Epping Forest is, says author Luke Turner, “unlike anywhere else in the UK or beyond”.

It was amongst the trees of the ancient woodland that Turner found the inspiration for his memoir, Out Of The Woods, a poignant exploration of nature, religion and sexuality.

Epping Forest Guardian:

Perhaps best known as the co-founder of independent music website The Quietus, Turner’s debut is in the same vein as other nature memoirs of recent years, including the bestselling H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which in 2017 won the Costa Book of the Year award. It seems in these times of digital overload and endless screen time, we are increasingly turning to the natural world for answers.

Turner is no stranger to this idea, having sought refuge among the trees of Epping Forest after the disintegration of the most significant relationship of his life.

Battling depression and suffering guilt surrounding his identity as a bisexual man, he found himself eager to uncover the secrets buried in the woodland, including an old family rumour of illicit behaviour.

We sat down with the author - who is also helping to create a project for Waltham Forest’s London Borough of Culture celebrations - to discuss his highly personal debut.

Tell us about where the idea for the book came from.

I’ve been obsessed with Epping Forest since I was a kid visiting relatives in Theydon Bois and Loughton, where my parents are from. When I moved to Walthamstow a few years ago I started going up there a lot more, and wondering about its history. Everywhere I turned there seemed to be these incredible stories that make Epping Forest unlike anywhere else in the UK or beyond, from the campaign to save it to the notoriously debauched May fairs of Victorian days, to how different ways of managing the woodland can teach us about our human identity as part of, not separate from, the natural world.

The book was originally going to be a straightforward history of Epping Forest – at what point did it become a memoir?

I started writing the book in a time of pretty intense emotional upheaval, having ended a relationship and struggling to find anywhere I could afford to live, as well as starting to delve into issues around depression and anxiety that I’d ignored for too long. I went into the Epping Forest looking for the ‘nature cure’ that we’re always told will heal us, but instead found quite the opposite - a terrible sense of dread and mental chaos. That gradually worked its way into my writing as I realised that woodlands were the perfect areas to explore the great areas of life and self.

How did your experience with religion affect the book?

The cultural relationship between religion and forests is fascinating, and growing up with a strong Christian faith I think it’s inevitable that it would find its way into the book. I wanted to talk about how religion can be incredibly difficult and oppressive to LGBTQI people while acknowledging that faith often comes with caring and love. High Beech Church is also a recurring location for the book, but you’ll have to read it to find out why...

You explore bisexuality in the book – do you think this is still a taboo subject?

Very much so. We’re constantly told that we live in a more sexually open age, but I’m not too sure. There are so many preconceptions about bisexual people, that we’re sexually greedy or just ‘in a phase’ until we become gay, or that we’re just trying to titillate. It’s very hard for bisexual people, especially men, to be out of the closet and in my experience it can often be a very lonely and secretive place to be. I wanted to try and address that and I hope the book might be helpful to people who struggle with a sexual identity that doesn’t easily suit the binaries of homo or heterosexuality.

Do you have a favourite true story about Epping Forest?

It’s impossible to think of just one really as the Forest archives threw up so many. I did love the tales of the chaotic fairs of the late 19th and early 20th century, where as many as 100,000 people would visit forest land on Bank Holidays - the constant menace of, for example, illegal gherkin sellers and general rowdiness in the Victorian Forest that upset the tabloid press suggests that we now live in disappointingly tame times. I found the determination of the Willingale family not to be deterred from the age-old tradition of lopping the trees really inspiring. If they’d not broken the law to cut the trees it is arguable that Epping Forest as we know it today would not have survived. By way of a contrast, there’s something quite mind-bending about the complexity of the legal wranglings with which the Corporation of London took up the Willingale’s cause, leading to the Epping Forest Act of 1878 - the public sheer effort to preserve the forest is something that I think contemporary politicians could learn a lot from.

You’ve worked with the Epping Forest Conservation Volunteers – what was this experience like?

Volunteering in the Forest had a huge impact on me, both in writing the book and in terms of my mental health. It’s the most enjoyable and rewarding physical exercise I’ve ever done, and such a wonderful way to learn about the history and ecology of the forest as well as getting to meet a really lovely and diverse group of people. We do a lot of work to clear holly and saplings to try and help restore the woodland pasture that would have characterised the landscape when it was managed by local people. Hopefully this will have a hugely positive impact on wildlife, creating habitats for anything from lizards to butterflies and nightingales. I’d recommend that anyone reading has a look at the EFCV website and comes along on a Sunday session - you don’t have to be some burly lumberjack to join in at the green gym.

Can you tell us about your project for Waltham Forest’s London Borough of Culture celebrations?

It’s a real joy and privilege to be working with art curator Kirsteen McNish to put together a year-long programme of interrelated events to explore the uncanny and strange histories of Epping Forest via music, art and literature. Waltham Forest is in such a unique position, sandwiched as it is between the marshes in the West and Epping Forest in the north and east, and we’re going to explore the tensions and unusual atmosphere created by the rude abutment of the city against what isn’t quite countryside. As well as some large-scale events in the forest itself, we’re going to be diving into the idea of the forest via a fringe series of gigs, readings and club nights around the Borough. We’re especially seeking to explore the landscape through the creativity of diverse identities - one of the first projects we’ve announced is with the Willowherb Review. We’re looking for writers of colour to be Epping Forest Writers In Residence, responding to the forest through the prism of the changing seasons - submissions are still open, so get your pens ready!

Do you have any plans to write more about Epping Forest?

I had thought that with Out Of The Woods finally published I might want to look further afield, but now I’m not so sure. I’m actually moving nearer to the forest this weekend, and looking forward to heading up there even more regularly than before. The Forest is different every time you visit and, I’ve realised over the past decade, it changes depending on how you’re feeling as you pass through it. This all means there are as many stories, sensations, emotions and experiences to be found in the Forest as there are leaves in the height of summer, so I’m sure I’ll return to it in writing

Out of the Woods: A Memoir by Luke Turner is published by W&N in hardback at £16.99. Available now.