The ancient woodland that is now called Epping Forest once also covered the geographical areas of Hainault Forest and Waltham Forest, and was in fact called ‘The Forest of Essex’. It has had a rocky history, being for example a battleground over 19th-century enclosures—attempts by the lords in the forest to stop commoners exercising their common-law rights to exercise and feed their flocks. The lords were finally defeated, the forest remained common land, and the City of London purchased the manorial rights in the late 19th century.
There is something that feels very old and eerie about Epping Forest, and indeed my daughter often claims it is creepy (and in earlier times claimed to have spotted the Gruffalo). Much of it is open to rambling, so pathways can sometimes be sparse, and the landscape contains broken and rotting trees alongside the live ones. There are plenty of dank corners with occasional sections of damp, mossy and lumpy grass. You sometimes see the activities of those that manage the forest, yet they are nowhere to be seen, and regardless of their efforts, and the constant sound of cars from the roads that crisscross it, the whole area feels untamed and unsurveilled. Ideal territory for a different experience for children and adults, I would argue, but perhaps something a little more manageable is important just by way of an introduction.
Which brings me to the Butler’s Retreat—a rather upmarket café/restaurant—the walks around it, and Connaught Waters about half a kilometre down the road. I think when you have very young children, or older ones who don’t like family trips out, and possibly dogs to handle as well, a more manageable walk is in order, with accessible toilets, good food and hot drinks, and something to entertain the children. The walks around the Butler’s Retreat can be as long as you want them to be, and they tend to be a little more open with solid pathways (some people have taken buggies there). There are often dogs and horses to be seen and petted.
Connaught Waters, Epping Forest
Connaught Waters, similarly, is a fairly short walk around a lake that again has fairly solid pathways. The lake also has wildlife (ducks, geese and swans) that children can feed if they want to.
The Butler’s Retreat itself is situated close to the oldest surviving hunting lodge (the Queen Elizabeth Hunting Lodge), and it serves very good breakfasts, lunches, drinks, ice cream and cakes. It is reasonably priced, so for example the eggs on toast is £4.95, and for that you get locally sourced artisan bread, two eggs, and roasted tomatoes. Their children’s fare is fairly healthy, with well-sourced crisps and homemade cakes. Outside is a fountain and small mounds with railway sleeper steps cut in, and it’s a good place for children to play with each other.
Of course, we know that children complain excessively about being taken on walks with no shops, play equipment, or friends in sight. However, if you can tolerate the (hopefully) occasional moaning, going on a walk like this can encourage a sense of freedom and release. At the very least, however, you can give them an ice cream and enjoy a nice fried breakfast and good coffee, whilst looking at the lovely views outside.
Parking: There are car parks outside the Butler’s Retreat and Connaught Waters, although they tend to fill up pretty quickly at the weekends. Alternatively, you can get the train to Chingford Station, or the 97 bus from Walthamstow Central, which will drop you off at the station, and then it’s a 5- to 10-minute walk up the hill.