Caught by the River

Notes From Epping Forest: November

Luke Turner | 17th December 2016

Words and pictures: Luke Turner

Two days after the clocks went back, I rose early and took the train to Epping Forest to meet the dawn. For the perennially depressed the morning is the hardest part of the day, the previous night’s terrors conspiring with life’s anxieties to make the day ahead appear an impossible mire. A year ago I don’t think I could have managed to rouse myself. Certainly not in early November two years ago, almost exactly the time that the relationship I’ve written about so many times before in this column was dying. But on that Tuesday morning I felt easy as I clattered around the flat, failing to be silent in a rush to catch the 06:40 from Hackney Downs.

At Chingford Station I walked down the platform in the opposite direction to the earliest commuters, who held their coffee cups like chalices. I bought one from the stall myself, quietly sympathising with the station staff as they argued about the current poor form of West Ham. Chingford recurs in my Epping Forest journeys just as it is a constant throughout its history. One of the five “honey pot” locations that now attract the greatest number of visitors to the forest, it’s here that the trees are no longer hemmed in by the streets of Woodford, Walthamstow, Wansted and Higham Park. This is where London finally gives way and the forest’s power of history and myth rises with the land.

It was at Chingford Station that Queen Victoria disembarked the royal train and stepped through gaudy, crenellated towers to mount the carriage that took her to the ceremony where she proclaimed the forest saved for her people “forever”. In the Victorian era, rowdy May Day fairs took place on Chingford Plain. These frequently degenerated into running battles, police and keepers cracking the skulls of drunks as fortune tellers, illegal gherkin sellers and crowds hollering bawdy songs looked on with glee. Somewhere around here a quiet whisper in an ear told William D’Oyley, the surveyor whose maps helped save the forest, that he would be made the first superintendent of the forest. Deep in the archives I found a testimony in which he revealed that it eventually destroyed him. This is the spot on the map where Londoners dive from the city into the forest, perhaps hoping that it might provide a convenient spot to dump that psychic litter, just as others have chucked asbestos, dead babies, garden waste, corpses, nitrous balloon canisters, used condoms, burned-out cars, dead dogs, and their own lives.

The Corporation of London spends over a quarter of a million pounds a year removing litter from Epping Forest’s 2,476 hectares. From the tiniest cigarette ends (which take even longer than a plastic bag to break down) to the rubbish hurriedly left behind by gay cruisers and industrially-dumped building waste, hundreds of tonnes are removed by keepers and volunteers. That’s not including the organic waste: the woodchip litter of fallen trees that sits in a pile next to the car park on Bury Road, waiting to be dispatched to the power station in the heart of Thetford Forest.

Earlier this year, I gave a talk about William Morris and his novel News From Nowhere. This utopian vision of a future where industrial labour has been banished is set in an England where people were free to gambol in a sylvan landscape of which Epping Forest, saved from felling and no doubt rubbish-free, was a part. During that talk, I remarked that “Epping Forest might be whatever utopia you want it to be, so long as you take your litter with you”. Afterwards, the person with whom I have shared many of the happiest and darkest moments of 2016, said Epping Forest was a place where I equally take the litter in my mind. Her words have stuck with me over the intervening months. 

It was to be a smooth dawn in a cloudless sky, no hint of the ragged fire that comes just before the sun rises against turbulent weather. The hot coffee made a mist of my breath as I crossed the bus station to the border of the Corporation of London’s land, a momentary whiff in the air of diesel exhaust mingled with the sickliness of blackberries decayed on the brambles.

On that day it was my private domain, for not even the dog walkers were yet up. The sky had started to brighten in the east behind Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge as I sat on the cut log that always seems to be in the centre of the perpendicular strips mown into the grass for model aeroplane pilots. My coffee cup melted perfect circles of dark green in the frost each time I put it down to watch two airliners pass high above, drawing a crucifix gilded by the coming day against the deep blue. A mist floated over the tops of tall grasses and hawthorns gripped by crystals of ice, as brittle as the glass of the city behind me. Everything moved slowly, as if numbed by the fading darkness and the cold until the sun erupted over the horizon like a slowly-exploding bomb. I hid behind a hawthorn to keep the painful brightness from my eyes as all around the frozen grasses began to melt, becoming countless glittering prisms of water, flickering away towards the rising sun like a lake in midsummer. 

The heat of the coffee long gone, I stood up – cold-arsed from the log seat – and started walking to warm myself. I circled the edges of the plain where the sun was still low enough in the sky that night lingered underneath the trees. These dense thickets have all-too-often cast their intimidating gloom beyond my eyes and inside my mind. The oaks still had their foliage, a tired and dirty green, but here and there the younger silver birches had already scattered their leaves across the path. They glowed ahead like golden coins, an offering that suggested I might finally collect a sense of happiness from what all-too-often has been a difficult place. 

I pulled out my phone, eager to send a message to a warm bed a few miles to the south west that I was here and I was feeling fine, to say thank you for the patience that had helped clear my mind in recent weeks. My hands were freezing, the words fumbled and misspelled, but I sent them with a conviction that for once outweighed my default and paradoxically comfortable state of tangled clutter and doubt.

I had planned to just walk back to the station at Chingford and then home, but a glance between texts at the time on the phone told me it was prime commuting hour. I wanted to turn my back on all that, and carried on towards Loughton. I have recently noticed that, when a more cheerful mood starts its unfamiliar tickle around the backs of my eyes, I’ll start talking to myself. I stood by the bomb craters on Fairmead Plain where last year I’d sawed at the hazel and bramble that surround them, threatening their survival as Luftwaffe-donated sanctuaries for newts. After a fairly dry summer the round ponds were nearly empty, and fresh shoots were rising from the stumps of scrub I’d roughly hacked away. I muttered and chuckled away as I took photos. “Are the newts there? Hmm… not really mud… new bench? Have the cows been here this season? Epping New Road, yes, bit busy, waiting yes….. so much traffic….. what would it be to remove it all, surely the M11…….. I remember that £50 fine from a camera just near there though HELLO GOOD MORNING!!” The dog walkers looked a little surprised as I found a gap in the traffic to cross and disappeared into the forest towards Loughton. 

Sometimes, but not always, I can remember the spot to turn off the ride here where the underwood and holly thins out as the ground rises. It’s one of the many startling undulations that exist in this part of the forest, and this higher ground is particularly suited to the ancient beeches that, unpollarded since the late 19th century, each send up a clutch of huge poles bigger than most trees towards the sky, cradling leaves like innocent fire in that bright early morning light. Out of breath, I spun around, trying to drink in this perfect clarity; to take in the exultant heat of colour that always seems to come with the last whisper of the year, and to make it mine. Down off the edge of the hill I could hear the shouts of the children arriving to start their day at Staples Road primary school, where my dad, my uncles and Genesis P-Orridge had been pupils. The playground bell rang. It must have been nine o’clock.

A meeting in town that Tuesday morning meant that I had had to hurry through Loughton to the tube. I was surprised and disappointed when that bright early morning began to lose its lustre. Sometimes the mental litter you think you have thrown away and recycled with the dead leaves has a habit of being returned as if, like the Corporation, the cosmos has employed officials to track down and prosecute those who have dumped it. Much like the impossible brightness of autumn, happiness often feels like a half-remembered illusion once its warmth has passed into the dull bare grey of daily life, and the familiarity of the gnarled undergrowth can offer greater comfort than the misty but open plain. In the weeks since, a darkening world has seemed to mock the glory of dawn – against this, even love can feel too fragile. 

As I write, weeks later, the leaves are nearly gone and only now are the words allowing themselves to appear in front of me. The forest is there but just a blank presence out in the distance, connected to my room by sound of the trains that I can hear rattle past on clear nights like this, when Chingford Plain again starts to crackle and crisp under the ice. 


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.

Previous Notes From Epping Forest posts

Luke Turner on Caught by the River/on Twitter