Sunday 30 October 2016

London Loop 18/19: Enfield Lock - Chingford - Chigwell

View across the Lea Valley from Daws Hill, Sewardstone Hills

You’ll cross two of the region’s most valuable large green spaces along this section of the London Loop: the Lee Valley Park and Epping Forest. Both plunge deep into east London, bridging city and countryside, though most of our walk is outside London, in Essex, the last historic county on the Loop, even though some of it has a London postcode. It passes through the forest gateway town of Chingford with its Tudor hunting lodge, and on out of the Forest to cross the river Roding where it runs between nature reserves and lakes at Buckhurst Hill.

I’ve returned to combining two shorter sections of the Loop for this instalment. The official break point is at Chingford, and the only practical place to stop before this has a relatively infrequent non-TfL bus. From Chingford to Chigwell there are several other transport options along the way.

Enfield Lock on the River Lee Navigation

Enfield Lock

For well over a century, the name ‘Enfield’ brought to mind an image rather less peaceful than that of a sleepy Middlesex market town. Between the 1850s and the 1960s, the majority of rifles used by the armed forces both of Britain and other countries in the British Empire and, later, Commonwealth, were made at the Royal Small Arms Factory beside Enfield Lock. The most famous of these was the Lee-Enfield rifle, of which variants were used in a depressingly long list of conflicts from the Second Boer War of 1899-1902 to Afghanistan in the early 2000s.

The Lee part of the name only coincidentally resembles that of the river that passes the site: it derives instead from the designer of the rifle’s bolt system, James Paris Lee. The name Enfield, though, was applied in whole or part to most of the factory’s products, including the Enfield revolver; the Bren gun, a contraction acknowledging that this was a modification of a Czech machine gun made in Brno; and the Sten gun, combining the place name with the initials of designers Shepherd and Turpin.

The factory was founded in 1816 following the Napoleonic wars, out of frustration with the poor quality of weapons then being supplied to the armed forces by Birmingham gunsmiths. Its location on an artificial island between the River Lee Navigation and the River Lea itself provided a convenient transport route not only downstream to London but to the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey, just a little upstream (and briefly encountered on the London Countryway), as well as water power from the river. Much adjoining farmland in the valley was requisitioned for testing. The factory expanded significantly during the Crimean War in the 1850s, adopting US-style mass production methods. By the 1880s, 2,400 people worked at the site, which was then producing thousands of rifles a week.

Two world wars prompted further expansion, but in the 1950s production began to decline, and half the site was decommissioned in 1963. The remaining factory was privatised in 1984, soon becoming part of British Aerospace, who closed it in 1988. The site was finally redeveloped as housing between 1997 and 2003 under the name Enfield Island Village, incorporating some of the historic buildings including part of the original machine shop and clock tower, and an interpretation centre which is open by appointment only. A less welcome legacy also persists – in 2000 a survey found evidence of contamination from lead, cadmium, arsenic and copper, and residents are warned not to dig more than a metre into their gardens.

Despite the fame of its brand, during its working life the factory wasn’t technically in Enfield at all. It stood on the east bank of the natural course of the river Lea, and therefore over the county boundary in Essex, in the hamlet of Sewardstone. Over the years, the waterways across the site were re-channelled, and in 1993, several years after closure, the boundary of the London Borough of Enfield was extended to the River Lea Flood Relief Channel which loops to the east, partly to resolve planning powers for redevelopment.

Enfield Lock station, where the short link to this section starts, and the modest terraced houses that line the streets you follow, are all here because of the Royal Small Arms Factory. Then there’s a short length alongside the Turkey Brook again, continuing from the last section, before a foot and cycle bridge rises up ahead. This takes the Loop over the first of many branches of the river Lea, known as the Small River Lea, and the Turkey Brook bends off to the right to join it just before both merge with the River Lee Navigation a little south of our route.

The bridge continues across Mollison Avenue, the A1055 road, built in the 1980s to provide better access to the industrial estates along the Lea Valley, and named after pioneer aviator Jim Mollison. You then walk along the edge of Prince of Wales Open Space, today a rather straightforward recreation ground, but there are plans by the council and the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust to create a wetland reserve here.

The path emerges right opposite Enfield Lock itself, on the River Lee Navigation. There was probably a crude lock on the river here back in the 14th century, and certainly by 1725, predating the Navigation which opened in the early 1770s. The lock cottages and toll office date from 1889 and the lock itself, number 13, was rebuilt in 1922. The path crosses the downriver end of the lock: the row of cottages stretching to the left on the other side was built for gun factory workers, and is known as Government Row. Just beyond, and running parallel to the navigation, is the river Lea itself, with the former factory site beyond. You could explore it by turning slightly left and crossing the first bridge across the Lea, but the Loop turns right, briefly following the Lea Valley Walk along the towpath into the Lee Valley Park.

Lee Valley Park

The Cattlegate Flood Relief Channel, which now marks the boundary of London and Essex at Enfield Lock. The houses with solar cells on the left are in Enfield Island Village, on the former Royal Small Arms Factory site.

I introduced the river Lea or Lee, the River Lee Navigation, the Lee Valley Park and the Lea Valley Walk (see also Transport for London) at length when they were first encountered on the London Countryway at Broxbourne, including an explanation of the variant spellings, so I’ll keep this brief. The Lea is one the Thames’ biggest tributaries and arguably London’s second most important river. It rises on the edge of the Chilterns at Leagrave in the northern suburbs of Luton, runs roughly east and southeast via Harpenden and Hertford to Ware, then turns south via Broxbourne and east London. As tidal Bow Creek, it joins the Thames at Leamouth near Poplar, right opposite the O2 on the North Greenwich peninsula, a total distance of 68 km.

Throughout its history, the Lea has been important both politically and economically. Towards the end of the 9th century, the lower half of the river became the agreed boundary between the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex on the west bank, and the Danelaw, the part of England governed autonomously by Danish settlers, on the east. It remains the boundary between Hertfordshire and the London boroughs of Enfield, Haringey, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, formerly in Middlesex, to the west; and Essex and the London boroughs of Waltham Forest and Newham, to the east. Following various tweaks both to the boundary and to the waterway itself, though, the dividing line doesn’t always follow the course of the Lea today.

Economically, the river was a source of water for drinking and irrigation, fish and power for mills, and also a major transport corridor. One important cargo was grain, and particularly malted barley for the extensive London brewing industry, which was grown in the fields of Hertfordshire and malted in the towns of Hertford and Ware before being shipped south. Wheat was also shipped this way – at one point the abbey at Stratford had a near-monopoly on milling it into flour for London bakers – but barley was more associated with moneyed interests. It was the rich and powerful London brewers who in 1739 led the campaign to establish a board tasked with improving navigation on the river, which had particularly suffered from the abstraction of drinking water to supplement the New River (crossed in the previous section).

This campaign eventually resulted in the construction of the River Lee Navigation between 1767 and 1770, using a combination of improvements to the natural course and 18 km of new cuts to create what was essentially London’s first canal. The Navigation runs between Hertford and Bromley-by-Bow, from where the Limehouse Cut dodges the tight meanders of Bow Creek by heading straight to the Thames at Limehouse. Now used primarily for leisure rather than commerce, its management has passed via British Waterways to the Canal & River Trust.

Development on the Lea’s wide, flat flood plain was restricted by the wet conditions. By the early 20th century, the land use was a mix of water catchment and management, glasshouse nurseries, gravel extraction, remaining fragments of agricultural land, and industry along the lower reaches. The aggregates dug here, deposited in the last glacial period, helped build London, but by the 1940s the supply was nearing exhaustion, leaving an inhospitable landscape behind, and the nurseries and some of the other established industries in the valley were also set to decline.

A vision of the valley transformed into a giant recreational park for east London appears in Patrick Abercrombie’s utopian Greater London Plan of 1944, but no firm steps were taken to achieve it until the early 1960s when the mayor and town clerk of Hackney began building support for the idea among local authorities and other concerned organisations. This culminated in the creation by an Act of Parliament of the cross-council Lee Valley Regional Park Authority in 1966, funded by a modest additional charge to local ratepayers, with most of the early development of the park proceeding in the early 1970s.

Since then, the Lee Valley Park has evolved into one of the brightest of London’s green gems, with 4,050 ha of near-continuous green space stretching over 42 km from Ware to East India Dock Basin. It now includes much of the parkland and several of the venues in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, and will expand still further with the completion of the Lea River Park project to create a linked series of new public spaces between Three Mills and the Thames over the next decade or so. It’s no longer London’s only regional park – the Loop has already passed through the Colne Valley Park between West Drayton and Harefield – but it’s the only one with statutory backing, and the difference is evident in its quality, prominent identity and sense of ambition.

The 80 km Lea Valley Walk is the main walking trail through the park, essentially following the Lee Navigation towpath, though it also stretches a considerable distance further upriver, all the way to the river’s source. The southern terminus is a little more complicated thanks to access issues along Bow Creek: previously the most obvious route was along the Limehouse Cut, but ongoing work on the Lea River Park is opening up a new route called the Leaway, creating much more pleasant walks to East India Dock Basin, Trinity Buoy Wharf on the confluence itself, and the Royal Victoria Docks.

At Enfield Lock, it provides the shortest and most straightforward link between the Loop and the London Countryway at Waltham Town Lock, around 2 km to the north. A more recently-developed parallel route for cyclists and walkers, the Lee Valley Pathway, either runs jointly with the towpath or follows a more easterly course.

The Loop’s dalliance in the Park is, rather sadly, a brief one, and its time on the Walk is even shorter. Soon you pass a fishing pond, the picturesquely named Swan and Pike Pool, squeezed between the two watercourses, and turn away from the navigation to follow the river Lea itself into grassy wetlands, passing an old bridge that once connected the Royal Small Arms Factory to the rail network.

The course of the river here was diverted around 1910 to facilitate the construction of the massive 170 ha King George V reservoir, its grand red brick and Portland stone pumping station soon looming ahead. This is the northernmost of 13 reservoirs in the valley dating from the early 20th century, and still making a major contribution to London’s water supply today. The King George, named after the monarch who opened it, and its immediate neighbour to the south, the William Girling reservoir, together form the Chingford Reservoirs Site of Special Scientific Interest due to their popularity with wintering wild fowl, though admission is restricted to permit holders only.

Just before the reservoir perimeter, the Loop dodges across the Lea on a footbridge and crosses another rough grassy area. There’s something curious about these verdant but still oddly desolate patches, defined by their exclusion from the civil engineering that surrounds them, the reservoir and the various watercourses, like offcuts of cloth. Of course they’re now valued for their wildlife and recreational function, but they retain that slight feeling of being forgotten about. Soon the Loop crosses yet another linked watercourse, the River Lee Flood Relief Channel mentioned above, also known as the Cattlegate Channel. This was commissioned after bad flooding in 1947, although only completed in 1976. The high water levels of recent years have undermined its effectiveness, and still further work will soon be needed in the valley.

Crossing the Cattlegate Channel, you reach the current boundary of Greater London and enter the Epping Forest district of Essex, the Loop’s last historical county. As the channel deliberately followed the eastern perimeter of the Royal Small Arms Factory, it was the obvious option when the boundary was realigned in the 1990s. I also introduced Essex in some detail when the London Countryway crossed into it at Waltham Abbey. Its name commemorates the fact that in the early middle ages it was the kingdom of the East Saxons, and it was once much larger, including most of what later became Middlesex and Hertfordshire. As mentioned earlier, the boundary along the Lea dates back to the treaty that created the Danelaw in 878, but persisted after the final defeat of the Danes in 991.

The London Loop enters Sewardstone Marsh

On the other side of the channel is Sewardstone Marsh, which looks like a good example of the wet, flat meadows that once characterised the valley floor, although it’s been heavily restored. Prior to World War II it was used for grazing, but during the war it was quarried for road construction materials, and then used as a dump for ash and rubble from Brimsdown power station a little further downriver. Acquired by Lee Valley Park in the mid-1980s, it’s now a delightful patchwork of woodland, grassland and grazed flood meadows that provides a home to the rare early marsh orchid. There are many more wonderful sites like this in the park, as you’ll discover along the Lea Valley Path, but the Loop is eager to push on east.


Sewardstone is a straggly hamlet on the old road between Waltham Abbey and Walthamstow. Originally it was a small manor in the south of the parish of Waltham Holy Cross, centred on the powerful abbey to the north, and was once the residence of the abbey’s ‘pittancer’, the person responsible for managing pittances or charitable donations to the abbey. There are still some historic buildings, including Netherhouse Farmhouse, almost opposite as you emerge on the road: although the front wing is 18th century, the rear is certainly earlier, and it forms an attractive group with surrounding barns. The nursery and glasshouse industry in the valley later spilled into Sewardstone and there are still several nurseries along the road to left and right. To the south is the Lee Valley Campsite, operated by the park authority, the only official camping site close to the London Loop

Sewardstone holds another curious distinction: it’s the only place outside Greater London with a London postcode. The anomaly is less puzzling once you understand that postal addresses and postcodes have always served the operational convenience of the Royal Mail above popular or official geographies.

As mentioned many times here, the development of local government in London lagged a long way behind the physical development of the metropolis. The London Postal District, the area where correct postal addresses end in ‘London’ and a compass point postcode, dates back to 1856, long before the creation of the London County Council (LCC), the first true London-wide authority, in 1889. Back then, the District included substantial rural hinterlands that were serviced from post offices in adjacent urban centres: for example, post to Sewardstone has been delivered from the Chingford office since 1813.

The LCC area, when it was finally defined, was substantially smaller than the Postal District, so there were once many more places technically outside London that nonetheless had London addresses, from Brent Cross to Wimbledon. The much larger area of Greater London defined in 1965 subsumed practically all of these, and much more, but the Royal Mail stuck rigidly to its policy of ignoring official boundary changes.

This is why all the London locations we’ve previously passed through on the Loop have addresses and postcodes that refer to other towns: for example, back on the west side of the Lea you’ll find EN postcodes, for Enfield. Some of the ‘post towns’ used in outer London are even outside London itself, so Erith, where the Loop began, has DA postcodes, for Dartford. Except here, where a peninsula of the London Postal District defiantly pokes out beyond the Greater London boundary. As in neighbouring Chingford, which is now within London, the last line of the correct postal address for all the buildings you see begins ‘London E4’. Between here and the river Ching is, incidentally, the only stretch of the Loop within the London Postal District.

Sadly, Transport for London takes a less inclusive view of Sewardstone. As attested by the infrequent service, this is not currently one of those places just outside the boundary graced with red buses and Oyster readers. The 505 bus, which passes through on its way between Chingford, Waltham Abbey and Harlow, is a commercially-operated route that was almost withdrawn completely in 2015, but instead had its frequency drastically reduced.

Dark hills rear up on the other side of the valley, topped by a smudge of forest green. These are the Sewardstone Hills, and the Loop now leaves the road to turn directly towards them, crossing fields and climbing Barn Hill on a farm track. Just after the Loop joins the track, it re-crosses the Prime Meridian back into the eastern hemisphere, after entering the western at Coney Hall near Hayes (Bromley).

Rewarding the climb are the fine views across the Lea Valley that soon appear on the right. As well as admiring the extensive green swathes and the wide blue waters of the Chingford reservoirs offset by the chimneys of Brimsdown power station, you can appreciate from here quite how wide and flat a flood plain the Lea has smoothed for itself. In the distance rise the hillier parts of north London, and off to the north you may be able to work out some of the ridges the Loop has already traversed. Then, reaching the top of the hill, the trail unexpectedly diverts from the farm track at a turning that’s easy to miss, heading for the trees of Epping Forest.

Epping Forest

Carrolls Farm, Sewardstone, surrounded by Epping Forest, just a few hundred metres from London.

It seems almost unfair that, by a quirk of geography, two of London’s most extensive and impressive green spaces are so close together. And despite their proximity, the Lee Valley Park and Epping Forest are contrasting environments in a variety of ways. The former is a recent innovation in a broad, flat valley, highly accessible and well-interpreted for visitors. The latter is a more rugged place with a much longer history and sections that feel genuinely wild. The management tradition is different too, with a cautiousness about ‘urbanising’ nature that is sometimes off-putting to visitors, although this has softened a little recently. It’s still easy to get lost in Epping Forest, and although the Loop takes a relatively straightforward path through it, there are places where you need to read the directions carefully and look hard for waymarks.

I discussed the Forest in more detail on the same section of the London Countryway that introduced the Lee Valley Park, so once again I’ll summarise only briefly here. In the 11th century, it was part of the Forest of Essex, a royal hunting forest like the Forest of Middlesex on the other side of the valley, although considerably bigger, covering nearly the entire county. Like other hunting forests it included open areas as well as woodland: it’s been estimated perhaps only 20% was wooded. The forest was split up in the 13th century, with several much smaller successor forests covering more densely wooded areas. One of these was Waltham Forest, which occupied the southwest of the county between the Romford Road (originally the Roman road from London to Colchester, now the A118) in the south, and Harlow in the north.

By the early 19th century, patchwork inclosure and development had significantly reduced the tree cover and split the forest further into two discontinuous patches, Epping Forest in the west and Hainault Forest in the east. In the early 19th century, the government removed Epping’s royal forest status and sold off the remaining woodland to the lord of the manor of Loughton, whose successors attempted to inclose and develop it. This triggered a campaign of resistance which culminated in the Epping Forest Act of 1878, preserving the 2,476 ha of forest which remains today.

By then, the City of London had become involved, as the closest thing to an official expression of the public interest of Londoners prior to the creation of the London County Council. The 1878 Act confirmed the City as the official conservator, a position it has held ever since. The legacy of the City’s role in preserving countryside as a public amenity has already been encountered on the Loop, when it crossed parts of the Kent and Surrey Commons (in sections 3, 4 and 5/6), but Epping Forest is by far the biggest among its portfolio of green spaces, many of which are a long way from the ‘square mile’ itself, including considerable swathes outside the modern boundary of Greater London.

The little triangular woodland at the top of Daws Hill is only connected to the rest of the historic forest by a thin strip, though the forest lands now extend into the fields and meadows to the north, bought by the City in the 1990s. Then a short stretch along a country lane passes Carolls Farm, where there are two Grade II listed buildings creating an attractive group: a mid-16th century timber-framed and weatherboarded barn, and the farmhouse itself, largely dating from 1767 though with earlier sections. You could follow the lane, Bury Road, all the way to Chingford, but as it’s that rarity on the Loop, a country road without a pavement, you’ll likely be grateful for the U-shaped detour through Gilwell Park and Hawk Wood that shortly follows (also incidentally dipping briefly back into the western hemisphere), though it does miss out the cluster of posh houses at Sewardstonebury.

Just before this, another trail joins from a track across the golf course on your left, which the Loop follows for a while in reverse. This is the Greenwich Meridian Trail, devised by walking writers Hilda and Graham Heap to follow the line of the meridian as closely as possible through England while still providing a pleasant and varied walk. It starts at Peacehaven on the south coast, crosses the South and North Downs, passes through Greenwich and east London, runs close to Cambridge and continues across the Fens and the Lincolnshire Wolds to the Humber Estuary, with a short continuation on the other side from Spurn Head to Tunstall, a total distance of 439 km. This section launched with a self-published guidebook in 2011, and you might spot the occasional waymark installed by volunteers.

The Leopard Gate at Gilwell Park.

Gilwell Park is known to keen woggle wearers and jamboree attendees throughout the world as the home of the international scouting movement. Back in the early 15th century this was a farm, and later a smart country estate: a handsome mid-18th century farmhouse, the White House, still stands at the heart of the complex. By the early 20th century, the estate had fallen into dilapidation, and in 1919 it was bought by the Scout Association for £7,000, donated by a wealthy Scottish Scout commissioner, William Maclaren, to provide a nearby campsite for members in the East End. It’s since evolved into the Scouts’ main training, conference and events venue, with camping for up to 3,000 and events facilities for up to 10,000 people.

It houses a museum, a volunteer-run hospital, places of worship for five different faiths, and a collection of monuments and memorabilia, including a buffalo sculpture in honour of the ‘unknown Scout’ who brought Scouting to the USA, a sala containing a 1,000-year old Buddha, and Baden-Powell’s Rolls Royce and caravan. Since 2001 the site has also been the main administrative centre of the Scout Association with several hundred staff based here. It seems like an idyllic place to work, and appropriate given the organisation’s outdoor tradition, though I suspect most employees reach the office by car.

The Loop doesn’t venture into the site beyond the carved wood Leopard Gate, constructed to mark the main entrance to the site in 1928, but you can catch further glimpses into the park as you circumnavigate it, and if you’re interested, some areas are open to visitors. On the other side of the path is a covered reservoir that takes advantage of the elevated location. After a while the trail turns south, descending Yardley Hill to a valley floor. Crossing a ditch which forms an old field boundary, you walk back into London, this time into the London Borough of Waltham Forest, its name a deliberate echo of the old royal forest.

The trail climbs again towards Pole Hill and then turns off along a ridge, close to the edge of Hawk Wood. On the right here you’ll glimpse a golf course, the Loop’s first for a while. This is Chingford Golf Course, founded in 1888 as the Royal Epping Forest Golf Club but taken over in 1901 by the City, which still runs it today. Several different clubs share the facilities. For most of its existence, as if typical golfing clothes weren’t loud enough, players were required to wear a red item of clothing so they’d be clearly visible to other Forest users. The rule was only abolished in 2014.

The rather odd conifer at Jubilee Retreat.
Eventually the trail arrives back on Bury Road, briefly crossing back out of London, but now there’s a broad path on the other side, parallel to the road just inside the trees of Bury Wood, which takes it almost immediately back across the boundary. This is also the route of the Holly Trail, one of the official Epping Forest circular walks. Look out on the right for Jubilee Retreat, across the road, now used as a clubhouse but once one of several forest ‘retreats’ – late Victorian temperance tea rooms that aimed to persuaded visitors away from the local pubs. Look closely at what appears at first to be a very tall conifer in a compound next door – it’s actually a mobile phone mast disguised as a tree.


The trail soon arrives at the wide, undulating grassy expanse of Chingford Plain, the first piece of Forest land immediately to the north of the built-up area, occupying a plateau that forms part of the clay ridge between the Lea and Roding valleys. On a fine day, especially in early summer when the grass is deep green and dotted with flowers, there’s an exhilarating sense of space here. On windy winter days it seems like one of the bleakest places in London.

The original Anglo-Saxon settlement of Chingford was likely quite a long way from here, to the southwest, by an ancient crossing of the Lea at Cooks Ferry which now carries the North Circular Road. The name is thought to mean ‘ford of the stump dwellers’, the ford referring to the Lea crossing and the stumps the foundations of pile houses built to cope with the marshy ground. The rest of Chingford, away from the river, was then covered in forest, but large parts of this were cleared in the 13th and 14th centuries to create a scattered parish of three manors and various small settlements, with a single parish church on high ground at Chingford Mount.

Chingford Plain is yet another site on the Loop, after Nonsuch, Bushy Park and Forty Hall, that owes something of its current appearance to Henry VIII and his insatiable appetite for hunting. By 1544, Henry controlled two of the local manors, and set about converting parts of these and the adjacent forest into a hunting park to be known as Fairmead Park, appointing Richard Rich, one of his then-favoured cronies, as keeper. Much of the grassland was probably created at this time through woodland clearance, and one of the original ‘standings’, lodges built for hunt spectators, still commands a view of the plain today, as we shall soon see. The project proved short-lived and the site was ‘disparked’ by 1553.

Rather like the area around Forty Hall, Chingford’s development was restrained by its relative lack of transport access, although a number of upmarket country houses appeared in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Encroachments on Forest land also continued: in the 1860s the local lords of the manor inclosed and ploughed up parts of the plain, but following the Epping Forest Act in 1878, they were ordered to return this land to open space.

The arrival of the railway in 1873 triggered development around the stations, particularly just to the south of the plain around the terminus close to Chingford Green, one of the original hamlets. By 1894, the area was populated enough to become an urban district. But it only achieved its current near-completely urbanised state between the two world wars, when development sprawled north to link it to Walthamstow, incorporating it decisively into the metropolis. Technically it still remained in Essex, until finally becoming part of the London Borough of Waltham Forest on the expansion of London in 1965.

You may divert from the Loop here not just if you want to break your walk at Chingford station but also to take advantage of the shops, cafés, pubs and restaurants that line Station Road, linking Chingford Green, the station and Chingford Plain. The official route heads off across a car park just after entering the Plain and then follows the road. But it’s more pleasant just to keep ahead across the springy turf, on a path that doesn’t pass that much further from the station.

The first station in the locality was opened in 1873 on Kings Road, closer to the Green, as an extension of the Great Eastern Railway’s (GER) branch from Clapton to Walthamstow. In 1878 the line was extended to a grander terminus on the present site, then less convenient for local housing but closer to the Forest, which the GER saw as an important potential stimulus to the growing leisure travel market. The plan was to extend through the Forest to High Beach, already a popular Forest honeypot (visited on the London Countryway).

Although this scheme was never realised, Chingford met all expectations as a gateway to the newly-preserved green resource. It was at Chingford in 1882 that Queen Victoria arrived by train to declare the Forest open to the public forever. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, regular fairs on the Plain attracted huge crowds, reaching a peak on Whitsun bank holiday Monday 1920 when over 100,000 people passed through the station. Interwar development increased the railway’s importance as a commuting route and the line was subsequently truncated slightly to make way for the bus station, but the Victorian fabric is largely intact. It’s now part of Transport for London’s London Overground network. Look out for the plastic owl under the canopy of Platform 2, placed there to deter pigeons.

Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge, with new improved
Tudor monarch-resistant deer.
Back on the trail, you walk across the Plain right in front of what’s now the most historic building in Chingford, and indeed one of the finest surviving Tudor buildings in London, so it’s worth making a minor diversion for a closer look. This is the old Great Standing constructed for Henry VIII’s Fairmead Park project, now known as Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge.

The Grade II* listed building and scheduled ancient monument with its exposed timber frame and plaster infill has been much restored over the years, including a rather fanciful rebuilding in the late 19th century that resulted in the current window layout. When built, it was the only such structure in England to boast three floors, and would have had open galleries overlooking the Plain. You can imagine what a fine view it commanded from the top of the slope of the bloody entertainment below as deer were driven out of the woods.

The walls were filled in by 1608, as by then the Manor Court met on the top floor, and by the early 19th century a Forest Keeper lived on the floors below. When the court stopped meeting in 1851, the Keeper and his wife converted the space into a tea room to cater for the growing number of leisure visitors. Between 1895 and 1960, the Essex Field Club used the building as a natural history museum, after which the City of London took it on. A more sympathetic restoration between 1989 and 1993 put right some of the damage done in Victorian times, and the Lodge is now open as a museum again, with exhibitions about life in Tudor times.

Next door is a smart City of London visitor centre, the View, opened in 2012 in a late Victorian building. As its name suggests, this boasts its own spectacular (and more accessible) view of the Forest as well as exhibitions and information on forest life. And next to that is the Royal Forest, a sprawling early 20th century ‘Brewer’s Tudor’ pub-hotel that now houses a Brewer’s Fayre and Premier Inn, another of the handful of accommodation options along the Loop.

The trail finally climbs from Chingford Plain beside another celebrated venue, the Butler’s Retreat, a timber-framed, weatherboarded early 19th century building that may once have been a barn. This takes its name from its 1890s proprietor, John Butler, and is the last surviving Forest retreat still open for public refreshment, although it now has an alcohol license. It was restored as part of the same project that created the View and is currently operated by a small upmarket café chain, the Larder.

Reaching Rangers Road, the Loop meets another trail from the northeast, the Centenary Walk Epping Forest, unsigned but shown on Ordnance Survey maps, which runs for 24 km through the whole length of the Forest from Forest Gate in east London to Epping. It was devised as part of the centenary celebration of the Epping Forest Act in 1978 by the late Fred Matthews, a prominent Ramblers campaigner in Essex and a prolific originator of walking trails.

It’s still the basis of an annual walking event organised by the Friends of Epping Forest and the Ramblers. It provides another convenient link between the Loop and the London Countryway at High Beach: the latter trail actually shares the alignment of the Centenary Walk from there to Epping. The Greenwich Meridian Trail, which has pursued a slightly different route, again converges with the Loop here, then heads decisively south with the Centenary Walk towards Walthamstow and Wanstead Flats.

The Loop now keeps eastward on the other side of Rangers Road, through an area known as Hatch Forest, to encounter a pretty stream, the river Ching. This rises at Connaught Water, a lake not far to the north, and flows roughly south between Woodford and Highams Park, then curves east between South Chingford and Walthamstow to meet the river Lea just north of the Banbury reservoir, a distance of about 9 km.

As you may guess from my previous comments about the origin of the name ‘Chingford’, the river’s name is a ‘back formation’ from the place rather than the other way round: it used to be called the Bourne. Much of the Ching’s course once formed the eastern and southern boundaries of Chingford parish, and here it still represents the edge of London. As confirmed by the county sign beside Rangers Road a few metres away, once across the Ching the Loop is back in Essex, where it stays for the rest of this section.

Buckhurst Hill

Folk etymology in picture at Roebuck Green, Buckhurst Hill
The area of Epping Forest immediately to the east of Chingford is known as the Warren, as by the end of the 18th century there was a large rabbit warren here. The Loop enters it along a broad grassy strip, climbing again to reach Epping New Road, a turnpike driven through what was then deep forest in 1834 as an improvement of the coaching route between London and Newmarket.

In the 1920s this road was designated part of a major trunk route, the A11 from London to Norwich, but since the opening of the M11 it’s been detrunked and renumbered A104. The pub here, the Warren Wood, was opened shortly after the road, in the 1850s. The house known as the Warren, once one of the Tudor ‘standings’ and now the Forest Keepers’ headquarters, is some distance further up the road to the north.

The Loop continues on a footpath through another stretch of Forest and alongside a cricket ground to emerge at Roebuck Green, which still preserves some of the atmosphere of a rural hamlet in an airy hilltop location. Since crossing the Ching, you’ve been in the area known as Buckhurst Hill, once a remote and wooded western part of Chigwell parish. It was bisected by the old highway on which you now stand, running roughly north-south from Woodford to Loughton, with only a rough footpath running east-west to connect with the parish church at Chigwell. Remarkably, there wasn’t a proper road between the two until 1890.

As a buck is a male deer, and a hurst a wooded hill, the place name seems evocatively rural, but it was originally the more prosaic-sounding Bucket Hill, probably ultimately derived from the fact that beech trees grew here. A straggle of houses lay along the road, which increased in importance in the 17th century when it was extended at its northern end to Epping, becoming an important link in the coaching route from London to Newmarket. But the climb up the hill was a cause of frequent delay, and the road was eventually superseded in 1834 by the Epping New Road, which the Loop crossed earlier.

Dog rose at North Farm, Buckhurst Hill
While the various road improvements stimulated enough development to necessitate the building of a church in 1837, Buckhurst Hill only really became a significant settlement with the opening of the railway in 1856. Much of the building was on inclosed Forest land, with the most expensive and desirable properties up on the ridge, and denser housing further east into the Roding valley, closer to the railway.

You can still see this pattern today: up here there are big villas overlooking the attractive green, with Victorian semis down the hill around the station, and interwar private and social housing and flats filling in the gaps. Today, the more desirable bits are very desirable indeed: along with Chigwell and Loughton, Buckhurst Hill forms the so-called Golden Triangle of affluent vulgarity featured in ‘reality’ TV show The Only Way is Essex.

The grass and scattered trees of Roebuck Green are another fragment of Forest Land, as are the fields of North Farm which you pass on a half-hidden path between the houses overlooking the green. Once these fields were covered in a wood known as Plucketts Wood, later inclosed, largely cleared and farmed. After World War II the owner, Charles Linder, allowed local people to use the fields on the right of the path for events, and in 1956 handed their management over to Chigwell Urban District Council, since succeeded by Epping Forest District Council. The 3.6 ha site is now managed as a Local Nature Reserve, with hay meadows that are particularly attractive in early summer, and a few remnant patches of ancient woodland.

It might not be London, but they have the Underground. Crossing the Central Line at Buckhurst Hill.

The Loop descends through fine green meadows, finally leaving the Forest lands to cross the railway. This was originally opened by the Eastern Counties Railway, predecessor of the Great Eastern, as a branch from Stratford to Loughton, providing through services to Bishopsgate and later Liverpool Street. It was extended in 1865 to Epping and Ongar, and in 1948 electrified and incorporated into the eastern extension of the London Underground Central Line, thus the familiar London Tube trains you’ll see plying the route today.

The remainder of the Loop through Buckhurst Hill is amid interwar development, though part of it makes good use of the Green Walk, an old footpath retained as a feature of the surrounding housing estates, which crosses close to the shops on Loughton Way. By now you’ve descended from the ridge to the flat flood plain of the next major Thames tributary east, the river Roding, and the Green Walk heads straight for the water, its surroundings soon opening out into Roding Valley Recreational Area.

The Roding Valley

The river Roding at Roding Valley Meadows, between Buckhurst Hill and Chigwell
The river Roding rises near Dunmow and flows for 80 km, initially roughly south through the Essex Rodings, villages which are suffixed with the river’s name. It works its way southeast from Ongar to Redbridge then slightly southwest through Ilford and Barking to join the Thames at Creekmouth – or Barking Riverside, as it’s shortly to be renamed once it’s redeveloped into a massive new residential estate -- as tidal Barking Creek.

Like the Lea but on a smaller scale, the Roding has a broad, flat valley, which as you’ll by now expect has been kept largely undeveloped for water management reasons. There have been various plans for a Roding Valley walking trail but currently following the river for any distance on foot is a rather disjoined experience.

Following World War II, the riverside land here, once used for farming, was designated as an open space for the much-expanded settlement and is now known as the Roding Valley Recreational Area (RVRA), an extended swathe of recreation grounds and sports fields which straddles the London boundary. In truth it’s one of those green areas along the Loop which, though undoubtedly valuable, is currently under-utilised, and would benefit from a more varied texture. Potentially it could become almost as attractive as the Lea valley.

Roding Valley Lakes, a legacy of the M11
This section of the RVRA is owned by Epping Forest District Council, but since new parish councils were created in this urbanised area in the late 1990s, the District has been negotiating to transfer its management to them. The Loop bends round the edge of one of the recreational area’s most prominent and attractive features, one of a pair of lakes used for fishing and boating. In another echo of the Lea valley, these were converted from gravel pits used for the construction of the nearby M11 in the late 1970s.

The trail then crosses the Roding itself and follows it briefly upriver through Roding Valley Meadows Local Nature Reserve, the largest remaining area of water meadows in Essex. This ancient landscape with its small meadows divided by traditional hedgerows was preserved into the later part of the 20th century as much of the land was requisitioned as an RAF base, RAF Chigwell, in 1938.

The base was a centre for barrage balloon operations in the early part of World War II, and part of the nuclear early warning system during the Cold War. Decommissioned in 1964 and largely demolished in 1968, part of the base was buried beneath the M11, while the rest was passed to Essex Wildlife Trust in 1986. It’s particularly noted for wild flowers like the southern marsh orchid, yellow watercress and devil’s bit scabious, as well as butterflies and other invertebrates.

The trail meets a concrete track of RAF origin, and if you detour left here, you’ll find one of the few substantial remains of the site’s wartime career, a concrete apron equipped with rotundas from which barrage balloons were launched. But the main route winds in the opposite direction out of the site, past a huge private David Lloyd leisure centre that also occupies part of the old base, and along a drive first towards the M11 and then parallel with it. The trees to the north conceal one of the hidden secrets of the motorway, but we’ll shortly enjoy a better view of this.

On the right, near the end of the drive, is the former Buckhurst Hill County High School, built in 1938 and closed in 1989 when it merged with Roding Valley High School and moved to a different site. The building is now an independent Sikh faith school that goes by the rather cumbersome name Guru Gobind Singh Khalsa College.

On to Chigwell

The M11, looking north from Roding Lane bridge at Chigwell. Sliproads lead to and from the never-built Chigwell Services.

The rest of this section is alongside the road into Chigwell, which crosses the M11 motorway, the last of the family of ‘Great North Roads’ the Loop encounters, and so far, the last of the major motorways built out of London. This section opened in 1980, superseding both the A10 and A11 as a through route to Cambridge and East Anglia, and providing a convenient exit northward from east London. It also serves London’s ‘third airport’, Stansted near Bishops Stortford, which was massively expanded in the mid-1980s.

Look left northwards along the motorway from the bridge and you’ll see unsigned slip roads on both sides. These and the overbridge just visible ahead are the only obvious clues on the ground to a curious instance of unfinished infrastructure hidden behind the trees. Aerial photographs are more revealing, showing that the slip roads loop around two large semi-circular areas of open grassland. As planned in the 1960s, the motorway was intended to extend much deeper into London than its current terminus on the North Circular at South Woodford, continuing through Hackney to Islington as part of the London Ringways plan. The land here was set aside for the motorway service area that would therefore be required, to be known as Chigwell Services.

But public opinion was turning firmly against such disruptive intrusions into inner cities, and plans for the final section of the motorway were finally cancelled in 1994. This is the reason why the southernmost junction on the M11 today is numbered 4, as junctions 1-3 would have been on the continuation south. A descendant of the scheme, the M11 link road to the Blackwall Tunnel approach via Leytonstone, was belatedly completed in the face of much local opposition as a diversion of the A12 in 1999. So Chigwell Services was now surplus to requirements. The site enjoyed a brief useful life between 2009 and 2012 as an off-site logistics depot during the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, but is now redundant again, as if awaiting a new golden age of motorway building.

At first, fields on both sides relieve the road walk, but soon, chains of interwar houses snake up Chigwell Rise as the Loop descends into the valley of the Chigwell Brook to a roundabout where the Rise meets Chigwell High Road. Chigwell is another of those hydra-headed suburban villages, where the railway has created a secondary centre. The historic core is up the hill to the north, along the next section of the Loop. But the railway builders preferred the lower ground, so if you’re breaking your walk here, you’ll turn right through an area of more recent development. The High Street here is lined with 1930s shopping parades, now boasting retailers upmarket enough to match the well-heeled locals’ aspirations. Another attraction is the well-kept village green, now a little park with a colourful ‘millennium garden’.

Chigwell station dates from 1903, when the Great Eastern Railway opened a branch line known as the Fairlop Loop from its main line at Ilford to Woodford on the Epping and Ongar branch, encountered earlier on the Loop. Like the Epping line, this became part of the London Underground in 1948, with a new tunnel from Newbury Park to Leytonstone completing the now-familiar Hainault Loop on the Central Line. The connection to the main line was finally severed in 1956. The original red brick station still sits on the road bridge over the lines, recently refurbished but largely unaltered. With its elegant vaguely Dutch-looking twin gables, it provides a modestly attractive location at which to end this typically varied section of the London Loop.

Modestly elegant and decidedly above ground: Chigwell Underground station.

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