A challenging walk combining an ancient forest, a village immortalised by Dickens and panoramic views of the London skyline.
Distance 9 miles (14.5km)
Minimum time 3hrs 30 min
Ascent/gradient 148ft (45m)
Level of difficulty Hard
Paths Forest tracks, field-edge paths, green lanes, some streets, 9 stiles
Landscape Forest, meadows, fields and some urban streets
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 174 Epping Forest & Lee Valley
Start/finish TQ 478943
Dog friendliness Lots of big stiles, but water bowl at Kings Head
Parking Three free car parks along Manor Road in Hainault Forest
Public toilets Hainault Forest Country Park visitors' centre (not on route)
© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
1 From the car park walk straight along the wide bridleway between high trees. There is little forest floor covering and to the left you can see deep ancient woodland. After 350yds (320m) at the three-way fingerpost, turn right on to footpath No 43 towards Hainault. This stone chipping path runs parallel with the bridleway on your left. At the second fingerpost go right for Retreat Path. This wide bridleway has many coppiced and pollarded oaks and hornbeams. After 300yds (320m), bear left to pass the backs of houses on your left. Maintain your direction through the kissing gate to the Retreat pub car park.
2 Turn left into Manor Road and, at traffic lights, turn left for All Saints Church. Cross Romford Road and bear right on the cross-field path through the recreation ground. Cross Manor Road and into Chapel Lane passing the United Reformed church on your left. Take the narrow path between houses to the small meadow.
3 Maintain direction across four stiles and at the iron fence turn left along the path, keeping the waterworks behind the fencing to your right. At the concrete path at the waterworks gate, bear half left. At the break in the hedgerow on your left there are views of rolling countryside. Follow the field-edge path downhill, keeping the hedgerow on your right, to the fingerpost. Turn left and continue along the field-edge path. Turn right on to the green lane and walk uphill with the Old Farm buildings to the right. Just before Old Farm turn left across a field, turn right and cross Vicarage Lane. After 150yds (146m) turn left on the path emerging on Chigwell High Road.
4 Turn right and right again, back into Vicarage Lane. Turn immediately left on to the cross-field path. Then bear right passing the primary school on your right. Follow the fingerpost diagonally across two fields, and maintain direction downhill crossing two stiles and the footbridge. Turn left and left again through the hedgerow then right, on to the field-edge path uphill.
5 At the top, cross Pudding Lane and follow the fingerpost on the field-edge path keeping Pudding Lane on your left. Take the cross-field path right and emerge by Taylor's Farm. Cross Gravel Lane beside Taylor's Farm gate and continue uphill towards a dead tree, passing through the gap in the hedge to the right. Maintain direction to Hoe Lane and turn right to return to the car park.
Hainault Forest was once part of the royal forest which stretched right across Essex. Like the forests of Epping and Hatfield, deer were bred here to supply the royal table, but the forest is also famous for being the stamping ground of a rather infamous character, Dick Turpin (1705-39). This legendary highwayman probably had a hand in the business of poaching deer and whatever else he could lay his hands on, before turning his talents to the less risky pursuits of housebreaking and robbery.
Born in a pub in Hempstead, the young Dick started his working life as a butcher in Whitechapel. One day, when caught in the act of cattle rustling, he fled to deepest Essex, only to resurface as a small-time smuggler, thief and highwayman. The business of travel in Turpin's time was no mean feat, for who knew when he or his cronies would strike as those brave enough made the dangerous journey through Hainault Forest? When a job was done, Turpin would call at Ye Old Kings Head in Chigwell for a quick pint, pick up details of when the next coach was due and plan his next crime. After a life of highway robbery and murder he was hung at York, but it was thanks to Harrison Ainsworth's novel, Rookwood (1834), in which a description of his supposed epic ride from Westminster to York caught the popular imagination, that Turpin was transformed into a glamorous character.
In the forest it is not difficult to picture a masked highwayman galloping through misty woodlands of weirdly sculpted trees to Chigwell Row, with its delightful church and collection of characterful hostelries. In the area around east London there are many pubs called the Black Horse in honour of Turpin's steed, Black Bess, but it is at Ye Old Kings Head at Chigwell where, it is said, the rogue secreted his pistols inside the walls. They have not been found, neither has the cellar tunnel connected to Chigwell church across the road, which he used to escaped his pursuers.
Relish the atmosphere of this old Tudor pub which Charles Dickens (1812-70) described as the Maypole (not to be confused with the Maypole at Chigwell Row) in Barnaby Rudge (1841). Of Ye Old Kings Head he wrote that it had 'more gable-ends than a lazy man would care to count on a sunny day'. As you walk across the rolling countryside, particularly between Chigwell and Lambourne End, a superb London skyline with Canary Wharf in the distance reveals itself. And although it's said that the ghost of Dick Turpin riding Black Bess appears twice a week, he won't trouble you as long as you keep to the marked paths?
There is a good choice of pubs and most have plenty of character. Top of the bill has to be Ye Old Kings Head at Chigwell, immortalised by Dickens in Barnaby Rudge. The Retreat at Lambourne End provides good pub grub and a beer garden, and the Camelot's elevated position in Manor Road, overlooking beautiful countryside, makes a convenient stop beside the car park.
BBC Essex Garden at Abridge owned by gardener, Ken Crowther, is a good example of a working garden with herbaceous, shrub and vegetable borders. It has a café, organic garden, children's garden and farm animals. If you're keen on clematis there are over 400 varieties and an expert on site.
Inside Hainault Country Park is a lovely pond and rare breeds farm where you can pet the animals. Relax over a hot drink and snack at the picnic tables and enjoy great views of the London skyline or visit the museum at the visitors' centre which is housed in a Tudor barn and includes forest exhibits.