An occasional blog about walking in the edgelands of North East London and various other places

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The Heights of Epping Forest

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9 August 2015

Epping Forest runs northwards out of London along a ridge between the Lea and Roding Valleys. The highest point is somewhere near the remains of the Iron Age hill fort of Ambresbury Banks at the northern end of the forest, but all you can see from there is the surrounding trees. The height of the ground along the ridge compared to the areas on either side should provide excellent views, but only in a few places on the western edge of the Forest do the trees relent and open up glimpses of London and the surrounding countryside. The idea behind today’s walk was to re-visit these “heights” of Epping Forest.

I started by taking the bus to Waterworks Roundabout, situated above the North Circular, and walked down the road for a couple of hundred yards, before turning onto a path through the bushes and up a short, steep slope into the open space by the waterworks. My recollection was that this area, and the nearby bridge over Forest Road, provided good views over North and Central London - but today I found the sights largely obscured by the surrounding vegetation. Comparing the current view with the drawing in my old copy of Walks in London’s Epping Forest shows that the trees and bushes are now considerably higher and more extensive.

A few minutes further on I came to the footbridge over the North Circular Road, which has to cross ten lanes of traffic and therefore provides a much broader view over North London.

From here, I walked on through the thin strip of forest - on one occasion only 30 or 40 yards wide as it passed between houses - for about another mile, to reach The Charter Road. Here the forest widens out to encompass Highams Park Lake. The park itself rises uphill, but the views at the top were again restricted - although I did find one spot where the Shard, the Gherkin, and other modern landmarks of Central London were visible through a gap between the trees.

Zooming in on London’s Towers of Mammon

About a mile-and a-half further on, I reached Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, just outside the suburb of Chingford. This is the point at which the “true” forest starts, as it widens out to reach a mile or more in breadth. The Hunting Lodge itself seems to have been turned into an “edutainment” location, and I was more interested in refreshing myself with coffee and a cake at the nearby Butler’s Retreat than in investigating the Lodge.

The cafe at Butler’s Retreat

I now turned west towards Chingford, and then walked along the side of the golf course to the summit of Pole Hill, a well-known viewing point which lies on the Greenwich meridian.

A pair of cyclists enjoy their lunch and the view towards Central London at the top of Pole Hill

At the summit of the hill is a trig point and a column with two plaques - one of which provides details of the location of the meridian line, and the other explains Pole Hill’s connection with T E Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), who at one time owned 18 acres of land here, together with a hut in which he intended to print Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his account of the Arab Revolt during the First World War.

Carrying on down the far side of the hill, the path opens out into a wide grassy area, giving extensive views of the reservoirs of the Lea Valley. A mother and her two young children sat here picnicking in the grass.

Turning north into the trees, I descended to Daisy Plain, and then walked uphill again towards the top of Yardley Hill, with more views of the reservoirs. Here I came across several people picking blackberries (in the first week of August? …no wonder there are none left to pick and eat by the time they’re ripe!)

William Girling and King George’s reservoirs

The view from Yardley Hill, with the towers of London dotting the horizon

Turning eastwards brought me into a large open field, Yates’ Meadow, which provides an extensive panorama that takes in the woods around Pole Hill, the towers of Central London, and the Lea Valley reservoirs … difficult to do it justice in a photograph.

The woods covering Pole Hill, seen from Yates’ Meadow

At the far end of the meadow, a track leads into the woods and around Gilwell Park, a scouting centre which can camp as many as 3,000 people. I now walked down the centre’s driveway and out onto the road. A couple of hundred yards along the road is a public footpath, which leads steeply uphill and then into West Essex Golf Course, where it turns left and joins a bridleway that follows the ridge.

The bridleway emerges onto a road - Lippitts Hill - at the bottom of which is Lippitts Hill Lodge, which in the nineteenth century housed an asylum for the insane. One of the inmates here was the poet John Clare, who after spending four years in the asylum simply walked out and trecked back the 80 miles to his home village of Northborough, as recounted in Iain Sinclair’s book Edge of the Orison. Clare makes numerous references to the area around Lippitts Hill in his poems, and some might like to imagine him looking out at the landscape to the west from the ridge that now runs alongside the golf course. However, those who have intimate knowledge of Lippitts Hill, as well as of Clare’s poems - such as Nicholas Hagger and L.S.H. Young - believe that the references are to an area east of the ridge (Hagger’s book A View of Epping Forest contains a map detailing the whereabouts of the locations referred to by Clare).

Rather than heading down Lippitts Hill, I crossed the road and took another public bridleway. This passed a derelict barn and soon crossed an area of scrubland covered with brambles and thick bushes - a section of the bridleway that is known as Pepper Alley.

Pepper Alley

At the far end of the scrubland, I took a short detour along a public right-of-way that was overgrown by brambles. I managed to avoid the worst of their barbs by stepping over a wire fence and through a hedge opening into an adjacent field, and reached the top of a path leading steeply downhill, with views of the countryside to the north.

The view north from just off Pepper Alley

Ignoring the downhill path, I turned back through the brambles and carried on along Pepper Alley, the hedges on either side giving it a tunnel-like appearance, until I reached Mott Street.

A passageway into the light …

Following the network of minor roads for half-a-mile or so brought me to High Beach, an open area popular with families and cyclists (motor-cyclists prefer to gather at Bert’s Tea Hut, half-a-mile away), by the side of which can be found a pub, a cafe, and a tea hut. Some believe that the name should really be “High BEECH” (even the local road signs vary between “Beach” and “Beech”), but the consensus is that it is indeed “High Beach”, referring to the Ice Age sand and gravel that is exposed on the slopes near the top of the hill.

The sandy beach

The views from the top are partly obscured by trees further down the slope, but I did manage to spot the tower of Waltham Abbey poking up above the tree line.

Waltham Abbey can just about be seen from High Beach

From here, the ridge of high ground carries on north-east towards Epping, but it is thickly forested and without views of the surrounding areas. High Beach therefore made a suitable end-point for my visitation of the Heights of Epping Forest, and I wandered off to sample the cafe’s fare.