By Dan Carney:
Wide, flat dirt paths carving through lush woodland, open meadows flanked by wooded corridors and undulating, densely covered glades. Clusters of hornbeam, oak, and birch, many ancient, pollarded at the top to encourage further growth, presiding over hundreds of plant species; grass, herb, nettle, weed, fern, and wort. Underfoot, the fossil-rich London clay soil, hard and stiff but deceptively quick to churn during wet weather. Birdsong mingling with the low, umbilical hum of traffic on the A104, Epping to Islington, everywhere between, periodically suppressed by the sound of a plane or the sudden and invasive whooping of a siren. Bisected by both the Woodford New Road and the endless, disheveled North Circular, this is the beginning trickle, the tentative first stretch of the north-east London woodland panhandle which will open out into Epping Forest proper, and eventually creep, pleasingly, just beyond the confines of the M25. This part of the forest is a scruffy outpost, often overlooked in favour of its more storied and unbroken counterparts. There are no visitors’ centres, Iron Age settlements, or Grade II-listed timber hunting lodges here, but the paths lead, eventually, to all these things.
The first path, approaching the southernmost entrance to Rising Sun Wood, is inauspicious; a thin, dusty track, cracked and dry in the summer months, running through an open field, reassuringly parallel with the 1930s semis of Forest Rise opposite. The entrance is marked by a wooden post, painted white at the top, ground-secure in the shadow of the trees at the top of Greenway Avenue. Underneath the first flourish of woodland canopy, the path widens, becomes even and firm. The trees are tall, with dramatic branch formations exploring every possible angle. Some are hollowed out, exposing tender white bark. Dead trunk husks lie everywhere. A sparse glade foregrounds the wrought iron gate of the St. Peter’s-in-the-Forest graveyard, where the headstones are lopsided, covered in ivy, many rendered semi-legible by weather and time. The air is comfortable and still.
Just to the north is an open, unkempt meadow. Large oaks guard secretive glades along one side, hash paraphernalia and half-empty chicken boxes strewn at the thresholds. Opposite, behind the incongruously shiny Empire Lounge on Woodford New Road (“Enjoy The Food, Enjoy The People, Enjoy The Vibe”), lays Bulrush Pond. Bog-like, derelict, murky water mostly obscured by large clumps of reeds. Once there were paddle-wheel boats, ice-cream kiosks, and deckchairs, before widespread car ownership enabled the leisure-seeking families who gathered here on bank holidays to travel further afield. It’s quieter now, but by no means deserted or bereft. Joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, families on short-hop rambles, occasional equestrians, and groups of teenagers punctuate the calm, but now it’s less organized, no longer an end point but a backdrop, a surrounding, or a point on the journey. On a warm summer’s day, the meadow feels enveloping, hermetic, unconnected to anywhere else, only leading back to slightly differing iterations of itself, like a gently fluttering audio loop or blinking, cyclical visual display. Bucolic and restorative, a place to think things through, but always with something flickering away, faintly, off to the side. A made-for-TV fever dream poking through the idyll. Layers and stories just beyond the lens flare, unseen, unarticulated but ready to emerge and speak, when the wind rises and the nights draw down.
Back inside the forest cover, the track splits around a stubborn old hornbeam, its knotted roots securely encased under the top layer shingle. The route to Mill Plain is kinder here, on the west side of the A104, where there’s no need to engage with the fractured grimness of the Waterworks Corner pedestrian interchange. This is where the path breaks clear of the cover and ramps up, knobbly, cracked, onto a raised, open ridge, where the track bends gently through the long grass and willowherb. To the right is the Thames Water pumping station, its wonky rear steel fence offering negligible protection from anything with sufficient stature and determination, and the Waterworks Corner roundabout, only metres away. South Woodford to Redbridge, Barking, Beckton, Woodford Green, Loughton, Epping. To the left, the scoop of the Lea Valley. The atmosphere is sleepy and strange, ominously peaceful. Twin paths converge and slope down towards Forest Road, the occasional tent visible through the bushes, and the sharp tops of City of London buildings poke through the trees. Look into the valley-dip from the bridge adjacent and it’s Walthamstow, Tottenham Hale, Edmonton, Harringay, Alexandra Palace, Brent Cross. Stadiums, reservoirs, retail parks, antennae, the ever-present wash of the traffic, distant and interior.
On the other side, nestled behind the roundabout, is a raised, circular grass platform, flat, wide, and empty, aside from a shabby Thames Water brick hut at the edge. Marked, appropriately, as “The Circle” on Google Maps, it offers readymade laps for joggers, and numerous exits, down the tight, surrounding verge, back into the cover of the forest. Manmade and incongruent, barely visible from the road, it’s easily cast as the site for something more atavistic and obscure. A sacred place, where anonymous figures gather to offer up euphoric human sacrifices to a provincial woodland deity. A landing site for a small extra-terrestrial reconnaissance craft, carved out to order by devoted earthbound aides. A place to hide in the open. Stay too long and the joggers, smiling and efficient, assume – possibly through no fault of their own - a slightly sinister, collective aspect.
The path to the bridge over the A406, just beyond, is gravelly and uneven, bricks and slate pieces baked into the dirt, recalling the clay pits and brick kiln once residing nearby. A well-covered passage, accessible via a tight, cosy glade, runs parallel with the road, overlooking it. Thorny and narrow, discarded carrier bags hanging forlornly from bushes, a person-thin viewing corridor for the unending, thrusting snake of the daylight Walthamstow traffic. Crossing the bridge, to the South Woodford side, is a journey of metres but feels like an escape from this exhaust-choked claustrophobia into something wholesome, time-frozen, pastoral. The trackway widens, getting flatter and kinder underfoot. The canopy is less oppressive, offering a pleasing combination of light and shade. Patches of sunlight cast through the trees, dappling the floor. Little private clearings just off the main track lead into exquisite mini-mazes. To the left, an intricate branch structure built around a large horizontal trunk, and a carved stone memorial marking the birth site of a celebrated gypsy evangelist. Everything honeyed in yellows and browns. With minimal effort, you can block out the vehicle drone. Approaching the open field in front of Oak Hill, boundaries begin to dissolve; thoughts flicker and fade, hazy before they have fully formed. You start to feel drowsy, detached, separate, before the sudden rustle-rush of a small animal brings you back, sharply, to jittery alertness. You turn and hurry back the way you came. The sun hangs low and follows you, blinking and glinting through the gaps, and the temperature starts to drop.
Dan Carney is a musician and writer from north-east London. He has released two albums as Astronauts via the Lo Recordings label, and also works as a composer/producer of music for TV and film. His work has been heard on a range of television networks, including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, HBO, Sky, and Discovery. He also has a PhD in developmental psychology, and has authored a number of academic research papers on cognitive processing in genetic syndromes and special skills in autism. His other interests include walking, writing, and spending far too much time thinking about Tottenham Hotspur. Dan on Twitter.