Thursday 19 April 2018
Beautiful warm and sunny weather accompanied our train ride from Liverpool Street to Chingford for this interesting excursion. Linda and were accompanied by Roger, the former 63 regular, who was somewhat bemused by our nostalgia for the Chingford bus station, neatly positioned next to the Overground. But we did not need a bus, as it is a ten minute stroll into the outskirts of Epping Forest and to the Hunting Lodge.
You know you are almost there when you pass the extremely pseudo-Tudor Premier Inn. The Lodge itself is whitewashed all over, as was apparently the norm at the time of its building.
As Linda commented later, like the New River (neither new nor a river...) it is neither a Lodge, nor built for Queen Elizabeth, but the Victorians liked to associate anything then could with a previous great female ruler.
Before we went inside, we headed to the green space at the rear of the Lodge to admire the truly spectacular views over this edge of the Forest (perhaps I should explain, as we were told later, that the capitalisation is required because this was a Royal Forest, and as such subject to the Forestry Laws, which King John was forced to sort out alongside other issues in 1215.)
What you see indoors is made up of two parts. First, we went into The View, as the Visitor Centre is aptly named. We found this very interesting, which will indicate to those of you who remember that I can be resistant to being educated, the high quality of the displays. There are two parts: 'who needs the Forest' was all about the different species which inhabit the Forest, and the different uses to which it is and has been put. Information about the English Long Horn Cattle which now graze the glades, also told us about the Common Rights of ancient times and the attempts by rich landowners to fence parts of the Forest (about which more later). The advice to modern visitors was to enjoy the cattle, 'just try to avoid stepping in their flower dispersal systems', thus neatly making the point that cowpats are ecologically crucial.
The Forest has also been a place for leisure activities for centuries, though the coming of the railways meant a huge increase, as the East End poured its population into the countryside at weekends. One of the entrepreneurs who set up Riggs Shelter, with refreshments for visitors, was told to supply toilets lest visitors made the Forest 'one perfect closet for their convenience'.
The veteran trees are also remarkable, some of the beeches being as much as 500 years old. The Forest is very densely planted, with up to 800 trees per acre (compared to 70 in Richmond Park) and this is possible because of centuries of pollarding, or lopping as the Commoners' rights called it. The poor wanted the branches for firewood; and once the 'bolling' that remains is too high for deer and cattle to munch, the tree can thrive and be lopped frequently. When lopping was ended in 1878, the compensation built a community hall in Loughton, called Lopping Hall.
Ancient trees led seamlessly into an account of invertebrates, and therefore small bug munching mammals, and therefore owls and other birds.
The other part of the exhibition was about 'who saved the Forest' and here we got a wonderful combination of the great-and-good and the ordinary people. Octavia Hill wanted fresh air as well as good housing 'the poor should never be denied beauty' she said; William Morris played in the Forest as a lad: there was a charming cartoon of him saying 'I just can't stop drawing leaves'. G B Shaw was also in favour of preserving the Forest as an openly accessible space, as was Thomas Nelson, the Solicitor who took up the case of the Commoners against the 16 Landlords (boooo!) who had fenced parts of the Forest. As we know, the right of pasturage and therefore of the openness of the Forest won the day. And the wealthy City of London stepped in and purchased much disputed land for the public good. Queen Victoria visited in the 1880s. to be greeted by civic displays and an arch.
But the less wealthy and influential also played their part. There were serious demonstrations against the enclosures in the 1850s and 60s; and in the 1970s when a motorway called the M16 was planned as a sort of pre-M25 ringroad, there were again major protests.
There was much more to enjoy, as well as a display of work by local artists, but it was time to move into the Hunting Lodge.
The very friendly staff gave us a brief introduction: the building dates from 1543 which (as Nigel Molesworth would say, and as I have quoted before, 'any fule kno') was Henry VIII. At that time it was called the Great Standing, and was a three storey timber frame, to enable the corpulent monarch to kill 'his' deer without getting onto a horse: game would be driven into the courtyard, and the King and his courtiers would shoot from the upstairs.
The ground floor was set up as the kitchen. We always enjoy fake food, particularly the venison pastries as described in a quote from Samuel Pepys. And we were impressed by the huge hams, presumably removed from the fire place which the cauldron of pottage was set set to simmer.
But most splendid of all were the decorations of the pies and pasties (pastry being as important as bread in those pre-potato days). There were apparently books of designs, as well I am looking for something more than diamonds next time Roger and Linda make a pie.
The room had some information about who used to poach the Royal deer, their names and histories being known from court records.
The stairs up to the first floor are wide and shallow, suitable the courtiers in posh frocks. The story that Elizabeth I rode her horse up them after the defeat of the Armada sadly only dates from 1833, and so has to be taken with pinches of salt.
The upstairs room is for education, with the obligatory dressing up clothes, including ruffs and some attractive mens hats.
This would have been the level from which the shooting happened, so the floor upstairs (past a stuffed fallow deer) must have ben just to enjoy the view, or maybe a spot of dalliance (there was Tudor type music playing up here), and it was right to be reminded that the place existed because the Forest was a royal playground, long before it became a public pleasure.
Did I mention that it is free to enter? Lots of details here. Even on a less beautiful day, this is well worth a visit.
Well, then it was time to move on, Roger and Linda to walk through the Forest to Loughton (using the Freedom Pass Walks book) and me to return to the station and so home.