This month’s column comes in advance of Luke’s appearance at Stoke Newington Literary Festival on Friday 3 June, where he’ll be getting down and dirty as he tells salacious tales of Epping Forest. More info/tickets here. Luke will also be sharing his thoughts on the utopian possibilities of Epping Forest at the next William Morris Gallery Late, a free event taking place on 9 June.
Words and pictures: Luke Turner
The grass is short and green on the fringes of Chingford Plain nearest to the station, masonic hall, FLABéLOS fat removal clinic and golf club. It’s not quite a suburban park, but close enough. In these shallows of Epping Forest, a group of middle-aged women in pastels circle around their lithe instructor as he encourages them to lean and stretch against hiking poles. An Asian man riding by on a mountain bike grins at me as his huge dog bounds alongside him. Out on the landing strip for model aircraft mown into the longer grass a group of lads are racing radio-controlled drones. The electrical hiss of a bright LED-covered flying cross zips the sky apart as it whirls around my head, performing stunts against deep blue and silver clouds that hang over London. To the north, thick grey rain smears over the glow of the sunset. I’m in a pincer between a storm and the night that creeps from the east.
The high-pitched sigh of the drone recedes as I wander towards the treeline through hip-high grasses, bramble patches and white blossom geysers of hawthorn. They’re interspersed with thicker-trunked oaks on the way to becoming standard trees in the front line of Epping Forest’s invasion of the open grassland. I walk into them as if wading from a beach into the deepening waves of a sea.
Even in the daylight the darkness of woodland can oppress, horizons lost in the density of the trees. Now that the spring canopy has shivered out across the branches above and closed between me and the coagulating sky, night falls before the sunset. The equilibrium of my senses gradually starts to skew, eyes struggling to accustom themselves to the gloom, the contrast creating a white mist in the middle distance. Green slips from the fresh spring leaves as if their chlorophyll was being sucked down into the soil. Around me pollards and underwood are dark irregular shapes, more shattered metal and rock than anything alive.
I’m a worrier, prone to nightmares, paranoia and doomy flights of fancy. I came up here for air after a day of hunting flats via Gumtree posts written in block capitals as chunky as the ugly divan beds in the properties bloodsucker estate agents hawk at inflated prices. But nature doesn’t always work as stress relief. The not-quite silence and the draining of the vivid colours of May start cleaving my anxieties to more lurid, ludicrous thoughts. I feel my mind begin to slip.
Epping Forest was saved as a pleasant spot for Londoners to escape to for the good of our health, but it’s also a reminder of just how starkly we’re conditioned by our urban surroundings. I’ve never lived in the rurals and my 16 years in London have made the splintering grind of tube wheels on rails, an open corner shop door or growling traffic rather comforting. I’m fortunate to be a fairly tall and broad-shouldered white male, and it’s a privilege to rarely feel afraid in London. A couple of attempted muggings feel small beef compared to how the face in the pollarded knobble of that beech is peering at me and who is that man sat under Grimston’s Oak wearing a balaclava and what is he reading? It’s not the pitch dark that’s hard work, but this suggestive gloom of the surrendering day.
The thin and crackling paper in the Epping Forest archive is covered in copperplate handwriting and fading type detailing the horrors that London has squeezed from its streets and concealed under the oaks and beeches. Corpses of abandoned babies, wrapped in pages of the Daily Express and tied neatly with string. The centuries during which the forest was one of the most dangerous places near to London, ruled at night by vagabonds, highwaymen and other murderous rogues. One dark evening my cousin saw lights as he drove along Rangers Road. He thought better of investigating and read a while later of a brutal murder, a body dumped in the forest just where he’d been. In the late 19th century there’s an account of a man who bade ‘good day’ to a courting couple before walking on for a few more yards and, drawing a pistol, blew his head off. Saskia ended up in a shallow grave after she was killed by Steve Owen in the Valentine’s Day 1999 episode of EastEnders. Epping Forest has a hold on London’s myths and nightmares alright and they’re creeping their way into my waking mind right now. I think of how the Victorian popular press made a sensation of the clothes of the discovered dead: ‘Adult male late 30s… walking boots… polyester trousers, Farah… white cotton shirt… army surplus smock… spare phone battery… rucksack contained only a scuffed birthday card and in his hand he grasped a map’.
A couple mooch past content and unconcerned as I linger in the light of the Fairmead glade watching a thrush gabble away across the scales. It sounds deranged. Once back under the trees I can’t stop twisting in all directions, senses straining, hearing voices that turn out to be joggers who sweat past talking loudly about a mates weekend away. As they vanish into the distance two muncjac deer patter out from behind a holly and peer at me beneath tiny devil horns. My breath comes fast and shallow, sucking in the vegetable taste of the new leaves, the bark the muck the pollen.
After Debden Slade my panicked eyes see a figure in an orange coat, head in hands, sat motionless on a log a couple of dozen metres to the right of the path. Dangling from a bough above against the twisted branches my eyes see a noose and, though part of my brain is telling me to give a friendly shout of ‘evening’ to see if they’re OK, the rest of it dumps adrenaline. Chill sweat soaks my shirt, blood roars under my hair which tingles as if it’s trying to drag the skin off my skull and up into the trees and I’m almost running down the path, past the slowly uncurling fingers of the new ferns, dimly aware of the looming bulk of the Iron Age ramparts under the tall beeches to my left. Round the corner onto Earl’s Path down over the gravel through the gorse past Baldwin’s Pond don’t look for drowners in the reeds and up up up the hill towards the glowing street light. Loughton.
I’m reeled back down to earth as soon as my feet hit the tarmac. Feeling rather silly I start off past the houses towards the Central Line, peering in at people sat in front of the telly with their nightcap wine. Everything seems very normal. Had the part of my mind that craves extreme sensation led me on a deliberate, self-fulfilling quest for terror? Why can’t I stride proud, pompous and male through through the forest darkness like so many men do and have always done? I feel envious of Fred J Speakman, whose 1965 book A Forest At Night details hours spent sat in a tree watching foxes and badgers while having a ponder about nature and the meaning of things. Why had my mind seen what it had, the noose and the shadowy form? Had it seen anything at all? As I take out my phone to Google “missing person Epping Forest” it buzzes with a FaceTime call from my sister, in the maternity ward of a hospital in Auckland, New Zealand. During my nerve-jangling rampage through Epping Forest, she’d given birth to a son. The brightness of my iPhone screen drowns out all remaining twilight on the edge of the forest so that there’s just the familiar face of my sister and this squished blob of her new boy and, in the periphery of my vision, the now unthreatening trees. Across eleven thousand miles of space and sea we walk and talk to the Gardener’s Arms, streets away from where our parents grew up and from where my granny watched the flames rise over London’s docks during the Blitz. With a rush of sentimentality hard on the heels of the receding panic I hold up my phone so this baby can see – or at least sense – this view of the city, glittering blue, red and orange from the forest which was once home to his maternal family. But he is otherwise occupied feeding – unaware and blissfully alive.
Luke Turner is co-founder and editor of online music and arts magazine The Quietus. He has also contributed to Q, The Guardian, NME, MOJO and the BBC and is currently researching a book on Epping Forest. See April’s ‘Notes From Epping Forest’ post here.