High Beach, Epping Forest, Royalty, Poets and Highwaymen

On Sunday I am doing a short live zoom tour at High Beach in Epping Forest for a company I often work with. The trees here are mainly oak, beech, hornbeam and silver birch. I love walking here especially at this time of year when the rough ground is covered with autumn leaves. We are very lucky to have this ancient forest only 11 miles (18kms) as the crow flies from London.  

High Beach is a sandy ridge in the forest with narrow, winding roads and a few houses dotted around. It is not old by English standards, there were only one or two weather-boarded cottages here before 1700. Then the lord of neighbouring manor, Sewardstone, built a new manor house at the bottom of the ridge. Late 1700’s and early 1800 more big houses were built and finally a church which became its first parish church in 1837. That year a young Alfred Tennyson (1809-92) moved into Beech Hill House with his widowed mother. He spent 3 years there and became friends with Dr Matthew Allen who ran an asylum in a collection of houses near the manor house. One of Allen’s patients from 1837-41 was the poet John Clare (1793-1864). It is probable that Clare and Tennyson met. Today there is a blue plaque to John Clare on the house where he stayed.

By 1870s the church was in a poor state of repair and by now Thomas Charles Baring (1831-91) was living Wallsgrove House, a big neo-classical mansion built early 1800s near the manor house. Baring was a partner in Barings Bank and his wife came from a wealthy New York family called Minturn. Baring paid for Holy Innocents church to be built higher up the hill near the top of the ridge. It looked magical when I took the photo with its tower lit by the setting sun. It was designed by Arthur Blomfield and no expense seems to have been spared, it has a Father Willis organ and 13 bells cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. It opened in 1873.  Baring also paid for a new school and some alms-houses to be built. He was MP for South Essex and then for the City of London. He is buried in the churchyard.

Close to the church is Arabin House built in 1848. It is surrounded by a park style garden with great views. The site is where Tennyson lived, Beech Hill House was demolished to build Arabin House for lawyer and magistrate, Richard Arabin.  From around 1913-15 Arthur Morrison lived at Arabin House. He wrote a hugely influential book called, A Child of Jago. The book is about a boy who was born into a very poor, not terribly honest family in a very rough neighbourhood. He tried to get a job and live an upright life but this was thwarted by an unscrupulous fencer of stolen goods who wanted the boy to steal for him. Early/mid C20th many children were taken away from what were considered inadequate parents in bad environments to be brought up in “better” places to improve their life chances. How the children would fare without the love of those parents was not taken into account.

At the top of the hill is the Kings Oak. There has been an inn of that name here since 1700s but the present pub was built as a hotel and pub in 1887. It is named after an old oak tree known as Harold’s Oak. King Harold II had land in this area and was buried nearby at Waltham Abbey church after his defeat at the Battle of Hastings. Queen Victoria officially opened the forest as a public park in perpetuity in 1882 in front of the inn. The Epping Forest Act of 1878 confirmed the right of public access to the forest and landowners would not be allowed to enclose it or build on it. It was the result of years of campaigning by Commoners, people who had a small plot of land here which gave them rights to graze their cattle and collect wood anywhere in the forest. They won because of the legal and lobbying resources of the Corporation of London who had bought a plot and were therefore Commoners. The forest has been managed by the Corporation of London since then and it covers 131 square miles (34,000 hectares).

East Enders flooded to the edge of the forest by train and then walked up to High Beach or cycled to meet here. At the back of the pub a cinder cycle track was built and it was here in 1928 that the first speedway race in England was held. Around 30,000 people arrived to watch the new sport which originated as dirt biking in Australia. The banking around the track is partly visible but trees have seeded themselves on it and if you did not know the story you would never imagine that a motor bike race track was once here.

Today the hotel décor is a shock, a strange mixture of pink, disco lights, dark wood beams and crystal chandeliers. The owners work hard to appeal to everyone, with a tea kiosk for walkers and an oyster shack for 30 somethings. I have only ever seen it busy, busy, busy. 

Further down the other side of the hill is a car park where bikers gather, especially on Sundays. There has been a tea hut there since 1930s where you can get mug of strong tea and a bacon butty.

Right at the bottom of this side of the ridge is Epping New Road (built in 1834) and a pub called the Robin Hood. Near here is where the famous highwayman, Dick Turpin (1705-39) shot a man. Dick Turpin started life as a butcher and had a shop in Buckets Hill (now called Buckhurst Hill). He got involved with a gang of thieves. At first, they stole cattle and poached deer and Dick sold the meat in his shop. After that they turned to violent house robberies in north and east London until one of his gang was caught and gave descriptions of his fellow robbers. Turpin had distinctive scarring from smallpox.

In 1737 he stole a horse which was spotted tethered outside a London pub. The horse’s owner waited for the thief to return, recognised Turpin and another gang member from the description. Turpin escaped and legend has it that he hid in a cave in the forest but the sandy soil here means there are no caves. He may have had dugout where he could hide, possibly on Wellington Hill, High Beach. A beer shop called Turpin’s Cave was there between 1870-1939. Finally, he was spotted here by a man called Thomas Morris who tried to capture him so Turpin shot Morris dead. To escape the murder hunt he then went to York under the assumed name of John Palmer.

About the author: Gail Jones