diamond geezer

 Saturday, April 25, 2015

Walk the Underground: Theydon Bois to Epping

An anniversary is sometimes little more than an excuse. And yesterday, it turns out, was the 150th anniversary of the opening of the railway line between Loughton and Ongar. It wasn't on the Central line at the time, it was a spur of the Great Eastern Railway, plunging out into the Essex countryside in search of not terribly many passengers. 150 years later the Epping Ongar Railway are celebrating with a special in-steam extravaganza this weekend, and London Underground are celebrating with a trio of special posters. I thought I'd celebrate with an evening walk from Theydon Bois to Epping, because hell why not, and I didn't have any better offers. Armed only with an Ordnance Survey map and a desire for fresh air, I headed off for a two and a bit mile stroll beyond the boundary of London. And as Friday evenings go, it may have beaten yours.

Theydon Bois (rhymes with Boys) is the least used station in Zone 6, but still disgorges a healthy footfall in the evening peak. They pour out onto Station Approach into the front seats of their beloved's cars, or into The Bull for a pint, or down cherry blossom avenues to be home by The One Show. This is a lovely village, one of the most pleasant spots you can reach by Underground, its large triangular green surrounded by cottages, a duckpond down one side, and plenty of space for a kickabout up the meadowy end. For my walk I turned right past the very-Essex parade of shops (where the discerning resident can buy award-winning pies, leave their dry cleaning or get their wrinkles sucked), then on past dream suburban gardens to the footpath at the end of Forest Drive where the pavement runs out.

The path ahead is part of The Oak Trail, a waymaked route courtesy of the City of London who own Epping Forest in these parts. But ignore that for a bit and head into the fields alongside, which are private land with free public access, and whose grassy slopes afford fine views of the surrounding undulations. From the top of the ridge at Piercing Hill the outlying streets and gardens burst with colour, a distant field glows with rape, and the M25 rumbles in the not-so-very distance. A rope swing has been hung from the single oak tree near the summit, where two girls out walking their rather small dog paused, one to push and one to screech at the acrobatic horror of it all. And every four minutes or so, in one direction or the other, a Central line train glides by following the dip at the bottom of the field. Only Epping-folk get to see the reverse panorama from their seats, assuming they're looking up, 150 years on.

Returning to the path, the next ascent follows a hedge past a flurry of white blossom. From the other side can be heard snorts and the occasional neigh from an unseen stables, the field you're walking in being more-than-adequate visual compensation. How green the leaves are at this time of year, dressing another solo oak at the top of the rise before a proper lane descends between hedgerows on the other side. To the left is the farthest corner of a golf course, where Essex blokes with trolleys are surprised to see a rambler heading by, and to the right is possibly the easternmost outpost of Epping Forest, a coniferous thicket wedged between road and railway.

To continue, near the farm outbuildings, follow the sign that says No Public Access Except By Public Footpath, because this is one. Beyond the stile is one of the M25's most peculiar junctions, more a slip road really, and completely out of bounds to normal traffic. Should your vehicle be permitted to pull off, the ramp leads to a cattle grid, then a bridge across eight lanes of freshly-resurfaced tarmac, and then straight back down again, with no means of alternative escape (unless you're the local farmer). I could have diverted down to the hard shoulder, no problem, but was instead struck by the density of wildlife hereabouts. Rabbits scampered back and to, while the large backside I saw disappearing into the nearby trees belonged to a deer almost as surprised as me.

The field beyond looks across to the hamlet of Ivy Chimneys, a finger of cottages stretching down to the point where the M25 disappears into a cut and cover tunnel beneath a cricket pitch. I could have hit the edge of Epping in minutes, but instead took the path downhill to the railway, past a local geezer and his daughter taking a macho puppy called Jazz for a stroll. The Central line is crossed by a dour 40s footbridge, caged in to prevent gravity-induced vandalism, and then the official path continues straight (and untrod) across a field of barely-sprouted crops. Have faith, and switch to the banks of the tiny brook before crossing back across an unexpectedly wobbly footbridge.

The outer streets of Epping lie ahead, past a concrete fingerpost. It's seven-something on a Friday evening and going-out time for the smartly-dressed residents, slipping into their Audis and limited edition Beetles for a drink or a meal somewhere, perhaps with a bit of a bop to follow. One husband emerges from his porch with a handbag-sized dog, which he accidentally drops because the poor hound's legs weren't as close to the pavement as he thought. And a few London-bound souls head for the station to begin their night out, via the long alley round the car park, pushing against the pulse of commuters streaming through the ticket gates. The railway that opened a century and a half ago has brought them home.

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