Epping Forest, Essex/London, August 2018
Saturday morning in Epping Forest and so often a trip to the woods feels like leaving a world behind. The weekend shoppers, cyclists, children feeding ducks in the village pond. The open plain. Rain came yesterday in stormy downpours. It was so wet a local garden centre roof couldn’t contain it. Today the sun beats down on the still scorched grasslands, small copper and common blue butterflies drinking from ragwort flowers at the path’s edge.
Breaking into Epping Forest, the temperature sinks and the dampness swells. I’m here to photograph mushrooms, hopeful that the rain has prompted the fast-acting fungi to fruit. Last August autumn came early and Epping Forest was bursting with boletes, amanitas and russulas. Every step meant mushrooms. Over the past year that memory has spread through my mind like the hyphae of a fungus in the woodland soil. Today, the woodland floor offers the complete opposite.
Some fungi don’t need much water but for the majority of species it is fundamental to producing a fruiting body, otherwise known as mushroom or toadstool. Epping Forest has many dead trees that hold their own reserves of moisture in the cool, dank shade. The fallen beech trees that lay across the Forest host tough and long-lived bracket fungi that appear as hard as stone. Softer are the oyster mushrooms splashed against the old trunks. At first they are brown-capped but as they mature the cap spreads to match the creamy flesh of the gills.
In Epping Forest our former reliance on woodland trees for simple materials and fuel echoes into the age of disposable plastic and solar panels. Approaching Ambresbury Bank, areas of the Forest open out into exhibitions of old beech trees known as ‘lapsed-pollards’. These digit-heavy trees were once cut to a high stump or pollard. Their branches were pruned back for firewood and other thrifty woodland things. Many have not been cut since the 19th century, the era traditional, pre-forestry woodland management began to fade in the UK. The old way of doing things, that is.
In the past few years I’ve come to know someone who grew up local to here, living through the Second World War, with the Forest as her childhood playground. She remembers doodle bugs running out of fuel and crashing down to destroy a house a week away from receiving new tenants and the greenhouses where her father grew mushrooms for a living. She also remembers a man approaching her and her sister in the woods but she was smart enough to get them away as quickly as she could.
Today she said something unusual to modern language, calling the path that runs centrally through the Forest a ‘ride’. This is an old woodland word harking back to the days when large trees were felled and carried out along a wide trackway cut through a wood. This act is where the phrase ‘the long haul’ originates from.
The use of the word was proof of a life lived close to woods and a bygone way of seeing them, before they became pure recreation areas, nature reserves or carbon sinks in the minds of citizens today. Now the ride is the domain of cyclists, tyres hissing on the still wet gravel, as well as dog walkers and horse riders. Though the trees are cut for conservation and their own preservation, no timber is drawn out along this ride in the way one local native of the Forest once knew.
A few hundred yards ahead a small desire-line appears between brambles, leading to a noticeboard and huge trench. On the banks of the trench are pollard beech trees, which are in fact much younger than the trench. This area is known as Ambresbury Banks, an earthwork thought to have been dug out in 500BC by a pre-Roman, British tribe. Its aim was probably to protect the people from invasion or as a place to keep livestock.
The creators of Ambresbury Banks were like close to the true Brits or Picts of pre-Roman Britain, the ‘painted’ people. Unsubstantiated tales (or myths) tell that Boudicca’s final stand against the Romans took place here. It’s a story adopted by several green spaces in the hills of Greater London.
Another nugget of knowledge from my native Forester came with the true pronunciation of Ambresbury Banks when I told her where I was going for a couple of hours:
‘It’s “Aims-bury”,’ she said. ‘Not “Am-bres-bury”.’
I head back to the village following the route I came in on. Saturday walkers appear from behind trees, lost in the lack of ride and clear trackway. A glade has been formed by the collapse of an old beech tree. Its limbs grew as individuals from its base. Falling, they have pulled up soil and broken smaller trees in their wake. Now light fills the break in the canopy. Dragonflies compete for airspace, hoverflies bask on the sun-baked bark. Oyster mushrooms squeeze from cracks in the dead wood. The loss of this old tree has elements of sadness but look at the life that comes in its wake.