In Epping Forest, enclosure is a dirty word. Before the wood’s 6,000 acres were declared ‘the Peoples’ Forest’ by Queen Victoria, landowners closed in to try and stake their claims. Commoners once had rights in the forest. However, the expansion of London from the early 1800s brought about a new era. The land here, within reach of the city, increased in value and the rights were under threat from enclosure.
Between 1604 and 1914, 6.8 million acres in the UK were turned from commons and ‘waste’ into private land, accelerated by the Industrial Revolution. Land was squabbled over and parcelled into estates, some earmarked for development. Had the Epping Forest Act not been passed in 1878, this walk might have been more like Parkour through residents’ back gardens.
Thanks to the City of London Corporation, who acquired the rights from the Crown with the Act, this ancient forest is still here, fenceless. ‘There has been some form of woodland here since the last ice age,’ says Alicia Evans, writer of the Peoples’ Forest Discovering Britain walk through Epping Forest. ‘While there have been changes in the dominant types of trees, the landscape today is classified as ancient woodland.’
As I walk the short distance from Chingford station on the Essex outskirts of East London towards the bulk of the woods, they look sodden and autumn-orange. A nodding crowd of oak, beech and hornbeam trees creak and bend like old crones as the wind whips them up. Under its shaggy canopy, there is a drippy shelter streaked with sunbeams.
“The trees owe their peculiar shape to the long-gone practices of the commoners, who once collected wood here when the land was owned by the Crown”
Through the canal-like path through Bury Wood, some of the trees look unusual. The contorted shapes of some of the older oak and beech trees are a part of Epping’s varied history and still bear the marks of a legal battle for the forest land in the 1800s. At five or six feet from the ground, some of their trunks split into a cluster of half a dozen or more branches, which continue straight up to the forest ceiling like fingers on a hand.
They owe their peculiar shape to the long-gone practices of the commoners, who once collected wood here when the land was owned by the Crown. The commoners had the right to harvest young shoots from older tree trunks, a practice known as lopping or coppicing. It was the loppers, local folk whose livelihoods were dependent on wood from the trees, who fought to keep the forests a common space during the 1800s. Keeping their rights became a legal conflict and class war between the commoners and the landlords of the area. ‘At this time, the crown had less interest in hunting game and did not want the expense of maintaining the forest,’ says Evans. ‘They decided to sell off their rights to the lords of the manors.’
A verderer (the judicial officer of royal forests) campaigned for two decades to keep this portion of the forest unenclosed. Meanwhile, in nearby Loughton, it was lopper and labourer Thomas Willingdale who opposed the lord of the manor, William Whitaker Maitland, over the enclosure of a piece of the forest. The lopper was imprisoned by Maitland for ‘injuring forest trees’, but on release he set up the Commons Preservation Society, bankrolled by Liberal landowners. It was a legal battle that Willingdale never saw to the end. He died a year before the forest was bought by the City of London Corporation, who drew up the Epping Forest Act in 1878 and made sure no enclosure was made. It came at a price: there would be no more lopping in the wood. On these trees, the clusters of shoots are no longer young. With no one to lop them, they now show 130 or so years of uncut growth and are the size of whole tree trunks themselves. Overall, they look strangely top-heavy and disproportioned.
‘Unfortunately, the end of lopping means that many of the trees have become weak at their crown – the height at which they were once cut,’ says Evans. ‘Some crowns split and part of the tree falls – some whole trees become top heavy and fall over.’
When the City of London Corporation took control, its initial aim was to leave the forest to become ‘natural’ says Evans. ‘However, there are now some 50,000 once-lopped trees reaching old age together’. To prevent breakage, the Corporation has introduced selective pollarding in some areas of the forest. Walking through Bury Wood, I see decaying tree limbs scattered about the forest floor. ‘Wood is left to rot in situ for the benefit of the ecosystem,’ says Evans, ‘a tree’s death is not the end of its useful life - rotting wood can provide homes for birds, bats and insects’.
The twisted look suits Epping forest. It has a dark reputation that precedes it, especially for harbouring thieves and gangs. In fact, according to Essex county history, part of Maitland’s argument for fencing up the area around Loughton back in the 1850s was because of the woods’ bad reputation.
Of all the vagabonds of Epping, the highwayman Dick Turpin was probably the most infamous. Known for robbing coaches out on the road in the 18th century, his exploits have long been romanticised with poems and songs. His life of crime began when he ran a small butchery near to the forest in 1731. ‘In the following years there were complaints from the Forest Keepers about armed men stealing deer, which at that time belonged to the King,’ says Evans. ‘Turpin was an associate and probably provided an outlet for their venison through his shop.’
As I near a road, a hunched shape scrambles from a thicket, scattering forest debris – a muntjac deer, barely knee-high and definitely not the kind that Turpin would have been selling. ‘The species is actually from southeast Asia,’ says Evans. ‘The populations now found across southern England are the descendants of some that escaped from Woburn Abbey in the 1920s.’ Leading solitary lives, muntjacs are more common and bolder than the black fallow deer who share the forest with them. At barely the size of a Labrador they can be an unusual sight for the unprepared.
‘It wasn’t always safe for traffic using the forest roads,’ says Evans. By 1737, Dick Turpin had become a fulltime highwayman and was thought to have hid in Epping Forest. ‘There is a site known as Turpin’s cave where he is thought to have lived with his wife and horses.’
This road, Fairmead, is narrow and now pitted with holes. It has not been used as a major byway since a main road was built to the east of the forest in 1830 as a safer way to get horse-drawn carriages through the woodland.
“Looting mushrooms has become such a problem that the thirteen Keepers of the Forest have the power to fine people for stealing them”
These days, the scourge of Epping Forest are the mushroom hunters. Organised gangs pillaging the edible, rare fungi are Epping’s most wanted. The high price paid by some London restaurants and delicatessens for these delicacies are putting some of the forest’s rarer species at risk from mushroom thieves.
Some sought-after species, such as the beefsteak fungus, which looks and tastes as it sounds, can fetch a high price when sold on to restaurants. There are reports of mushroom thieves operating on an ‘industrial scale’. Sue Ireland, Director of Open Spaces at the City of London Corporation says ‘our bigger problem is the commercial pickers, where people are looking to make large sums of money. We have seen dustbin bags full of mushrooms.’ Individual foragers tend not to be a problem in rural areas, but Epping Forest, being so near to the restaurants of central London, is attracting far more foragers – often in organised gangs – than it can sustain.
‘The Forest’s ecological importance was recognised in 1953 when it was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest,’ says Evans. ‘There are more than 1,600 species of fungi here. In fact, Epping Forest has one of the longest and unbroken histories of fungi recording in the world. So the corporation has an ongoing challenge with protecting them.’
Looting these species has become such a problem that the thirteen Keepers of the Forest – constables in charge of protecting the area from damage or abuse – have the power to fine people for stealing the mushrooms. Last year, 20 prosecutions were made for illegal mushroom picking in the area.
‘The problem is, they don’t know what they are picking,’ says Ireland. ‘They pick everything, putting them into large bags and taking them to someone else, who has the expertise to understand what is and what is not safe to eat? By then the damage has been done.’
The commercial thieves are bad for the forest system. Ireland says over-picking can disrupt the symbiotic relationship between fungi and their host trees. ‘Once they have been removed, they can’t produce spores and regenerate again and you lose half of that relationship. They are food for deer at this time of year and many animals and invertebrates need them.’
She regrets getting the law involved: ‘We would rather help people realise that this is not the place to be doing it.’ These days, the Forest Keepers ban the foraging of anything from the area, except for small amounts of dead wood, which a local may collect under the Epping Forest Act.
‘The real challenge is to find the right balance between protecting wildlife habitats, conserving historic features and allowing public explore it,’ says Evans. Needless to say, I leave the forest and head back to the station without any contraband deer, wood or mushrooms.
This was published in the December 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.