Parallel to the north-eastern arm of the Central line, on a ridge more Essex than London, lies the ancient woodland of Epping Forest. It covers almost 6000 acres, from Epping in the North to Wanstead in the south, and it's all owned and managed by the City of London Corporation. And, for some reason, until last weekend I'd never properly visited before. So, walking boots laced and map in hand, I took the train out to Epping and set off from there on a ten mile stroll. And blimey, why did I wait so long?
Less than half an hour's walk from the station is the edge of the forest proper. A broad grassed path curves across Bell Common to a very innocuous cricket pitch, but the thin soil hides a multi-million pound secret beneath. When the M25 passed this way in the 1980s, local protests ensured that a cut and cover tunnel was dug beneath the outfield. Stand here today and the motorway is entirely invisible, even if the sound of peaceful birdsong is tinged by the distant murmur of traffic noise.
Surprisingly few officialpathways pass through the forest, although there's nothing stopping you stepping off beneath the tree cover and making your own way. Off-track's the way to go, especially if you're one of the many sportybikers for whom Epping Forest is undulating heaven. It's rather more of a trial for cycling families seeking energetic togetherness, however. "Is this the last hill, Daddy?" asked one particularly sulky young girl on a pink bike. Whatever Daddy told her was undoubtedly a lie, but it worked.
Every now and then the oak and beech trees cleared, and there was an excellent view out across the surrounding countryside. Down below are the flat plains of Essex and Hertfordshire, whose fertility is the main reason they've been cultivated and populated while up here hasn't. The finest view was from the top of WoodredonHill, from which it was possible to make out the M25 threading west towards Cheshunt, with Waltham Abbey beyond and a giant Sainsbury's distribution centre in front. Well worth a stare.
After relative solitude on woodland tracks, High Beach came as a jolt to the system. This is the forest's social nucleus, where cyclists meet bikers meet Essex drivers (for picnics and kickabouts, from what I saw). No need to venture far from the visitor's centre for a variety of tasty options. The King's Oak pub was trumped by the excellent refreshment kiosk nextdoor (burgers, rolls, ice cream), or else there were a couple of tea huts dispensing hot liquids and snacks. On a sunny bank holiday weekend, the (well hidden) bikers' tea hut throbbed with merry leather.
Back in the forest, it was easy to lose the crowds by walking more than a few hundred yards from the nearest car park. I was passed by several whooshes of lycra-clad two-wheelers, and many a gaggle of weary parents pushing toddlers, and even by a gang of huffing hiking cub scouts, but most of the time I wasn't passed by anyone at all. Perfect natural solitude. And don't expect (at this time of year) to see any colours other than green and brown - the handful of pink rhodedendrons I spotted were rare exceptions.
After my lengthy stroll I needed to get back to the Underground, which here is always further away than it looks. I don't think I'd have made it back to a station without a map. The forest trails are completely unsigned, and most lead far from civilisation, so you really have to know where you're going. This must be a real problem for cyclists, and I saw several temporary bike trails waymarked with flyaway sawdust. I was also surprised that some of the tracks were still muddy in places - this must be proper wellington boot territory after heavy rain.
I ended my walk by making my way northeast to the commuter village of TheydonBois, not least in order to discover what this mysterious tube network extremity looked like. My favourite spot was a meadow on the outskirts filled with golden buttercups, where sunsoaked couples lounged in the long grass. Then, finally, across the over-sized triangular village green to the iris-edged duckpond, wondering how much it must cost to live in rural commuter heaven. But when it's this easy to get to, I shall be out here more often.