Where to Ride: Essex: MTB
Words and Pictures: Hugo Gladstone (additional pics by Steve Mahon)
London is looking truly gloomy when I roll-up into a car park at the city's very periphery. Grey cloud blankets the sky and a fine drizzle fills the air.
When local rider Steve Mahon emerges through the murk to meet me, the outlook doesn't get much better.
"I went out night-riding last night and it was a complete quagmire," he tells me. "I don't think I've ever seen the trails so bad in some places."
A member of the sizeable but casual Epping Forest over 35 Mountain Bikers, Steve informs me that Epping Forest is not so great for riding in prolonged periods of bad weather. Because it sits on London clay, drainage is relatively slow however he rides with his group all year long.
On the other hand there are many good things going for the forest. It is north east London's lungs; a protected swathe of undisturbed greenery that prods inwards from the M25 across metropolitan Essex. A couple of thinner fingers of woodland penetrate even deeper into the urbanity of Greater London. A friend once told me he could ride off-road all the way from his home in Leyton into the main bit of the forest. Alternatively you can catch the train from Liverpool Street to Chingford. The station sits just down the road from where we meet.
Apart from a couple of select nature reserves, access to the forest is unrestricted. Once upon a time it was all common grazing land. Still protected by the Corporation of the City of London, it now serves as a fine resource for recreation. Given the right to roam, distinction between footpaths and bridleways has little bearing here. The place is absolutely ribboned with legitimate singletrack and Steve even claims you're perfectly entitled to pedal along the fairways at the West Essex Golf Club across the road.
Of course we're not here to get pelted by balls, so we'll stick to riding around the edge. No sooner than I've started across the car park, though, my bike prangs a gear cable. Fortunately local bike shop owner Martin Backes (Bike Trax) is also on the scene. Both he and Steve have the sense to ride singlespeed in these conditions but nonetheless he has a spare cable in his van. Problem fixed the three of us start up again, pedalling our way along the city fringe and up onto the summit of Pole Hill overlooking the capital. Here there's a memorial to T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and a geographic trig point marking the passage of the meridian line. At night they shine the fine Greenwich laser beam this way. In today's gloom we can only just about make out the shape of the BT Tower.
Our ride starts in earnest as we pedal northwards from these markers down wooded singletrack that traces the perimeter of the golf club. Lightly descending, it winds and wiggles, sometimes splitting into multiple tracks that re-converge around trees. In the mud, drifting like a speedway rider becomes a factor in tackling every turn.
After curving eastwards we're spewed across Bury Road and then take a right down a bridleway back towards the car park where we started. The next section of trail starts from the northeast corner of this car park cutting diagonally into the woodland. We follow this tight, slippery singletrack across a couple of bridleways, through a glade, then across and alongside a trickling stream. Beyond here, however, my recollection of the route gets woolly. No singletrack is way-marked, all mapping is homemade and any names given to tracks vary from person to person - according to what sort of incident they'd witnessed on it.
"We know this one as Andy's log," says Steve at one point in the ride. "I've always called it Bob's knee," notes Martin.
Steve reckons there is so much singletrack in Epping Forest there is just no point in me trying to note directions. At times even he and Martin take to improvising the route.
"A lot of people just find some singletrack and ride off into the forest," he says encouragingly. "Problem is," he continues, "they don't always know how to get back out again!"
His suggestion for newcomers is to take a GPS device or at least a compass and a good map. "The vegetation is just so dense out there," he notes. Given this, I would -more so than usual- also recommend protective headwear and eyewear. I lose count of the number of times I clunk my helmet on overhanging branches.
As daunting as all this may make Epping Forest sound, it is not very wide and criss-crossed by a vague grid of bridleways and roads. The A1014 runs right up the middle of the forest like a backbone; you are never more than a couple of kilometres from it. After a few early miles we miraculously break out of the undergrowth by a green painted tea hut just off this road. Steve recommends it for Cumberland sausage sandwiches, but we roll on, up towards the spectacular sight of High Beech Church. This stands alone in the woods. It's surrounded by nothing but hundreds of trees.
We take some more tight singletrack up the right side of the graveyard, weaving and rolling over micro-undulations until the trail leads into a flood.
"Normally this is dry; I've never seen it like this before," says Steve. He thinks it's where the Ching River rises.
On the nearby clearing at High Beech, we take tea and cake at another green cabin while Martin enthuses about some trails he discovered in the haze of a hangover. When riding in the woods it's easy to forget how close we are to London. But in the car parks the tell tale signs of the metropolis' proximity come pouring back. It's where city delivery drivers head for a snooze and urban dwellers might come and walk their dogs. Parked beside us, a taxi driver feeds Pringles to his pooch out of the window of his black cab. At night the forest's lay-bys can serve less savoury purposes. Back in the 60s Epping Forest was a notorious burial site for the victims of East End gangsters.
From High Beech our ride continues on its clockwise loop, moving onto drier ground at this northern end of the forest. There's yet more convoluted singletrack, a view over the M25 to Waltham Abbey and then a lush meandering descent down to the edge of Theydon Bois. From its main spinal thoroughfare, Epping Forest appears flat. In actuality it sits on a high ridge descending on one side to Loughton, to the Lee Valley on the other.
We continue through thick undergrowth, between the unplugged roots of fallen trees and, on one delightful little stretch, hopping over a series of just-the-right-size tree trunks that wouldn't be out of place in a cyclo-cross race. We press through ferny scrub, across a heath littered with ponds and bushwhack our way to a roadside when the trail seems to abandon us. We may still be inside London's orbital motorway but this feels like wilderness exploration.
See Map My Ride.
Additional (fine weather) photography by Steve Mahon .Tweet