Caught by the River

The People’s Forest: a last hurrah

Kirsteen McNish | 3rd December 2019

From Kirsteen McNish:

Over the past year I have had the great pleasure of working with my co-curator, friend and Out of the Woods author Luke Turner, on a year-long programme of events centred around Epping Forest and what forests represent in the creative imagination. 

Luke and I wanted to bring a series of wide-ranging happenings to audiences that explored from the gnarly undergrowth up to the canopies of the forest, visiting the realms of both the shadows and the light. We have spent a lot of time there over the past 12 months, watching the seasons turn; learnt more about the complex ecology of the forest, the creatures that inhabit it, the people’s histories, turning things over in ourselves and our pre-conceptions of what it is to “be” deep in the trees. We invited some exceptional artists who all interpreted aspects of identity, politics, protest, mythologies and ritual to the many branches of the programme – from an artist-led, women-only night walk to a 24-hour radio station broadcast to the trees; multi-layered sound installations led by weather changes; poetry; words; experimental music, and an all-night queer rave. We also set out to beckon people over the threshold of the trees that might never have visited the forest itself without invitation. We couldn’t have hoped for a better response.

Epping Forest is a complex place; a nerve centre for a rich ecology of diverse wildlife, as rich as the city that it leans upon and leans back upon it like the “witch houses” that lean against the trunks of the majestic and strangely shaped trees. Forests are emeshed into our cultural DNA from fairy stories to horror films, and are battlefields, havens, cruising grounds, and both places of ritual and retreat. 

A huge debt is owed to all the artists, forest workers, keepers, the Epping Forest team, City of London team, our producer Abi and especially the huge numbers of you that we got to meet. We have learnt many  interesting things from the collaborations and conversations that have happened throughout the year that might never have been unearthed and investigated further had we not been invited by Creative Director Sam Hunt to be part of  this. 

As the last leaves rust and return to earth, it’s fair to say we got the forest under our skin, our fingernails and firmly rooted in our internal landscapes and are grateful for those who chose to come on that walk with us across the seasons weaving through the trees. 

I think we have learnt at least one crucial thing about forests: we need to give back as much as we take from them. Please keep visiting Epping Forest. It’s an extraordinary , multi-faceted place as deeply complex as all that we project upon it.


The People’s Forest was a year-long programme of events co-curated by Kirsteen McNish and Luke Turner for London’s first Borough Of Culture. It concludes with a FREE Willowherb Review event at God’s Own Junkyard TONIGHT from 8 (info here), an exhibition titled ‘Flown’ 5th-7thDec (info), and Ellie Wilson’s sound installation ‘Voices’ which runs until early January at The Queen Elizabeth Hunting Lodge.