Caught by the River

Notes From Epping Forest: Spring 2017

Luke Turner | 15th June 2017

Words and pictures: Luke Turner

Early in the morning of 13th August 1942, Ordinary Seaman Edward Charles Lankester was floundering, half drowned yet seared by the Mediterranean sun, in the sea a few miles off the coast of Tunisia. His ship, HMS Manchester, had been sunk by Italian torpedoes just after 1am.

Lankester wasn’t a confident swimmer. A shipmate later recalled that before long he was barely moving, his cork life vest just keeping his face above the surface. Lankester begged his friend not to leave him alone. When that shipmate swam off to try and bring them a life raft, Lankester fixed him with a glare as harsh as the sun overhead.

Edward Charles Lankester was born on December 5th 1909, christened five days later with a splash of holy water from the font of High Beech Church, in the middle of Epping Forest. He became a woodsman, working day and night to lop and fell, clear the underwood, absorbing forest lore with every falling of the leaves. By the early years of the Second World War he was an acting keeper, but before long was conscripted into the Royal Navy.

During his training he sent the first in a series of carefully-written letters to Superintendent McKenzie, his Forest boss. They’re now kept in blue files at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell.

He writes about how he’d rather not be posted to a battleship (there’s “too much spit & polish”) before the tone of his words suddenly changes from matter of fact, dutiful almost, to wistful: “I expect the trees in the forest will soon be changing colour. I am looking forward to the time when I can again work in the forest, which I miss very much, but that seems to be a long way off… This seems to be the first year that I have not heard the cuckoo, or seen a swallow, that I can remember”. On 12th June 1942 he wrote a final letter from HMS Manchester. “I bet the forest is looking grand, and I would love to have a stroll through it at the moment, as I have not seen a tree for weeks, and it is surprising how you miss them. Please remember me to the gang sir and tell them I am looking forward to the time when I shall be back with them”.

Two months and one day later HMS Manchester was at the bottom of the sea.

Lankester’s early years and work in Epping Forest must have given him an intimate relationship to it unimaginable to most of us today. For city dwellers a forest might be a place of sylvan escape, for a while. Epping was saved by the Corporation Of London for the betterment of the people of London in 1878, but those people went on to use it in unintended ways.

The forest and newspaper archives tell of riots, unlicenced preaching, political agitation, robbery, drunkenness, illegal gherkin sellers, fornication, poaching, blinding birds to attract and then cage more, gambling, pornographic photo shoots, prog rock concerts, dogging, wiccan ritual, paedophile murders, biker meets, yardie murders, gay cruising, poaching, perverts on bicycles, teenage catapulters of swans, the first motocross race. It goes on to this day: there was a rave in the forest last weekend, boggle goblins appearing out of the trees asking me ‘where am I m8?” One of the DJs, in a state of psychic refreshment, got a bit of a shock when a keeper arrived to investigate. The forest official was a former raver himself and had actually managed the DJ a couple of decades ago.

As might be said about London, the city that saved the forest, all human life is there. Some of these lives began in Epping, while others met their end. My great great grandfather was conceived there, illegitimate son of the lord who built High Beech Church where Lankester was baptised. Many of my ancestors are buried on forest land. Epping Forest touched Edward Lankester and my family just as it has touched and continues to touch hundreds of thousands of lives. Behind the quiet formality of the polite, sometimes deferent letters of Lankester and many others I found in the forest archives is a hint of an obsession, something that I well understand. Just over a year ago I started writing this column about the forest for Caught by the River, along with a book that had been intended as a sensible social history of the place. This will be the last of these columns for a while as I write a very different incarnation of that. Peer under the gloom cast by the trees and you will start to see into yourself, for what and who we are as humans is indivisible from our woodlands.

I do not believe in nature as a one-size-fits all treatment for depression or anxiety, and am constantly frustrated when people recommend it as such. But I have started to understand a way out and through these mental thickets, and it hasn’t been by walking. For the past year or so I’ve been making occasional trips to work with the Epping Forest Conservation Volunteers. Nearly every week for 40 years, this group of people from all walks of life have worked in the forest, to preserve what the act that saved it called its “natural aspect”. The forest, of course, is not natural at all. It is a landscape entirely created by the influence of humans — by Edward Charles Lankester and his ilk — for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Epping Forest was once woodland pasture, made up of open areas dotted with oak, beech and hornbeam pollards. Left to its own devices, the forest swiftly becomes a dense thicket choked with holly and silver birch saplings, both pioneer species that were rare in the centuries when the forest was heavily managed and grazed by livestock. It might seem counter-intuitive, but clearing these improves the habitat for grasses, flowers, insects, and birds.

You might call it sap lust, I suppose, the energy that takes hold when a saw is in your hand, and all around young trees climb towards the sky. The urge to cut and lop and fell is a primal one. The saw cuts through the topography of the tree bark, straight like a road across the contours of a map. With every stroke the leaves above rattle and murmur and I half think it in resignation or regret. Dead wood gets dislodged and comes crashing down. We wear hard hats. The sawdust, tiny particles of the tree and its history and that of the forest, fall like words on this page around my feet. I sweat. The tree falls. Another. The fallen wood is cut and heaped in piles, the leaves and branches that were 20,30,40 feet above in mounds across the floor. I saw and saw, trying to perfect the gob cut and make the tree fall in the right direction, my arms aching but pumping endorphins.

I feel closer to myself than I ever do back down the railway in London, those gibbering voices of anxiety and doubt and awkwardness silenced by the rasping of the saw. Even more than that, though, this transformation has only come about because this work has made me finally understand how I might be part of the forest, and it a part of me. I was just as present here as the woodpecker rattling in the distance or the woodlice scrattling away from the blade, the silence conversation of the mycelium funghi underneath my boots.

When we left the site sunlight streamed in through the newly open canopy, bathing the ground for the first time in years. Yet this is more a perverse way to get some exercise than, say, a gym treadmill. Where we sit for tea breaks and lunch the ground is covered in old tree stumps chainsawed at their base. All are surrounded by a halo of tiny new stems and leaves. The trees will return, and the canopy will once again close in.

As I walked across Chingford Plain last Sunday, towards the station and home, I thought about Ordinary seaman Edward Charles Lankester and his work here in the 30s and 40s, when the forest was a very different, more open place. It changes more swiftly than we do, even if the trees are far longer lived. There are fewer generations of trees than there are of people stretching back into the history of this land. Lankester made the Tunisian coast, survived the war and returned to the forest for a while, working his old job. His subsequent communications with the headquarters at the Warren were mainly about pay. As far as I can tell, he ended up emigrating to South Africa. He didn’t drown on that bright day out to sea and far from home, but he was immersed in the forest alright, and it had changed him.

I looked back. The trees of the edge of the forest seemed to be rolling towards me like surf, vivid and green the leaves that I could never count like tiny waves upon waves upon waves against the blue of the sky above. A goldcrest flipped over the head of a shirtless man, his body glistening in the early evening light, breaking the golf course rules as he hoofed a football around a fairway. Beats By Dre headphones blocked out the angry shouts of red-jacketed golfers.

When I began my Forest columns last spring it was a place of ooze and damp, the roots clawing through a sticky morass. But last Sunday it was dry and warm, the scents of spring — old leaves, the last of the wild garlic, the sour tang of drying mud and dog turds, and a cloud of skunk from a passing cyclist — rising in a warm fug. I got that euphoric tingling that feels as if the brain or self or something has started floating just outside the bony confines of the skull and everything blurred, even the pale wisp of an early rising moon sat above, like a blackthorn petal licked and pressed against the sky.


The Epping Forest Conservation Volunteers always welcome new recruits, no experience necessary. Visit their website for more information.

Notes From Epping Forest is currently on hiatus while Luke writes Out Of The Woods, to be published by W&N/Orion in spring 2019.

See the previous Notes From Epping Forest columns here.

Luke Turner on Caught by the River/on Twitter