If you’re thinking of walking the Essex Way, it makes sense to walk Epping Forest first. The forest is fully situated within the historic county of Essex, even though a large part of it has been within the boundaries of Greater London since 1965. The forest is a magnificent landscape in itself, and a relic of the Great Forest of Essex which once covered much of the county.
However its survival was a close-run thing. As the railway reached out to Loughton in the 1850s, speculators – among them local vicar and Lord of the Manor Rev Maitland – saw opportunities to enclose the historically-unenclosed forest and enable, amongst other things, house-building.
But the enclosures breached the rights of local commoners, such as to lop the coppiced trees and to forage. One local, Thomas Willingale, openly continued this lopping and was soon arrested. He was fined, and indeed some of his family were imprisoned.
The case attracted important support. When a few years later locals in the south of the Forest, at Forest Gate, started pulling down enclosure fences, the momentum became unstoppable. The City of London sponsored a bill to protect the forest, and it still stands as statute as the Epping Forest Act of 1878, guaranteeing the open aspect of the forest and access thereto.