TEMPORARY ARRANGEMENTS HAVE A HABIT of becoming permanent if people forget the reasons why they were temporary in the first place. So it’s been for most London Countryway walkers over the past 30 years or so when they walk out of Epping Forest and on through the Essex fields towards Brentwood. The original route, as devised in the 1970s and first published in book form in 1978, ran via Epping itself. But when Keith Chesterton, the Countryway’s originator, produced the second edition in 1981, the M25 orbital motorway was due to be constructed right across the path. So to avoid issues with years of disruptions and diversions, and uncertainty about the end result, he deflected the route via Theydon Bois.
Though the paths concerned have long since been reinstated with minimal impact, because that 1981 edition hung around a lot longer than its predecessor, the diverted route became the default version, and was the one I described on my first walking of the route. Now, Theydon Bois, with its Victorian village atmosphere and Olympic-sized green, is a pleasant enough place to start or finish a walk, and the journey that way is up to 2.5 km shorter. But Epping is a historic market town at an ancient road junction, a gateway to the greatest surviving stretch of forest on the London fringe, and, since 1994, at the very end of London Underground’s Central Line, a symbolic rural extremity of the metropolis. So I’m pleased to offer a restored version of the original London Countryway, which I now unhesitatingly recommend as the preferred option.
As both Epping and Theydon Bois are staging posts, the changes affect both the end of one section of route description and the beginning of the next, and to save confusion I’ve produced complete alternative versions of both which you can download below. This commentary, though, only covers the altered sections of route. So see my original post on Broxbourne to Theydon Bois for contextual information on the Lee Valley Park and Epping Forest, up to and including the prehistoric fort at Ambresbury Banks, just before where the two alternatives diverge.
|M25 glimpsed from just above the eastern portal
of the Bell Common Tunnel
It is in fact a giant lid over the M25 London orbital motorway. Proposals in the 1970s to build a conventional surface motorway across the Forest met with vociferous opposition, not least from the influential City of London in its role as conservator. So instead the M25 was routed across this northeasterly edge of the main swathe of woodland, squeezed between the trees and the urban development of Epping in a cut-and-cover tunnel crowned with a 600 mm layer of topsoil to preserve the continuity of the open green space. The 470 m-long Bell Common Tunnel took two years to construct, opening in 1984. The motorway isn’t quite invisible or inaudible but it’s easy to miss unless you’re looking out for it. The short path you follow immediately after crossing Theydon Road runs right across the top of the tunnel’s eastern portal: crane over the wall to the right and you’ll see the traffic roaring beneath.
|Gorse on Bell Common, Epping
A story that Epping was established principally to maintain the beacon is unsubstantiated and unlikely to be true, but the importance of the common to the settlement is indicated by the fact that the old manor house, now divided into two and known as Epping Place and Winchelsea House, still overlooks it. This house is but one of numerous listed and other locally important buildings, some dating as far back as the 16th century, including some weatherboarded cottages.
The route brings us to the Forest Gate Inn, a sprawling pub with adjoining restaurant set back from the road, its name recalling the nearby tollgate established when the High Road became a turnpike in 1768. The actual gate was just a little to the northwest, at the junction of High Road and Theydon Road. On the street itself right next to the pub yard is a bed and breakfast guest house, the Gate House, and across the other side of the common, the eponymous Bell Inn, rebuilt around 1900 and turned into a ‘motor hotel’ in the 1960s, continues to offer accommodation as the Best Western Bell Hotel.
The original Countryway route grazes the common just short of the Forest Gate Inn before heading down a bridleway to another outlying neighbourhood with the picturesque name of Ivy Chimneys, a strip of houses and a school with a bus stop labelled The Spotted Dog recalling yet another pub closed and demolished to make way for a housing development. From here there’s a road-based link to the station along Centre Drive; alternatively you can continue across the Central Line, climbing through fields towards Gardeners Farm, with open views back towards Forest, common and town, and the red, white and blue-liveried Tube trains looking incongruous as they snake through the rural surroundings.
The route through Ivy Chimneys is still the shortest way to go if you don’t plan on breaking your walk at Epping, but if you do, I recommend sticking instead to the Centenary Walk, which strikes out down the centre of the main grassy strip. On your right, on the south side of the common, is a secluded row of houses mainly built between the 1960s and 1980s, with some older buildings, while on your left you’ll glimpse the Bell Inn and old manor house along the High Road, lined by an avenue of trees planted to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1898.
The path then swerves southeast through another tranche of open space, picking up the alignment of an old avenue, Western Road, to emerge amid the postwar development of Centre Drive, continuing along an urban footpath to the station. From here the town centre is a worthwhile detour, or you could simply cross the common to the High Road and arrive in Epping the way generations of travellers have done.
|St John's Church, Epping
A church already stood at Epping Heath, now a southern suburb of the present town, and the settlement was granted a market charter in 1253. Following dissolution in 1540 the manor passed into private hands: a Countess of Winchelsea held it in the 1630s and redeveloped the manor house. But the population remained low and buildings scattered until road improvements prompted the slow development of a linear village to the northwest of the church, along the line of what had become the main road.
While the way northeast towards Harlow had long been relatively direct, the thick barrier of the Forest obstructed a good connection to London in the opposite direction, with only a convoluted route. In response to the growing importance of the metropolis, in the early 17th century an improved road was cut through the trees to Loughton as a southwest continuation of the High Road, today the route of the B1393 to Wake Arms roundabout and then the A121 Goldings Hill. In 1768 this road was turnpiked and further improved by the Epping and Ongar Highway Trust, and coaches from London to East Anglian cities like Cambridge and Norwich started to pass through the growing town, with support services like coaching inns expanding accordingly.
25 coaches a day were passing through by the early 19th century, their journey made easier in the 1830s with the opening of an even more direct route through the Forest, Epping New Road from the Wake Arms to Woodford, avoiding several steep climbs. This traffic started to subside soon afterwards under competition from the railways, which didn’t reach Epping until 1865, and then only via a branch line. Epping’s wayside fortunes changed again with the development of motorised transport: in the 1920s the New Road and High Road were designated part of the A11 trunk road and for much of the 20th century through traffic from London to Norwich thundered down the High Street. With the opening of the M11 between 1975-80 the worst of the traffic was diverted, and the old route was subsequently renumbered to further discourage its use.
With the shift of activity towards the High Street, the little 13th century flint rubble church of All Saints in what was now a southern suburb lost its importance. A chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist had stood on the main road overlooking the marketplace and the corner of the common almost as long as the church, for many centuries sharing an incumbent with All Saints. In 1888 the chapel and the church swapped status, and between 1889 and 1909 a huge new building in Gothic revival style took shape on the former chapel site as the main parish church: it’s this that now dominates your view as you emerge at the town centre from the station. All Saints was reinstated as a church again in 1912 when the parish was split, though today both fall under the same “district team ministry”.
The High Street is now a conservation area, with some other interesting buildings scattered among more recent and bland commercial development. To your left at the top of Station Road are several 18th century cottages opposite a pleasant green; further down towards the common is a turreted Victorian Gothic water tower built in 1872, now at least as prominent a landmark as the church. The market place, in operation on Mondays, is opposite to the right, past the church, and several of the buildings behind it are also listed, including some former coaching inns. The red brick council offices with their distinctive clock tower at the northeast end of the street, dating from 1999, were deliberately designed to provide a further balancing landmark.
|Epping London Underground station
Indeed the station and line were 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 by tacking it on to an eastern extension of the Central Line at Stratford, partly prompted by a major development at Loughton. Work was interrupted by World War II and Underground trains first ran along the route in 1949.
As explained elsewhere, 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 within the current London boundaries 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 Epping and its neighbouring stations remain on the Underground map, and even inside Zone 6 of TfL’s zonal fares structure, among only a few stations outside London to be accorded this honour.
Until 1994 Tube trains continued through even more rural surroundings to Ongar: one of the intermediate stops, Blake Hall, had the dubious distinction of being the least-used station on the Underground, with only 17 passengers a day when it was closed in 1981. The line on to Ongar still exists: you can view it clearly from Epping station. Ten years after closure it reopened as a heritage railway, but this ceased in 2007 following a change in ownership. Since 2012 it’s been open again as the Epping Ongar Railway (EOR), with both steam and diesel trains on summer weekends and bank holidays and some other times, but sadly they don’t reach Epping, as they’d interfere with Central Line operations. The closest they get is a sightseeing stop with no boarding or alighting about 100 m away, though there’s an aspiration to build a short spur to a new platform. Meanwhile the EOR runs a connecting heritage bus between Epping and the surviving intermediate station at North Weald.
Essex Way, which you’ll spot signed from the station and which the Countryway follows very briefly as it continues east. In 1972 the local branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE, then known as the Council for the Protection of Rural England) sponsored a competition to devise a long distance walking trail for Essex, which was won by the students of Chelmsford Technical High School. The route they proposed was later signed with the support of Essex county council, initially with dark green waymarks showing the CPRE logo, but most of these have since been replaced by new council waymarks depicting two red poppies.
As it passes close to Harwich International with its twice-daily ferries to Hoek van Holland in the Netherlands, this is also a trail with international connections, and the section approaching Harwich forms part of the northeastern branch of European long distance path E2, the southwestern branch of which we’ve already encountered between the North Downs and the Thames.
On to Theydon Garnon
On the other side of the Central Line the route heads south again through the former area of Epping Heath, descending the valley of a small brook that eventually feeds the river Roding. All Saints, the original parish church mentioned above, is just off the route along All Saints Road. Although according to Nicolas Pevsner it’s “badly over-restored” following extensive work in 1878, it still preserves 13th century stonework and a late 16th century tower.
The path rising up the other side of the valley towards Gardeners Farm is hard to spot, accessed through a gate next to a giant luxury thatched house behind forbidding fences. You pass the playing field of Coopersale Hall School, a private day school now occupying part of one of several rural estates in the area, Copped Hall. The present Coopersale Hall dates from the 1770s and has been a school since 1989. At the farm, the path meets the route via Ivy Chimneys.
When I walked through in May 2015 there were issues with electrified rope obstructing the route here, with rights of way following vanished field boundaries clearly not working well alongside the current owner’s desire to subdivide the space as horse paddocks. According to the Ramblers’ local footpath secretary, a procedure was in progress to divert the path to the benefit of both the owner and walkers, which Ramblers volunteers then plan to waymark, so look out for new signing across the site, which should lead you across the paddock and down steps to the bottom of the motorway embankment. Update October 2018. I'm told by London City of Science (see comments below) that the signed diversion is now in place, and additionally avoids the steps.
|Subway under M25 near Gardeners Farm, Epping
In the early 2000s this large site was earmarked for the development of a golf course, but from 2003 the owners began illegally using it as landfill for construction waste, claiming this was a form of landscaping. Ironically, not only did this play havoc with the environment, it also slowed the progress and disrupted the enjoyment of Countryway walkers on the Theydon Bois diversion rather more than a motorway construction crew might have done. Including me: when I first visited in 2010, the site was a sea of mud dotted with dangerous pits, with thick layers of earth rucked up as if by some geological catastrophe, and the right of way was impossible to follow.
Following local protests, the landfill was finally stopped and while the land is starting to recover and prominent waymark poles have made it much more navigable, it still has something of the blasted alien planet look about it. Next up is another spooky subway, this time under the M11 just south of its junction with the M25 (junction 6 on the M11, 27 on the M25). This is the road that has superseded the old coach route through the Forest and along Epping High Street. It has its origins in proposals for an ‘Eastern Avenue’ dating back to 1915, but this section only finally opened in 1977.
The M11 also marks the point where both the 1978 and 1981 versions of the Countryway converge again. So if you want to read more about what lays ahead as the route embarks on one of its most rural and remote sections, linking a string of hilltop churches though the Essex countryside on its way to Brentwood, you’ll need to refer to my previous post.
- Read the full route description from Broxbourne to Epping (PDF)
- Read the full route description from Epping to Brentwood (PDF)
- View the Google map