OK, it's last Sunday and I'm heading for Essex again. If you're in the UK you'll already know TOWIE. Tube to Loughton, walk up the road, so far, great. Reach the edge of Epping Forest. One of the edges of it, it is enormous.
Step in. Can't remember which path I took last week, and take a different one. Things start to get a bit weird almost immediately. Am climbing up a small steep hill with many enormous beech trees on it.
I don't use the word awesome lightly, but it is. It is JUST like being in a cathedral (and I grew up within the ring of York Minster so I should know).
All around me are enormous trees, huge grey trunks. Underfoot, dead leaves and beech nuts and pods, clearly metres deep.
Somewhere rooks are cawing. According to the map this place is called Staples Hill. I am wondering if it is a round barrow, just because of the shape and height of it. An eerie thought. Through the trees, I some people approaching, a woman with two small children. Am at first a bit peeved because the kids are running around making a noise but then I realise I haven't a clue where the path is, and they do know, so I follow the way they've gone. Downhill, out of the forest, along a path, and surprisingly out near a row of houses.
Glare at map. I can see where I am, and I need to make a sharp left turn and go straight across for a quarter of a mile, crossing Loughton Brook and keeping on for a bit, to reach the nice clearly marked path I was on last week, and which I found quite by accident. So I set off downhill past three poles in the ground that are clearly a marker, turn rightish, into the forest again, and quickly find the brook. It's very very dark in here. No undergrowth because the canopy is so thick, not much light.
Now, the brook is a bit of a problem because I need to be on the other side of it. There's no bridge that I can see, and it's twisting and turning about, going almost back on itself, so hard to find a bit narrow enough to cross. Keep following it and after about 200 metres, come to a bit where I can walk right down to the trickle of water in it (I wouldn't be doing this in winter) and literally crawl on my hands and knees on to the opposite bank.
Stand up and take stock. I need to go straight across from the brook to reach the nice cycle trail. So I have a think and choose the clearest path, which isn't really a path - it's a gap between the trees that looks as though it's had human feet along it. Keep going straight on and come to a nice wooden bridge. Realise that this must be the other branch of the brook and cross the bridge, with the feeling of success you get when you can see light at the end of the tunnel. Or trees.
Break out into sunlight, come to three poles in the ground and think 'Ah! More markers for the footpath!' Stride purposefully up the path, only to be faced by . . .
. . . the same house I left behind 20 minutes ago.
I have gone round in a complete circle without realising it.
I kid you not.
At this point I seriously think of giving up and going home in a snit. However, I have a blog to write and although I've been walking for a good hour (and have covered, as the crow flies, all of a quarter mile) it's not the nice long walk I have been promising myself all week.
So I turn round, walk back to the edge of the forest, and go back the way I've come, over the bridge. This time I walk in a straight line, taking a bearing from the path behind me. I keep walking in a straight line, and keep looking back to the bridge, and making sure I'm going in a straight line. I ignore the brook - as a guide to going in the right direction, it's not been so good. Keep going straight ahead. I know from the map and from last week that the track is only a couple of hundred metres in front of me. It's so dark you can't see that far though. Somewhere overhead I can hear a helicopter, which is odd because I haven't dialled 999 yet.
And eureka! In the distance I see someone pushing a bicyle along. They must be on the track because you'd be hard put to it to bring a bike into the forest (although people do, to the detriment of what is an ancient and fragile habitat).
I go a bit ape. I ignore anything that looks remotely like a path and head straight for where I saw this person. This involves a holly thicket and much swearing but I'm on the home straight. I break out of the forest, and leap the ditch (unnecessarily because it's only about a foot across but it's the impression that's important when emerging from the undergrowth) and land on the track.
On the positive side I am actually a fair way along it, not far from where I turned off last week. Start trudging. Trudge for all of three minutes before seeing a nice fallen treetrunk and stopping for water and a sandwich.
One thing I notice increasingly when out for walks is what a difference it makes to eat a small amount regularly and keep topping up with water. If I'm feeling tired and my feet hurt, ten minutes, food and water and I'm good for another hour at least. Without f and w, I need an hour to recover and my stamina's shot.
So, fed and watered, I'm off again. Pass last week's turn off, keep going and the path is going up and down hills. Feeling a bit breathless so stop for photos and more water.
Keep going and see a car in the distance crossing the track. Have arrived at a road. Cross it, find myself in a small car park with a noticeboard showing where I've been and where I'm going. Stop for other sandwich and rest of water. Watch a couple get out of their car with a greyhound and disappear the way I'm going to go. I'm not a dog person particularly (my boys wouldn't allow it) but it's lovely watching a dog bounce out of a car with that 'we're going for a proper walk! And I can run about!' expression on its face.
Give them a head start and set off. The path now isn't a nice sandy track any more, it's quite well defined but goes around and between trees, though it's not too dark. I'm looking for a track across in front of me which I have to turn left up and come to it a bit sooner than I expected. At one end of it I can see cars, but I'm not going that way, I turn left and stride out. After about ten minutes I realise I can see the 18th hole through the trees. There are men in pink and sky blue jumpers pottering about with golf clubs.
Funny. Get out map, peruse map. A golf course is big enough to show on a map. Find a golf course. Find another golf course. Neither is anywhere near where I think I am. Scratch head. Fold up map. Weigh up my options.
1. go back the way I've come, if I can find it. Not bloody likely, I hate redoing things and would only get hopelessly lost as the path I took was ahem faintish
2. sit down and cry. Definitely an option if I thought a knight on a white horse might come and rescue me but pity the poor horse having to carry a knight AND me
3. keep walking and hope for the best.
After some thought, go with option 3.
Twenty minutes later emerge onto a narrow metalled road between some houses, see a sign that says 'Debden Green'. Keep walking, come to a school. Locate school near Debden Green on map, turn map around and realise that another mile or so will bring me to Theydon Bois.
Ah. Lovely place Theydon Bois. There's a village green, a house with a thatched roof, a shop selling icecream. The Bois bit is French for 'wood' but it's no longer pronounced Frenchly, it's been Anglicised and it's pronounced 'Boys'. Bois will be Bois you might say.
And it has a TUBE STATION.
Increase my pace.
Arrive in Theydon Boys. Lovely village green, ducks, willow trees, local yokels. Sit down to watch the ducks. The ducks - after some disgruntled quacking - sit down to watch me. Observe with interest as a brown rat the size of a small dog dashes out of the undergrowth, crosses the road right under the wheels of a car - I mean literally, between the two front wheels and then out the side in front of the back ones - and dashes unscathed into the hedge at the other side of the road.
Go into the shop and investigate the icecream but only buy water.
Wake up there! I said, 'only buy water'. Did not buy ice cream!
Walk up to the tube station cross the bridge to the platform, can't get on to the platform, miss a train because there's a fence between it and me, realise that it's the weekend and I should have crossed the other bridge, go back over the first bridge, walk to the other end of the station, cross the other bridge, flump down on a bench, wait for six minutes for the next train. get on it, collapse in heap.
The walk comes out at six miles measured on google maps but with all the meandering and getting lost I would guess nearer eight. Interestingly, by the time I get home I'm more or less recovered. No blisters, no sore patches on feet, feeling fab.
At work on Monday describe the depths of the forest to a colleague. She gives me a pitying look and said 'Epping Forest is where the East End gangsters used to bury their victims you know. They chose it because it's enormous and impossible to find anything in there.'
It's not often I'm speechless.