Epping Forest is a fantastic area of ancient woodland close to London. This article is based on a visit in the first weekend of July 2020, the day after England had its Super Saturday when pubs and restaurants were allowed to open after a few months of closure because of the COVID virus. It was my first trip on public transport after a period of four months. Wearing a face covering was still mandatory on public transport and the number of people using the London’s tube was small. But out in the forest, life seemed normal with many walkers and cyclists. The forest is managed by the City of London Corporation and is managed for the recreation and enjoyment of the people. The corporation also manages Hampstead Heath, another of London’s green jewels.

Epping Forest is fairly easy to reach for anyone living or staying in Central London on a visit. In relation to St Pauls’ Cathedral, it is approximately 15 miles (25 kilometres) away as the crow flies. Technically speaking, Epping Forest is in Essex, but it is on the border of Greater London and many wildlife guides to London treat it as a London site. Encompassing nearly 6,000 acres, it is probably one of the finest areas of ancient woodland which Londoners have easy access to. The Central Line of the London Underground runs across the centre of London from the Old Square Mile (where the tube stop Liverpool Street is) to Epping. For those using public transport, the tube stops at Loughton and Theydon Bois provide easy access. From Liverpool Street tube station, the journey to Loughton is 10 tube stops and takes around half an hour. From Loughton, it is about a 15 minute walk to the forest. There is a visitor centre in the northern boundary of Epping Forest at Waltham Abbey, but not in the southern part of Epping Forest. If you are accessing the forest from Loughton, the high street (labelled as the High Road) has a small number of cafes and restaurants. These are convenient for day visitors for purchasing food and drink in the absence of a visitor centre.

A wide bridle path (a.k.a. a “ride”) traverses Epping Forest on an East to West trajectory. Many smaller footpaths criss-cross it and I noticed many people using these to enter or leave the forest. If you leave the central bridle path and walk inside the forest, you find yourself in deep shade under the canopy. The forest is tall, made up mainly of Beech, Hornbeam and Oak. The trees are fairly densely packed together to form a close canopy and one can begin to imagine what some of the ancient woodland in Europe would have been like before they were severely fragmented by human activity. There are many old and decaying trees which create the right conditions for birds such as nuthatches, treecreepers and woodpeckers. Birdlife was spartan on the day of our visit although one mixed flock of birds with Blue Tits and Treecreepers made their way overhead in the high canopy.

The bridle path was lined with ferns and patches of bramble. Bramble is excellent for wildlife. The flowers are visited by many insects in search of nectar and towards the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, the ripened berries are an important source of food for birds. The bramble patches were very good for butterflies. We stopped for a picnic lunch near a large bramble patch which was full of bumblebees with white tails. There were many other insects including butterflies visiting it. Another insect, a predator of other insects has also been drawn in. A male Southern Hawker was quartering the ground above it. It would occasionally fly down and perch, sometime just a foot above ground level. It did not seem disturbed by my presence and on several occasions after a bout of aerial hunting it flew down and perched within a couple of feet of me. It would cling onto foliage and hang down in the manner typical of hawkers. This was a treat as although I had photographed Southern Hawkers before, I had never been in the company of such a confiding individual.

With it perched just a foot or so away from me I could clearly make out details that are useful for accurate identification. It was a male and easy to identify with two wide and bold yellow stripes on the side of its thorax and another pair of yellow stripes on the top of the thorax. The last two segments on its abdomen did not have the blue stripes broken; the so called “tail lights” in identification parlance. Occasionally it would go up into the air and clash with another hawker that was intruding into its space. A beautiful Emperor Dragonfly with its apple green thorax and blue abdomen came wandering by. It hunted a little but did not challenge the Southern Hawker. The nearest body of water I knew of was at least a few hundred metres away. I suspect the Southern Hawker was hunting and building up its strength before it was ready to go to the water and duel with other males for the right of access to any females that would visit the waterbody to mate and lay eggs.

At any given time, on the bramble I could see a small golden butterfly. These were Large Skippers easily identified from other golden skippers by their mottled pattern. They engaged in frequent fights with other males. Large Skippers are found wherever coarse grasses grow. Sadly, most parts of Central London are too tidy, devoid of a place for nature and one will not see them unless you find a little wild corner somewhere which a wildlife friendly council is deliberately managing for wildlife. Some of London’s larger parks such as Burgess Park and Southwark Park have some areas left wild for native wildlife. In Southwark, near London Bridge, Druid Street has a tiny wildflower meadow; a joint effort between Team London Bridge and Fair Community Housing Services. There are many such examples in London, but not enough. I don’t recollect seeing Ringlets, for example, in Central London. But here in Epping Forest, they were frequent visitors to the bramble. The males are very dark with a series of clear rings. Together with the Ringlets, but in the background were the gorgeous orange-coloured Commas. They are named after a comma shape on their underwing. On the path, a stunning Red Admiral was sunning itself. It did not seem to mind the walkers. Londoners are very fortunate that they have an excellent network of parks and nature reserves which are easily accessible by public transport.

Useful Information

A number of groups in London organise a range of bird-watching and other nature walks as well as day trips by coach or by using public transport to sites further afield from London. Three groups which are especially suited for residents and visitors in Central London are: London Natural History Society, Marylebone Birdwatching Society and RSPB Central London Local Group. For visiting nature reserves in London, see London Wildlife Trust and London Wetland Centre. For nature based activities for children and adults in a Central London Park visit Holland Park Ecology Centre.