Words and pictures: Luke Turner
The snow fell as it ever does in the city, alive for those few seconds of white static against red buses, dirty roofs, bricks and windows darkened against a gloomy morning. Into the dormant and dull green municipal grass, against pavement and on the warm tops of cars, the perfect and infinitely unique geometry of the flakes was annihilated in an instant, forever unseen.
I had seven minutes until the train from Hackney Downs. A half-formed intent sent me into the booth under the bridge under the station to spend a fiver on two bunches of daffodils, their flowers already open. I stuffed them into the side pocket of my rucksack as I walked up the station stairs to the platform, where an Australian grinned as he waved his phone around and FaceTimed the folks back in his hot dry home with this cold marvel from the sky.
All writing is a ritual quest for identity. We grab spindles of words in black text from the flurries of our unreliable memories to try and define our past, present and future. When I began to write about Epping Forest my urge had been simple – a desire to tell an old story with a slightly different slant. It was planned to be modern, even jocular at times, and light. However, the forest did not allow that to happen. The more I peered into it, the more I seemed to find that I wasn’t an impartial observer, for scraps of my own life lay down there among the dead leaves.
A blizzard of unending, chaotic individual histories are joined in London, and in the forest. A man sat next to me on the 13:40 (his teeth slightly forward over his bottom lip) said to the woman opposite who might be his wife (her pink flannel gloves, slightly grubby, clashing with a turquoise scarf) “I’m glad we’re just indoors today”. I zoned out of their conversion until the woman’s laugh jolted me back just as the train pulled into Wood Street “…perhaps she’s already dead! Is this us?” They got up and off. This thin black line on the map, sharply curving up after Wood Street towards Chingford, has been a chute or a slide for me these past couple of years. I’ve often not even wanted to go to the forest, fearing it, or, more accurately, the way that my mind would react to being there. Where the buffers sit on the end of the line at Chingford Station it had once been intended that an embankment would carry the tracks through the forest to take trippers to High Beech. The extension was never built but I’ve sometimes felt, when the train stops, that a sort of momentum has propelled me forward in a way I don’t quite understand. On many wanders I wished I hadn’t gone, but this Saturday was different. With the chill of the snow on my cheeks I felt alive, and those prone to depression have to make the best of a break in the weather.
No snow had settled on the plain, though it was still falling, and the distant trees appeared as if through a gauze. A cyclist laboured towards me across the rough ground. His fluorescent yellow jacket joined the standard issue offie blue plastic bags and a silver drink can lurking in the grass as the only brightness on that cold, thick afternoon. This is the time of year and weather when our human dirt is most visible. Up in a small oak hung a quarter full black bin bag, as if even the master of the giant Hounds of Hell was hopeful for a dog crap fairy to clean up the mess for him.
From under my boots came the familiar squelch and squeak of the waterlogged winter plain. I walked through puddles that cleaned off the mud from a walk, again in the snow, near Hebden Bridge a fortnight ago. I liked the thought that muck from the Yorkshire valley of my birth was mingling with the ancient loam of Essex, from where my family had come. It was them I was there to see at High Beech church, its tower usually visible above the trees, but now hidden by the blown snow.
I’d been to the site of its predecessor, the old High Beech Church where my great-great-grandfather had been baptised, so many times since I first discovered it about a year ago, that finding it is easy now. I’m not sure why, but the night before, I’d had the idea that I ought to visit the places of his birth and of his burial, and hadn’t really thought through what I was going to do. I took off my rucksack and placed it on the ground outside the ditch that marks the western wall of the church. Occasionally the ground gives up pieces of the old building, roof tiles, bricks and ironwork. I spotted a lump of stone, still faintly covered with whitewash. I picked it up and carried it to where the altar would have been, on the far side, where now the dark hollow of tree stump seems to be a cavern deep down into the earth. The stone became a new altar next to the trunk. I unwrapped the daffodils, and stood a third of them on it, leaning the flowers against the stump. Compared to the dank rot of the mulch, the smell of the flowers was as rich and sickly as incense.
I stepped back again and in all seriousness took off my hat, for I was in church, and said a prayer to the God who shaped me, to the forest and the family, and to love.
I thought of how when I was in Epping Forest one night at my lowest ebb, my nephew was born on the other side of the world. Nearly four decades of memories came flooding into my mind. For a moment I was the little boy who looked out of the car window and saw in the headlights the circular patterns lit in the tree branches, like the drawings I would have made on the Spirograph game at my granny’s house in Loughton a few hours before.
The forest was silent, aside from the rattle of drops of melted snow from the trees, snow that still fell to invisibility if it had made it through the branches. Everything seemed to be coming back to this place, present in that moment and for once it included happiness.
I went back to the altar I had made and took away a third of the stems. I turned and climbed the oozing slope towards the second and current High Beech Church, where my great-great-grandfather was eventually buried, along with both his wives and two of his three sons. I don’t know where they lie, for they were poor, and had no memorials aside from the hummocks that are the soil ghosts of their human forms. Reading the church records had given me the approximate corner of the churchyard, however, next to a thick stump of an old tree – another altar of the forest. I took four flowers from the bunch in my hand and placed them in cruciform onto it.
Around the back of the church is the marble tomb of the family from which I suspect I am descended. In a vault lies the man who, our Turner legend has it and circumstantial evidence seems to suggest, was the father of great-great-grandfather George. It’s darker and damper round there, just a few feet separating the church wall form the ancient woodland. On YouTube there’s a film of some amateur paranormal investigators claiming to commune with the dead on the spot – it’s all rather unconvincing, Daily Mail occultism. I mixed the remaining daffodils together and arranged most of them in the flower pot at the foot of the monument, connecting those that had been blessed at the place of the christening of the illegitimate baby with the death of the man who was probably his father. Some I laid on the stone while I thought and reflected in quiet and personal ritual, before gathering a few to take home.
As I looked back at High Beech Church, the winter trees crowding in on it seemed harder and darker even than the stone of the building. I took a photo. The snow had stopped. Through the grass on many of the graves, green shoots from bulbs were starting to push into the air and a few snowdrops were already out. I turned and stepped over the low iron fence onto the road to walk to the bikers’ tea hut. Once there I sat on the wet bench with a steaming brew and a Bakewell tart, and phoned my dad.
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.