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The Countryside of East London Part 1

Walking Through Woods, Flats and Plains

I started my walk in late Autumn on the outskirts of London, and headed towards the centre of the city.

Pole Hill lies on the border between London and Essex. Climb up here on a sunny day and there is a clear view across the city with the towers in the heart of the capital appearing to be just below your feet.

But at the start of my walk on that late autumn day, a grey mist had descended and blurred the skyline of the tiny shapes with the circle of the London Eye peeping out from behind.

Mist over the centre of the city

Up here is it possible to step across the Meridian line which separates the Western and Eastern hemispheres: the exact spot is marked by an obelisk at the top of the hill.

Further down the grassy slope is the place where Lawrence of Arabia came to find peace and inspiration. He lived on Pole Hill for several years, in a simple wooden hut, a contrast to the heat and danger of his life in the desert.

Behind the hill the land falls into a deep crevice. This is the point at which the melted waters at the end of the Ice Age reached. The shape of the land and the plants that grow here are a result of what happened here thousands of years ago.

I walked along the ridge where the wind was rushing through the trees, shaking the remaining leaves off the branches. They twirled around and fell to the ground. And the clouds were blown away so that sunlight swept across the ground the turned the carpet of fallen leaves to gold.

There were more of nature's jewels to be found - a few rose hips left over from the summer and holly bushes with ruby red berries.

Rose Hips

Holly Berries

A path leads down to Chingford Plains. This was where Queen Victoria made her famous announcement: "It gives me the greatest satisfaction to dedicate this beautiful forest to the use and enjoyment of my people for all time."

The path to Chingford Plains

Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge stands proudly on the plains. It was her father, King Henry VIII who commissioned the building and there are some wonderful myths surrounding its long life. It is open to the public and inside it is easy to imagine one story in particular - that Elizabeth rode her horse up the stairs.

Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge

There is a clear view across the plains and now cattle can sometimes be seen here. Grazing contributes to bio diversity. The coarse vegetation that would choke the more delicate wild flowers is chewed and the soil disturbed so that seeds can germinate.

Chingford Plains

Join or leave the walk here Chingford Station is close by and buses 97, 179, 212, 313, 379 and 444.

From Chingford Plains the Centenary Walk takes us all the way through Epping Forest. It is signposted and there are also plain wooden posts to look out for, a welcome sight that beckons walkers on and reassures us that we have not wandered from the main path.

The Walk from here leads into Barn Hoppett where great oak trees can be admired. But a sign warns that they are under threat - from the Oak Processing Moth. They appear to be so strong and solid and yet are endangered by these tiny creatures.

The trees of Barn Hoppett

The trees that have fallen here lie in wait, transforming into mythical creatures that could come to life and shuffle along the moss covered ground.

A tree monster

The moss also spreads over tree trunks, creating a viridescent fur coating.

Moss Fur

There are strange sights all around, like the enormous cavity at the base of a hollow tree trunk.

As I walked through Barn Hoppett that day the path was becoming more and more waterlogged. London clay and centuries of leaf mould form a sticky mud that sucks walking boots into it. But through the woodland I could glimpse the open skies of Whitehall Plain. Grassland would, I thought, be easier to walk across.

There was not a single person here. In summer this is a much loved route enjoyed by visitors to the forest and this is another grazing spot for the Longhorn cattle of Epping Forest.

Autumn was turning into winter and some of the grassland was turning into a quagmire. A woodpigeon stood nearby and watched me as I squelched past. Hopefully the path ahead would be easier to navigate.

Join or leave the walk here bus 179. A short walk to buses 212 and 444.

From Whitehall Plain the path leads alongside Hatch Grove and Bluehouse Grove which is full of bluebells in the Spring. But on that Autumn day there was no blue haze although there are other colours of the spectrum such as colourful fungi.

Colourful Fungi

And there are many different shades of green - the deep green of the holly leaves, thick and sturdy and prickly, contrasting with the soft lushness of moss that creeps around the tree trunks and branches. This tree was shaped like an elbow.

Elbow Branch

Hatch Grove and Bluehouse Grove are ancient coppice woods. Coppicing, lopping and pollarding are similar: branches and shoots are cut back to provide materials and fuel. This does not harm the trees - on the contrary woodland that is managed in this way is healthier.

The River Ching winds through the woods here, curving wide and deep. Water that flows naturally tends to meander. Initially this is caused by the movement of The Earth and then other forces of nature force it to go this way and that.

I followed the stream until I reached Hatch Plain.

Hatch Plain

Join or leave the walk here - buses 212, 357 and 444

Across Chingford Lane there is signpost that points in the direction of Highams Park. Along the way there are more trees that grow in strange shapes.

One appears to be a giant worm.

The Giant Worm

Another looks like it is tying itself in knots.

A knotted tree

The sky above the lake was beginning to cloud over. But some sunshine lingered and lit up the trees on the other side of the water.

Highams Park Lake

There was once only a narrow strip of land that joined Hatch Plain to Walthamstow Forest. Highams Park was a private garden and the lake formed by damming the River Ching. When the park became part of Epping Forest it formed a link in the chain of green spaces, much wider now so flora and fauna could spread and travel along it.

On the grass hill by the lake the paths are wide. They were once roads that were laid here when an estate of pre fabs - temporary homes - sprung up here after the war. One building remains: people who lived here as children remember going to Sunday School there. And now it is a very popular and much loved cafe - Humphrey's, named after the designer of this park.

The hill is open space once more. Swans drift across the lake - it is a tranquil scene. But beneath the surface there is danger. The swans have been seen drowning goslings and chasing their own sons and daughters away once they are fully grown. They have to be removed and taken to a new home for their own safety - and the more aggressive swans have also been relocated.

Join or leave on bus 275

Autumn was fading away and he darkness of winter approached. I would continue with the trail through Epping Forest later but now I decided to explore three rural locations that have been preserved for centuries amongst the roads and houses of East London - two ancient woodlands and a nature reserve.

Pimp Hall Nature Reserve is all that is left of the farm that was here for many centuries. There is a path that leads from Barn Hoppett to here - along the way of the Old Road which King Henry VIII used to travel from the hunt to the farm. The dovecote is still standing here. It was once used for breeding hundreds of birds at a time and was a much valued asset at the time of the plague in 1665.

The Dovecote

On this winter's day the sun was shining low and bright, drawing me in to the woodlands.

Sun shining

Birds were singing in the trees, accompanied by the percussion rhythm of a woodpecker. I stopped to see where the sound was coming from - it was from the trees across the grass.

The woodpecker - heard but not seen

The frost had not yet melted and the scattered leaves sparkled in the sunshine.

Frosted leaves

Finally, I came across what I had been longing to see: a flower, just one on its own, but a sign of the spring to come.

A single primrose

On a previous evening, as darkness fell, flickering lights could be seen at Pimp Hall. They were tiny lanterns, carried by children who were taking part in Wassailing. This is an ancient English tradition, dating back to the Anglo Saxons, to bless the trees and ensure a good harvest.

Buses 179, 212 or 444

Larks Wood is one of two ancient woodlands that have survived for hundreds of years in this locality in East London. As I arrived at the path that led into the woods I stopped to look across the field and in the distance there was Alexandra Palace, rising up on the horizon.

Alexandra Palace on the horizon

Inside the woods the trees were bare and looking up their tangles of branches were clear against the blue sky.

A tangle of branches

Squirrels scampered around on the ground and darted up tree trunks, looking down from the safety of the branches high up.

A squirrel keeping a look out

Even in these small woodlands it is all to easy to lose your bearings. But around midday on a sunny day it is easy to find the compass points. Your shadow points North; raise your left arm to point West and your right arm to point East.

My human shadow compass pointing West

Now I knew which way to go I set off up and over the hill.

One of the two hills of Larks Wood

And on the other side of the hill I came across this mini monster in the undergrowth.

A 'mini monster' rears up

In nearby Ainslie Wood a path leads around the thicket, linking the three entrance gates so that local people can take a short cut to and from the railway station, the school, shops and their houses.

The path in Ainslie Wood

In the middle of one of the paths it appears that the giant foot of a monster is stamping on the ground.

A giant's foot

Somehow your mind is free and your imagination is sparked by being in nature.

Buses 212 and W16, Highams Park Station

And now it was time to return to the Centenary Path through Epping Forest a the place I had left a while before. I would follow the trail through Walthamstow Forest.

It was a gloomy day which somehow seemed fitting for some thoughts about what and who had been long gone from here. Over to the left was the spot where Rodney Gypsey Smith was born and lived with his family in a tent. He became a successful evangelist, travelled to America and was awarded an MBE. The stone that marks the spot where he was born, not far from the site of the Walthamstow Windmill that dated back to 1676 and remained here until the early 19th century. There is no trace of that now.

There is litle trace of another industry that was quite extensive in this forest: brickworks. But walk along the Bridle Path and fragments of bricks can be found - remnants of the products from a huge factory that would have been bellowing out smoke acoss the trees.

A dull winter day

There was little colour on this winter day - just a smattering of holly berries.

Holly berries in Walthamstow Forest

I wandered off the main path and came across some trees growing in strange shapes like this bendy tree.

A bendy tree in Walthamstow Forest

When I arrived this pond - once a boating lake but now swamp like and full of reeds - and I knew that I had reached the other end of the forest.

The pond in Walthamstow Forest

I stopped then at St Peter's in the Forest, built as a 'chapel of ease'. As the roads and houses of Walthamstow spread further and further East the Parish Church of St Mary's would have been some distance away from people who lived here in the Victorian age and so this church was built for them.

As I arrived that day I could see smoke billowing from near the church and came across a fire pit, surrounded by logs for people to sit on. This is the only fire pit allowed in Epping Forest and there are strict rules about who can light it. Forest fires are a terrible threat to the forest in summer.

The church yard is a perfect place to stop and sit on a bench. It feels welcoming and cared for. Little wooden signs hang on trees to tell you about them.

Holly sign

Hawthorn sign

The other side

The day that I visited was Candlemass Day - 2nd February. It is the day that is half way between mid winter's day and the first day of spring - the equinox. Celebrated by pagans, it is also an important day in the church calendar, when it is remembered how Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have visited the temple with her baby.

And here there were signs of spring: snowdrops and crocuses appearing amongst the gravestones.



Join or leave the walk here buses 20 and 230

Whipps Cross roundabout is nearby with buses 20, 56, 230 and 257


The Centenary Walk continues on the other side of the main road, alongside Hollow Ponds and across Leyton Flats. Hollow Ponds were created from gravel pits that were used to provide unemployed men with work during the 1930's. The much smaller one is remembered by older people who came here as children to paddle and sail their toy boats.

Now this hollowed out giant bowl is filled with reeds. And at the other end of the ponds, a strange sight: swans were lifting themselves out of the water and marching in a line towards someone with a big bag of duck food. From across the flats came a band of Egyptian geese, walking in formation towards the swans. And from the other direction, a group of Canada geese.

Even on a winter's day there is wildlife to see and vast swarthes of green - so relaxing and restful for tired eyes.

Leyton Flats

On Leyton Flats, over towards the Eagle Pond, is the Birch Well. I have tried to find it, without success, although a rusty standpipe I came across once seemed to be what remained of it. Other people have shown pictures of a metal grate which they claim is the cover to the well.

I think I prefer to picture it in my mind - this enigmatic and elusive reminder of days gone by when people came to the well, carrying buckets for the fresh drinking water.

Leave or join the walk at Green Man roundabout - buses 66, 145, 257, W13, W14 and W19

The next steps must be taken quickly down the path under the Green Man roundabout where wide, noisy roads plough through the forest. Nearby the Leyton Stone can be found - a restored milestone and close to the spot where a Mail Coach Robbery took place in 1757. This was a place of danger along the highway that links London to Essex.

Soon the path can be found leading into Bush Wood.

Bush Wood

Around the bare trunks and branches of the trees there are dense thickets of green, prickly leaves of the holly and gorse bushes. The path leads onto Wanstead Flats. The clouds began to clear so there was at last some blue sky.

Blue sky over Wanstead Flats

The trees were black against the sky.

Trees on Wanstead Flats

The ground beneath was spongy like a worn carpet. On the flats there are low growing shrubs and heather, gorse scrub and bare ground. This is heathland, where these plants thrive in its acid soil, low in nutrients and free draining. This creates the perfect environment for meadow pippits and sky larks.

There are also thickets of gorse and broom, small woods and copses which have 35 species of tree, with many different varieties of hawthorn.

And so at last I arrived at Forest Gate. The gate to the forest is long gone but the name endures - the entrance to Epping Forest where town and city dwellers came in days gone by to claim their Turbary Rights and to dig up peat for fuel.

And here is the start of Epping Forest, which still hugs the outline of our sprawling capital and forms a green barrier around its eastern points.

And the beginning of a path which continues for many miles within the boundary of London and out to the county of Essex.

Forest Gate

Wanstead Park Station and Forest Gate Station, buses 25, 58, 86, 308, 325, 330, 425 and 678

Forest Gate Station for the Elizabeth Line to Stratford and the next walk


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