On Sunday I went somewhere obscure, somewhere you'll probably never go, and today I'm going to tell you all about it. Sorry, I know you find this sort of thing irrelevant and tedious. So I'm going to attempt to write about my visit to Thames Chase Forest Centre in four completely different ways, in the hope that I can make the edge of London (nr Upminster) sound slightly more interesting.
A)Apple Day at Thames Chase Visitor Centre It's been a great year for fruit. Heavily laden boughs, baskets of bounty, and more apples than your average supermarket knows what to do with. So it's great that independent producers get together every October and hold Apple Days across the country to celebrate nature's harvest. There are several across London (Time Out's managed to find four), and one of these was at Thames Chase Visitor Centre near Upminster. An entire car-park-ful of visitors turned up, making the most of the glorious sunny weather, and piled into the triangular-shaped building for treats and goodies. All the apple-y merchandisers were in the 17th century barn nextdoor, a lofty wood-beamed space, selling juice and pies and (obviously) apples. Trays of the things, in proper historic varieties like Tyderman's Late Orange and Eregmont Russet, with samples available before you buy. Some of the sellers looked a little glum, probably because they'd much rather have been outside, but bags of the stuff were being taken away to make crumbles and fill lunchboxes elsewhere. Further Apple Days are scheduled next weekend in Camden, Bexley and Borough Market, should you want to partake. And not an iPhone-buying queue in sight.
B)Beyond the M25 Very little of London falls outside the M25, but the far end of Havering is an exception. Thames Chase Forest Centre straddles the motorway, with most of its land within but a thin sliver without. The Forestry Commission moved in 20 years ago, charged with turning 140 acres of roadside land into community woodland, and they've almost succeeded in screening out the passing traffic. Not the noise, admittedly, but a million extra trees certainly help with the view. Access to the outer reserve is via a low concrete underpass beneath the traffic, shared by a dribbling brook, where if you're taller than six foot you'll have to crouch. A long path then runs back alongside the motorway, climbing slowly to ascend twenty metres up Clay Tye Hill. The trees are still young, and it shows, but large enough for early autumn colours to create an appealing display. Nobody other than me, not a single one of the Centre's hundreds of visitors, had bothered to made the effort to cross so I had the entire dead-end triangle of land to myself. And so I stood alone on the grassy slopes, looking down over the easternmost curve of the M25 as it swept out from the neighbouring cutting and snaked off across the fen [photo]. A desecrating imposition on the landscape, for sure, yet still somehow artificially attractive. There is a London beyond the M25, and I bet you've never visited it.
C)Thames Chase Community Market On the third Sunday of every month, people with talent make their way to Pike Lane, Cranham, to share their skills and sell their wares. Sometimes they get the barn, but when that's full of apples they get the compact annexe round the back, and make do. A man who paints Essex scenes is here, even though this isn't Essex, with greetings cards and calendars at damned reasonable prices. Two straw workers encourage visitors to make their own Essex corn dolly, even though this isn't Essex, and do a marvellous job of keeping youngsters busy and entertained. The Essex Beekeepers are here, even though this isn't Essex, on the never-ending hunt for honey-buyers and any pre-retired soul they might entice into hive ownership. Most visitors have taken root outside, however, where there's food and somewhere to sit down. The Giggly Pig are selling saddleback sausages, but I ignore them to buy lunch from exactly the same artisan bread stall I frequented in Letchworth the day before. All this plus Hornchurch's very own morris dancers at their final event of 2011 - experts of all ages smashing sticks together with merry abandon. Next month it's the Christmas Fair, presumably with more craft-friendly gifts and fewer jangly gaiters, and then every third Sunday forthwith.
D)The Chase I'm not good with dogs. That's especially when I'm out walking and they're off-leash, even though most have no interest in me whatsoever. I'm learning, slowly, that if I walk straight past a dog it'll probably ignore me, but a small proportion seem to want to get to know me better. Most are only intent on being friendly, which I wish they wouldn't, but directing a look of despair into the owner's eyes usually sees any errant hound brought under control. It's only very occasional that a dog takes an avid dislike to me, and my bones turn to jelly, and all my "coping with dogs" strategy falls apart. So I was feeling fairly confident as I strode down a quiet wooded path at Thames Chase that surely the approaching dog would be no problem. But then it stopped and stared at me, before advancing somewhat faster with a barking growl. This might have been a show of strength, but was possibly something nastier... jellybones. I walked bravely on, then past, while the lady owner shouted "Dexter! Dexter!" in vain at her angry beast. But still Dexter followed, and followed, and no amount of Dextering would change its mind. And then the owner ran away, which scared me rigid for a split second until I realised the dog was now intent on chasing after her. No harm done, just a fairly stupid-feeling bloke left behind, and my not-very-goodness with dogs still firmly intact. Until next time.
How to get to Thames Chase Forest Centre » Drive. Almost everybody drives. Stick RM14 3NS in your satnav. » Walk. I walked the mile and a half from Upminster Station, via the church at Cranham Chase, across the fields. Most pleasant. » Get the bus. Either the terribly rare 347 (four buses a day, not Sunday) to Winchester Avenue, or the 370 to Bridge Cottages (then take the footpath up the side of the M25).