Returning to Epping Forest: A different view
Unlike John Clare I am returning willingly to Epping Forest, coming back to my roots from where he walked away. He was unrooted in my childhood forest, unsure of his mind’s wanderings.
Then the trees were tall, close and welcoming. We ran and tumbled in fallen leaves, shuffled them into piles, climbed the trees wherever we could find a foot hold, played hide-and-seek with red squirrels.
That was many years ago, those trees are much older now, as I am. Looking into the forest from below the Pillow Mounds, and later as we walked in John Clare’s footsteps, they too are showing their age. The beeches and oaks are threaded with strands of silver birch, at once the queen and the weed of the forest – anorexic models soon to be dressed in light spring green; too tall, too thin, ready to succumb to wind and weather – unsteady they pose, wavering.
Too many noble trees have fallen, top heavy with age, their strength diminished, roots wrenched out and drying, huge branches snapped and torn off, bark scarred and peeled away leaving them embarrassed in the sun. No hope of leaf this year. The spaces between these trees seem wider now. As a child I felt enclosed, wrapped round; today these spaces are disturbing, I feel death approaching.
The forest is still beautiful and haunted, surely there will be new growth.
In Epping Forest
Spring is everywhere this mid-March morning. There are clouds of cherry blossom in the suburban streets and not a cloud in the sky. On my way to meet the others in the forest I pass a series of ponds, at one a heron is taking off, its long legs stretching in to flight and at the next a group of ducks come in for a fast landing, sending shoots of water spraying out behind them. Most of the trees in this part of the forest are gnarled, old beech trees and many have hollowed out trunks and missing limbs. But new life is starting to appear amid the old; flashes of bright green emerging at the ends of brown branches as leaves slowly unfurl in the spring sunshine. The remains of last autumn’s beech nuts crunch beneath my feet as I walk up for a closer look. Above the noise of aircraft engines, I can hear birdsong and the voices and laughter of other visitors. Two magpies chase each other overhead. Two for joy, I think, a good omen.
Epping Forest on the Trail of John Clare
Rabbit pillows of richly coloured sand
A nineteen-mile spring-day view
One oak blown like gelled hair into the branches of another
Tangled and entwined
Trees with stories to tell
Expanded carved initials of long-past love
And cracked cellophane bunches tied
By blue plastic twine
Wretched glitter hearts and red-topped plastic pins
The trees are old Clare
Beech buds silver-creeping unfold
As only beech buds can
Knobbled roots emerge in distance from oak through moss
Like rheumatoid old-lady fingers
This first warm day is awoken only slowly
Searching the walking way
Already the underfoot is cracking
Every part of earth already footprinted
A group vocalisation of nuthatch magpie and crow
What defines an enlightened asylum?
One lone seedling
Against the clay
Pulling from the mire to the light?
Look up – sky French blue
All dérived and writing drifting thoughts
John Clare in Epping Forest
Wandering alone in these unfamiliar woods
I see so many paths, they lead
in all directions, my head spins.
I cannot think, cannot choose
which path to follow, do not know
which will lead home.
These are not my trees,
although I know their names
they do not know me.
These trees are tall and brave,
they shelter me, but
these are not my old familiars.
I stroke their bark and do not
recognise their scars.
Birds sing to me, and I know their voices well,
I can tell who they are, but they are not my birds
whose nests I knew so well, whose music calls me home.
Men tell me I am safe here,
I do not feel it.
I am not rooted here.
So I walk, write on scraps of paper,
follow this little stream,
sit against St. Paul’s Chapel
and dream of Mary.
HIGH BEACH, EPPING FOREST – Ponderings
As our small group walked away from the Pillow Mounds car park we were momentarily mesmerized by a host of small bees, busy burrowing in and out of an array of bee-sized holes in the ground, each hole encircled by a mound of rusty-orange sand that had been excavated. Or should I say mined? The bees were moving too fast for us to identify their species, but they were most likely mining bees, probably Common Colletes – Colletes succinctus. Mining bees are said to be solitary, living as individuals each with their own nest, no need for workers, unlike the large nests of their social cousins. But that doesn’t mean they live solitary lives; some live in vast colonies with thousands of nests underground; above ground thousands of entrances grouped closely together. A bit like humans? Who rush back to the front doors of their homes, which are tightly-packed in rows or closes within large estates.
The mined sand served as a reminder of how High Beach earned its name, according to the sign in the car park, though High Beech is an alternative spelling which references the profusion of beech trees in that area. It was this vision of so many beeches that gave me what I acknowledged as ‘tree envy’ as we walked through the dappled light. After Barbara introduced us to the pungent peppery aroma of elder leaves when rubbed, without further words we wandered off separately, each desirous of our own brief encounter with the forest. Not that we lost sight of each other – apart from not wanting to get lost there was a time limit to these solitary saunters before the rest of our party arrived, and we’d all set off seeking traces of John Clare’s footsteps.
The forest floor was a tweed blanket of dried leaves and desiccated bark fragments – mottled-browns and silvery-greys – which scrunched as I walked. The scrunching stopped as I stopped – to listen to the medley of birdsong which chorused down from the tree canopy with the distant-but-almost-constant background hum of planes soaring high above, bequeathing their vapour trails to the blue sky. Short-term legacies as the vapour trails soon evaporated. I returned my gaze to the ground, where layers of decaying branches and entire trunks rested in memoriam. Vibrant green and ochre mosses and lichen clung to them bestowing bright accents to the brown-grey floorscape. Hollow trunks stood amid the new growth of sapling birches, some apparently as old as 350 years, stripped of their bark, their naked surfaces ridged and gnarled. Nature’s sculptures – some looked like mythological creatures – a dragon’s head maybe. Or a proud stag with antlers.
Less proud were those that had suffered from human ‘offerings’ – a bright green drinks can wedged in one hollow, a vodka bottle in another. This area was accessible from the road, hence the frequent signs of human intrusion, including initials carved deeply into trunks, to be there ever-more like swollen tattoos. But the worst instance of human desecration was the tree that had been turned into a shrine to a dead dog – “Millie Moo” – complete with photo and “We will always miss you” message, laminated and pinned to the trunk, along with paper hearts, a red padded heart and two bunches of long-dead flowers encased in cellophane wrap (an example of what’s happening in the Anthropocene through human overuse of plastic without considering its long-term effect on the environment). I’m a dog lover, but I’m also a tree lover. And so was John Clare. In his poem, A Ramble, he wrote: ‘Arise my dog and shake thy curdled coat / And bark thy friendly symptoms by my side’, and The Hollow Tree starts: ‘How oft a summer shower hath started me / To seek for shelter in an hollow tree’.
I’m sure John Clare would not have left any sign of his inhabiting hollow trees where he sheltered from the rain. He trod lightly on the earth, intent to be at one with it so that its inhabitants – birds and other wildlife – might not notice him. Our group reassembled to walk back to the car park, to find the others. Whilst following in Clare’s footsteps we must do as he did – leave nothing more than a trace.
Standing on this hill covered with trees looking westwards, I can see out across the Lea Valley towards Enfield. This is High Beach, Epping Forest. We begin at Pillow Mounds, rabbits were farmed here long ago. They were encouraged to make their homes in the soft sandy artificial mounds that exist to this day. Ravens feed greedily on bread behind the parked cars while men in Lycra congregate and drink tea. This is the hottest day of the year so far. The earth is warming up and at ground level bees are emerging from their burrows creating modest mounds of fine earth. They stay close to their dwellings for now, hovering in low circular flight paths above their mud village. I sit on a fallen tree and listen: bird song, the hum of an aircraft, the slam of a car door, the rhythmic snarl of a chain saw, laughter. I look up, Constable clouds. A silvered crucifix catches the sunlight as it travels on through the pale blue sky. I look down and trace with my toe the metal circle of a bottle top embedded deep in the leaf litter, white on black ‘Corona Extra’, a plastic bottle, red and yellow, the long thin shapely shadows cast by bare beech trees, even the twigs close to my feet cast strong deep shapes – but as a cloud moves across the sun I am plunged into deep cold shadow. Two young men pass, one smokes, weaving their way towards the road, the sharp tang of burnt tobacco lingers in the air. A man is crouching close to the earth. He is answering a phone call: “No no, yeah that’s fine”. His posture shows his desire to stay connected to here and now. This is where people hope to escape.
Passing a laminated photograph of a dog fixed to the trunk of a tree, two deflated balloons sway dejectedly in a light breeze while a plastic pink heart gently revolves – ‘We love you Millie Moo’. The tree is now a memorial.
We are practicing psychogeographers, memory mappers, tracing the footsteps of the poet John Clare, who, in July 1841 escaped a lunatic asylum and walked the 81 miles to return home in search of his first love.
Buzzards glide on thermals high above the place where John Clare was once a patient. Dr Mathew Allen took a progressive approach towards mental illness. He owned three asylums here at High Beach. Lippits Hill Lodge no longer stands, but Clare would still recognise the quiet road that curves sharply beyond its boundary and the track where he first set out through the forest. Patients were allowed to wander beneath the trees and it was here that Clare drew inspiration for his poems, reading lines aloud as he walked. The small chapel of St Paul’s once stood a short distance from Lippits Hill Lodge. Clare enjoyed its tranquil interior.
Attempting to connect with the spirit of this place, we disperse like spores on the air intothe embrace of the forest and wander alone for a while. Bird song again, the rhythmic rustle as my feet wade through last autumn’s leaves. I am too hot, I have too much to carry. Figures melt away from me into the trees. I don’t want to get lost. I won’t see anything special; but then my eyes rest upon a small clump of yellow flowers, miniature narcissus. Are they growing here? I reach out to run by finger beneath the stem’s origins. They are cut flowers, resting between two thin tree stumps, a dressed stone placed in front secures them – another forest memorial? Slowly a hollowed horseshoe emerges from the forest floor around me and now I’m standing before an altar while behind me I imagine a tiled aisle once lay and brushing aside the damp soil we discover three mossy bricks.
‘Here is the chapel yard enclosed with pales’.
We have found Clare’s chapel.
Ruth Bradshaw, Barbara Claridge, Wendy Constance, Claire Pearson and Judith Wolton are all mature students on the Wild Writing MA at The University of Essex. Rounding off a module on Psychogeography, they undertook a ‘group dérive – searching for synchronicity’ on a recent field visit to Epping Forest on the trail of John Clare. Walking and writing, the group collection was created with their individual accounts.