The Oak Trail in Epping Forest, Essex, makes a lovely respite from the dense buildings and busy lifestyle of London. It's close enough to take the tube for an easy day trip, but as you hike through the woods there's no hint that a metropolis is nearby. The walk is green, peaceful, good exercise, and a refreshing change from big city life.
The trail takes about three hours, through fields, villages, and woods near the town of Epping. It passes through an ancient (pre-Roman) earthwork and goes around the edge of a deer sanctuary. The hike isn't technically challenging, but it has enough undulating hills to tire out your feet, or at least work up an appetite.
|Distance: 6.6 miles (10.6 km)
Duration: 3 h
The trail forms a loop beginning and ending in the village of Theydon Bois. It combines a few nature trails, farm tracks, and village footpaths, which means that you'll certainly come across other people along the way, including lots of dog walkers and maybe a few mountain bikers. The first part of the trail is goes through fields and gentle hills, while the second part is more of a hike through the woods.
Most of the trail is well-marked with yellow arrows, but the beginning is quite confusing—follow the directions below, and if you get lost, just find your way to the B1393 and follow it to the cricket club west of Bell Common. From there, the rest of the trail is easy to navigate.
Bring water, some snacks, and maybe a picnic lunch. It's a good idea to wear boots, as parts of the trail can get muddy. The City of London provides a map of the trail, while the relevant Ordnance Survey map is OS Explorer 174 - Epping Forest & Lea Valley (orange cover).
The trail starts in Theydon Bois, a charming little town with a couple of pubs and a handful of shops. It's easily accessible by Tube: take the Central line to 1 Theydon Bois station, which is 30 min from Liverpool Street or 40 min from Oxford Circus. As soon as you step out of the train you can feel that you're miles away from central London.
When you exit the station, turn right out of the car park, then another right to go north on Forest Drive (away from The Bull, one of the town's pubs). Keep right at the fork, and at the end of the road you'll see a trail towards the left with a sign that says "Public Footpath". This is the 1 beginning of the Oak Trail.
Theydon Bois to Bell Common
From Theydon Bois to Bell Common, the signage on the trail is a medley of yellow arrows, green arrows, and "Public Footpath" signs. Of the many gates along the route, some have a small label to confirm that you're on the Oak Trail, but others don't. Keep your eyes out for landmarks like the dead tree and the bridge over the M25 motorway, and it doesn't hurt to bring a map.
This section of the Oak Trail follows footpaths and tractor tracks through fields, villages, and gentle hills.
The first part of the trail takes you along a creek between some hilly scenery on your right and the back fences of Theydon Bois' houses on your left. Keep going straight past the end of the fences, and when you reach a gate on your right with a small "public footpath" label, go through it and head up the hill. If you pass the 2 dead tree you're going the right way. If you look behind you, you can see Theydon Bois over the hill.
Past the dead tree is another gate with a sign to let you know you're on the Oak Trail. Follow the dirt road with tractor tracks, and at the end of it you'll find another signed gate which leads you into a field. You might see horses in the field—hence the design of these gates, which are known as kissing gates because the gate "kisses" each side of the V-shaped section around it, letting humans through but not livestock. Turn right and hug the edge of the field until you get to the next gate.
Cross the 3 bridge over the M25, a major motorway that circles London, keep going, and the trail will eventually deposit you on Ivy Chimneys Road at the edge of Epping. Turn left and almost immediately you'll see a 4 playground; turn right at the end of the playground and you'll soon find yourself back on the Oak Trail (as confirmed by a sign with a big yellow arrow). The trail will take you to the settlement of Bell Common.
This is the easiest point to get lost, as the trail branches and crosses a few roads, with unclear signage. The most straightforward route is to stay on the trail, not go on the roads, but if you do get lost, make your way to the High Road (B1393) and follow it west until you get to 5 Bell Common Cricket Club. This cricket ground claims to be the only one in the world built over a motorway. That's right, the M25 that you passed over earlier goes through a tunnel underneath where you're standing now.
At the opposite edge of the cricket ground you'll see fairly dense woods—Epping Forest—and at the edge of the woods is another post with a yellow arrow. From here on out, just follow the yellow arrows and you shouldn't have much trouble staying on the trail.
Ambresbury Banks and the Deer Sanctuary
You've passed through the farmland and the villages—now, into the woods. This part of the trail feels a world away from London, especially once you get deeper into the forest and away from the villages.
After maybe half an hour is a side trail to the right leading to 6 Ambresbury Banks, an Iron Age earthwork built an estimated 2500 years ago. It consists of long ditches a couple of metres deep, probably used in pre-Roman times as a fort and animal fold. According to legend this was the site of the British Queen Boudica's defeat by the Romans in 61 CE.
Ambresbury Banks are easy to miss if you're not looking for them, but there is a sign explaining their history. If you decide to walk around and explore the banks, keep your eyes peeled for shards of pottery. The banks also make a good spot for a picnic lunch.
Continuing onwards, you'll pass through 7 Jack's Hill car park (on both sides of a road). Cross the road and keep going.
Eventually you'll get to a left turn at a fence. This is the edge of a large 8 Deer Sanctuary, which was established in 1959 to protect fallow deer, of which more than 100 live inside. The sanctuary doesn't accept visitors, but the trail continues along the fence for the next 15 minutes or so. You'll get close to the fence in some places, and if you're lucky you can see deer inside.
After the Deer Sanctuary the trail will deposit you on a narrow country road through some houses in the woods. At this point you're getting close to the end of the loop. The country road will lead you to the B172, which you should cross to get back onto the trail. (All of this is signed with the big yellow arrows.)
And after another 15–20 minutes, you'll be back in Theydon Bois. At the end of the trail, turn left to head back to the Tube station.
Along the way you'll notice many side trails, and indeed Epping Forest and the nearby villages are crisscrossed by lots of footpaths. The Oak Trail isn't the only hike available by any means.
Because the trail is a loop, you don't have to start at Theydon Bois. It's also possible to start the trail from other points—directly from Epping, for instance, or by car via Jack's Hill car park. But if you're coming from London, the Tube to Theydon Bois is your best bet.