Visit Epping Forest to enjoy history, countryside and adrenaline-filled fun
The district of Epping Forest takes its name from the ancient forest that extends down into London. However, there’s so much more that makes this destination a hidden gem, so easily accessible and right on the edge of London. Beyond the forest’s timeless green canopy discoveries abound in an area that offers something for everyone. Just for starters, the district is home to the last resting place of King Harold, has the closest heritage steam railway to London, a working Battle of Britain airfield where you can fly in a Spitfire and a 300-year-old site of military discovery and manufacture, each creating a fascinating family day out. Add in traditional pubs in welcoming villages and hamlets, café culture in towns, fine dining, and a large open-air market with street food and you’ve discovered a destination you’ll want to return to time and time again.
For those who like to get out into the countryside, as well as Epping Forest and its buffer lands, the area is criss-crossed with footpaths including the Essex Way, which starts outside Epping Central Line tube station and ends 82 miles away at Harwich Old Lighthouse on the north Essex coast. Through woods, farmland and countryside, the route offers places to stop for a pub lunch and passes St Andrews Church at Greensted, the oldest wooden Church in the World, and the oldest ‘Stave Built’ timber building in Europe. Look out for the grave, lying adjacent to the entrance to the church, of a 12th century Crusader, thought to be a bowman.
On the other side of the district, Lee Valley Park marks the border with London and Hertfordshire and offers delightful paths for walking and cycling beside the river and canal and around a series of lakes as well, as water-based activities including the White Water Centre built for the London Olympics. Just outside Waltham Abbey, visit the Wildlife Discovery Centre and learn about the wildlife and history of the valley before ascending the observation tower, which gives you an amazing view over Seventy Acres Lake. Combine this with a visit to nearby Lee Valley Animal Adventure Park for a real wildlife treat. For those looking for something more energetic, activities on offer include canoeing, horse riding and mountain biking. Nearby, the Secret Nuclear Bunker is also home to Rope Runners and the Wild Forest activity centre on a site that also hosts the acclaimed Nuclear Races for the ultimate adrenalin junkies.
Heritage abounds and a popular destination alongside the River Lee is Waltham Abbey with its historic town centre and abbey grounds to explore. Nearby are the Royal Gunpowder Mills and Copped Hall, a mansion under restoration, famous for its gardens and as the venue for the first performance of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. These days it hosts performances, events and activities through the year including regular garden and mansion open days. Waltham Abbey is also home to the district’s museum, which has recently been expanded and offers a glimpse into the past bringing to life the many characters and events that have shaped the area. The Royal Gunpowder Mills is a day out in itself and brings together the science and social history of a secret site that has been vital to the nation’s defence since Tudor times. Discover the dangerous art of making gunpowder, the science behind modern propellants and explosives and the age of rockets, all designed and manufactured on this site. With buildings and equipment still in place that stretch back over 300 years, set in extensive countryside, this important location is an anchor point of the European Route of Industrial Heritage.
Chipping Ongar is a small town with an important medieval past that is still discernible today. The town centre is built around a Norman motte and bailey castle and the high road still narrows where the old town gates would have been. Ongar was once the last stop on the Central Line until the stretch from Epping was closed. The line is redundant no more as it is now home to the Epping Ongar Railway, which runs heritage trains throughout the year. With regular journeys and special events, alight at Ongar or North Weald (with connections by heritage double-decker buses) for a journey that allows you to step back in time whilst travelling through the beautiful Essex countryside.
North Weald is also home to a historic RAF airfield that was created to protect London from Zeppelin raids during the WWI and was a key fighter base during the Battle of Britain in the WWII. Enlarged for the jet age and finally relinquished by the RAF, the airfield is now run by the District Council and is home to a range of heritage warbirds and light aircraft as well as the Essex Air Ambulance and a large open-air market on Saturdays and Bank Holidays. Here you can watch the aircraft come and go whilst enjoying a meal or even take a seat in a Spitfire and relive the experience of the fighter pilots that once flew along the same runway. Complete your visit in the locally run museum dedicated to the history of the airfield, its artifacts and the people who defended our country.
Getting to the Epping Forest District couldn’t be easier. The Central Line from London has eight stops in the district and there are junctions on both the M11 at Epping and Loughton and the M25 at Waltham Abbey. For those walking or cycling, what better route than through Epping Forest or along the Lee Valley or down the Essex Way.