Walk through part of the once extensive Royal Forest of Essex.
Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 89ft (27m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Grassy paths and forest trails, 1 stile
Landscape Ancient coppice woodland, meadows, lakes and marsh
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 195 Braintree & Saffron Walden
Start/finish TL 546203
Dog friendliness Off-limits around part of lake; but main area dog friendly as long as on lead
Parking Pay-and-display car parks at main entrance and Shell House inside the forest. Exit gates close at 8pm
Public toilets Beside Forest Café inside forest
1 From the car park follow the surfaced road for 350yds (320m) and at the concrete spur path bear half left across pastureland. After 250yds (229m), go through the wooden gate passing coppiced hornbeam woods to the lake on your right. Bear right for 70yds (64m), to cross the dam dividing the lake, home to many birds throughout the year, and follow the path to Shell House.
2 Leave the car park at Shell House. Turn left and follow the path south, with the smaller lake on your left, to the wide grassy path until you reach a 'wantz', an Essex word for a junction where rides intersect. You are now at Collins Coppice. Turn right here, on to the wide grassy bridleway for 250yds (229m) and bear right on to the plain, making for Forest Lodge in the distance. Keeping the Lodge to your left-hand side, continue north on the wide plain passing Warren Cottage on your right.
3 Bear left across the wide grassy plain dotted with maple, ash and hawthorn. This was the former London Road, where stage coaches from East Anglia would cross the bridge over Shermore Brook. Keeping close to the woods on your left, continue north westwards for ½ mile (800m), until you meet a cross path. Turn right here, on to the Flitch Way.
4 Continue for 500yds (457m) and, after the bridge, turn right along the path with Shermore Brook on your right. Many wild flowers grow in this damp area and you'll notice the pungently aromatic water mint and the bright yellow flowers of fleabane as you approach the footbridge. This is quite a marshy area and if you make a detour into Dowsett's Coppice on your left you will see oxlips and a plateau of alder trees.
5 Continue south and, just after the footbridge, turn left over the stile and into woodland. Follow the narrow path between coppiced trees to the confluence of paths known as Eight Wantz. Continue straight ahead on to the widest path to the next cross path and turn right along the path between the last of the coppiced trees, before emerging on to open grass land. Bear slightly right keeping trees of Elgin Coppice to your right. Cross the tarmac road and maintain direction back to the car park resplendent with the ancient pollarded trees which welcomed you at the beginning of the walk.
In the 12th century Hatfield was under Crown ownership and deer were bred to supply the King's table. Nobody but the King and his cronies were allowed to hunt and hapless peasants, if caught killing animals in the forest might have their hands cut off, or worse still be executed. By 1446 the forest was owned by a succession of families, including Robert the Bruce, but the last owners from 1729 to 1923 were the Houblons, descendants of the founders of the Bank of England. Today sheep and cattle still graze on the open grassland, barely changed since Norman times, and you might catch a glimpse of shy fallow deer or the smaller Muntjac deer in the coppices.
Shell House was built by the Houblons who lived at Hallingbury Place to the west of the forest, and created the lake in about 1746 by damming Shermore Brook. They bred peacocks, planted exotic trees and held grand lakeside picnics. In 1923 they sold the forest and for a while its future remained uncertain, especially when the new owner happened to be a timber merchant. Then naturalist Edward North Buxton came to the rescue writing out a cheque as part payment for the forest before he died. His sons completed the transaction and gave the forest to the National Trust.
Warren Cottage used to house the warrener, who in medieval times would look after the rabbit warren. Rabbits were introduced from Spain in the 12th century for food and fur. The remains of the warren are still visible in the form of pillow-shaped mounds behind the cottage.
The railway track, a casualty of Dr Beeching's cuts in 1969, formed part of the line linking Bishops Stortford and Braintree. Now the Flitch Way, this path buzzes with butterflies and birds in summer while slow worms, grass snakes and lizards make their homes on the south-facing banks.
Throughout the year the lake is home to many birds, including martins and swallows in spring, mallards and moorhens in summer and tufted ducks and pochards in winter. You'll also see typical features of a medieval forest in various mounds, ditches and banks built to keep livestock off grazing land.
Stop at the dam beside the lake and look for three large stones. One is sandstone and the others are 'pudding stones', carried here by glaciers during the Ice Age 100,000 years ago.
The refurbished Forest Café inside the forest offers tasty snacks and drinks, which you can enjoy at the picnic tables beside the lake. Not as grand as Houblon lakeside affairs, it's pleasant enough and the only peacock you'll see is a decorative one above the doorway of Shell House.