First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The wind nipped at our heels as we left the tube train at Loughton and climbed the hill behind the little Essex town. Handsome red brick villas lined the road, proclaiming this the Metroland that the railways brought into being for Edwardian commuters to the city.
At the crest of the rise a few steps plunged us back into the medieval England of great hunting forests and the footpad-haunted wilds that all travellers feared. Epping Forest today, 6,000 acres of tree-smothered uplands, is only a shadow remnant of the sprawling Royal Forest of Waltham that once stretched away from London. But walking the broad tracks under these old beeches and hornbeams with their green sinewy limbs, you still catch the silence and solitude of proper deep woodland.
Long-tailed tits flirted their tail feathers and squeaked in miniature voices among the bare boughs. There were goblin faces in the contorted trunks of beeches unpollarded for a century or more. The circular embankments of Loughton Camp, an Iron Age enclosure where Whitechapel highwayman Dick Turpin kept a hideout, lay screened among trees that spread their own witchy darkness around themselves.
If it hadn’t been for the lobbying of far-sighted Victorian campaigners, Epping Forest would have been nibbled away to nothing by smallholders, squatters and developers. The 1878 Epping Forest Act put a stop to all their encroachment, and today’s walkers, cyclists and runners are the beneficiaries.
The wind made a seashore roar in the treetops, but down at the roots of the forest hardly a breath stirred the leaf carpet. We followed the well-made path north-east, revelling in the silence and the earthy scent of millions of trees.
Beyond Jack’s Hill the landscape changed character. Heathy patches of birch scrub and bog appeared in wide clearings and the tree cover thinned as more blue sky spread overhead. The ramparts of Ambresbury Banks, another Iron Age ring fort, stood naked and tall, studded with smooth-trunked beeches.
The sigh of the wind gave way to the muted roar of the M25. We crossed the motorway, turned our backs on the massed trees of the forest, and dropped down to Epping tube station with wide views opening across the Essex ridges to the far blue hills of Kent across the unseen Thames.
Start: Loughton tube station (Central Line), IG10 4PD (OS ref TQ 423956). Finish Epping station, CM16 4HW.
Getting there: Underground rail to Loughton. Road – Loughton is off M11, Jct 5.
Walk (7½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 174): From Loughton station, to main road; left across bottom of Station Road; up Old Station Road with Sainsbury’s on left. Over roundabout; up Ollards Grove. At top at Forest View Road (418961), left along path. At road, right; in 200m, left (418963) through car park, past ‘The Stubbles’ sign. Across grassy hill; into trees; in 150m, right at Strawberry Hill Ponds (414965) along broad, flat Three Forests Way (3FW).
In 300m cross Earl’s Path (416967); take right fork. In ¾ mile, just past Loughton Camp, 3FW forks left (421977), but keep ahead along The Green Ride. In 1 mile cross A121 (429986); bear right through metal barrier, then follow path round to left and on. In 600m at Ditches Ride T-junction (434989), left to cross B172 at Jack’s Hill (435996). Keep same direction past Epping Forest sign, and on.
In nearly 1 mile at Epping Thicks, with tall post on left and short one with yellow arrow on right, keep ahead at fork (444004). In ½ mile, at Ivy Chimneys, left along road (450011). Fork right along Bell Common. At end of houses (454015), right; just before Hemnall House, left through hedge; right down grassy slope; left at bottom on green lane among trees (‘Centenary Walk’ on OS Explorer). At road (458013), left round Western Avenue. At T-junction, left along road. In 250m pass Woodland Grove on right; in 30m, right (460016, ‘station’ sign) to tube station (462016).
Lunch: Forest Gate Inn, Ivy Chimneys CM16 4DZ (01992-572312)
Accommodation: Premier Inn, The Grange, Sewardstone Rd, Waltham Abbey EN9 3QF (0333-321-9123)