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Notes on Epping Forest

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Nature fashioned by Man

Epping Forest looks like a natural environment, but actually the landscape has been shaped my man's actions for thousands of years. Neolithic trackways run through the forest, and the remnants of two Iron Age encampments can be seen. The trees themselves have been coppiced and pollarded for thousands of years, and for centuries, open areas within the forest have been grazed by cattle, keeping the grass short and reducing the spread of brambles.

Legend has it that one of those Iron Age forts, Ambresbury Banks, is the site of Boudicca's last battle, where her Iceni rebellion was finally defeated by the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus in about 60 A.D.

Epping Forest was afforested in the 13th century, during the reign of Henry III. The medieval term "Forest" was a legal term meaning an area where the King owned all the deer (and other game) and he alone had the right to hunt. "Forest" did not imply woodland: many forests included open areas, moors and heaths kept clear of scrub so that the King and courtiers could ride at full tilt across the land. Nor did "Forest" imply Royal ownership: forests were often owned by local gentry with rights of access (to gather wood and graze livestock) for commoners.

Afforestation was a way of asserting dominance – the King had the right to keep his deer on other peoples' land. Laws designed to protect both the vegetation and the wild animals were administered by forest courts, and abuses of the laws were punishable by fines or (rarely) by physical punishments. Medieval Kings were poor, and the fines generated by these laws were a useful source of income.

From Tudor times, the Crown's interest in forests gradually declined leaving them to the landowners, but still with access rights for commoners. Over time various Enclosure Acts were passed allowing landowners to extinguish these access rights. In the mid-19th century local landowners began to enclose Epping Forest. In 1878 the Epping Forest Act was passed which protected the forest from development in perpetuity. In the words of Queen Victoria the forest was saved "for the use and enjoyment of my people for all time".

Within Epping Forest there are at least 50,000 ancient trees. Ancient trees are living relics of incredible age and often stir feelings of awe and mystery. Some have lived for many hundreds of years and in the nooks and crannies that result from old age, they are able to support a wide range of insects, other invertebrates, fungi, mosses and lichens. They support wildlife that cannot live anywhere else.

The sheer size of the ancient trees ignites a sense of wonder, but their age and resilience is man-made: they have been tended and protected by generations of woodsmen. The main techniques used are coppicing (cutting young trees down to near ground level to encourage the growth of new, straight shoots) and pollarding (the removal of branches higher up the tree). Both these techniques are intended to promote new growth, for fodder, or fuel. Regular pollarding also prevents the crowns becoming too heavy so that the trees topple over or split, leading to their death. Although even then, the dead wood lying on the forest floor provides a valuable habitat for a whole range of other forest creatures.

There are believed to be ghosts in the forest. Dick Turpin used a cave in the High Beach area as a bolt-hole and some say his spirit still moves through the trees, along with the ghost of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni. At Hangman’s Hill, terrible screams echo through the woods. Don't leave your car in neutral on this hill – it will begin to roll uphill towards the hanging tree. And of course, generations of East End villains are known to have buried the bodies of their victims in Epping Forest. Why, it's almost become a cliché…