Let me not suggest that Hainault Forest Country Park renders all other Country parks in the Greater London area insipid by comparison, but I will put it this way: it is one of the best kept secrets of the capital with ancient woodland and rolling hills within walking distance of the London Underground – in the East of London – away from the toils of city life. Located just 13 miles outside the city of London, this country park is within easy access of many forms of transport including the M25, A12 and M11 for those who like to drive. Most visitors express their surprise to find such a captivating location that has survived relatively untouched since the middle ages.
More than a century ago commoners would never have dreamt of setting foot on land now called Hainault Forest Country Park, which was part of the Great Forest of Essex stretching from Hainault, through Epping Forest right up to Waltham Forest.
In the 19th century only a few commoners and landowners had grazing rights. In July 1906 however, the land was opened to the public to be enjoyed as an amenity. Land that was once the preserve of aristocrats and monarchs who went into the forest with hunting parties, is now accessible to people from all walks of life.
Riding past the forest in our 21st century motorised chariots, it is evident to see how the forest has left its mark on the local community. Next to the country park is Hainault Forest Golf Complex set in 300 acres of the ancient forest and offering all year round play. Places like Collier Row which is a mere 5 minute drive from the forest acquired its name from the coal trade, which was prevalent in the area in the 14th and 15th century. Charcoal was widely used as fuel before mineral coal was available. Men involved in the production of coal who were called “coylers” resided in the area now called Colliers Row. Close by is Staggard street named after a type of male deer and Tine Road – a tine is a point on a deers antlers. There are some of the animals that once inhabited the forest.
There are many ways in and out of this forest which also attracted characters such as the infamous Highwayman Dick Turpin and Gypsies who would set up camp there. Turpin took to robbing travellers who could not afford to travel by coach or horseback. He would then retreat to Hainault and Epping Forest. Deer poaching was a common practice at the time. The sever punishments for flouting forest laws, which included maiming or execution did not deter the likes of Turpin.
When the Normans arrived they brought with them the love of hunting. Most of Britain including a huge part of Essex was put under Forest Law. Hainault forest was part of land that was subject to special laws that gave the king exclusive rights to hunting. Legend has it that William I, frequented Hainault and Epping Forests for hunting trips. Land was specially set aside by the king for a hunting sport called hawking, practiced to “provide small game for the table”. Charles II was the last monarch to use it for hunting. According to Daniels Dofoe’s account in “Diary Of A Plague Year”, – 17th century – people are know to have lived wild in Hainault forest to avoid the plague.
As one tramps the grounds of this location, it is easy to see how the park is at odds with the frenetic feelings often associated with most counties in Greater London. Here, one can indulge in the pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other, like a pilgrim treading paths once frequented by kings and villains. The vegetation is lush and the trees that tower this area conspire to give the park a country like feel. Free weekly walks of differing lengths in the park are offered. One could wander and wonder in this park which still has some of its ancient woods still intact. Gathering a party of friends and family and heading out on a ramble of the forest doesn’t seem like a bad idea at all. The open space provides a great way for people to get some fresh air.
The forest has since been significantly reduced in size. In the 1700’s it extended as far as Woodford bridge, Claybury, Barkingside as well as Marks Gate. At least 100,000 trees – hornbeam, beech and many others covered the forest. Most of these trees covering some 1,870 acres were cut down and land drained to make way for housing in Hainault in the 1930’s. Earlier attempts in the beginning of the 19th century to deforest Hainault forest were met with strong protests which many have come to view as the birth of the conservation movement. Seasons have come and gone, decades passing by since the park was opened to the public. Hainault Forest Country Park celebrated 100 years of being made into an “open space” in 2006.
Trees of varying heights and ages can now be found there. Some mature trees believed to be 300 years old provide shelter for wildlife in the forest and are highly valued. On cloud free days an insistent twittering amid the trees can be heard. A canopy of white willow, silver birch provide great shelter in the summer when the sun is a real scorcher .
Park benches dotted around various angles in the park provide seating areas for those wishing to cool off after a ramble round the park. The well manicured lawn can be quite enticing on sunny days. It is on days like these that one could spend time soaking up the sun, letting it take the stiffness out of the bones and as one takes in mouthfuls of fresh air.
For those who love angling, the lake has plenty to offer. As for bird lovers, you are in for a treat, with a large variety of fowl to be found in and near the lake. They include mute swan, geese, shoveler ducks and even blackheaded gulls. Other animals found in the park are Norfolk Horn sheep, which have been present in Hainault Forest since the early 1800’s. Badger foot prints can sometimes be seen in the sand near foot paths. The park is home to a diverse range of wildlife as well as a wide array of habitats ranging from ancient woodland to grasslands.
An adventure woodland trail with a series of bridges and ropes suspended between trees can be used by both children and adults if they are inclined to do so. Unusual carvings are a feature of the nature trail. What a wonderful way to play surrounded by nature. Hainault Forest Country Park has been awarded Green Flag Status, the National standard for parks and green spaces in England and Wales which recognises and rewards the best green spaces in the country.
This country park tucked away in the East of London is a treasured little corner of English countryside bequeathed to all with its ancient woods still intact. So remember, if you ever venture into Hainault Forest Country Park, you could be standing on the same spot where kings, queens, “coylers” and celebrity villains once stood.
photo by cpeachok