When the English Channel was formed and the British Isles were cut off from mainland Europe there were 33 species of trees which were growing here. They are regarded as the native species and anything which has been introduced since is termed as ‘exotic’. One of the native species is the wild service (Sorbus torminalis) which belongs to the same family as the Rowan or Mountain Ash tree.

It is generally accepted that any woodland where it grows must be ancient and has never been ploughed land. Epping Forest has an unusually high percentage of these trees. They also occur in some of the small local pockets of woodland which were part of the Forest thousands of years ago. The map by John Chapman & Peter André published in 1777 shows a large block of woodland west of Chingford Hatch and north of Inks Green (Highams Park). Part of this survives today as Ainslie Wood and Larks Wood and both have a high proportion of wild service trees. Both areas are managed by Waltham Forest Council.

Epping Forest Guardian: John Chapman & Peter André's map of 1777.John Chapman & Peter André's map of 1777. (Image: Georgina Green)

Wild service trees are also found in Claybury Wood (Woodford Bridge) in significant numbers. All three woods have a magnificent display of wood anemones and bluebells in the spring which also suggest they are ancient woodland. Lords Bushes at Buckhurst Hill is another area where you can find wild service trees. This is now part of Epping Forest but it was privately owned for several centuries.

In our climate the trees are generally grown by suckers, spreading from an ancient root. This explains why they can be quite numerous in localised areas. It is unusual to find a significantly old tree. The leaves of wild service are like an elongated field maple or plane tree and they can turn a brilliant red in the autumn. When in flower in May it can look a bit like hawthorn blossom and the fruits in the autumn are a small green-brown berry. Apparently, the berries are hard and bitter at first, but as the autumn progresses they turn soft and very sweet. If stored until they are almost rotten they have a delicious taste, similar to a date, which must have been amazing to someone not used to the exotic delicacies we can buy today. Several sources say that the fruit, known as chequers, was sold in the streets long ago.

Epping Forest Guardian: Wild service trees in Knighton Woods in June 2020.Wild service trees in Knighton Woods in June 2020. (Image: Georgina Green)

The berries could be made into a drink also called ‘chequers’ which is thought to explain why this name has been given to many pubs. This may be the case of the pub at Barkingside which is near Claybury Woods and was first licensed in March 1838 as a beer-house. We have to remember that long before Robinson’s Lemon Barley Water and Coca Cola, people wanted to flavour what they drank and many plants were used as an infusion. However the ‘chequers’ drink seems to have been used in much earlier times as a medicine. The torminalis part of the Latin name refers to a cure for the colic.

Georgina Green has been involved with local history in Redbridge, Waltham Forest and the Epping Forest area for 40 years and is the author of several local history books. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2021.