The retreats of Epping Forest

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Epping Forest has been a refuge for local people who have found peace amongst the beautiful scenery we are lucky enough to have on our doorstep. As lockdown eased, thousands of visitors came each day from further afield to enjoy the forest’s famous beauty spots including High Beech, Connaught Water and Loughton Brook.

Has the forest ever been this busy before, or brought such wellbeing benefits to so many? You may be surprised to learn that the answer is, emphatically, yes!

In Victorian times Epping Forest was spared the fate of nearby Hainault Forest, which was largely cut down during six fateful weeks in 1851. This loss spurred on a hard-fought campaign by local people to save Epping Forest, culminating in the passing of the Epping Forest Act in 1878, to protect the forest in perpetuity. Four years later Queen Victoria dedicated Epping Forest in a special ceremony, “for the enjoyment of my people forever.”

Within a short time, the number of visitors to Epping Forest had soared and forest retreats sprung up throughout the forest to provide affordable food, drink and shelter for the throngs of visitors. The earliest retreat was set up by John Riggs at Brook Road, Buckhurst Hill; followed by two more in Theydon Bois and High Beech, which were run by various members of the Riggs family. These were vast establishments, with Riggs Retreat in High Beech boasting that it could feed four hundred visitors afternoon tea in one sitting.

With the recent extension of railway lines to Loughton in 1856, and to Chingford by 1873, the forest was accessible as a day trip to many people living on the Eastern side of London. Tradesmen also used their horse carts to bring day trippers out to the forest from the East End on Sundays, often decorating the carts with brightly coloured ribbons for the trip.

Throughout the summer months, many thousands of visitors would make the trip to the forest each day, and it became known as the “Cockney Paradise”. As well as family trips out, some retreats specialised in Sunday School outings; and the Shaftesbury Retreat in Loughton provided annual days out to some of the East End’s poorest children, supported by the Ragged School Union and Lord Shaftesbury’s Society. This became a much-anticipated event for the children concerned, many of whom spent the year looking forward to their brief annual holiday from the slums to the fresh air and freedom of the forest, and the huge, tasty pies they were given for lunch.

By the early 20th century there were many privately run retreats spanning the forest villages, with small settlements like High Beech and Theydon Bois each having more than one enormous retreat.  Competition between the different venues was fierce. Each retreat tried to tempt customers in with their own unique offer: At Theydon Bois donkey rides, helter-skelters, swings, a galloping horse roundabout and a hokey pokey stall were on offer. The Princes Road retreat in Buckhurst Hill more humbly advertised “free pure drinking … cricket sets, skipping ropes lent free of charge.”

Gray’s Retreat in Theydon Bois provided a generous sounding children’s tea of bread and butter, fruit cake, lemon cake, a jam sandwich, watercress and good tea for just 9 pennies. If you stayed for dinner, for a penny and a half more you could purchase meat, fruit, custard and still lemonade. And Rigg’s Retreat in High Beech had a unique selling point – a balcony at the front constructed around a large beech tree!

Two world wars and the Great Depression reduced visitor numbers to the retreats, but the steady rise of the motor car was perhaps the main reason for their final demise. Motorists were less likely to make long forest visits and stay for a meal, and as the popularity of the retreats diminished, prices went up, making it harder for other families to afford to visit. One of the original forest retreats remains in the forest today: Butler’s Retreat in Chingford. This has continued to serve visitors refreshments throughout much of the current pandemic, though perhaps in lower numbers than a hundred years ago.