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Bleak March in Epping Forest


All along the selvage of Epping Forest there was excitement. Before the
swallows, before the violets, long before the cuckoo, with only untimely
honeysuckle bushes showing a trace of green, two trippers had been seen
traversing the district, making their way towards High Beech, and
settling awhile near the Forest Hotel. Whether they were belated
survivals from last season or exceptionally early hatchings of the
coming year, was a question of considerable moment to the natives, and
has since engaged the attention of the local Natural History Society.
But we know that, as a matter of fact, they were of little omen, being
indeed but insignificant people from Hampstead and not true trippers at
all, who were curious to see this forest in raw winter.

For some have argued that there is no Epping Forest at all in the
winter-time; that it is, in fact, taken up and put away, and that
agriculture is pursued there. Others assert that the Forest is shrouded
with wrappers, even as a literary man's study is shrouded by dusty women
when they clean him out. Others, again, have supposed that it is a
delightful place in winter, far more delightful than in summer, but that
this is not published, because no writing man hath ever been there in
the cold season. And much more of unreal speculation, but nothing which
bore upon it the stamp of truth. So these two--and I am one of the
two--went down to Epping Forest to see that it was still there, and how
it fared in the dismal weather.

The sky was a greasy grey that guttered down to the horizon, and the
wind smote damp and chill. There was a white fringe of ice in the
cart-wheel ruts, but withal the frost was not so crisp as to prevent a
thin and slippery glaze of softened clay upon the road. The decaying
triumphal arch outside the station sadly lacked a coat of paint, and was
indistinctly regretful of remote royal visits and processions gone for
ever. Then we passed shuddering by many vacant booths that had once
resounded with the revelry of ninepenny teas and the gingerbeer cork's
staccato, and their forms were piled together and their trestles
overturned. And the wind ravened, and no human beings were to be seen.
So up the hill to the left, and along the road leading by devious
windings between the black hedges and through clay wallows to the hilly
part round High Beech.

But upon the shoulder of a hill we turned to a gate to scrape off the
mud that made our boots unwieldy. At that moment came a threadbare place
in the cloudy curtain that was sweeping across the sun, and our shadows
showed themselves for an instant to comfort us. The amber patch of
sunlight presently slipped from us and travelled down the meadows
towards the distant blue of the hills by Waltham Abbey, touching with
miraculous healing a landscape erst dead and shrouded in grey. This
transitory gleam of light gladdened us mightily at the time, but it made
the after-sky seem all the darker.

So through the steep and tortuous village to High Beech, and then
leaving the road we wandered in among big trees and down slopes ankle
deep with rustling leaves towards Chingford again. Here was pleasanter
walking than the thawing clay, but now and then one felt the threat of
an infinite oozy softness beneath the stiff frozen leaves. Once again
while we were here the drifting haze of the sky became thinner, and the
smooth green-grey beech stems and rugged oak trunks were brightly
illuminated. But only for a moment, and thereafter the sky became not
simply unsympathetic but ominous. And the misery of the wind grew apace.

Presently we wandered into that sinister corner of the Forest where the
beech trees have grown so closely together that they have had perforce
to lift their branches vertically. Divested of leaves, the bare grey
limbs of these seem strangely restless. These trees, reaching so
eagerly upward, have an odd resemblance to the weird figures of horror
in which William Blake delighted--arms, hands, hair, all stretch
intensely to the zenith. They seem to be straining away from the spot to
which they are rooted. It is a Laocoon grouping, a wordless concentrated
struggle for the sunlight, and disagreeably impressive. The trippers
longed to talk and were tongue-tied; they looked now and then over their
shoulders. They were glad when the eerie influence was passed, though
they traversed a morass to get away from it.

Then across an open place, dismal with the dun hulls of lost cows and
the clatter of their bells, over a brook full of dead leaves and edged
with rusty clay, through a briery thicket that would fain have detained
us, and so to a pathway of succulent green, that oozed black under our
feet. Here some poor lost wayfarer has blazed his way with rustic seats,
now rheumatic and fungus-eaten. And here, too, the wind, which had
sought us howling, found us at last, and stung us sharply with a shower
of congealing raindrops. This grew to a steady downfall as the open
towards Chingford station was approached at last, after devious winding
in the Forest. Then, coming upon the edge of the wood and seeing the
lone station against the grey sky, we broke into a shout and began
running. But it is dismal running on imperfectly frozen clay, in rain
and a gusty wind. We slipped and floundered, and one of us wept sore
that she should never see her home again. And worse, the only train
sleeping in the station was awakened by our cries, and, with an eldritch
shriek at the unseasonable presence of trippers, fled incontinently
Londonward.

Smeared with clay and dead leaves almost beyond human likeness, we
staggered into the derelict station, and found from an outcast porter
that perhaps another train might after the lapse of two hours accumulate
sufficiently to take us back to Gospel Oak and a warm world again. So we
speered if there were amusements to be got in this place, and he told us
"some very nice walks." To refrain from homicide we left the station,
and sought a vast red hotel that loomed through the drift on a steep
hill, and in the side of this a door that had not been locked. Happily
one had been forgotten, and, entering at last, we roused a hibernating
waiter, and he exhumed us some of his winter victual. In this way we
were presently to some degree comforted, and could play chess until a
train had been sent for our relief. And this did at last happen, and
towards the hour of dinner we rejoined our anxious friends, and all the
evening time we boasted of a pleasant day and urged them to go even as
we had gone.

H.G. Wells