Most people think that Epping Forest's near Epping, and the majority of it is, but a thin strip of woodland hangs down past Chingford, past Walthamstow, even past Wanstead. Indeed, unlikely as it may seem, it's possible to walk all the way south from Epping to Newham without stepping outside a preserved envelope of ancient green. That's 15 miles in total - a route celebrated by the Epping Forest Centenary Walk. This was devised in 1978 to mark 100 years since the Act of Parliament protecting the area, and it's walked every September by the Friends of Epping Forest. It's not signposted on the ground, but you can get a leaflet showing where it goes, or simply trace the route on a 1:25000 Ordnance Survey map. I took the map option, and enjoyed a very pleasant midweek stroll along the southern half. Starting in Manor Park, of all places.
Wanstead Flats: More than 300 acres of recreational space, surrounded by fortunate home-owners, where anyone can go walking, horse riding, picnicking, footballing, jogging, cycling or even model aeroplaning. Midweek it's less busy, and animals dominate. There are scores of geese around Alexandra Lake, now recovered from mass poisoning earlier in the year. A carpet of rooks cover the mown grass, while uncut tufts shield an abundance of ground-nesting birds. Keep your dogs out, warn the noticeboards - there's plenty of runaround space for them elsewhere. Gorse bushes predominate in several corners, their bright yellow flowers forming a bright strip along the horizon. Listen and there's birdsong all around, plus the rush of distant traffic around the perimeter, and the aerial whine of an aeroplane or two. A small town could be fitted in here, but rejoice that one never has been.
Leyton Flats: On the sunbaked plains east of Whipps Cross, the locals have come out to sprawl. A cyclist lies dozing in the bracken, her helmet covering her face. Ten teenagers fancied a picnic so they all went to Tesco, and now they sit beneath the first tree past the roundabout to feast on Doritos and Red Bull. One young kid cycles down to the lakeside to squawk at the ducklings, while his younger siblings throw bread. A four-legged creature is writhing in full view - two male legs, two female legs, and a humping white t-shirt up top. From the trees comes a crow to splash in the last remains of yesterday's puddle before flying off clean and refreshed. That man in the undergrowth, why doesn't he put his t-shirt back on and stop staring? A boat sculls past, its occupants reddened and giggling. No need to rush back home just yet, there's time enough to linger longer.
Walthamstow Forest: There's a forest in Walthamstow? Who knew? A mile of footpath without another soul in sight, past forgotten trees and overlooked clearings. Even in half term, even in the height of summer, nobody visits. The track rises past hidden grass-topped reservoirs, crosses unexpectedly above the North Circular, then plunges back into deep green woodland.
Highams Park: Down in the river valley to the west of Woodford, a long thin stretch of tree-lined water. It says Boating Lake on the map, but there's no evidence of floating craft today. Only waterfowl skim across the surface, or perch on logs to conserve energy in the heat. Even the local heron perches tamely on a semi-submerged trunk, before opening its wings and flapping away into the sky. The water lilies will all be open soon, but for now they poke out of the water like unfurled yellow eggcups. Three young girls on half-sized ponies are trekking round the perimeter, slowly, with plenty of stops for a gossip. Along the path trots an enthusiastic Staffie, repeatedly identified by her owner as "stop that Bella". And from the woods comes the sound of shrieking, generally merry, as a bunch of unseen tearaways lets off steam. Oh, to have the Forest on your doorstep.
The Ching: Of course there's a river called the Ching. There'd never be a Chingford without it. But it's nothing grand, just a meandering ribbon carving through earth and nettles. Its valley is shallow and green, with braided footpaths threading alongside rippling waters as it flows down from the greater forest up north. The Centenary Walk has six more miles to go to reach Epping, the river however stops short (and so did I).