Image by John Leeming/Wickimedia Commons
Epping Forest together with Hainault and Hatfield forests are all that is left of the ancient woodland known as the Forest of Essex. Originally covering 60,000 acres, the remaining 6,000 acres of woodland with its ancient oak and beech trees, open heath, bogs, ponds and grasslands stretches for 12 miles from Manor Park in the East of London to just north of Epping in Essex, on a ridge between the valleys of Lea and Roding.
The forest has been a refuge for people escaping the plague and the bombing of London during the Second World War. Although much of its history and folklore has been lost over time, the stories that do survive often reveal a darker more unpleasant side (such as the rumoured satanic rites at the Church of the Innocents at High Beech and the failed case of alleged satanic human sacrifices in 1991) which contrasts sharply with the mysterious beauty of the place.
A forest fit for royalty
Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting lodge by Claire Ward via Wikimedia Coommons
The forest is first mentioned in connection with royalty in the 12th century, when an edict by Henry III allowed commoners to gather wood and foodstuffs, graze livestock and turn pigs out for mast. Only the king was allowed to hunt. It is believed that in 1543 Henry VIII commissioned the building of structure in Chingford known as the Great Standing which enabled the king and courtiers to watch the chase. The timber-framed building was renovated in 1589 and its name changed to the Queen Elizabeth Hunting Lodge, although it is debatable if she ever actually visited the lodge. In the 19th century local landowners requests to enclosure about 550 hectares of land ignited mass protests. Led by Thomas Willingale, the fight to protect commoners’ rights including lopping for firewood and grazing of cattle was successful and resulted in the passing of the Epping Forest Act of 1878. In 1882, after seven centuries of royal patronage, Queen Victoria declared the forest to be “the People’s Forest” and control passed into the hands of the City of London Corporation where it remains to this day.
Dick Turpin: Butcher, thief, highwayman and forest dweller
Dick Turpin, by The Complete Newgate Calendar Volume III [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the most famous names associated with the forest is Dick Turpin. Time has merged fact and fiction creating a legend of a gentlemen highwayman, gallant and noble who died a courageous death. The reality was very different. Stories on his early life vary but one accepted version is that Richard Turpin moved to Buckhurst Hill (Bucket Hill) in 1725 with his wife Elizabeth to open a butcher shop. Somehow Turpin became involved with deer thieves known as the Essex Gang led by Samuel Gregory. Possibly Turpin disposed of the deer meat as the butcher’s shop would have been a perfect cover. After a number of the gang were caught, the remaining members along with Turpin took to robbing isolated farmhouses, torturing the female occupants if they refused to cooperate. The notoriety of the gang became such that a notice for their capture was placed in the London Gazette. The Gazette described Turpin as “a tall fresh coloured man, very much marked with the small pox, about 26 years of age, about five feet nine inches high”*. In February 1735 the youngest of the Essex Gang, John Wheeler was arrested. Under interrogation, Wheeler revealed the names of other members of the gang, who in turn were seized. Somehow Turpin escaped and turned to the highway robbery which he became famously associated with.
Along with Matthew (Tom) King and Stephen Potter, Turpin was responsible for a number of robberies along the roads around and in the forest, instilling fear and panic amongst the locals. In April 1737 King and Turpin stole one horse too many, the owner reported the theft to Richard Bayes, the landlord of the Green Man at Leytonstone. Bayes tracked the animal to the Red Lion at Whitechapel and laid an ambush for Turpin and King. In the shoot-out that followed King was killed and Turpin again evaded capture and went to ground in the forest. Despite the man hunt that followed Turpin managed to survive undiscovered in his dugout for a couple of weeks but on the 4 May his luck finally ran out. Thomas Morris a servant of one of the keepers stumbled across the hideaway. Turpin surprised, shot and killed Morris with his carbine. Under the assumed name of John Palmer and with a £200 reward on his head, Turpin fled north and his association with the forest ended, at least whilst he was alive.
The location of Turpin’s cave is not exactly known and several sites have been put forward including Wellington Hill at High Road. In the 19th century the location of the hideaway was believed to have been found and became a popular tourist attraction. After his death some people believed that the spirit of Turpin returned to his old hunting ground and numerous sightings of a ghost wearing a tricorn hat riding a horse have been reported in the forest.
Boudica’s last stand
Boudica by John Cassell (Internet Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The revolt of Boudica, leader of the Iceni tribe is well documented by historians. No-one really knows why she and her daughters have become associated with the forest as the tribe inhabited an area mostly falling within the county of Norfolk and there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the theory. The only tenuous link is through the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni tribes (who joined the Iceni in the war against the Romans) whose adjoining territory border falls within the area. The myth goes that Boudica and her followers’ last stand against the Romans took place in the forest. Realising that there was no hope of victory, Boudica and her daughters took poison rather than risk falling into Roman hands. Two Iron Age hill forts have been identified as possible contenders for the Iceni camp: Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp. Rumour has it that at night three phantom women can be seen walking along the road near the camps.
Ambresbury Banks, image by Stephen Craven via Wikimedia Commons
On a slip road at High Beech, a very strange phenomenon occurs. If you park your car at the bottom of the hill at night, turn the engine and the power off, the car can be seen to roll slowly uphill. Local legend has it that the car is being pulled towards an ancient tree by a hangman’s noose. The tree itself is believed to be the site of a hanging either of an innocent man who was mistakenly convicted or of three witches. Scientists call these places either magnetic or gravity hills, an optical illusion due to the layout of the surrounding area, which tricks the brain into thinking that it is going uphill rather than downhill. Only two such places exist in England. Although this seems a logical answer, many who have tried it found the atmosphere unnerving and sinister and are convinced that they were walking uphill. Supernatural or geological? The only way to find out is to have a go yourself.
The Suicide Pool
Blackweir Pond, Epping Forest, by Stephen Craven via Wikimedia Commons
The Irish author, Elliott O’Donnell wrote in his book “Haunted Britain” about a pool in Epping Forest which is home to unearthly presences, some very miserable and others evil. O’Donnell never revealed the location of the pool but the belief in its existence remained ingrained in local folklore. One story goes that about 300 years ago a young couple embarked on a dangerous and forbidden relationship, meeting secretly at a beautiful pool. The girl’s father found out and in a fit of anger he killed her at the pool, on hearing of his lover’s murder, the boy committed suicide at the same spot. After that, no birds were heard, no animals ever seen there and the water became dank. People with no inclination committed suicide at the pool including a woman in 1887 and a young servant, Emma Morgan who killed both herself and her child. In 1959 a competition was held in the magazine “Essex Countryside” to find the exact whereabouts of the pool. One writer claimed to know its location of the pool but refused to reveal the details. She wrote that the place was evil beyond measure,
“The suicide pool is deep in the heart of the forest, far from any road…It is dank, evil and malignant, with an atmosphere unpleasant beyond description. It doubt if the sunshine ever penetrates through the surrounding trees; if it did it would never lighten the black waters”**
In 2012 as a tribute to the Olympics, the folk singer Ruairidh Anderson composed a series of songs (Songs from the Howling Sea) based on specific legends from the London boroughs hosting the games. His ballad “The Call of her Song” was inspired by the legend of the Epping Forest Suicide Pool and can be heard on YouTube.
“A Walk in the Forest”
John Clare, by William Hilton
Despite its dark history, the forest itself can rival anywhere for beauty. This is best summed up by the poet John Clare who was treated at Dr Matthew Allen’s private asylum in High Beech for severe depression in the late 1830s. In a letter to his wife, he remarked that he considered the countryside the finest he had ever seen. Whilst a patient he wrote a number of poems including a “A Walk in the Forest”,“I love the Forest and its airy boundsWhere friendly Campbell takes his daily roundsI love the breakneck hills – that headlong goAnd leave me high and half the world belowI love to see the Beech Hill mounting highThe brook without a bridge and nearly dryThere’s Bucket Hill – a place of furze and cloudsWhich evening in a golden blaze enshrouds”