Squashed into a sweaty bankers armpit on the tube as he reads the Financial Times on his iPad. Dodging Friday night crowds of boozey people spilling onto the street from packed pubs. Winter skies are grey, horizontal, inert, like a battleship. The brown churn of the Thames glimpsed from a train into Victoria. Canal paths where new blocks of flats gleam like whitened teeth in rotten mouths while below immigrant families shift their tents every few nights, hiding in the low trees where the drug dealers used to play.
London is full of things, big thing like museums and theatres but it is also awash with the small, the everyday life. It’s a sweating aggregate of people trying to get by stepping over the people who are crashing out. The haves, the have-nots and the not-even-close. Money doesn’t but you more things it buys you more space. Out in zone three where I live you have more and more people pressing on aging infrastructure and underfunded services. London is as full of shitty, substandard things as it is of institutions that are wondrous and plentiful. There’s lot of everything, good and bad.
But despite its size and wealth and sweltering profusion of onjects and persons London only has one good forest.
Sure there are parks and they are generally regarded as being magnificent: Regents, Richmond, Hyde Park, Hampstead Heath, Greenwich, but there is only one Forest, one green swathe that belongs to the unglamourous edge of London, the far North East.
Epping forest. The ‘peoples forest’. My forest.
Epping is not a ‘Royal’ park. And unlike the Royal Parks there hasn’t been a rash of new monument building or architectural follies or monetising cafes that look like birch-clad icebergs. The monuments in ‘my’ forest, Epping Forest are local and old and sometimes clumsily racist in that Taxi driver way. The Gypsy monument. The tea huts are still tin shacks sitting on century old rights, serving cakes with lard in them and ‘sixties tea’ - made from syrup, burping and rumbling in large urns like gassy swamp water.
I’d spotted it first on a map. One of those old paper objects that I had bought to start planning rides into the great unknown of Essex and Hertfordshire.
A couple of things are obvious when you look at any map of my area. Walthamstow is between and ancient river and an ancient forest. The old river had been tamed over the last four hundred years into a canal and series of massive water reservoirs that stretches from Limehouse basin on the Thames right up to Ware thirty miles north. The Lee Valley was home to old warehouses and factories that used to make everything from Matchbox Toys to Bombers. The first manned flight in the UK happened on a flat patch of grass next to the canal. It is littered with Victorian brilliance - old pump stations and weirs and underground brick palaces filled with rain water. I’d already ridden a lot of this. But I hadn’t yet seen, let alone ridden in Epping Forest.
You can see the forest on the image above, a smudge of green that looks like a sausagey-balloon. The top ‘fat’ bit is around 6 miles long and 2 wide, but a narrow tail of it runs for another 8 miles, from Chingford right down to Wanstead in a narrow ribbon of green belt. And that ribbon slips by Walthamstow, about half a mile from my house. You can see that the great motorway traffic jam of the M25 makes a detour around the top of the forest and then plunges through a massive tunnel under it on its northern edge. Epping forest used to be a triangle of which the current forest is but one edge.
Without knowing much about what I would find I jumped on the Kinesis and headed up the road. I didn’t have the map with me, but thought it would be pretty obvious which way to go once I found the forest.
Well kinda. Yes it was obvious where the forest was, but once you got into it there was a problem. Navigation.
I thought I was pretty good at navigation but in this context I was crap. I was used to hills and taking lines along and up and down ridges – 3D navigation. The forest is pretty much flat, gently rolling at best, and I was submerged in foliage that looked exactly the same from one path to the next, surrounded by winding paths that had no logic to them. And the sun was in the wrong place, The South.
I had managed to orient myself to the London Streets, but now I was in the suburban wilds I reverted to thinking the sun should be in the North again. I would be riding along a path that turned and twisted on itself, seemingly laid down by rabbits on acid (later I found it the paths are made by deer) and come out onto a broad bridleway and have absolutely no idea which way to turn. It was an odd feeling. I knew there were roads less than a mile all around, but often I had no idea how they were oriented or where the road went.
In my first couple of rides I failed to find the single path that would lead me up the ribbon and into the forest proper and just rode around the local forest ‘tail’. I ended up taking the map and that old scout stand by, a compass, and after a particularly dogged afternoon, sorted out the route from Walthamstow to Chingford via the forest - four miles of thicket busting, muddy tracks, and golf course and lake skirting.
What was clear to me immediately was that this was a life saver. A Forest on my back door. An escape from the sticky closeness of London. Once you were off the main bridleway track that everyone walked on you could be alone for as long as you wanted, only passing mountain bikers, and even then rarely. This was as much a function of the foliage as anything - dense and green in summer, in winter the bare trees were like screens, like the row of fences that marches along the back of the terrace that I live on, keeping everyone safe from the terror of their neighbours.
On my Kinesis I could explore the bridleways and larger tracks but there were endless tracks that ducked off the main path, calling me to explore. These smaller tracks quickly overwhelmed the Kinesis andI realised I needed that thing I hadn’t had since I left NZ in 1995, a mountain bike.
I found a frame and forks on a bike-geek site and then a friend of a friend donated me a bike that was too small for him (and me) and I swapped the wheels, brakes and so on onto it to create something of a franken bike.
A Rock Lobster. A lovely steel frame from one of the first ever MTB brands, designed in Santa Cruz, California. A frame designed in America with Italian shocks and Japanese running gear being ridden in England. With 100mm of travel this was a smooth ride, a massive step up from my Scott. You could get a lot more travel than that but for a flat forest you don’t need more. I pretty much rode this bike every weekend I could for the next two years.
All the old feelings were there - the lovely feeling of weighting and unweighting the bike over bumps, looking for traction up a short climb, picking a line down a muddy slippery track. And being in the green shower of the forest was wonderful, a real tonic after a week in the city, after the adrenaline surges and dodge and sprint reality of commuting.
Come the weekend I would look at that map for some rough guidance and then just head off to see what was there. Initially I thought it was all pretty much the same. Epping forest is, by kiwi standards at least, flat and boring. But once you started hunting down every small track to see where it went things really opened up. Soon enough I figured out that different parts of the forest had different characters. My favourite was the steeper, less frequented northern reaches on the Loughton ridge.
The thing that I struggled to believe was that you could ride anywhere, without restriction.
The Forest is common land owned by a strange body that seems to be more druid cult than official body - The City of London Corporation. Don’t confuse this with the Greater London Assembly of which Sadiq Kahn is the Mayor, no the City of London Corporation ‘owns’ the oldest part of the London, the bit called ‘The City’. The bit where the financial services are. The bit that was Roman. I used to work on a corner of it, on a street called ‘Old Jewry St’ which apparently was a Jewish Ghetto before the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 after having been made to wear badges since the early part of that century. History eh?
Anyway The City of London is a powerhouse of anti-royal commercial wealth . It functions as a local council but behaves like more a cult of male privilege and ‘the trades’. Effectively it is also the local council of all the guilds. It’s so old there is no record of its corporation, it is legally ‘assumed’ to be a company as it was mentioned as such in the Magna Carta. Sheriffs are elected on Midsummers day. Everyone dresses up, a lot. You get the idea.
Why The City manages a Forest is a complex and odd story tied up with The City giving the finger to the Crown, who sold off a huge run of Royal Forests in the mid 19th Century. As you ride across Chingford Plain you can still see Queen Elizabeth’s hunting lodge above you and imagine the rain of arrows that would have flown down as she hunted deer and thought about poisoning the states enemies and creating centuries of oppression and turmoil in India. The hunting lodge now stands next to a Mock Tudor Pub that does smorgasbord lucnhes and is run by earnest recreationists and filled with plastic bread. Never stale, never real.
Mostly it was toffs who bought them up and, using a new run of Tory laws called the Enclosures Act, summarily ejected the ‘commoners’ off their land. 3000 acres of the Hainault Forest just up the road was cleared in six weeks around that time and is now, err, sub-optimal suburban blight (it’s where Grange Hill is set).
However with lots of reformist lefties making noise about the sell offs and a few enlightened officers inside it, the City decided to fight for the rights of anyone to enter Epping Forest, even though Epping Forest is some 6 miles from The City. With the opening of the railway from Liverpool St to Chingford many of the City and East End locals would take weekend jaunts up to The Forest and it was (and remains) a favourite of all East London and South Essex folk for a walk.
The obscure fact that The City owned a cemetery inside Epping Forest meant that is was ‘a commoner’ and allowed it to challenge the local ‘Lords of the Manors’. Being bigger and uglier than the Local Lords The City won their case and further enclosure of Epping Forest was made illegal. That’s what gives it such a crazy shape – greed forestalled, mid-development. In an act of irony the new Forest was opened by the head of the institution who had kicked off the whole commercial agenda in the first place – Queen Victoria.
So Epping is the polar opposite to the royal or regional parks. It is proper commonland as understood by Victorians. I am not sure you can graze it and there are laws banning camping and motor vehicles and a bit of control for horse riders but otherwise there is no restriction on who may use it, or in what form.
Surprisingly there is not a lot of conflict between the various users. Walkers tend to stick to the big paths which are easily circumvented by riders and horse riders have their own bridleways. Everyone seems to keep to their bit, which leaves 99% of it free for adventurous mountain bikers. There are miles and miles of small tracks dodging between low foliage right through to long ramps of earth that, in autumn, turn into great drifts of yellow leaves, under the broad, high canopy of beeches. There are favoured bits for mountain bikers, a few steep banks and the ‘bomb holes’ which are, errr, bomb holes from WW2.
In a few months I had sketched out the basics and could leave the map at home. I could ride for three hours only crossing a couple of roads. After a year I had ferreted out the hardest technical pieces of riding. The was nothing too challenging, if the forest were a ski run it would be blue, intermediate, but like a ski run even blues could be fun if you went hell for leather on them.
I’d also completed something of a cultural highlights tour as well. Pole Hill, where TE Lawrence lived in a hut with his ‘friend’. The asylum where the poet John Clare was looked after/incarcerated. I had found a deer park, a campsite, an ancient hall, a cricket pitch, iron age forts, a massive, secret rhododendron bush, dogging car parks (apparently), posh schools, churches with ancient graves and the best Sunday teas you can imagine served by a resolutely up-beat Vicar. I had even found myself in the middle of a cruising zone, hoping that I wouldn’t round a corner and compromise a loving couple.
As winter came I got to experience the famous London mud. Leafy mulch combined with chalky clay in a sticky slop. Wellington mud had been liquid, like warm blood, this was more pasty and stuck to you like plaster.
Short of a bit of pollarding nothing much seems to change in the forest but the seasons. The tea hut where the motorcyclists hang out and the tea hut where the cyclists hang out have barely changed in the 15 years I’ve been going there. The homemade cakes have lard in them and the tea is still made from syrup and bubbles in a swampy urn like it must have since the fifties.
In some ways Epping Forest was where I made contact with ‘the real England’ first. Of course I know and worked with many English people in London, but, broadly speaking, they were not that much different to me; leftish, parents, professionals and artists, drawn to the big city for opportunity.
But in the forest I made contact with a group of Sunday Mountain Bikers, a group who met at ‘the Hut’ at 8am on Sunday mornings and grabbed 2 or 3 hours of riding before returning for ‘family duty’. They were plumbers and roofers and builders and, to a man, welcoming and generous. The oldest of them was nearing 70 and the others were very proud and protective of their ‘old man’.
I would make it up about once a month and they would laugh at my lack of commitment and then we’d be off taking routes that they had shortcut names for; ‘Pole hill then the plain?’ or ‘A road down then over to the camp?’
I joined them for maybe twelve rides over a year before I got tired of stopping all the time. It’s natural to stop every now and then on a ride and wait for everyone to catchup, but they used to stop at the end of every little run, which in Epping Forest meant every couple of hundred yards. I suppose it was a measure of their ‘Londonised’ view of the world that that seemed long enough, that five minutes was enough riding before you had five minutes of chatter.
To be fair this happens here on club rides on the road too - ride for an hour, stop at a cafe for an hour ride an hour home. This drives me mental and, as much as I enjoyed learning about ‘the real England’ by listening to my English fellows most of the time I wanted to spend my three hours of riding by riding for three hours.
This is an old thing with me, as you will have noticed, riding alone. I can’t say it troubles me anymore. I have been meaning to join the local cycling club for about ten years now but whenever I go out on a ride with them I really enjoy it, but taking five hours to ride 60 miles with stops and cake is, ultimately, time away from my family or writing. I guess I hadn’t found my ‘crew’ yet, and looking at the historical evidence I probably was never going to - my last ‘crew’ was Oli and ‘the boys’ back in the mid eighties and then Dan.
Maybe I was just turning into a cranky, socially fussy middle aged man. A walrus on a rock lobster pretending to be a lone wolf.
There are forests of metaphors and mise-en-sien about forests; losing one’s way, finding it again, liminal zones of reinvention and acting out, of playing at being witches and wolves, of being alone in moonlight, of confusion and enchantment.
Being around 40 at this point Dante should have been my scribe as his forest is the primary source for middle age ennui;
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
For him it is divine love expressed through his Beatrice that transforms and saves him. What I had found in the forest was the opposite; I found pleasure in descending into the body, sinking consciousness into gravity and motion, reveling even in the slapping stings of nettle on my shins.
And beyond that the joy of not knowing where I was. At a certain stage of life even being lost is a welcome feeling. Our lives have too much imperative, too many things to do in them - there is too much pathway not enough wild. Everything is so certain and scoped and planned and bullet pointed that to be riding without actually knowing where you are for twenty minutes is a tangible, cleansing joy.
Perhaps that is why I love Epping Forest so much. You haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of getting lost in a Royal Park. You will be battered by lunch offers, artisnal coffee and heritage signage every twenty yards. So the thing that makes it ‘the People’s Forest’ is that it leaves you to get on with being yourself, without the megaton dose of aspiration and ‘experiences’ that plague the ‘better’ parks.
Sometimes worse is better. Sometimes less is more and sometimes more is more. Less bullshit, more actual forest, more places to get lost, more corkscrew trails and more uncertainty.
Lost in a forest atop a rock lobster, the picture of middle-aged absurdity? Yes please.
Next: Road rage