On the hunt for the elusive ‘Skull Tree’

Sunday 18 March 2018 – Epping Forest.

In a tight clump of holly trees I once discovered an old dining room chair, alone and discarded, missing the companionship of its fellows chairs and the table itself. After an unsuccessful mission this morning to find ‘the skull tree’, I had resolved to at least re-finding the chair. This too proved to be unsuccessful. As I was crashing through a small, dense and tangled thicket of undergrowth, I spotted a very dark fox ambling through the snow in a clearing in front of me. Giving up on the chair, I forced myself clear of the holly and into the clearing. Hoping at least to find some fox prints in the snow that I could follow, in some sort of primitive huntery way. Though I was only armed with my camera.

Unlike two weeks ago, the snow was not thick enough to leave trace of light footed passers-by and my brief urge to be primeval man was over. Standing up I was looking around trying to work out where I was and spotted the back end of at least two small deer skipping away from me. I stood and watched until they disappeared from view, then spent ten minutes trying to find them. To no avail.

I did take this picture in the location I stopped looking. It is my favourite from the day.

The beast from the east made an unexpected and unwanted return this weekend, dumping a light load of snow on to London, most of which fell late on Saturday afternoon. Sunday was cold, much colder than two weeks ago, so I anticipated the snow lying on the ground for longer that it did on my last visit. Even if it didn’t last, going for a walk in the forest is always a good thing.

Last weekend, El and I went to a book reading and talk by the author Will Ashon. I enjoyed his book Strange Labyrinth and its stories of Epping Forest. On the cover of the book, and mentioned in its pages is a small skull carved into the trunk of a tree. I have tried, and failed, to find the tree before, and the talk inspired me to try again today. I had a broad idea where to look, but no specifics. In the questions after the talk I was assured it existed, but no further details were given.

Though I had to clear a light dusting from the car first.

The skull tree is supposedly not far from Loughton Camp so I parked the car nearby and set off, wrapped up warm as I was quite cold. Fingerless gloves to operate the camera not quite adequate enough while not under trees.

Strawberry Hill Ponds

Loughton Camp

Crossing over to the ‘lost pond’, I meandered around the trees for a while, not straying too far from trails, in the assumption that Will must have found the skull tree while walking on a path. I found lots of trees with writing, but no skulls.

I also found a summertime camp, looking long abandoned, and a small group with packs and furled away tents who looked like they may be nomadically living in the forest.

I was getting quite cold wandering around the lost pond area, and felt uncomfortable taking pictures if people were living in the area, so paid my respects to my favourite ancient tree before starting to walk back towards the car, though following a snow covered forest trail rather than the path.

I stumbled across the romantically named Loughton Brook Storage Pond, a place I have never been to, and then followed the brook back down to the car.

Before heading home feeling unsuccessful with not finding the skull tree, I thought I should try and find the old chair I came across back in summer, buried deep in a holly grove. I wanted to see it covered it ice and snow.

Leaving the mandarin ducks in the northern of the two Strawberry Hill Ponds I took to the trees again to find the chair, which takes us back to the start of this post, and a further lack of success.

I was quite cold by now, and getting a wee bit hungry as well, so after taking a couple of photos around the larger southern pond, I took to the main path, and went back to the warmth of the car. Next time I bring food!

The Epping Forest Project, Phase 2–February

February 2018 – Epping Forest.

February was a strange month, we seemed to be really busy each weekend with different activities that allowed me no time for the Epping Forest photography project I started in January. It is also winter, though winter did not fully happen until the very end of the month, even though I was still not feeling as inspired as I should have been. This is not untypical though.

I made two trips to Hollow Pond, a 30 minute walk from home. It is on the southern edge of Epping Forest, a small outpost with a thin link to the larger forest area. I like Hollow Pond, though it has its seedy, sleazy, tree-covered edges that are less attractive and reduce its overall appeal as a place to wander vacantly about. The sunny, open shores are very popular. Families and young and old couples stroll through trees and reeds, feeding the ducks, geese and swans, trying to avoid the marauding , thieving gulls.

Here are the best of the photos from the two walks.

Walk one started sunny, but very windy. El and I were half way around when the clouds started to form in the distance, and we could see rain falling over Woodford. We made a run for the lovely All you read is love bookshop in nearby Leytonstone. Before catching a bus back home.

Walk two was a solo walk starting from Waterworks Roundabout on a gloriously sunny, but cold day. I was aiming for some super close-up with massive of field shots, but there was just enough of a breeze to make them quite tricky, so I went for the loads of intrusive flare instead. Rule breaking by shooting in to the sun. Again.

Epping Forest in snow.

Saturday 03 March 2018 – Epping Forest.

What a difference three hours can make.

The meagre blanket of snow that covered the plain when I arrived on the edge of the forest was all but gone when I left. Arriving with hat, scarf, gloves on and jacket zipped to the neck, departing with all the accessories packed away and my coat wide open to cool down. It was a great morning’s walk between those points.

Three hours later.

The ‘beast from the east’ weather system passed through London, and the rest of the UK, over the last five days. The system brought some terrible weather to many parts of the country, though we in London were unscathed – as usual. What we did have was four days of on and off snow, resulting in the longest period of settled snow in the five years I have lived here.

It has been a really busy month at work so I was not able to take time off to get to the forest, so it was a little worrying to see the snow no longer falling on Friday evening. It was with some nervousness I peered out from behind the bedroom curtains early this morning to see what it was like. Snow on the ground, very flat grey sky and the roads were clear. Perfect!

I am not sure what I wanted to achieve this morning, take photos being the obvious objective, getting some quiet time also appealed. I never listen to music when I am there, one of the few places where I am on my own that I do not. Wandering vacantly appears to be what I excel at.

Chingford Plain

Warren Pond

Butlers Retreat – where I stopped for coffee on my way home. Very nice coffee and cake 🙂

Surprisingly I was alone for most of the morning, only seeing a couple of mountain bikers and a few dog walkers. I saw no-one on the main routes apart from one solitary runner, the dog walkers were all in the trees on what I have considered bike trails. Perhaps they just took the opportunity to roam more freely than usual? There were signs others had been here mid-week.

I was really (pleasantly) surprised how many animal foot prints I saw in the snow, though this is a forest so not sure why I was surprised. Deer, rabbit, fox and bird trails criss-crossed every human marked trail. Great signs for a healthy forest. Apart from birds I saw none of the animals that left these trails, though I was looking.

The snow was very shallow and very light; a foot step enough to disturb it, leaving earthen trails behind. Enough to cover light undergrowth and tree fall. Brambles, nettles and ferns were barely visible and where I would normally walk around the undergrowth I just walked over the top, only becoming entangled the once. It allowed for a more random path though the trees, inevitably letting me get hopelessly lost. As always.

As well as providing an amazing contrasting backdrop for photos and letting the trees stand out from the natural toned background the snow made finding my way around far harder than I expected, I was lost almost immediately I was into the trees and I never found the spot I was at barely two weeks ago. Though discovering this small grove of beech made my morning. The coppery gold leaves just popping out of the background. Humping the tripod around was worth every ounce of extra weight.

Following a bike tyre trail from what I thought was Cuckoo Brook I was aiming to get to a stand of silver birch near the church at High Beech. Silver birch in the snow is a real cliche I know, but then I do love a cliche. I never did get there. I had no idea where I was by this stage.

The morning was getting on and it was time to head back towards the station, with no idea of my location I turned towards the distant traffic noise from Epping New Rd. With the snow and the flat low clouds the forest was very quiet, I could hear the squeak of my shoes on the snow, the occasional bird and a dull but constant, surf like hum in the background. It was almost like being slightly inland from the sea.

I followed one of the main paths for a while, seeing one of the few people that were also out enjoying this rare solitude.

I soon left the main path again and back into the trees hoping to find Connaught Water. It turned out I still didn’t know where I was, though I did find a nice stand of young silver birch to make up for missing the one I was aiming for earlier. It is all a bit Scandi !

Finding another one of the main paths I experimented with a bit of impressionist photography before checking the map on my phone, finally working out where I was and setting off in the right direction.

The paths around an almost totally iced over Connaught Water were almost empty of people, I found this so unusual as this place is normally full of walkers. I had visions of families and young couples out enjoying the snow, tossing snowballs at each other and admiring the dedication of the birds sitting on the cold ice.

The snow was slowly melting away where there was no tree cover and I was quite shocked to see grass that had a white top coat when I arrived was almost bare of snow as I left.

I was really pleased I made it in time, that I had not followed my normal weekend routine and had a lie in.

It was a lovely, peaceful, beautiful morning out, and I hope you enjoyed the photos.

The Beast from the East

Thursday 01 March 2018, London.

Yay, winter is over!  Spring officially starts today. the first day of March. The signs of its arrival have been showing themselves anew every day over the past week. On Friday I took a few photos of the daffodils that are popping their blooms out of the grass in the parks on the way to work. In fact it was getting light enough and nice enough that I had started thinking about cycling to work.

With predictable unpredictability the official start of spring was marked by the worst weather Britain has seen in decades. ‘The Beast from the East’, as the weather system was dubbed, arrived from the Siberian steppes over the weekend bringing chaos and heavy snow to the north. For us in the south it was a bitter wind that set the ball rolling, preparing us for what was to come.

I left for work on Monday morning, prepared for anything, a very light snow had started to fall just before I left the house and the forecast hinted that this would be the start of a long week of snow.

I was excited to find when I got to work that the snow was still falling. I do not actually work here,  though my office is not far away; and not quite as palatial.

Unfortunately for me, but not so much my work colleagues, or the majority of working Londoners, that seemed to be the end of the snow. There was no layer of white as I walked back to the station after work. Tuesday was equally disappointing. During the day at least, the night was a whole different story!

Peering out of the bedroom window when I awoke on Wednesday I was confronted with a sea of white in the street below me, and to make the sight even more welcoming the sky above was a lovely crisp blue. I was up immediately, feeding the cat and then out to take a couple of pictures in the garden before anything more than the neighbour’s cat left tracks in the fresh blanket.

I am quite lucky in that my commute is quite short and very crowded, it is completely unpleasant. The Victoria Line is fully underground and is not impacted like so many of the overground train lines by adverse weather. I still hate every one of the 25 or so minutes I am underground though; not due to fear of undergroundness, or claustrophobia. I just hate commuting! The only good thing about my commute is exiting the tube at Green Park station, and the 15 minute walk to the office; traversing both Green and St James Parks. I have been waiting all winter for today. Stunning !

Crossing the Mall to take a photo of Buckingham Palace I was told off by the police for standing in the middle of the road. I have been waiting for the right day to take a photo of the dodgy neighbourhood I have to walk through to get to and from work.

St James Park was very busy this morning. At this time of the day it is rare to see more than a couple of tourists, the odd jogger and bunch of bored and tired office workers trudging, head down through the park. Today, there were smiles and ‘good mornings’ and seemingly everyone was taking pictures of the snow and ice. I took a few myself.

The daffodils were looking a lot less happy than they were last week!

That was the end of the sun for a few hours. Lunch time the cloud cover was low, it was grey, bleak, windy cold and snowing. Heading out to buy a sandwich I grabbed the camera to take a couple of pictures as I went. It was not particularly nice, though a large group of tourists were enjoying a snowball fight on the edge of the park.  At least the traffic, which plagues this part of London, was light today. A silver lining in every snow laden cloud.

Fortunately it was all smiles again late afternoon, leaving work early I took a few more pictures as I went.

I also tried my hand at a bit more intentional camera movement, impressionist images as I went.

Obviously this weather system was not all jolly japes like it was for me in relatively unscathed London. It has had a terrible impact on other parts of the UK, with roads and rail lines closed, people stuck in cars for many hours and a number of people losing their lives to the bitter cold. The snow levels in some places hit historic levels, and the cold set new records. It was so hard to plan or predict anything, forecasting seemed to have gotten so much better over the last few years, but this week nothing seemed to work as predicted. Snow fell when it wasn’t supposed to and did not when it was. The one thing they got right was it lasted all week.

Thursday was a blanket of grey, it was colder than it had been all week, colder than the rest of winter, crossing the bridge in St James Park the cross wind was savage. I pity the poor pigeons. Brrrrr. There were no smiling, welcoming commuters today.

I left work early for the fourth day this week (any excuse), a break in the snow was a good time to nip off. El has been sick all week, finally succumbing to the cold I had when we were in St Ives, so I had a mission to make to the chemist on the way home. (Thankfully she is over the worst of it as I write this, four days later). I managed to grab a couple of final snowy images on the way through the St James Park.

Friday was bleak, and I was finally over the cold, windy and damp weather. I still love the snow though.

The Beast from the East finally finished in London with a brief but heavyish snow shower mid-afternoon on Friday, and then it was, thankfully all over. Even I had finally got bored with the snow. Bring on the grey slush !

Beach hut heaven.

Saturday 24 February 2018. Brightlingsea, Essex.

A while ago we were thinking of taking a weekend away in Brightlingsea, but as usual, did nothing about it. I cannot remember why. I vaguely recall that El was thinking of it as a possible place to go for a few days, away from the attractions of a larger town, to do some writing. Whatever the reason was, at whatever time it was we never made it there, or anywhere close by. It has been lurking in the back of our minds since.

There is no specific reason why it appeals, it is not really coastal, there are no amazing landscapes, and no castles or abbey ruins to visit. It is just a small rural estuarine town in Essex with a good name and an easy drive from home.

Saturday woke to be one of those great sunny but damn cold English winter days. With threats of pending snowy doom from the ‘beast from the east’ weather front coming on Monday it seemed a shame to waste the opportunity the day presented.

It was also time to take the car for a decent spin, the last time I used it was before Christmas when I was going to drive to Norfolk until I found the flat tyre. When I finally got around to taking the car to the shop to get the tyre repaired I found a second flat (suspicious!) With the wheels off I found my brake pads were knackered so I had those replaced as well. With all the work done  the car felt and ran better than ever.

Brightlingsea is about one and half hours north of home in mid-Essex, sitting near the point where the Colne River estuary meets the southern North Sea. Like a lot of coastal Britain, Brightlingsea is a very old town, it gets a mention in the Doomsday Book of 1087. Apparently the oldest wooden framed building in the UK is in the middle of town though I did not know that until now, so we did not go and visit this 14th century relic.

What we did do was stop for a hearty and nice lunch at a cafe in town before going for a walk around the waterfront and the most beach huts I have ever seen. Surprising because there is not a lot of beach. It is nice though.

It is very windy and very cold, heavy coats, gloves, hats and scarves were on, but the sky was a brilliant blue, a great winter  ‘seaside’ walking day.

Beach huts feature a bit in these photos, there were just so many, every nook and cranny seemed to have a beach hut crammed in. The great thing with the beach huts here was there seemed to be no real rules, unlike the tedious line-up of identikit huts on the south coast.

Even with this small amount of skin exposed it was still cold!

Heading back into town I found this nice old boat shed, that I am sure will not last much longer as small blocks of posh modern flats are sprouting up nearby.

We wandered down to where the ferry up the Colne to Colchester would leave in the warmer months.

We stopped in a cafe for a warming coffee before walking back to the car for the journey home.

It is not a town I could live in, there is not a lot there, there is no train and it is a bit remote. Plus there is no proper sea. But I liked it as a place to visit, and lunch was damn good.