I've finally reached Essex in my orbital tour around the capital, crossing the River Lea to reach the district of Epping Forest. Only a small part of its area is forest, the majority is sparsely populated farmland, and most of the population lives south of the M25 in the commuter towns at the tip of the Central Line. The only town of any substance in the eastern half of the district is Ongar, abandoned by the tube in 1994, and that big dent you can see in the northern border has been drawn to specifically exclude Harlow. There's plenty to see, indeed I've visited several times, but travelling around the sprawling hinterland can be rather more of a challenge.
Somewhere famous: The Golden Triangle
London collides with Essex along the southern edge of Epping Forest, and three towns in particular exemplify the area's flash brash reputation. One's Loughton, one's Buckhurst Hill and the other's Chigwell, and the zone bounded by the three has been dubbed 'the golden triangle' by columnists who saw its residents on TV and fancied giving it a label. This is TOWIE country, where groomed lads flash their cash and teeth, where bottle blondes totter into souped-up motors, and where obviously not quite everybody lives like that. I hopped on the tube to visit all three golden vertices.
Chigwell: Still perhaps best known for Birds of a Feather, this oversized village's reputation stretches back a lot longer than 1989. Charles Dickens was a huge fan.
"Chigwell, my dear fellow, is the greatest place in the world. Name your day for going. Such a delicious old inn opposite the churchyard, such a lovely ride, such beautiful forest scenery, such an out-of-the-way, rural place, such a sexton! I say again, name your day."
So taken was Dickens that he immortalised the 'delicious old inn' as the central location in BarnabyRudge, fictionally renamed the Maypole but in reality The King's Head. It still has "more gable ends than a lazy man would care to count on a sunny day", but is no longer a pub, having fallen into the hands of one of Chigwell's current residents, the entrepreneur Lord Sugar. It's now a very upmarket restaurant called Sheesh, a name which is nothing if not memorable, serving Mediterranean cuisine to an opulent no-trainers clientèle. Access is via an electronic gate, beyond which staff will valet park your car, and the interior is replete with chandeliers, leather seats and gleaming floors. And yet from outside it retains half-timbered Dickensian frontage with leaded lozenge windows, and still looks like it could be a coaching inn serving pints of bitter, heaven forbid.
Across the road is St Mary's Church, final resting place of many a local resident, including the man responsible for kickstarting London's bus network. GeorgeShillibeer built the first horse-drawn coaches capable of transporting a large group of people, called them Omnibuses and started a fare-paying service between Paddington and Bank in 1829. This earned him rather more money than life as a midshipman, eventually enabling him to buy Grove House in Chigwell Row, and that's why he's buried in St Mary's graveyard, on the main path just beyond the church porch.
The modern heart of Chigwell is the shopping parade near the station, a modest sequence of irregular brick flats with occasionally immodest retail outlets tucked underneath. The dry cleaners is the Chigwell Valet Service and the local caff is the Village Deli, while the showroom at the top end sells top end Volvos. Yes, there's a tanning salon and a health food shop, while the finest ladies' fashions are brought to you by Debra - now downsized into a smaller unit while her former store by the railway awaits rebirth as luxury flats. Elsewhere the avenues are widely infilled by new-money new-build, and security gate installers must do a roaring trade, but Chigwell's not entirely exclusive, nor indeed unfriendly, and six-car households remain the exception. by tube: Chigwell by bus: 167
Buckhurst Hill: On the other side of the River Roding, and with a little less glitzy oomph behind it, lies Buckhurst Hill. The original hamlet grew up along the ridgetop, on the main coaching route to Cambridge, but the arrival of the railway in 1856 dragged the residential centre downhill. Geographically it's less well defined than Chigwell, bleeding into Woodford to the south and Loughton to the north, its avenues smart if not so grand. But one of Buckhurst Hill's genuine advantages is a better run of shops, somehow meriting two Costa coffees, plus a whopping perfectly-targeted Waitrose at the foot of Queens Road.
This one-way street has been the setting for many a TOWIE insert, especially when the lead characters need to pretend to have a commercial interest. Swish lingerie fills the window at Pretty Things, a golden shimmer surrounds the window at Never Fully Dressed, while the bay frontage of Anita at Crème is awash with frilly bows. Fur boots are easily obtained, these being the seasonal footwear of choice for many a 4×4 passenger, and the lady in the flower shop stepped out wearing a particularly eye-turning pair. Meanwhile I suspect more ITV2 footage has been shot inside The Queen's Rooms wine bar than at the Green Owl cafe, and that several male characters have kitted themselves out at Zap, a slate grey corner shop that's allegedly "the leading men's designer boutique in the UK". by tube: Buckhurst Hill by bus: 167, 549
Loughton: This is the proper town of the trio, a coaching stop ten miles from the City, with a proper substantial High Street and everything. Much of Loughton covers land that used to be Epping Forest, before an Act of Parliament intervened, and the edge of this marvellous resource is still easily accessible up the top of the hill. The town apparently gained its middle-class character because the Great Eastern Railway didn't offer cheap workmen's fares, and this cachet was preserved when the London County Council decided to build a massive postwar overspill estate one stop up the Central line at Debden. It may not be quite as rich as Epping, but Loughton still has the edge when it comes to flaunting it.
I passed more than one shop selling silver gifts that might look nice in someone's house, including a bunch of silver cherries on a silver cushion on a silver stool. I dodged a lad doused in aftershave with a silver gift bag dangling from his arm, sidestepped a small dog in a silver jacket, and noted a Big Issue seller pleading seemingly in vain for silver. I was too early to step beneath the silver portal at the Nu Bar, and too poorly dressed to have a hope of entering the (ah, jet black) LuXe nightclub. Loughton's by no means all glitz - there's a Wimpy for a start, and Centric Parade is a pig-ugly collection of high street staples. But it's easy to see why people enjoy living here, unswallowed by the capital, in a provincial suburb with class.
While we're here, a couple of buildings of interest. Lopping Hall is the town's community hub, a gothic turrety thing visible above other rooftops, with a large hall and shared space for activities within. The City of London paid to build the facility in return for residents losing their 'lopping rights' in the forest, and it's sited on the original terminus of the railway before this was extended to Epping. Some of the exterior decor is gorgeous, including the terracotta round the entrance, and some proper fifties font work above what's now the main entrance. Meanwhile, up at the library on Traps Hill, an unlikely musical presence is tucked away on the first floor. This is the National Jazz Archive, a charitable repository of all things impro, founded by trumpeter Digby Fairweather in 1988. The collection contains books, journals, photos and memorabilia, but not actual music because the archive's about everything else. If jazz is your thing you can visit the reading room every weekday except Thursday, or hit the website to read interviews and search the catalogue online. Nice. by tube: Loughton by bus: 20, 167, 397, 549