Wednesday, 22 July 2015

London Countryway via Tilbury Town: an alternative route


A P&O cargo ship glimpsed through maisonette blocks from Koala Park, Tilbury. Ships of this line have sailed from here for
well over a century.

THE LAST SECTION OF THE LONDON COUNTRYWAY is also one of the most attractive and interesting, particularly the final stretch along the river Thames between two historic forts, culminating on a ride on the Tilbury ferry. But it’s also the least direct. This alternative via Tilbury Town is rather different and more urban in character, but it’s interesting and thought-provoking in its own way. It’s also much more direct, shaving 5.4 km off the total distance. I wouldn’t recommend it above the classic route if you’re walking the Countryway as a whole for the first time, but it provides a variation for a revisit, and a glimpse of a side of London’s hinterland that the Countryway generally avoides. And both options together form a substantial 20 km circular walk, though you’d have to walk one of them in the opposite direction to my description. In this case I’d recommend starting at Tilbury Town station and walking clockwise, tackling the alternative route in reverse, so that you still have the riverside near the end.

To avoid confusion I’ve incorporated the walking directions into an alternative version of the full route description for the section of the Countryway between West Horndon and Tilbury, which you can download below. But if you wanted to walk just this section on its own, the point at which it diverges from the classic route is only a few steps away from a bus stop with regular services from Grays. The commentary below covers only the alternative parts of the route, so if you want to know more about the stretch from West Horndon to Chadwell, see my earlier post.
St Mary's church, Chadwell

Chadwell St Mary


The alternative route diverges from the classic one at the northeastern edge of the mini-conurbation stretching from Purfleet to Tilbury, in the little woodland known as Old House Wood, a precious and popular green oasis hard against the three forbidding tower blocks of Chadwell St Mary’s Godman Estate which, if you’ve been walking from West Horndon or Orsett, will have dominated your view for some time.

They’re a reminder that the area through which we’re now walking is quite different in character from the prosperous rural playgrounds and protected landscapes we’ve traversed for most of the rest of the way, and much more like the deprived stretches of riverside east and southeast London it almost adjoins, though without the advantage of being officially part of the metropolitan area. These riversides have long been more industrial than agricultural, and have suffered the consequences of changing industrial practices and decline. There are no more converted barns with picture windows and Range Rovers parked behind high railings and CCTV, and the closest we’ll get to equestrian centres are the sturdy travellers’ horses put to graze opportunistically on traffic islands.

As mentioned in the commentary on the main route, Thurrock, the unitary authority that rules here, came bottom in the government’s wellbeing index in 2012, giving the area the unwelcome distinction of being the most miserable place in England. The main route of the Countryway tiptoes delicately around most of the evidence of this, while this alternative gives a rather more varied and honest picture, though not without its interest and its flashes of unlikely beauty. As always communities are resilient and there are many people who’d contest the idea that this is a bad place to live. There’s a rich culture and history here, tied to the proximity of the river and the capital, plenty of green among the grey, a sense of the contrast between hill and marsh underneath the urban clothing, and some occasional welcome signs of investment and care.

Chadwell is the name of the ancient parish that covers pretty much the entire alternative route. The ‘St Mary’ affix was added only in the 19th century to distinguish it from Chadwell Heath near Romford and is rarely used locally. There’s a folk etymology that it’s named after a well blessed by St Chad of Mercia, a 7th century bishop who played a key role in converting Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity. A more likely origin is given by the parish’s entry in the 1086 Domesday survey, which records the name as Celdewella, ‘cold well’ or ‘cold spring’.

By that stage the area had been inhabited for at least a few hundred years – in 1996 the remains of a 6th century sunken Saxon hut, one of a type known as a Grubenhaus with a floor surface about a metre below ground, was discovered on the site of the local primary school. Until the late 19th century Chadwell remained, like many of the other ancient Essex villages we’ve encountered, a dispersed settlement without a dense centre. What changed all that was the construction of Tilbury Docks, and in the postwar period the area became even more built up with the social housing estates so obvious today, giving it something of the feel of a New Town.

After crossing one last field, the Countryway reaches an outlying cluster of housing at Orsett Heath. The Greyhound pub nearby is another victim of closure and sale to a developer: from its appearance you can still imagine how it used to look as an isolated inn on the road across the heath between Chadwell and Orsett. During World War II it overlooked an anti-aircraft battery, and the site of this, along with quite a bit of the heath, has been preserved as open space, with the extensive and irregularly shaped Chadwell Recreation Ground now buffering the built-up area from the busy A13 spur road to the docks in the west.

Pyramid resource centre at Chadwell recreation ground
This green swathe is undoubtedly appreciated locally and provides an airy route for our walk, but is otherwise an obviously neglected and underexploited asset: a great plain of mown grass with little diversity in either appearance or ecology, peppered with the remains of broken play equipment – a wooden structure on a curious hillock turns out to be an abandoned zipline – and boarded-up buildings of uncertain purpose. A huge hard-surfaced rectangle in the middle of the grass was presumably once a sports court of some sort, but now I’m reminded either of a landing pad for UFOs or the derelict Nazi parade ground at Nürnberg.

Right by where the route enters the space is a cluster of concrete pavilions in geometric late 1960s style, no doubt the pride of their original architect but now looking badly decayed and abandoned. It turns out one of them has been enterprisingly converted into the Pyramid Resource Centre, a project recycling materials for children’s play and learning activities. Behind the unpromising exterior is a treasure trove of brightly coloured paper, card, plastic tubes, tubs, fabric and cardboard boxes that could keep a Blue Peter presenter happy for years. The nearby fields are also put to good use for grassroots football.

The path passes St Mary's cemetery where there are more than 30 Commonwealth War Graves dating from World War II and the grave of Thurrock man Neil Wright, who died in the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City on 11 September 2001. You then emerge on the edge of the village centre: a short distance to the left here, past the primary school with its buried Anglo-Saxon secrets, is St Mary’s church, a rather stern-looking building with a no-nonsense 15th century tower, though parts of the rest date back to the early 12th century. Just opposite is a library and information centre.

Looking across to the North Downs in Kent from Hutts Hill, Chadwell, with the Gateway Academy (possibly the
site of the eponymous well) in the near distance, right.

Looking south from the church, or from the sliver of panorama ahead of you on the downhill urban footpath the route now follows, you’ll realise that the east-west street we’ve just crossed, River View, really would deserve its name if it wasn’t for the houses in between. Chadwell is sited strategically on a promontory above a wide Thames marsh. Chalk rears up close to the surface here and was once quarried locally. The street runs along the top of the ridge, and when the church tower was built its prominence in the landscape must have inspired awe.

There’s an even better sense of the geography as the path bends along the contour of a lower terrace above a public green space, Hutts Hill, before descending sharply to the marsh. The flat ground below is now largely drained to create green fields, with the docks prominent ahead of you and a view stretching across to Kent and the North Downs. But try to imagine the expanse of treacherous marshes, first created by falling sea levels in late Roman times, that would have confronted the viewer here for over a millennium. And then remember that most of the lower Thames would have looked like this before it was embanked and contained, even up into what’s now central London. The view from Brockwell Park or Peckham Rye must once have been comparable.

The recent building to your right at the bottom of the hill, shaped like a G, is the Gateway Academy, a secondary school opened by an independent trust in 2006. St Chad’s Well, the supposed source of the place name, was recorded somewhere close to this site in the 19th century as tank-like and large enough to walk into, though it had disappeared by the 1980s.

Tilbury Town


As recounted on the main route, the location now thought of as the centre of Tilbury, centred on the docks and Tilbury Town station, was not originally Tilbury at all. Prior to 1903, the parish of Chadwell reached southwards all the way to the river. Tilbury was the neighbouring parish to the east, another scattered settlement between the riverfront and East Tilbury, where Elizabeth addressed the troops with her “heart and stomach of a king” speech. Though the docks were built in Chadwell, they named themselves after nearby riverside landmarks Tilbury fort and ferry, which were actually in Tilbury. And as the docks soon became the most important influence on the area, it’s not surprising that both nomenclature and administrative arrangements adapted around them.

The Thames is deep but sheltered here and has long been used for shipping, though most of the business went to the Kent side, with ships anchoring in the river and unloading cargoes onto lighters from Gravesend. As ships got bigger, outgrowing the London docks and the river moorings, the demand grew for new deep water docks along the Thames. In 1882, in response to competition from the newly built Royal Docks at Beckton, the East and West India Dock Company, which operated docks on the Isle of Dogs and at Limehouse, began digging on the Chadwell marshes upstream of the ferry.

The basic layout of the docks, with a main dock and three side branches, remains today and is clearly evident on maps and aerial photos, though there have been many improvements to create one of Britain’s three major container ports, the largest deep water port on the Thames and the biggest UK port for imports of paper. For much of the 20th century the Port of Tilbury was part of the Port of London Authority but it was privatised in 1992.

Tilbury as we know it today grew up to service the docks, and the ancillary industries that followed them, through several generations of housing from late Victorian terraces to 1970s tower blocks. When these estates were first planned there was plenty of work but, though the generously proportioned infrastructure at Tilbury survived the development of containerisation and mechanisation which put paid to the London docks in the 1970s, its workforce bore the full brunt of the reduced demand for labour that followed. By the mid-1980s the town had a 20% male unemployment rate, and it has never quite recovered. As Economist columnist Bagehot put it in 2014:
The result, in Britain’s prosperous south-east, is a polyp of hard-up, mostly white, grumpy people. During a day wandering Tilbury’s run-down rows of public housing and depressing high street, with its boarded-up premises and betting shops, your columnist heard almost nothing nice said about the place. People who had lived in Tilbury for generations described it as “hopeless”, “a third-world place” and, in the favourite local phrase, “a shithole and beyond”. Tilbury’s Labour Party candidate, Polly Billington, calls it a “northern town in the south”. It is no wonder that the comic Sacha Baron Cohen, currently making a mocking film about the northern town of Grimsby, is shooting it in Tilbury.
Some of these observations might be anecdotal, but the picture they paint of local attitudes is also reflected in more objective work like the Let’s Talk About Tilbury survey commissioned by the council in 2013, where respondents voice concerns about lack of recreational facilities and good shops, poor environments, crime and antisocial behaviour. Billington’s remark is particularly telling. The neglect of housing and the public realm, with decaying buildings punctuated by open spaces of uncertain status blighted by fly tipping, is the most obvious issue on view, although today it’s hard to find so much apparent neglect and dilapidation even in northern cities – I’m reminded more of Glasgow and Manchester when I first knew them in the 1980s. You certainly now rarely see anything quite so run-down even in the poorest parts of London and it’s a surprise to find so much of it just a few stops beyond Upminster. But then inner city London and the big northern cities have benefitted from targeted regeneration resources, while pockets like this in the supposedly prosperous southeast are so easily overlooked.

The only practical way south from Chadwell is along the road, but the pavements are broad, the traffic not too heavy, and at first the green of the former marshes stretches out on both sides. On the left the bulk of the riverside power station rises above the fields. For centuries these marshes separated communities but they would undoubtedly have been built over in the 20th century if not protected by the green belt.

The residential triangle to your left as you enter the built-up area, just after the fork in the road, is worth a look: it’s modest 1930s social housing but geometrically arranged in model fashion around a now-neglected square, on the pattern of a posh 18th century estate, and the streets are named after artists and musicians: Elgar Gardens, Gainsborough Avenue, Millais Place.

Immediately to the south is a recreation ground known locally as Daisy Field, but officially as King George’s Fields, one of over 470 playing fields in the UK established in memory of King George V after his death in 1936. The trust that originally supported the initiative handed over custodianship in 1965 to the National Playing Fields Association, now known as Fields in Trust. Opposite, when I visited in May 2015, was a large and overgrown empty site where St Chads School, one of the “failing” schools superseded by the Gateway Academy, stood until it was bulldozed in 2006, but planning permission has recently been granted to redevelop this.

Koala Park, Tilbury
A cut through the 1960s and 1970s estates on the other side of the road reveals a mixed picture. Against some of the worst dilapidation, there are new piazzas and concierge offices at the foot of tower blocks and, in the midst of it all, a quirky little park, Koala Park, surrounded by squat New Town-era low rises that look more like they belong in Budapest than on the Thames estuary. The park looks like it was once one of those ill-thought-out and badly connected open spaces typical of its period, but has had a recent slightly eccentric, obviously low budget but inventive makeover with springy turf, gabions, landscaped banks, plenty of vegetation including planters rich with wild flowers and some decent-looking play equipment.

The Australian nods in the name of the park and some of the surrounding streets acknowledge the destination of many of the ships from here. It’s a curious space that makes the detour worthwhile, particularly if, like me, you suddenly notice a huge ship’s funnel rearing up above it between house walls, and realise both just how close we are to the docks, and how big ships have become.

Tilbury Docks as seen from Tilbury Town station footbridge.
The docks aren’t easy to visit – it’s hard now to imagine the London docks when they were off-limits like this – but you’ll get a sense of their scale walking down to the riverside, and the best closeup view from the footbridge at Tilbury Town station, opened as Tilbury Dock on the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway in 1885, and renamed in 1934. Its initial orientation to the docks is still apparent, though, in the location of the Victorian main station building on the opposite side from the town.

The station was a location in Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank, a stark depiction of the life of a young working class woman just up the river in South Hornchurch. But while the Mardyke Estate on the London side of the boundary, used as the principal location after it had been emptied and condemned, has since been redeveloped into the upmarket Orchard Village, the estates of Tilbury still stand.

Towards Tilbury Riverside


On the other side of the railway, London walkers may be surprised to be confronted by signing that appears at first glance to be for the Thames Path, albeit with an unfamiliar logo. It’s actually for the Thames Estuary Path, currently a 46.5 km trail from Tilbury to Leigh-on-Sea, sometimes running quite a long way from the riverside, created as part of the European Union’s interregional Maxigreen programme to improve green heritage and underused green spaces, with sister projects in Belgium, France and the Netherlands. But it’s also part of the Thames Gateway development work and an expression of an ambition to extend the Thames Path more fully along the estuary.

When the National Trail was opened in 1996, it stopped at the Thames Barrier not because everyone thought that was the obvious place, as the Thames is considered to end at Gravesend, Southend or Frinton depending on whose definition you use, but because going beyond it was thought impractical. Since then the government agencies involved have been unwilling to extend their responsibility, and of course financial commitment, to any further stretches of national trail, but various others have proposed extensions, and two London boroughs even implemented one of them, opening their own Thames Path Extension to Crayford Marshes in 2001. In 2005 the Thames Estuary Partnership, which brings together various local authorities and others with a development interest along the tidal Thames, published its City to Sea vision of a route on to Shoeburyness on the north bank and the Isle of Grain on the south bank, followed in 2008 by an indicative survey sponsored by the Department for Communities and Local Government. But so far the Tilbury to Leigh section, opened in 2014, is the only one completed, and with the England Coast Path due to run as far inland as the Woolwich foot tunnel, it looks like the estuary will eventually get a Thames Path extension from the other direction.

Hairpin Bridge murals: Frankie goes to Tilbury
Meanwhile we can be grateful for the fact that, though once again a road route is the only practical option, the Thames Estuary Path work has made it a relatively pleasant one to walk along, with a broad pavement and cycle track. On one side is the wall of the port; on the other is a reedy stream and the railway line. The line severs this lane from the town, with no connection until you reach Hairpin Bridge, originally a road bridge first built in the 1860s. Traffic was banned in the 1980s for safety reasons and the 2012 replacement is determinedly for walkers and pedestrians only, but the extensive grassy area around the bridge foot, now partly relandscaped, gives some idea of its former extent. It links to the southern end of Tilbury town centre and while we don’t need to go that way, it’s worth a closer look for the unexpectedly fun murals, intended to reduce graffiti, which depict a motley bunch of popular music heroes alongside quotes from their songs, including Adam Ant, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, Vera Lynn, Madonna, Elvis Presley and Amy Winehouse.

Lorries on Ferry Lane, Tilbury, seen from the Thames Estuary Path
Tilbury Landing Stage, now London International Cruise Terminal
A little further on, the path gets even better as it crosses the road and runs on the other side of the stream, with a verdant strip dividing walkers from passing lorries. At this point the railway curves off towards East Tilbury and Southend, but the old branch to Tilbury Riverside continues for a while, now petering out in the yard of the Fortress Distribution Park, where the shipping containers, in forbidding stacks of tower block proportions, are the closest thing to fortresses in sight.

Approaching from this direction and crossing dock gates you have a fine view of Tilbury Passenger Landing Stage, now the London Cruise Terminal, rearing ahead of you. Designed by Edwin Cooper, it was opened in 1930 to create a convenient London berth for the cruise liners that were then the principal means of long distance travel, and among those passing through were evacuated children, the only German World War II prisoner of war to escape from Britain (Bavarian aviator Gunther Plüschow, who since 2015 has been commemorated by a plaque on the site), ‘£10 poms’ emigrating to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, and the hopeful new arrivals on the Empire Windrush. I’ve talked about its resonances at greater length in the post covering the main route, so I’ll resist repeating myself too much here.

The railway tracks once extended to the smaller building between the ferry landing and the terminal, the old Tilbury Riverside station, opened in 1854 to connect with the ferry and other shipping on the river, many years before the docks were built. It was originally simply known as Tilbury, and was finally closed in 1992. I’ll also resist repeating too much about the ferry, except to say that since I wrote up the main route it’s at last returned to the restored Gravesend Town Pier on the opposite side, a much more attractive way to arrive in Kent.

If, like me, you just miss a ferry, it’s no great hardship on a fine day to sit on the landing stage, contemplate the river and the Gravesend waterfront and try to feel the vast waves of history that have washed through this little stretch of water. I find myself thinking about the passage in the original London Countryway guidebook where author Keith Chesterton avers that while Gravesend turns out to be less interesting than it looks, Tilbury turns out the other way round. I wonder if he’d still think the same way having walked the route that I have. It would be good to think that, with the Thames Gateway and all the other projects on the go, some self-confidence and prosperity might return to the town. But somehow it seems that, while plenty of water washes this way from the capital, wealth is rather less fluid.

Gravesend, from Tilbury ferry terminal

Friday, 17 July 2015

London Countryway via Epping: restoring the original route




TEMPORARY ARRANGEMENTS HAVE A HABIT of becoming permanent if people forget the reasons why they were temporary in the first place. So it’s been for most London Countryway walkers over the past 30 years or so when they walk out of Epping Forest and on through the Essex fields towards Brentwood. The original route, as devised in the 1970s and first published in book form in 1978, ran via Epping itself. But when Keith Chesterton, the Countryway’s originator, produced the second edition in 1981, the M25 orbital motorway was due to be constructed right across the path. So to avoid issues with years of disruptions and diversions, and uncertainty about the end result, he deflected the route via Theydon Bois.

Though the paths concerned have long since been reinstated with minimal impact, because that 1981 edition hung around a lot longer than its predecessor, the diverted route became the default version, and was the one I described on my first walking of the route. Now, Theydon Bois, with its Victorian village atmosphere and Olympic-sized green, is a pleasant enough place to start or finish a walk, and the journey that way is up to 2.5 km shorter. But Epping is a historic market town at an ancient road junction, a gateway to the greatest surviving stretch of forest on the London fringe, and, since 1994, at the very end of London Underground’s Central Line, a symbolic rural extremity of the metropolis. So I’m pleased to offer a restored version of the original London Countryway, which I now unhesitatingly recommend as the preferred option.

As both Epping and Theydon Bois are staging posts, the changes affect both the end of one section of route description and the beginning of the next, and to save confusion I’ve produced complete alternative versions of both which you can download below. This commentary, though, only covers the altered sections of route. So see my original post on Broxbourne to Theydon Bois for contextual information on the Lee Valley Park and Epping Forest, up to and including the prehistoric fort at Ambresbury Banks, just before where the two alternatives diverge.

Bell Common


M25 glimpsed from just above the eastern portal
of the Bell Common Tunnel
After passing this ancient monument, Epping-bound walkers won’t need to venture into the trees on uncertain paths like those heading for Theydon Bois, but can simply continue ahead on the broad forest track, also the route of the unsigned Epping Forest Centenary Walk, through a portion of woodland known appropriately as Epping Thicks. Eventually, after rolling over several valleys cut by forest streams, the path swerves out of the woods just short of big grassy playing field and cricket pitch which, though you’d never guess it, conceals the source of all the trouble.

It is in fact a giant lid over the M25 London orbital motorway. Proposals in the 1970s to build a conventional surface motorway across the Forest met with vociferous opposition, not least from the influential City of London in its role as conservator. So instead the M25 was routed across this northeasterly edge of the main swathe of woodland, squeezed between the trees and the urban development of Epping in a cut-and-cover tunnel crowned with a 600 mm layer of topsoil to preserve the continuity of the open green space. The 470 m-long Bell Common Tunnel took two years to construct, opening in 1984. The motorway isn’t quite invisible or inaudible but it’s easy to miss unless you’re looking out for it. The short path you follow immediately after crossing Theydon Road runs right across the top of the tunnel’s eastern portal: crane over the wall to the right and you’ll see the traffic roaring beneath.

Gorse on Bell Common, Epping
Large stretches of Bell Common itself survive as a fine green space dotted with mainly older houses filling the gap between the Forest and the town. Historically it was part of a ‘purlieu’, a buffer zone where some, but not all, forest laws applied, and a raised ‘purlieu bank’ is still visible along its south side. The common was included among the lands protected as public open space under the Epping Forest Act in 1878, and is now part of the Green Belt and a designated conservation area, thus its survival. Both common and town are atop a 105 m ridge, the name ‘Epping’ likely meaning ‘people who live on upland’. The open vegetation on the poor soil of the common combined with the height facilitates some good viewpoints, and from at least the 14th century this was the site for a beacon intended to warn of invasion, giving it the former name of Beacon Common: the current name dates from the 19th century and refers to the Bell Inn overlooking its north side.

A story that Epping was established principally to maintain the beacon is unsubstantiated and unlikely to be true, but the importance of the common to the settlement is indicated by the fact that the old manor house, now divided into two and known as Epping Place and Winchelsea House, still overlooks it. This house is but one of numerous listed and other locally important buildings, some dating as far back as the 16th century, including some weatherboarded cottages.

The route brings us to the Forest Gate Inn, a sprawling pub with adjoining restaurant set back from the road, its name recalling the nearby tollgate established when the High Road became a turnpike in 1768. The actual gate was just a little to the northwest, at the junction of High Road and Theydon Road. On the street itself right next to the pub yard is a bed and breakfast guest house, the Gate House, and across the other side of the common, the eponymous Bell Inn, rebuilt around 1900 and turned into a ‘motor hotel’ in the 1960s, continues to offer accommodation as the Best Western Bell Hotel.

The original Countryway route grazes the common just short of the Forest Gate Inn before heading down a bridleway to another outlying neighbourhood with the picturesque name of Ivy Chimneys, a strip of houses and a school with a bus stop labelled The Spotted Dog recalling yet another pub closed and demolished to make way for a housing development. From here there’s a road-based link to the station along Centre Drive; alternatively you can continue across the Central Line, climbing through fields towards Gardeners Farm, with open views back towards Forest, common and town, and the red, white and blue-liveried Tube trains looking incongruous as they snake through the rural surroundings.

The route through Ivy Chimneys is still the shortest way to go if you don’t plan on breaking your walk at Epping, but if you do, I recommend sticking instead to the Centenary Walk, which strikes out down the centre of the main grassy strip. On your right, on the south side of the common, is a secluded row of houses mainly built between the 1960s and 1980s, with some older buildings, while on your left you’ll glimpse the Bell Inn and old manor house along the High Road, lined by an avenue of trees planted to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1898.

The path then swerves southeast through another tranche of open space, picking up the alignment of an old avenue, Western Road, to emerge amid the postwar development of Centre Drive, continuing along an urban footpath to the station. From here the town centre is a worthwhile detour, or you could simply cross the common to the High Road and arrive in Epping the way generations of travellers have done.

Epping


St John's Church, Epping
The beacon story isn’t really needed to explain the origin of Epping. Its location, on a ridge adjacent to the forest and at a meeting point of four roads linking with the surrounding agricultural countryside and other important centres, accounts easily for why it became a notable settlement in the mediaeval period. One of those roads meandered west via Upshire to the powerful ecclesiastical institution of Waltham Abbey, and by 1177 the manor of Eppingbury, as it was then known, was held by the abbey.

A church already stood at Epping Heath, now a southern suburb of the present town, and the settlement was granted a market charter in 1253. Following dissolution in 1540 the manor passed into private hands: a Countess of Winchelsea held it in the 1630s and redeveloped the manor house. But the population remained low and buildings scattered until road improvements prompted the slow development of a linear village to the northwest of the church, along the line of what had become the main road.

While the way northeast towards Harlow had long been relatively direct, the thick barrier of the Forest obstructed a good connection to London in the opposite direction, with only a convoluted route. In response to the growing importance of the metropolis, in the early 17th century an improved road was cut through the trees to Loughton as a southwest continuation of the High Road, today the route of the B1393 to Wake Arms roundabout and then the A121 Goldings Hill.  In 1768 this road was turnpiked and further improved by the Epping and Ongar Highway Trust, and coaches from London to East Anglian cities like Cambridge and Norwich started to pass through the growing town, with support services like coaching inns expanding accordingly.

25 coaches a day were passing through by the early 19th century, their journey made easier in the 1830s with the opening of an even more direct route through the Forest, Epping New Road from the Wake Arms to Woodford, avoiding several steep climbs. This traffic started to subside soon afterwards under competition from the railways, which didn’t reach Epping until 1865, and then only via a branch line. Epping’s wayside fortunes changed again with the development of motorised transport: in the 1920s the New Road and High Road were designated part of the A11 trunk road and for much of the 20th century through traffic from London to Norwich thundered down the High Street. With the opening of the M11 between 1975-80 the worst of the traffic was diverted, and the old route was subsequently renumbered to further discourage its use.

With the shift of activity towards the High Street, the little 13th century flint rubble church of All Saints in what was now a southern suburb lost its importance. A chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist had stood on the main road overlooking the marketplace and the corner of the common almost as long as the church, for many centuries sharing an incumbent with All Saints. In 1888 the chapel and the church swapped status, and between 1889 and 1909 a huge new building in Gothic revival style took shape on the former chapel site as the main parish church: it’s this that now dominates your view as you emerge at the town centre from the station. All Saints was reinstated as a church again in 1912 when the parish was split, though today both fall under the same “district team ministry”.

The High Street is now a conservation area, with some other interesting buildings scattered among more recent and bland commercial development. To your left at the top of Station Road are several 18th century cottages opposite a pleasant green; further down towards the common is a turreted Victorian Gothic water tower built in 1872, now at least as prominent a landmark as the church. The market place, in operation on Mondays, is opposite to the right, past the church, and several of the buildings behind it are also listed, including some former coaching inns. The red brick council offices with their distinctive clock tower at the northeast end of the street, dating from 1999, were deliberately designed to provide a further balancing landmark.

Epping London Underground station
If you haven’t previously walked via Theydon Bois, Epping Station will provide your first and only sight of the familiar red and blue of a genuine London Underground roundel on the route: a final London flourish on this most London-flavoured of the Countryway’s sections. The service matches the expectations raised, with trains departing every few minutes towards central London. Don’t expect to descend to the depths, however, as this outlying section of the Central Line is a conventional surface railway, with the pretty red brick station still preserving the flavour of a rural branch line.

Indeed the station and line were opened in 1865 as part of the Great Eastern Railway extension of its Loughton branch to Epping and Ongar, and became part of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) in the 1920s. Expansion plans drawn up by the newly formed London Transport in 1935 included the London Underground taking over the branch by tacking it on to an eastern extension of the Central Line at Stratford, partly prompted by a major development at Loughton. Work was interrupted by World War II and Underground trains first ran along the route in 1949.

As explained elsewhere, at the time of the Underground takeover, the built up area already sprawled as far as it does today, yet the London County Council only covered a small proportion of it. People already talked of ‘Greater London’ but without an official definition. London Transport was given powers over a much wider area, so there was no reason it couldn’t run a railway out here. Eventually when the Greater London Council was created within the current London boundaries in 1964, Loughton, Epping and Theydon Bois weren’t included. Instead they form part of the Epping Forest District of Essex, which, confusingly, doesn’t cover all of Epping Forest and does cover plenty that isn’t Epping Forest. But Epping and its neighbouring stations remain on the Underground map, and even inside Zone 6 of TfL’s zonal fares structure, among only a few stations outside London to be accorded this honour.

Until 1994 Tube trains continued through even more rural surroundings to Ongar: one of the intermediate stops, Blake Hall, had the dubious distinction of being the least-used station on the Underground, with only 17 passengers a day when it was closed in 1981. The line on to Ongar still exists: you can view it clearly from Epping station. Ten years after closure it reopened as a heritage railway, but this ceased in 2007 following a change in ownership. Since 2012 it’s been open again as the Epping Ongar Railway (EOR), with both steam and diesel trains on summer weekends and bank holidays and some other times, but sadly they don’t reach Epping, as they’d interfere with Central Line operations. The closest they get is a sightseeing stop with no boarding or alighting about 100 m away, though there’s an aspiration to build a short spur to a new platform. Meanwhile the EOR runs a connecting heritage bus between Epping and the surviving intermediate station at North Weald.

A rather more modest piece of infrastructure connecting Epping with Ongar and, indeed, Coggeshall, Dedham and Harwich is the 130 km Essex Way, which you’ll spot signed from the station and which the Countryway follows very briefly as it continues east. In 1972 the local branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE, then known as the Council for the Protection of Rural England) sponsored a competition to devise a long distance walking trail for Essex, which was won by the students of Chelmsford Technical High School. The route they proposed was later signed with the support of Essex county council, initially with dark green waymarks showing the CPRE logo, but most of these have since been replaced by new council waymarks depicting two red poppies.

As it passes close to Harwich International with its twice-daily ferries to Hoek van Holland in the Netherlands, this is also a trail with international connections, and the section approaching Harwich forms part of the northeastern branch of European long distance path E2, the southwestern branch of which we’ve already encountered between the North Downs and the Thames.

On to Theydon Garnon


On the other side of the Central Line the route heads south again through the former area of Epping Heath, descending the valley of a small brook that eventually feeds the river Roding. All Saints, the original parish church mentioned above, is just off the route along All Saints Road. Although according to Nicolas Pevsner it’s “badly over-restored” following extensive work in 1878, it still preserves 13th century stonework and a late 16th century tower.

The path rising up the other side of the valley towards Gardeners Farm is hard to spot, accessed through a gate next to a giant luxury thatched house behind forbidding fences. You pass the playing field of Coopersale Hall School, a private day school now occupying part of one of several rural estates in the area, Copped Hall. The present Coopersale Hall dates from the 1770s and has been a school since 1989. At the farm, the path meets the route via Ivy Chimneys.

When I walked through in May 2015 there were issues with electrified rope obstructing the route here, with rights of way following vanished field boundaries clearly not working well alongside the current owner’s desire to subdivide the space as horse paddocks. According to the Ramblers’ local footpath secretary, a procedure was in progress to divert the path to the benefit of both the owner and walkers, which Ramblers volunteers then plan to waymark, so look out for new signing across the site, which should lead you across the paddock and down steps to the bottom of the motorway embankment.

Subway under M25 near Gardeners Farm, Epping
The M25 here has deflected the path a little, but the detour to the nearest gloomy subway isn’t too onerous: the path runs through a dip girded by mature greenery which feels curiously secluded despite the sound of traffic from above. On the other side the surroundings are more open, as a path heads towards our second motorway encounter through the slowly recovering land of Blunts Farm.

In the early 2000s this large site was earmarked for the development of a golf course, but from 2003 the owners began illegally using it as landfill for construction waste, claiming this was a form of landscaping. Ironically, not only did this play havoc with the environment, it also slowed the progress and disrupted the enjoyment of Countryway walkers on the Theydon Bois diversion rather more than a motorway construction crew might have done. Including me: when I first visited in 2010, the site was a sea of mud dotted with dangerous pits, with thick layers of earth rucked up as if by some geological catastrophe, and the right of way was impossible to follow.

Following local protests, the landfill was finally stopped and while the land is starting to recover and prominent waymark poles have made it much more navigable, it still has something of the blasted alien planet look about it. Next up is another spooky subway, this time under the M11 just south of its junction with the M25 (junction 6 on the M11, 27 on the M25). This is the road that has superseded the old coach route through the Forest and along Epping High Street. It has its origins in proposals for an ‘Eastern Avenue’ dating back to 1915, but this section only finally opened in 1977.

The M11 also marks the point where both the 1978 and 1981 versions of the Countryway converge again. So if you want to read more about what lays ahead as the route embarks on one of its most rural and remote sections, linking a string of hilltop churches though the Essex countryside on its way to Brentwood, you’ll need to refer to my previous post.