Words and pictures: Luke Turner
Sex in Epping Forest is less private than love. London is a city of eight-and-a-half million desires where the old secret places have been cleaned up and redeveloped away. Now, the forest trees give cover for salacious pursuits – the cocks that pop like corks from the startled mouths of cruisers in the bushes behind Eagle Pond, the porn shoots, the doggers’ cheap lingerie straining on the back seats and bonnets of mid-priced saloons. The records show that Epping Forest is a place that fosters extremes in sex as much as violence, criminality, or the liminal mind. The quiet everyday bubblings of our connected hearts are known only by those that own them however. Every love is as different as the trees themselves, wounds and scars not always healed discreetly, branches that break and rot forever into nothing, others that fall but retain the glimmer of life that then sends down new shoots to return to verdant growth. Tender walks in the evening light might be a staple of romantic films or fiction, but they’re also when the roots that bind two souls can finally pull apart.
My own family began generations ago after an illicit relationship across the class divide up at High Beech. More recently, my maternal grandparents were buried in the same cemetery as John Willingale, the stout man of Loughton whose refusal to stop lopping trees inspired the movement that saved Epping Forest. When my mum’s mum died suddenly at a young age, my dad helped with the car parking at the funeral, unaware that one day he would fall in love with her daughter. Down at Wanstead, in the City Of London cemetery that was the first piece of old Royal Forest land acquired by the Corporation in the battle to save Epping, my dad’s parents were cremated, their ashes scattered with thousands of other East Enders into the flowerbeds and shrubs. It has always been a place of our beginnings and of our ends, and my own experience of the Forest in recent years has been shaped by the gradual decay of what had been the most significant relationship of my life.
I have previously written about its end for Caught By The River in the context of a journey to the marshes of the Isle Of Grain and Thames Estuary. Still in shock at the recent change, I had hoped that the natural ebb of life would soon smooth the jagged promontories of loss and memory. I hadn’t remembered that it takes many tides to wash the dirt of London down the Thames and out into the North Sea. Neither had I realised that the relationship had been shaped by Epping Forest and what I now realise might have been a subconscious desire to return my family to the place whence it came. The homing instinct is a strong one. My girlfriend and I had moved to a house she bought in Walthamstow, in part because I’d gently persuaded her that it might be a good idea. When I entered through that front door for the first time my instant reaction had been to race upstairs to the top floor, and look out towards the north. Across the late summer haze sitting above the William Morris gallery and the streets of the suburbs of Chingford I could see beyond London, where Epping Forest was a dark green slab on the horizon pierced by a pinprick that I knew to be the spire of High Beech Church.
Living so near to Epping Forest turned my casual interest in the place to obsession. I’d stare out towards it every morning as I cleaned my teeth, dribbling toothpaste over our bedroom carpet. We’d go for regular walks and collect wood to burn on the fire. I was frustrated when she said that as someone who’d grown up in the wilds of Devon, she found the constant noise and traffic across the Forest annoying, and couldn’t connect with it. My immature reaction was that she’d rejected part of me.
One evening towards the end two summers ago we took the train to Chingford and strolled towards Yates’ Meadow and my favourite view over London. When the sun dipped and sent the treetops on the opposite slope into cobbled relief, the light might have given a moment of affirmation that we were on the right path, together. I felt a gnawing when it didn’t. A few months later in the autumn of 2014, everything fell apart.
Naively, I hadn’t expected my relationship with Epping Forest to crumble with it. A view from a bedroom window is a simple pleasure, yet an intimate one when shared. I missed it, and had to avoid the high path past Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge that gives the same aspect of High Beech Church spire rising above the trees that I could see from that bedroom window. It was the one that I had dreamed of showing our children just as dad had shown it to me. On many of my trips to the forest throughout 2015 I didn’t walk but rampaged fast and head down, as if I could outrun the sense of loss. Two springs passed before our occasional meetings didn’t send me off into a spiral of regret.
18 months after I first moved my physical self out of her house, I went round to pack the rest of my possessions. The state of the London rental market meant I’d had to rely on her kindness in putting up with the haunting detritus of our relationship: my books and records, a collection of mugs dating from my childhood (Beamish, Bagpuss, the mountains of North Wales), the 60s crockery that my dad, convinced he’d never get married, had bought piece by piece. I’d been dreading separating of the ephemera of our shared lives for months, building an anticipatory nightmare of tears and regret. Yet when afterwards I walked back down Forest Road to my temporary attic room I felt unexpectedly at ease.
A month later, we saw the sunrise together as we left a club where a DJ friend had whirled a room of people dressed in black (if they had any clothes on at all), into dancing. There’d been no awkwardness, no anxiety. She’d taken a taxi home to E17 and I a bus to E5. The sun was already hot when it blinded me at my new front door at 6:19am. It wasn’t a day to be wasted. Knackered and hungover in the early afternoon, we WhatsApped a while before arranging to meet on a train and walk from Chingford to Epping.
The end of love inevitably comes with pain, but when nothing too cruel has been done or said by either side its pangs can also be those of rebirth. We passed few people on our way as we talked about work, family, friends and new relationships. After five years together, familiarity now bred ease. The grassy plains itched dry in the muggy air and for once I didn’t get us lost. We found the ramparts of Loughton Camp and climbed them from the north, taking photos in a hollow where a rune of branches arranged in an arrow pointed towards a gap between trees. I watched her walk their line and the little familiar things she did, the actions or turns of phrase, no longer hit me with the cruelty of nostalgia.
I spotted the skull of a fallow deer at rest under some low branches, a large flap of bristled rind unrotted but dry above the eye socket. She wrapped it in a cloth and put it in her bag to take home to clean and keep. A few years ago she’d found and picked the flesh from a skull of a Dartmoor pony with a forthright lack of squeamishness that touched so many aspects of her life. It was what I had fallen in love with. A year ago this would have set me off, but not today.
As we stopped to drink water the wind gusted a little, cooling the sweat on my back. I was wobbling with the heat and fatigue but the trees were solid, immovable, resisting the breeze on the thousands of leaves with an immense power. My eyes saw the trunks emerging from the bracken and the mulch. But more than that I felt myself dissolve into their unseen presence beneath, billions of roots and their mycelium of incalculable distance pushing through the soil, connecting, communicating, ensuring the survival of all this. At once I felt as if we had not been and were not a pair of souls drifting through the forest, but that it was endlessly changing and moving across us, a comb of life filtering away the wreckage and resentment left behind by what had once been so intimately close.
We left Epping Forest walking past a game of cricket on the pitch that sits above the M25 tunnel, and wandered through the town to the last stop on the Central Line. It wasn’t dark, but as we rattled back through the fields the tainted windows of the carriage made the distant forest black, already embracing the night. When she left with a quick hug to make the closing doors at South Woodford for an Uber back to what had been our home I didn’t feel the queasy ache that, for 18 months, had marked our partings. I waited for my train under the bright towers of Stratford as tubes plunged down into the tunnel under London or rose to head out towards Debden, Loughton, Theydon Bois and Epping Forest. She texted me to say goodnight. She wrote that the deer skull was already in a vat of bleach in the garden shed, becoming beautiful, something new.
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.