Those who have not lived in the Epping area for long may not realise that a century ago there was extensive open grassland opposite St Margaret’s Hospital. Local legend says that a gentleman who walked his dog on the plain regular took a pocket full of acorn and a walking stick and he planted many of the trees we see today.

Sidney Hills was born in 1896 and became well known in Epping as a local historian. As a child he often played on the forest north of St Margaret’s Hospital and he recalled: “When I was a boy it was a big open plain, almost as big as Chingford Plain, and the forest was right down at the bottom. It was mostly open, but there were a few bushes of broom and the like.

"I do remember that after chapel people would go to the plain to a tree called the Gospel Oak, where they sang hymns. This was a big oak tree down towards the end of the plain.

"I’ve played football and cricket on the plain, and in my young days the Essex Hounds always met outside the gates of the old workhouse (now the hospital) on Boxing Day. When fairs were held in the town I remember the elephants and other animals being led across the plain to drink at the lake.

Epping Forest Guardian: Junction of B1393 (Epping – Harlow road) and B181 (the road to Ongar).Junction of B1393 (Epping – Harlow road) and B181 (the road to Ongar).

"There was a path from the corner where the Ongar road branches off from the Harlow road, and this led for about three quarters of a mile across the plain to the lake. The trees were at the back and sides of the lake but it was open on the Epping side.

"There was a diving board at the far side and it was about six feet deep, so I was told. The shallow end was four feet and there were steps down to the water on the Epping side. I learnt to swim there.

"Behind the lake, in the hollow in the trees, there were changing rooms and also a lifebelt. One morning a young man got caught in the weeds and my friend threw him the lifebelt and pulled him out.

Epping Forest Guardian: The pond in the Lower Forest in 2019.The pond in the Lower Forest in 2019.

"Bathing was early in the morning, or late at night, but never during the day. I don’t remember any girls going in, it wasn’t done in those days. It was quite free, we didn’t pay anything, and we used to undress on the bank.

"The owner of the brewery was instrumental in getting people to contribute, so that work could be provided for the unemployed, making the lake in the very stiff winter of 1894-5. The lake became a sort of rendezvous for everyone.

"In the summertime we used to have climbing the greasy pole for the leg of mutton and when they had the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee they used the lake for water sports. But there was never any boating there.

"In the winter when it was frozen over I’ve skated there. Fairy lights were hung in the trees and the town band played for us to dance-skate there. There was a gravel path around the lake, with seats for those less active.”

Minnie Roberts was also born in 1896 and lived by Bell Common (technically in Theydon Bois parish). She was the youngest of eight children and she told me how when her sisters were children they used to go to the Lower Forest and pick primroses along the plain.

Epping Forest Guardian: Primroses in Wintry Wood (the Lower Forest)Primroses in Wintry Wood (the Lower Forest)

She explained: “It used to be like a carpet of them there when I was young. My sisters would bunch them up and take them to the church at Theydon Bois at Easter, and they were given a bag of buns.

"My mother told me that when she was young, if they hadn’t got a special dress to go to church in, the church authorities would provide the poorer children with something to wear. They had a red cloak in the winter, and in the summer a little bonnet and a sprig muslin dress. But they always had to give it back on the Monday morning.”

  • 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.