Wow, what a day! This is easily a contender for my favourite tubewalk, as from start to finish it's a classic countryside walk through rolling farmland, pretty villages and ancient woodland... and all of this in zone 6, too. That's the same zone as Upminster, Heathrow, West Ruislip, Northwood and Uxbridge, none of which come close to being this rural; it's much more like the countryside walking out on the Metropolitan line at Chesham, but that's in zone 9; you get a lot of bang for your Oyster buck on the eastern Central line.
Indeed, my A-Z doesn't even come out this far, so instead of following road maps today, I switched to Ordnance Survey Explorer map number 174 (Epping Forest and Lee Valley) and took along my compass. I also used my GPS for more than just recording my route, just to make sure I followed the right paths through Epping Forest; I'm more used to using road names to work out my position, but there aren't many roads on this walk. It's a delight, particularly in wall-to-wall sunshine, and I can see myself coming back here again, just for pleasure... and I don't say that about every tubewalk.
Debden to Theydon Bois
From Debden station, I took the pedestrian bridge over the track to catch a hemmed-in path along the side of the railway, with thick fencing separating me from the huge industrial estate to the right. The right of way passes a massive Clinton Cards factory and some anonymous but highly secure units before turning right into the industrial estate, and a couple of turns took me onto Langston Road, home of the biggest units of all.
King of these is the Bank of England Printing Works, which sits by the side of the road behind two sets of security fencing, a large array of security cameras, rolls of razor wire and rows of mirrored windows. The security makes sense, as this place literally has a licence to print money, and to say it must be a potential target for criminals is to understate somewhat. The building behind the fencing is imposing, with two long wings and a large rectangular tower in the centre, and I felt rather paranoid taking photos (though it didn't stop me, seeing as the road in front is a public right of way).
At the end of the road by the far corner of the printing works, a small path leads into fields and suddenly you're in the countryside proper. Ignore the constant pounding of the nearby M11, and instead marvel at the golden colour of the fields, some stripped of their crops, some still swaying with the breeze like lush yellow oceans in a cool coastal breeze. The path heads towards the motorway, flanking the western side for a short time, before crossing a small bridge to the other side, from where the views of the pounding traffic and the surrounding countryside are impressive.
From the motorway, things get much quieter (or they do if the wind is blowing from the east, as the sound of the motorway gets blown away from you as soon as you cross; it might be a different story in westerly breeze). A dirt road leads past yet more golden fields of wheat to Piggotts Farm, and a right turn on the B172 takes you to a bridge over the River Roding (which I followed on yesterday's walk between Buckhurst Hill and Debden) with a small village on the other side. This is the imaginatively titled Abridge, and Roding Hall sits on the edge of the bridge, its black-and-white Tudor exterior peering straight towards the fields to the north, which is where I headed next.
From here to Theydon Bois it's all field walking, and very enjoyable field walking it is too. Instead of being just one field after another, it seemed as if each field had been differently prepared, just to keep my interest levels up. The first field, just by Abridge, was full of knee-high wheat, and although the right of way cuts diagonally across the field, I skirted the edges in the wake of a tractor trail, thus making life easier for me and for the farmer. After a stile, the second field reverted to grass and skirted the northern flank of the River Roding; the river is quite overgrown at this point and is rarely visible from the fields, but when it does pop into view, it's a lovely sight, with water lilies floating beneath drooping trees in a most picturesque way.
Before I crossed into Epping Lane I wandered through a freshly ploughed field, and on the other side of the road I skirted the right flank of a fallow field. Passing through the welcome shade of the old trees lining the edge, I noticed the sound of planes, but these weren't Heathrow-bound jets thundering through the skies; instead they were propellor planes, presumably from the airfield northeast of Epping, and it struck me that even the planes round here are atmospheric. If I closed my eyes and stood in the hot breeze, I could kid myself that I was near an airfield in Africa or South America, the local planes stuffed with drug barons and heading off to do business over the border, or perhaps carrying the guests, presents and live chickens for a wedding in a neighbouring tribal district. Maybe it was the effect of the heat, but I did feel as if I was abroad today, perhaps on holiday in southern Europe or walking in the bone-dry Greek islands; it certainly didn't feel like zone 6.
The next field was full of younger and greener wheat, and on the other side of another stile I came across a herd of cows, chewing the cud on the far side of the field (the only other place I've seen cows on this walk was on the way to Chesham, out in zone 9). Then I stumbled on a fantastic field that had been left to turn into a wild meadow, with white butterflies flitting in and out of a deep velvet and purple carpet of lush undergrowth. It was simply beautiful.
Unfortunately, the fun had to end for a brief spell as I reached the M11 once again, but this time I went underneath the motorway via Abridge Road and leapt back into the countryside almost immediately, soon coming out into a section of land owned by the Woodland Trust. The plan is to plant this whole area with trees, joining it up to other Woodland Trust properties in the area, but at the moment it's all just fields with an easy path following the right-hand perimeter; this leads past Theydon Bois Cemetery, which you can't see from the path, but can poke your nose through a couple of gaps in the hedge for a quick glance of the graves. The Woodland Trust land soon gives way to more farmers' fields, and as if I hadn't had enough variety on the other side of the motorway, the final field was full of sheep, standing there and eyeing me up with complete indifference as they baked under the scorching sun.
All too sudden, the countryside ends at a bridge over the Tube line, and on the other side are the suburbs of Theydon Bois. There's a pleasant enough housing estate to pass through, and then the centre of the village opens up in front of you, with a lovely green, an attractive pond complete with ducks and weeping willows, and even a thatched cottage or two. The village centre is attractive, with two great-looking pubs, The Bull and the Queen Victoria, both of which serve an excellent pint (I can vouch for this as I stopped at Theydon Bois on the way back home from Epping, and enjoyed a pint in each pub followed by an afternoon of writing in the sun; life is hard).
Theydon Bois station is just past the attractive shop fronts of the high street, tucked away along a small driveway. As I took a photo of the station, the station master popped his head out of the front door and danced a merry jig in front of me, which I was unfortunately too slow to catch on camera; when he'd finished, we had a little chat and he asked me why I was taking photos of his Tube station, and when I explained, he looked at me as if I was mad. And this from a man who was, just a couple of minutes before, grooving away in front of a complete stranger, simply because I'd pointed a camera at his station. Touché, Mr Station Master, and don't stop dancing...
Theydon Bois to Epping
From the station I wandered along the northern edge of Theydon Green, which is lined with quite modest houses with wonderful views across the green. There's an old schoolhouse and a lovely little church just beyond the western tip of the green, and just after the latter there's a path leading off the road into the forest, and from here to the outskirts of Epping, it is again a delightful rural walk. However this time it's almost all undercover, because this is Epping Forest, and a big swathe of it, too. I wouldn't want to do this walk in the rain, but in the hot sun it is perfect: the fields leading to Theydon Bois are lovely in the sun but would be awful in wet weather, and the same is true of Epping Forest, where the shade proved very welcome on this, one of the hottest days of the year so far.
It's easy to navigate through Epping Forest, as long as you have a map and compass. The paths are marked on the Ordnance Survey maps and on most GPS maps, and they're really obvious – they're dirt roads, really. When planning this part of the route, I'd wondered whether I was asking for trouble by plotting a course through the middle of such a large tract of ancient woodland, but I needn't have worried, because although I used my GPS every now and then, I only consulted it to confirm my decisions, and not once did it have to correct me.
So I headed into the forest just past the church, and after wandering west for a while, past two car parks on the southern edge of this part of the forest, I turned north along the Green Ride, a walking and cycle path that took me all the way to the northern tip of the forest. The walking is easy and enjoyable, and although there are no views to speak of, that's not the point of forest walking. I'm a happy member of the Woodland Trust, and it's to conserve experiences like this that I shell out my annual subscription, and although Epping Forest is managed by the Corporation of London (at no expense to the tax payer, I should add), the point stands: I love woods, and I'm happy to pay to keep it that way.
One interesting side-show on the way north through the forest is Ambresbury Banks, which is signposted off the Green Ride about halfway through this section of the woods. Dating from around 500 BC, Ambresbury Banks is one of two earthworks in Epping Forest (the other, Loughton Camp, is to the south), and it consists of a large oval of earthen banks, enclosing over four hectares of land. The fort would probably have been used to store animals during times of attack, and might have been used as a look-out post or boundary marker between the neighbouring tribes of the Trinovantes and the Catevellauni. Local legend says that this is where Queen Boudicca was defeated by the Romans in 61 AD, but this has since been disproved; whatever, the remains of the fortifications are atmospheric, and it's a great place for a rest and a bit of historical daydreaming.
After a very enjoyable yomp through the woods, the Green Ride arrives at a cricket ground at the northern end of the forest, and it's time to turn right and join civilisation again. In the distance is the rumbling of the M25, but although it sounds quite far away, it's actually directly under your feet, because the M25 burrows through the Bell Common Tunnel right beneath this part of the forest. The tunnel was built between 1982 and 1984, and used the same cut-and-cover method of construction as used on the early sub-surface lines, like the Metropolitan, District and Hammersmith & City lines. The tunnel is 470m long and was designed to minimise disturbance of this northern end of Epping Forest, which is protected under the Epping Forest Act of 1878.
There's another good-looking pub out on Theydon Road and some attractive houses along Bell Common, but the suburbs of Epping aren't far away, and a short walk through the wooded Western Road brings you out on Centre Drive, where pleasant but slightly unimaginative houses enjoy some very attractive views to the east. Epping station is a short walk along a path joining Centre Drive to the car park, and so ends a fantastic day's walk through some lovely countryside that I can heartily recommend. And if you want more, there's a sign on the station that says the Essex Way starts there, heading out east for 81 miles through the heart of the county to Harwich. If I wasn't already a little occupied with this tubewalk, I'd be tempted...