceeds, but such efforts here and elsewhere along the river tended to reduce the main flow, causing problems for navigation at a time when the Lea was a vital supply line for grain from Hertfordshire and Essex. Efforts to improve things began with an act of parliament in 1425 and included the opening of only the second lock in England in 1577.
By the early 18th century the water level had reduced still further thanks to the New River, encountered in the last section, which was now supplementing its original sources with river water. In 1739 parliament appointed a board of trustees to manage the navigation and in 1767 they began to implement a plan drawn up by John Smeaton to create a fully navigable waterway with 12 new locks and 18km of artificial cuts to bypass meanders and other problems, known as the River Lee Navigation. London’s first entirely new canal, the Limehouse Cut from Bromley-by-Bow to the Thames avoiding the tight meanders and tidal waters of Bow Creek, was added in 1770. Improvements continued into the 19th century, with control passing to the Lee Conservancy Board in 1868. The navigation was nationalised along with most of the rest of the canal system under the British Transport Commission in 1948, passing to British Waterways in 1962 and to charity the Canal & River Trust in 2012. Though horse drawn lighters were still operating to Hertford in the 1950s, by the 1980s commercial use had largely ceased – but by then the navigation had a new role as the backbone of a major recreational and conservation amenity.
The Lee Valley Park
Wet soil and the danger of flooding restricted opportunities for development in the valley, but it was exploited in other ways to fuel the growing capital. By the early 20th century land use in the valley was an unusual mixture. Between Hertford and Hoddesdon the flood plain was used as water catchment and kept as open space, much of it already public. The stretch we’re about to walk accommodated both the nursery industry – this was once the largest area under glass in the country – and gravel extraction for building materials, both in their own ways resourcing the rapid growth of London. Water management features like reservoirs, filtration plants and sewage works lined the valley from Enfield to Hackney. Industry, some of it noxious, was interspersed throughout, including Enfield’s munitions factories and distilleries in the lower reaches, and various marshes once used for agriculture remained as open spaces and recreation grounds. By World War II much of this was already in decline – industry was migrating with roads and populations and the gravel pits were reaching exhaustion. Patrick Abercrombie’s visionary Greater London Plan of 1944 recognised that:
The Lee Valley gives the opportunity for a great piece of constructive, preservative and regenerative planning…Every piece of open land should be welded into a great regional reservation – no open land, whatever its present use, should be built on…Huge areas are being excavated for gravel, leaving untidy spoil heaps and rather derelict lakes, which in turn are partly filled in, then used for rather inferior factory development. Here is a magnificent opportunity for landscape treatment and tree planting, turning lakes into places of interest and beauty (Abercrombie 1944:105-6).
As we’ve seen elsewhere, Abercrombie’s plan was never realised, but its recognition of the value of open space endured. In 1948, decades of lobbying for better outdoor access and the protection of countryside amenities by the Ramblers and others culminated in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, a landmark piece of legislation which laid the foundations for the creation of national parks and national trails and the recording and protection of off-road public rights of way in England and Wales. But candidates for national park status were judged purely on their landscape value, not on their accessibility. In the following decades, demands emerged for regional parks providing open air amenities for centres of population that didn’t happen to be close to the spectacular landscapes of the Pennines or the southwestern moors. Regional parks have never been recognised as a distinct statutory category, except in Scotland, but a number have emerged over the years managed either under specific legislation or as voluntary partnerships using existing local authority powers. The Lee Valley Park is one of the most prominent and successful, and one of three in London, all based on rivers. The Colne Valley Park, on the capital’s western boundary, is missed by the Countryway but hosts significant chunks of the London Loop. The Wandle Valley Park in central southwest London is a new addition, under development since 2012.
The idea of the valley as a great park for east London was taken up once more from 1961 by Lou Sherman, then Mayor of Hackney, and his town clerk, Len Huddy (Laurie Elks 2008, ‘The Lee Valley Regional Park: a historical perspective’, Hackney History 14). They tactfully cultivated the support of various surrounding councils, always aware that their vision could be interpreted as treading on the toes of local planning powers, taking a major step in 1964 by commissioning the Civic Trust to produce a report and proposals. It was an interesting time, when the longstanding belief in the value of green spaces and outdoor recreation to the moral and physical well being of urban populations was being modified by an expectation that advances in technology would increase leisure time, and much anxiety among the chattering classes about the impact of the newly idle on England’s green and pleasant land. The contempt for the common man and his unrefined response to the natural environment in this passage in a companion piece to the Trust’s report published in the Architect’s Journal, and later issued separately as ‘The challenge of leisure’, echoes the outrage of the Romantics at the day trippers that were already invading their beloved Lake District 150 years or so earlier.
Already the weekend multitudes are congesting our roads, fouling our downs and commons with litter and soiling our lay-bys; their chalets and caravans threaten all parts of our coast, their cars and motorboats echo in quiet valleys and lakes. Yet the very leisure that brings this onslaught could permit the widening of life, of human pleasure and achievement, which the Greeks understood and which ‘generous-hearted men have dreamed of for generations’. Can we enhance the lives of our people without ruining the island they live upon?
This was also the age of belief in the power of top down planning by local authorities to deliver benefits on a large scale, and the plan progressed with a rapidity that seems incredible today, buoyed by the support of the newly formed Greater London Council and such luminaries as the Duke of Edinburgh. The Civic Trust proposed a grand projet stretching from Ware to the Thames and mixing attractions and ‘rides’, from motor racing and a ‘fun palace’ championed by Joan Littlewood, to formal gardens, with areas of countryside and water, reinventing the 18th century pleasure garden on a massive contemporary scale. It also concluded this could not be brought to fruition by multilateral cooperation but required its own authority. The promotion of a private parliamentary bill led to the passing of the Lee Valley Regional Park Act 1966 and the creation of the Regional Park Authority in 1967, funded by an additional penny rate on the citizens of Essex, Hertfordshire and the London boroughs. A master plan followed in 1969 and the 1970s saw the completion of numerous developments, though still short of the planned ambition, with the authority becoming increasingly mired in controversy about its high handedness and failure to consult as the decade proceeded.
These challenges ultimately had a positive outcome, forcing a debate about the direction of development in the park and eventually shifting it towards the creation of an environment much more sustainably attractive and valuable than it might have been. The master plan concentrated on building specific facilities for organised recreation and sport – leisure centres, swimming pools, bike tracks, courts and pitches. It neglected the surrounding green space and the vast opportunities for more informal activities like walking, cycling or simply enjoying the outdoors – a long way from Abercrombie’s vision of a “great regional reservation”. By the 1990s the tide had turned, with much more focus on biodiversity, green spaces, wetlands, waterways and the links between them, and on building community and partner involvement.
Today the park stretches for 42km, encompassing 400ha. Its landscapes are rich, mature and wonderfully diverse, some of them managed with practices that recall the way things were done before London grew. Cattle graze on the slopes of reservoirs, and fragments of wetlands that might otherwise have been drained and turned into football pitches are still allowed to flood in season. The park’s popularity and reputation served it well in embracing the opportunities of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the aftermath of which has triggered a major expansion. Under the ‘Legacy Plan’, the regional park is taking over the management of the open spaces in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and three venues, including the velodrome. It already has one other venue, the Lee Valley White Water Centre, which we’ll pass by in this section. It’s been a long journey as the site of the Olympic Park was earmarked for incorporation into the regional park back in the 1960s.
The changing attitudes to one particular proposal in the original plan are telling. The Park Road, a dual carriageway motor road planned to link the major venues on a north-south route, some of it elevated to offer views of the waterways and lakes, reflects a vision of a shiny future where nature was observed through car windows and exercise and leisure were undertaken indoors in dedicated facilities. This road was partly inspired by Abercrombie’s parkways, wide boulevards lined with grass and trees intended to complement the forbidding proposals for concentric motorways which, countless iterations later, finally bore fruit as the M25. But Abercrombie saw parkways as part of the strategic road system, not as isolated impositions on a precious area of green space. In the event only 1.5km or so of the Park Road was ever built, and it was finally abandoned in the revised park plan of 1989, which understatedly observed that “the concept might have been valid in 1969, but it is now acknowledged to be inappropriate.”
Today the transport network within the park largely serves quieter and healthier modes. Indeed the park authority played a role in improving London’s infrastructure for both cycling and walking from the 1990s, supporting the National Cycle Network and the London Walking Forum that pioneered a network of strategic routes across the capital. Bob Gilbert, then a park manager, created the Green London Way, an unofficial circular walking route around inner London that predates the Capital Ring, in 1990.
The Lea Valley Path
A key north-south spine of that network is mercifully not the Park Road but the Lea Valley Path, which we’ll be following for most of the first part of this walk. Historically the path was developed in two sections. In the early 1980s local walking campaigners worked with Hertfordshire County Council to create a route tracing the upper part of the river between Harpenden and Hertford, known rather clumsily as the Upper Lea Valley Through Walk and signed with a swan logo. Since there’s no towpath above Hertford, the route took advantage of riverside paths where possible and diverted along other nearby footpaths where necessary. Then in the early 1990s, its road plan officially abandoned, the Lee Valley Park set about improving its path network. The towpath was done up and linked with the Through Walk to create a single route. Bedfordshire County Council (since succeeded by Luton unitary authority) also got involved and the uppermost part of the route was extended as far as the source at Leagrave. The whole 80km route was launched in 1993 as the Lea Valley Path, with the swan logo extended throughout. In the south, the coils of Bow Creek proved as awkward for path planners as they had for boat operators, so the route followed the Limehouse Cut from Bow Locks, though alternative routes have since been described, though not thoroughly signed, to East India Docks and down the east of the Isle of Dogs to the Greenwich foot tunnel.
All this was going on at the same time the now-defunct Countryside Commission was developing its own plans for the Thames Path national trail, and there was some mutual encouragement in both projects. The result was that London got two high quality riverside paths in a matter of years, hugely improving walking opportunities and demonstrating the value of attractive, high quality and easily accessible paths in the urban environment and helping change the mindset around urban walking, sustainability and health. In the early 2000s the section of the Lea Valley Path within Greater London was adopted by Transport for London as part of its strategic walks network. Interestingly, when the Canal and River Trust, the charity that inherited the assets of British Waterways including the Lee Navigation, designed its inaugural logo in 2012, it was essentially the old BW logo superimposed with a remarkably Lea Valley-like swan, perhaps a subliminal signal of the new owner’s view that waterways weren’t just about boats and locks but about towpaths and their importance to walkers and cyclists.
Using the Lea Valley Path, the Countryway traverses the whole length of River Lee Country Park, at 405ha the most substantial single area of green space in the regional park, created largely from abandoned gravel pits and disused nurseries. The path is straight and well surfaced, open to and understandably popular with cyclists as well as walkers – this is the first place I ever saw speed humps on a footpath. Coincidentally, the prime meridian of 0° longitude passes a little to the east through the park, so this section also serves as part of the Greenwich Meridian Trail, an unofficial (though occasionally waymarked) route developed by Graham and Hilda Heap to mark the 125th anniversary of the meridian.
River Lee Country Park
From Broxbourne station you plunge down beside the railway line, on a tree lined path along a water channel, a relatively modest prelude to the extensive waterside walking that will follow. The channel is actually the mill race for Broxbourne Old Mill, which soon appears across a car park ahead – a seemingly random collection of old brickwork that’s all that remains of one of the oldest documented mill on the river, mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086 and once owned by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, the order that gave rise to today’s St John Ambulance. The site milled grain until 1891, then was put to a variety of other uses until 1949 when it was destroyed by fire. On view are a 16th century brickwork floor, parts of a Victorian miller’s house, restored sluices and a waterwheel with recycled plastic paddles replacing some of the wooden ones. It’s an evocative collection of fragments in a dappled setting, with its own short branch of the canal that was originally used for deliveries and collections, and a wooden cabin hiring out bicycles. The nearby chalets overlooking the mill stream are available to rent by the week or long weekend to anyone especially entranced by the surroundings.
A few paces away, along the canal spur and under the railway, we join the Lea Valley Path proper. In 1981, the deviser of the Countryway, Keith Chesterton, introduced this section by observing that:
[…it] arouses quite different reactions among walkers: some find it dull and rather ugly with its stretches of rather boring canal bank, flooded gravel pits, and views of electricity pylons. Others, including myself, think it is a watery parkland with hosts of different birds, hidden backwaters and subtly changing patterns of water and scenery. You will be able to discover which view you agree with.
I suspect many more walkers will now agree with Chesterton, as the landscape has matured magnificently over more than three decades, though it retains its flat, open aspect. Water dominates the view – sometimes, with lakes on both sides, it feels like the towpath is a lone causeway across a single vast lake, though lushly wooded islands and water margins add contrast. Nature areas dot the route: a short distance from the mill is Silvermeade, known for its water voles, then there’s Holyfield Lake over on the left, and our first lock, Aqueduct Lock, with Ashley Lake on the right.
Next comes Cheshunt Lock and Seventy Acres Lake beyond it on the left, an important site for wintering wildfowl including bitterns, who favour the extensive reed beds: there’s a ‘bittern information point’ on the east side of the lake at Fishers Green. Further on, look out for the sailing boats on Cheshunt Lake on the right – since the early 1960s this has been the home of educational project the HertsYoung Mariners Base (HYMB). At junior school in the early 1970s I was taken here to learn to sail in clunky little boats known as coypus and seeing the place again instantly evokes the aroma of life jackets that have been put away wet. The chalets next to it are YHA London Lee Valley, now the only youth hostel within a few minute of the Countryway route. Built in 2001 on the site of a former swimming pool, its contemporary family friendly style reflected the intention of the YHA to adapt itself to changing expectations and new audiences, distancing itself from the image of the traditional rustic hostel, an example of which stood a little further along our route at High Beach until 2008.
Beyond the hostel and the HYMB is Cheshunt, one of a series of small towns and villages stringing along the valley and the Old North Road, Roman Ermine Street, which has long been subsumed into the protrusion of ribbon development. It’s likely there was a Roman castrum or fort here, explaining the origin of the name. Elizabeth I lived here as a girl and might well have been familiar with the river Lea, but today it’s arguably better known as the headquarters of international supermarket chain Tesco, one of the key players in the progressive erosion of diversity in the British high street. Theobalds Park on the other side of the town centre from the river was, curiously, once home to Christopher Wren’s splendid Temple Bar, completed in 1672 as the main gateway to the City of London from Westminster straddling Fleet Street. Dismantled in 1878 so the road could be widened, it was bought by the brewer Henry Meux who then owned the house and grounds at Theobalds Park, and re-erected it as a grand entrance. The property eventually became a public park, complete with Wren’s arch, and I recall it as a rather incongruous sight, standing forlorn and neglected on the grass. Following a fundraising campaign, it was restored and returned to London in 2004, and now stands in Paternoster Square near St Paul’s cathedral.
Back in 1825 you could travel the 0.75km distance from the navigation to the town centre via the world’s first passenger carrying monorail, the Cheshunt Railway. Following a design originally installed at Deptford dockyard using vehicles suspended from an overhead rail and pulled by a single horse, the railway was mainly intended to transport bricks between a brickfield and a waterside wharf, but accepted passengers as a sideline, predating the pioneering steam hauled Stockton and Darlington railway by three months. A more conventional railway, the Northern and Eastern Railway along the Lea valley from Stratford to Broxbourne, opened in 1840, though trains didn’t stop at Cheshunt until 1846. The current station is a functional modern building only a short stroll away, and is shortly to become one of the scattering of stations outside London that’s administered by Transport for London (TfL) when local services from Liverpool Street and Stratford to here become part of the London Overground. Since 2013, it’s the first station on the Countryway that’s in TfL’s zonal fares system, an arrangement that applies as well to the succeeding two stations in this section. You can also use your Oyster Card at Broxbourne, and at Brentwood further along the route, but special fares apply. Sadly no trace of the monorail remains.
Our watery journey continues, with evocative names like Thistly March on the right and Powdermill Cut on the left. The cut connects the navigation with the Royal Gunpowder Mills just to the east, originally a commercial facility with its origins in the 1660s but between 1787-1945 a state owned manufacturer of explosives, with its own 8km network of waterways. The Ministry of Defence then established the Explosives Research and Development Establishment (ERDE) on the site, and after this closed in 1991, it was taken on by a charity as a heritage and visitor attraction, with a nature reserve and wildlife park. The cut is just below Waltham Common Lock, the first occurrence of a place name that we’ll encounter several times in the succeeding kilometres, its etymology pre-echoing the environment we’ll encounter once we’ve hauled ourselves from the marsh. ‘Waltham’ derives from Old English wald, ‘forest’, and ham, ‘homestead’ – the name is therefore cognate with the German Waldheim. It’s scattered all over this part of Hertfordshire, Essex and Greater London, in Waltham Cross, Waltham Abbey, Walthamstow and the internally redundant London borough of Waltham Forest, and it’s an indication we’re entering the territory of the once great Forest of Essex, of which more later.
Just to the right of Trinity Lane footbridge stands the reason for Broxbourne’s claim to Olympic fame, seen on a sign as we entered the borough in the last section. The £31million Lee Valley White Water Centre was the first of the London 2012 games venues to be completed, in 2010, despite a late change of plan –it was originally intended to be 8km north, at Spitalbrook near Broxbourne, but concerns about pollution saw it moved here. It was the only purpose built 2012 venue open to the public before the games, and the first to open afterwards. The centre, with its low profile facilities building clad in warm, natural wood, fits in remarkably well to its surroundings. Behind the wood is a 300m Olympic standard canoe slalom course with a boat conveyor to lift competitors to the top of a 5.5m drop, plus a practice course, all churned up by a battery of pumps circulating up to 15m3 of water a second.
A little further on is Waltham Town Lock, successor to the original 1577 lock, where we leave the River Lee Navigation and Lea Valley Path to climb to the busy A121, one of the few places in the area that motor traffic can easily cross the valley. At 24km from Charing Cross and only 19km north of the City, this is the closest point on the route to central London, and one of the closest points to the boundary of Greater London. Less than 1km on along the navigation, the Lea Valley Path passes under the M25 and into the London Borough of Enfield. The path also provides the shortest and most convenient link to London’s official outer orbital path, the London Loop, which crosses the valley at Enfield Lock about 2.5km further south.
The location here is usually given as Waltham Abbey but strictly speaking as the route emerges onto the bridge it’s in the sister town of Waltham Cross, the most southerly town of Hertfordshire. Once an outlying settlement of Cheshunt, it gained its ‘Cross’ suffix when Edward I commemorated the death of his wife Eleanor of Castile in 1290 by erecting crosses at all the nightly resting places of her body on its processional journey from Lincoln, where she died, to Westminster Abbey. Originally the crosses were wooden but were later replaced by elaborate stone crosses, and Waltham’s is one of only three still standing in situ, though much restored – the statues of Eleanor are reproductions, with the originals kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The cross marking the previous night’s stop, in St Albans, was unceremoniously removed in the 18th century and replaced by a water pump. The next cross was on Cheapside, and the final and most elaborate one, at Charing Cross at the top of Whitehall on what’s now Trafalgar Square, was destroyed by Parliamentarians during the Civil War. The cross outside Charing Cross station today isn’t an original but a fanciful reconstruction from 1865. Waltham Cross has since grown into a major centre, though virtually indistinguishable from the sprawl of Enfield on the other side of the London boundary.
As soon as you cross the navigation, however, you enter the Epping Forest district of Essex, the last historic county on our journey around the Countryway. It’s sometimes known as England’s oldest county, as it name recalls its origins as the eastern Saxon kingdom during the Heptarchy period from around 500, though originally it covered much of what’s now Hertfordshire and Greater London, until, as we have seen, the boundary of the Danelaw was fixed at the river Lea in the 880s, and the western section took on its own identity as Middlesex, the middle Saxon lands. Very shortly you cross the confusingly named Lee Valley Pathway, a separate and wider route running parallel to the Lea Valley Path to the east and intended for shared use – it’s also part of the very long National Cycle Network route 1 connecting Dover and Shetland. Turning right here would take you to the town marsh and GunpowderPark, a country park reclaimed from the gunpowder mills’ former testing ground. A little further on, a traffic sign belatedly welcomes you to Essex.
The traffic has been mercifully managed out of WalthamAbbey’s historic town centre so you can better enjoy the approach down a narrow street to the part-12th century church, with its distinctive checkerboard brickwork. There was a wooden church on this site as early as 610, which was rebuilt in stone under Danish rule in the early 11th century to house a reputedly miraculous stone cross found by Tovi, standard bearer to king Cnut, at Montacute in Somerset. The estate passed to a Saxon earl, Harold Godwinson, who, believing he’d been cured of paralysis by the cross, rebuilt the church in grander style in 1060 and endowed a college of canons. Harold later became Harold II, the last Saxon king of England. He must have exhausted his blessings for, as every schoolboy used to know, he died at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 while unsuccessfully opposing the invading forces of Duke William of Normandy, or Guillaume le Bâtard if you prefer. It’s claimed Harold’s body was taken back to Waltham Abbey and buried under the high altar of the church, though this account is disputed. The church was rebuilt again in 1190 and the core of the nave survives today.
The church is also linked to another famous episode of English mediaeval history. It was refounded in 1177 as an Augustinian abbey by Henry II as one of his many acts of contrition for the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Henry had originally appointed Becket, then a good friend, but the pair soon became embroiled in a power struggle between church and crown, with Becket staunchly defending church rights. So the story goes, in a classic ‘be careful what you wish for moment’, Henry exasperatedly declared, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” A group of knights overheard and appointed themselves to the task, beheading Becket in the choir of Canterbury Cathedral. Henry’s subsequent penances, involving hair shirts, lengthy pilgrimages and generous endowments, perhaps suggest more of a responsibility than the traditional story lets on. Given the beliefs of the time, the king was undoubtedly terrified at what awaited him in the afterlife for sanctioning a hit on one of God’s representatives on earth in his own sanctuary.
The abbey was the last in England to be dissolved under Henry VIII, a man who clearly cared rather less about what God thought of him, in 1540. The composer Thomas Tallis was one of those made redundant, from his job as choirmaster. The stone cross disappeared, its whereabouts never discovered. Henry toyed with the idea of making it a cathedral, but in the event it continued as a parish church, its nave truncated to leave Harold’s supposed tomb exposed to the elements in the churchyard behind the new altar, where it remains today. The current tower was added in 1557 after the Norman one collapsed.
To get a feel for the scale of the abbey at its height, when monarchs would often call by when on hunting trips in the forest, you need to wander around Waltham Abbey Gardens to the left of the church, where several fragments of masonry and foundations remain. The information centre promised on the Lea Valley Path pavement plaques has now closed but the gardens are worth a visit. Beyond them is Cornmill Meadows Dragonfly Sanctuary, a Site of Special Scientific Interest where half the native species of the insect in Britain can be found.
Our route leads south through the half timbered arch of a sagging inn and across the town’s pretty market square. The roar of traffic is obvious, and soon you can see vehicles flashing past on the M25 through a gap in the factories ahead. An urban path often blighted by litter leads across the prime meridian and past cemeteries to Waltham Abbey FC and swimming pool, and across a rather underused grass space, once a playing field until encroached by the motorway. Strangely, the surroundings on the other side of the M25 are much more rural, even though we’re now on the London side of the motorway ring. From the footbridge, and a second footbridge over the A121, you can see the wooded hills rising up in the distance, and the route climbs gently but steadily along well kept field paths to reach them.
Climbing Wellington Hill along the lane from the little hamlet of Pynest Green, the route becomes steeper. The Duke of Wellington , one of several landmark Forest pubs, now occupies a modern building but the place names suggest there was a much older pub here. Opposite is the drive that once led to Epping Forest youth hostel, closed in 2008 when the YHA failed to agree a new lease with the landlord. Our entry into Epping Forest proper is a modest one, via the little car park next to the pub.
Prominent on the nearby interpretation board is the distinctive red cross on a silver field of the arms of the City of London, the first time we’ve spotted these since the coal posts in the North Downs. At the next interpretation board, at the top of the hill at High Beach, make sure you wander out onto the grass and drink in the breathtaking view back down the valley and across to the wooded hills of Northaw and Broxbourne, some of which we crossed in the previous section. You’ll be sharing an experience enjoyed by millions over the centuries, including generations of east Londoners taking refuge in the clean air in the days when the city itself was a much filthier and more unhealthy place. And then remind yourself that if it hadn’t been for the persistence of a few elderly local working class Victorians who stood up to the rich and powerful by insisting on their right to lop firewood from the trees, this view might have been closed to you forever.
Epping Forest is a remnant of a great swathe of woodland and heath, the Forest of Essex, which stretched over much of the southern part of the county. In its native state it was predominantly wooded with lime trees, but selective clearance in Saxon times permanently changed its mix of species to the oak, hornbeam, beech and birch woodlands found today. The word ‘forest’ is now used loosely to mean a big wood, but in mediaeval times it had a precise legal meaning, indicating an area where the monarch, or some other notable, had the sole right to hunt, irrespective of the vegetation – historic forests, including Epping, encompass more open spaces such as heaths, often occupying areas where soils are poor and less valuable for cultivation. This didn’t mean only the rich and powerful had sole use of the forest – socially and economically, mediaeval society depended on a complex set of often unwritten rights and responsibilities, and although penalties for poaching were severe, commoners could exploit the forest in other, lesser ways such as gathering wood or grazing livestock, as they often could with other areas of land nominally in control of the local lord.
By the time Epping Forest, then known as Waltham Forest, gained its royal forest status, most likely from Henry III in the 12th century, large parts of the woodland had already disappeared, but the forested area was much bigger than it is today. Cumulative nibbling had reduced its size still further by the 17th and 18th centuries, when large scale enclosures of previously common land were violently transforming English rural life. With the emergence of capitalism, the inheritors of landed estates started to behave as if the land they ‘owned’ was private property, ignoring local rights by parcelling it up and selling much of it off for development, creating a displaced mass of landless peasants to provide factory fodder for the industrial revolution. As an area controlled by the crown, the Forest was shielded from this to a point, but in the early 19th century it came under threat from a government agency, the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, who proposed wholesale afforestation (the removal of its legal status as forest), the extinguishment of commoners’ rights and the eventual sale of the land. In accounts of the struggle for the forest, Rev J W Maitland, the lord of the manor of Loughton, who attempted to enclose it land in 1864, is usually painted as the principal villain – but Maitland wouldn’t have been in a position to do this if the crown hadn’t sold its rights to the forest to his late father for £5,468 four years previously.
Like many rogues before and since, Maitland and his cronies exploited the fear of crime to personal advantage, portraying the unenclosed forest as a haven for the lawless. It’s one of the many, many places in England claimed as a haunt of highwayman Dick Turpin, who allegedly once tortured an elderly woman into revealing the whereabouts of her cash by roasting her over a fire at Traps Hill Farm. They also argued that the forest attracted undesirables like travellers, and that allowing less wealthy locals to lop firewood there somehow encouraged idleness and antisocial behaviour. Maitland began to enclose the land, but many locals defied him by continuing to take wood, and some of them were subsequently prosecuted and went to prison for damage to trees. Prominent among the resistors was a septuagenarian woodman, Thomas Willingale, who was prosecuted unsuccessfully and retaliated in 1866 with his own court case against Maitland, alleging infringement of his rights. By this time the situation had attracted broader attention as a prominent example of the destruction of valuable open space with the spread of urbanisation, and Willingale was supported by the Commons Preservation Society, now the Open Spaces Society. The case was never concluded as the plaintiff died, but by this time the City of London had begun its own proceedings.
The involvement of the City may seem odd, but before the creation of the London County Council in 1889, it was the only authority with the power, influence and willingness to represent London as a whole, and even though it resisted proposals to extend its boundaries beyond the traditional limits of the ‘square mile’, it had long been prepared to exercise certain powers and privileges far beyond those boundaries, as we saw in the story of the coal posts. The Forest was already a recognised amenity for Londoners, with crowds from the East End flocking to beauty spots like High Beach and Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge in Chingford on high days and holidays. And as the Forest straddled several parish and local authority boundaries, there was no obvious local alternative. A Royal Commission appointed by parliament in 1875 found in favour of the commoners and declared the enclosures illegal. The next year the City bought much of Maitland’s land, except the bits that had already been built on, and in the Epping Forest Act 1878 it was declared the Conservator of the Forest, with a duty to keep it open to the public. The lopping rights were finally extinguished when the City paid a sum of £7,000, used to build a community facility, the Lopping Hall in Loughton, officially opened in 1884 by, of all people, the Rev Maitland (W R Powell (ed) 1956, ‘Loughton and the preservation of Epping Forest’ in A History of the County of Essex Vol 4: Ongar Hundred).
Today the Forest lands, though much reduced, still cover a substantial 2,476ha. The Countryway wanders through the large swathe between Loughton and Chingford in the south and Epping in the north, the most extensive and densest section of continuous woodland, including parts in the old Loughton parish that were the focus of the 1860s disputes. But the Forest area continues southwards, sometimes in discontinuous patches, driving a green wedge into east London to Forest Gate east of Stratford, as its name suggests a traditional access point and the beginning of a turnpike through the Forest. As well as woodland and open heath there are more formal areas of parkland and urban greens – most of the little green spaces around Wanstead and Redbridge are branded with the City’s arms. It’s very much like a regional park, in fact, but from an earlier century. Grazing rights still exist, and are sporadically exercised; cattle were much more common until the BSE epidemic in the mid-1990s. Ironically, the reduction in grazing and the absence of lopping has had a detrimental effect on the biodiversity of the forest, as the pollarded trees have been allowed to grow tall crowns that block out the light to the ground beneath, though this is now being addressed by more imaginative management.
This is a welcome change as overall the management approach taken by the City is rather old fashioned, in notable contrast to newer public spaces like the Lee Valley Park. One particularly pertinent expression of this is the almost total lack of signing and other navigation aids for walkers, aside from map boards at car parks and other major gateways and signs on the few routes that are also recognised rights of way, reflecting a reluctance to ‘urbanise’ the surroundings. There’s more waymarking for horse riders, but only to make sure they keep to specific tracks and don’t wander where they’re not wanted. I think this is misguided, grumpy, elitist and unwelcoming and undermines the potential of the Forest as a major public amenity, discouraging people from exploring further than familiar tracks a few hundred metres from the car parks and making them more likely to drive around it instead. Woodlands always pose navigational challenges and Epping Forest is particularly bad – every time I walk there I get lost, though I’ve taken pains here to try to ensure you don’t. There are some fine, easy to follow paths, beautiful broad tracks, often of ancient origin, with good surfaces that seem to snake on for miles through the trees, but they don’t always go where you want to go and don’t link all the major locations, tending to run generally north to south along the grain of the ridge. Away from these the paths get much more tangled and feint, especially on the generally bare woodland floor, where at particular times of the year they’re obscured further by leaf fall and mud. A well conceived, coherent and signed footpath network in the Forest would significantly enhance its benefit to health, well being and enjoyment.
Opposite the view is a big and famous pub, the Kings Oak, with a name that refers to the story about Charles I hiding in an oak during the Civil War period but which seems doubly appropriate here, and an adjoining refreshment kiosk that has served Forest visitors for many decades. Its reputation for salt beef sandwiches confirms its old East End credentials. High Beach Forest Centre stands just down from the pub in a compound that also includes classrooms for educational visits: refurbished in 2014, it’s less municipal than it once was, offers much more than I can tell you particularly on local wildlife, and has stacks of information on maps and walks.
High Beach is on a knot of longer walking routes, creating quite a tangle of green diamonds on the Ordnance Survey Explorer map, though thanks to the City’s policy you won’t find them signed on the ground. Most of them have something to do with the late Fred Matthews, a veteran campaigner and route developer for Essex Ramblers. Matthews and his regular collaborator, illustrator Harry Bitten, were commissioned by the City to create a route to celebrate the centenary of the Epping Forest Act in 1978, and came up with the 24km Epping Forest Centenary Walk, which runs the length of the Forest lands from north to south between Forest Gate and Epping. Although unsigned, the route is quite well known and the Countryway piggybacks on it for much of the rest of this section. Southwards, it provides another connection to the London Loop, at Chingford, and has been proposed as an extension to the Walk London strategic network supported by TfL. Matthews also devised the Three Forests Way, a circular route linking the Forest with two other remnants of the Forest of Essex, Hatfield and Hainault, originally devised for a 60-mile (96km) challenge walk which is still held annually. This also entangles itself with the London Loop, around Hainault Forest. The Forest Way, which is waymarked but only sporadically, is an Essex County Council-supported route developed with the help of Ramblers in the late 1970s, running 40km from Loughton to Hatfield Forest via a slightly different route that ends just short of Stansted Airport.
Our traverse is bookended by two of more difficult paths, but with long lengths of excellent forest trails in between. Behind the Information Centre it descends to Epping New Road, a reminder that the Forest spent centuries straddling a trunk road route. Up until the beginning of the 17th century, forest roads tended to be meandering tracks, but in 1611-22, Loughton’s High Road, which to the south provided a good direct route to Woodford Green, was extended northwards as Goldings Hill, through the Forest to Epping. Soon the coaches from London to Norwich and other parts of eastern England were passing through Loughton and on through the trees, where they attracted the attentions of the highwaymen and street robbers later cited as reasons to clear the woodland. Goldings Hill was still a difficult climb for horses, however, so Epping New Road was eventually opened in 1834 on a flatter and more direct route, bypassing Loughton. Until the early 1980s this modest single carriageway formed part of the A11 trunk route, but following the construction of the M11 motorway it was ‘detrunked’ and renumbered A104 to discourage long distance drivers. But it’s still a busy road and speed limits are often ignored.
On the other side of the road, you’re not far from Loughton Camp, and if you don’t make a deliberate diversion you might end up there by mistake if you don’t follow the directions closely enough, as the most obvious path leads there. A hilltop fort with a circular bank and ditch likely built in around 500BCE by the Celtic Trinovantes people, either for military purposes or simply to protect cattle, it’s one of two prehistoric earthworks in the Forest – we’ll pass by the other later. The correct route runs on a narrow and sometimes feint path through several different environments representing changing underlying soils – open heath-like areas and patches of silver birch as well as the classic woodlands with their monumental oak and hornbeam pollards. At least you get a feeling of being deep in the wood, though you wouldn’t want to get lost here with the light failing, even if you’re no longer likely to encounter footpads or angry Celtic farmers.
With some relief you arrive on one of the good tracks, Green Ride, which runs from Strawberry Hill in Loughton. The name seems slightly inappropriate as the surface is reddish with sand – it’s not sealed but it’s level and well compacted and comfortable for horses and cycles as well as human feet, and a pleasure to follow as it winds through the trees, dipping into a valley carved by a stream that feeds the river Roding. There are more ups and downs after you cross the original coach road, Goldings Hill, and a level track, the Ditches Ride, north to Jack Hill, linking two well used car parks. West of the second car park, where the three roads join, stood the Forest’s most famous pub, the Wake Arms, known in the 1960s and 1970s for its rhythm and blues and rock nights featuring among others early appearances by the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. The pub was demolished in the 1980s and a motel now occupies the site. In the other direction the road would take you more directly to Theydon Bois, but then you’d miss the strange atmosphere of the Forest’s second ancient earthwork, Ambresbury Banks.
This ancient monument is an expansive and near continuous oval 2m-high embankment and ditch encircling an area of around 4.5ha, dating from around 700BCE and likely occupied up until 42CE. The bank was once taller and topped with a fence, and the gap to the northwest was likely the only entrance, controlled by a large gate – all the other gaps are thought to have been created after the facility was abandoned. Its exact use is unknown but it might well have been one of a line of forts constructed by the Trinovantes to defend their contested boundary with their neighbours and rivals, the Belgic Catuvellauni. The local legend that Boudica, queen of the Iceni, made her last and unsuccessful stand against the Roman forces of governor Suetonius here in 61 is attractive but there’s no evidence for it – more likely the battlefield was in the Midlands, on Watling Street. But it would certainly once have been a busy place, full of activity. Now it feels very isolated in the woods – of course there are no signs pointing to it, although there’s one just off the path when you get there, so many walkers stumble on it unexpectedly – and has long been invaded not by Roman soldiers but by trees, including the wild service tree, an indicator of ancient woodland. Soak in the melancholy atmosphere even on a sunny day and you might find yourself shivering.
The original London Countryway guide, published in 1978, described a route straight on from here with the Centenary Walk to finish the section at Epping. When author Keith Chesterton revised it for the second (and so far last) edition in 1981, major construction work on the M25 was about to take place between here and Epping, so he rerouted the Countryway to Theydon Bois. The problems are long since solved – to preserve the atmosphere of the Forest the M25 runs through it in a cut and cover tunnel with a green lid, and the surroundings have been so well restored you’ll barely notice you’re crossing it. But I’ve stuck with the replacement route as the most recent and the closest to London. Even so, I’ve had to depart from Chesterton’s precise route, which heads off the main path at Ambresbury Banks alongside streams, as fallen trees seem to have made this almost impassable. I recommend clearer tracks further on and only a little further out of the way. A path that in Chesterton’s sketch map appears to run in a straight line along the backs of houses has also been disrupted by fallen trees, and pond sized puddles, so you’ll need to trust your sense of direction on the skein of informal tracks eroded by diverting walkers and unauthorised mountain bikers, keeping downhill to reach the road at Theydon Bois.
NOTE: in July 2015 I added a new commentary and route description restoring the Countryway to its original route via Epping, which I now regard as the recommended option. Read more here.
NOTE: in July 2015 I added a new commentary and route description restoring the Countryway to its original route via Epping, which I now regard as the recommended option. Read more here.
It only takes a smattering of French to identify the apparent reference in the place name to its woody location. The ‘bois’ suffix distinguishes it from the nearby villages of Theydon Mount and Theydon Garnon. You’ll risk ridicule, however, by attempting to give it the contemporary French pronunciation ‘bwa’ – locally it’s pronounced either ‘Boyce’ or ‘boys’, which may well be closer to the way the Norman lords of the manor, the Bois or de Bosco family, said it back in the 12th century. It’s not clear whether the family already had that name, or acquired it from living in the Forest.
Once this was a relatively small and minor village but the arrival of the railway in the 1860s prompted much development and the building has continued since. But it retains a rural character, albeit of a Victorian sort, thanks in part to its most striking feature, a huge swathe of a village green complete with a pond. The village sign outside the Bull pub makes for a pretty picture despite the traffic nearby, and across the other side of the green from here is a famous tree-lined avenue, Loughton Lane, planted to mark the accession of Victoria. The church is also Victorian, dating from 1850 – the original church was next door the manor house 2.5km to the south. A local rural preservation society is very active in keeping things this way and has resisted the installation of street lighting.
This most London flavoured section of the Countryway has one final London flourish in store: the familiar and distinctive red and blue London Underground roundel atop the rustic-looking station, heralding blissfully frequent services on the Central Line direct to Liverpool Street and Oxford Circus. Theydon Bois is the only genuine Tube station on the route, though the more recent orange Overground version of the roundel will doubtless eventually appear at Cheshunt and Waltham Cross. Don’t expect to descend to the depths, however, as this outlying section of the Central Line is a conventional surface railway. The station was opened in 1865 as part of the Great Eastern Railway extension of its Loughton branch to Epping and Ongar, and became part of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) in the 1920s. Expansion plans drawn up by the newly formed London Transport in 1935 included the London Underground taking over the branch as part of its eastern extension, partly prompted by a major development at Loughton. Work was interrupted by World War II and Underground trains first ran along this section in 1949. Central Line trains now terminate at Epping: the line beyond was closed in 1994 and is now part of a heritage railway.
As explained in the last section, at the time of the Underground takeover, the built up area already sprawled as far as it does today, yet the London County Council only covered a small proportion of it. People already talked of ‘Greater London’ but without an official definition. London Transport was given powers over a much wider area, so there was no reason it couldn’t run a railway out here. Eventually when the Greater London Council was created in 1964, Loughton, Epping and Theydon Bois weren’t included. Instead they form part of the Epping Forest District of Essex, which, confusingly, doesn’t cover all of Epping Forest and does cover plenty that isn’t Epping Forest. But Theydon Bois and its neighbouring stations remain on the Underground map, and even inside Zone 6 of TfL’s zonal fares structure, a privilege otherwise reserved for places in London, while extramural outliers elsewhere are allocated to Zones 7-9 or even the ominous ‘special fares apply’. It seems like some people can have it both ways in a preserved village without street lighting that still contrives to be “on the Tube”.