Formerly part of the much bigger Royal Forest of Waltham, Epping Forest is an extensive tract of ancient woodland of 2,400 hectares which spans from Manor Park all the way out to beyond Epping. You can walk the length of the forest by following the Centenary Path; so named in 1978 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Epping Forest Act.
Epping Forest is now a tenth of its size in 1641. Enclosures took place as farming and housing encroached, with the loss of commoners rights. Although a protest by commoners was staged in 1817, by the 1870s the Forest was much reduced. In 1878 the Epping Forest Act was passed to protect the forest from encroachment but by then this once great, and ancient forest, had shrunk to half its present size due to illegal enclosures of land; since 1878 the City Corporation, who manage Epping Forest, have been buying up adjoining parcels of land to add to the forest.
The forest is a beautiful and defining feature of Highams Park and covers much of the area. As you follow the Centenary Path through the Highams Park area you will pass through a number of different areas of woodland, each with its own historic place name, which you can see marked on the map below.
If you pick up the Centenary Path at Mill Plain (near the Waterworks Roundabout), it leads you down through the wild and woody Walthamstow Forest to Oak Hill.
When you cross over Oak Hill you enter Oak Hill Wood, which is bounded by Oak Hill to the south, Woodford High Road to the east and Mallinson Wood and Little Sale Wood to the north. As it approaches The Charter Road, little Sale Wood narrows and provides a very important wildlife corridor for animals moving through the woods; it was once used by cattle drovers.
On crossing The Charter Road, at the bottom of Little Sale Wood, you arrive at the beautiful Highams Park Lake with the River Ching to the west and The Highams Park to the east. The Highams Park is an elegant 28 acre park managed by Waltham Forest Council. If you cut into the park for a break there are toilets, food and refreshment facilities at Humphry’s Café. There is also an excellent play area for small children and a nearby zip line – much loved by people of all ages.
The Centenary Path then threads it way through between the park and the lake to Great Sale Wood at the north end of the lake. This is a beautiful tract of woodland which is alive with birds of all types: woodpeckers, nuthatches and warblers, to name but a few. It is also home to an ancient 400 year old gnarled and knotty, mystical looking hornbeam tree.
On crossing Chingford Lane, at the north of Great Sale Wood, the path leads you into Hatch Plain and the Lops which are bounded by Woodford Golf Course (which is part of Epping Forest) to the east. As you leave the Highams Park area, and cross the old Walthamstow borough boundary, the path leads you in the direction of Whitehall Plain, Chingford and beyond to Loughton, High Beach and Epping.
You will have noticed use of the place name “Sale” in the above. The Sale (more recently known as Great Sale Wood and Little Sale Wood) is a name that is believed to date back to Saxon times. Hale End hamlet was an old Saxon settlement recorded in the Domesday Book. Some local field and road names, and the name of Sale itself, are Anglo-Saxon in origin. The Old English salh, from which “Sale” is derived, means “at the sallow tree”, which is the old name for the Willow tree. It is also associated with old manor houses in the area. There are many uses of Sale in place names across the country.
The key natural habitats of Highams Park, Little Sale Wood and Oak Hill Wood are mixed semi-natural woodland, lapsed wood pasture with an important population of ancient Oaks and Hornbeam pollards, acid grassland, a large lake, ponds, the River Ching and ditches. These habitats are part of the remains of a once extensive designed landscape, superimposed on and incorporating features of the more ancient wood-pasture landscape, which were laid out for the house known as Highams, designed by the significant late Georgian landscaper Humphry Repton and the subject of one of his famous Red Books, published in 1794.
The narrow strip of woodland (Little Sale Wood) was once part of Repton’s designed landscape, and there remains a long cambered bank, thought to be a trackway from Repton’s landscaping. The mansion of the historic landscape of Highams survives, though it is no longer contiguous with the parkland and lake due to the development of housing in the 1930s. The house is now Woodford County High School for Girls.
The body of water which is now known as Highams Park Lake was originally designed to be an ornamental fish pond and was created by damming the River Ching. The River Ching was then diverted to the west from its original position, where it can be found today. Although Highams Park Lake is no longer directly located on the main River Ching, it receives water from the high ground to the east and, in very extreme flood events, the River Ching overtops into the lake at the northwest end. Highams Park Lake is regulated by the Reservoirs Act 1975 (as amended by the Flood and Water Management Act 2010) and is routinely inspected by an independent reservoir engineer twice a year.