Hunting heritage and historic houses: What to see and do in Epping

PUBLISHED: 11:51 22 October 2019

Epping Market

Epping Market


While close to the capital, Epping is very much an Essex gem and its proud heritage of hunting forests and historic houses is well worth exploring, as Petra Hornsby discovers

Epping is situated at a close and commutable distance to London (just 17 miles away) and is a fine example of a popular market town.

It was granted its charter by King Henry III in 1253 for a market which was once an important cattle trading point. The market remains popular today and is a good source of fresh, locally farmed and locally made produce.

As well as its market, Epping is also well known for its woodland, which straddles the border between Essex and London. The 5,900 acres of forest habitat is managed by the City of London Corporation and 4,270 acres of the forest is regarded as being a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a special area of conservation.

Geographically, it sits on a ridge between the rivers Lea and Roding and comprises woodland, grassland, heath, rivers, bogs and ponds, making it a fantastic home for a wide range of wildlife, insects and plants.

Epping ForestEpping Forest

Epping Forest was once integrated into the larger Waltham Forest and research indicates that although forestation may have been carried out during Neolithic times, there is strong evidence to suggest that the Saxons had a system of selective tree cutting and clearing trees, so over the centuries the once dominating lime and linden species have been replaced by beech, oak and hornbeam.

The forest has royal connections, with the Tudors - specifically King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I - using it as a hunting ground. Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge (which today is a popular tourist attraction) was commissioned by the King Henry VIII as a viewing point for the chase.

However, commoners also relied on the forest for grazing their animals and for collecting firewood, and when this access was jeopardised in the 19th century by private landowners 'enclosing' the land, the people objected and fought to maintain their grazing and lopping rights.

They won their case and this led to the passing of the Epping Forest Act (1878), which meant that the forest was passed into the care of the City of London Corporation, halting enclosure and therefore the shrinkage of the forest.

Epping ForestEpping Forest

On a visit to Chingford in 1882, Queen Victoria said: 'It gives me the greatest satisfaction to declare this beautiful forest to the use and enjoyment of my people for all time,' and although the grazing of animals has reduced greatly since the outbreak of BSE in 1996, people still enjoy the forest immensely, using it for a wide range of leisure activities.

Epping's rich past is also represented by Copped Hall, situated close to the town. Although currently under restoration, it is another fine attraction thanks to its associations with Tudor royalty, although the site pre-dates the Tudors as it has its origins in the 13th century.

Passed by Sir John Shardlow to the Abbots of Waltham in 1350 in exchange for land, an application requesting an extra 120 acres of land (crossing on to the Epping side) was granted by Edward III in 1374.

In the midst of the dissolution of monasteries in 1537, the Abbot gifted the hall to Henry VIII in an attempt to save Waltham Abbey; it was a gesture that failed. The King never actually lived in Copped Hall, but the future Queen Mary lived there before her marriage, held captive there due to her Catholic beliefs.

Copped HallCopped Hall

Although described today as a Georgian mansion, the building would once have been timber framed and only much later rebuilt in brick.

In 1564, Queen Elizabeth I passed the hall over to her friend Sir Thomas Heneage, who set about rebuilding it almost immediately. The new U-shaped layout featured a symmetrical open courtyard and had two principal floors, cellars and a long gallery occupying the entire first floor of the East Wing.

Adjacent to the gallery, Heneage had a chapel built which could be viewed from a balcony off the long gallery.

When Sir Thomas married the Countess of Southampton in 1594, William Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Nights Dream was first performed as part of the celebrations and it is thought to have been written especially for the wedding.

Copped HallCopped Hall

The hall had five further owners once it left the ownership of Heneage's daughter. The fifth owner, Edward Coyne, left it to his son, John, who was determined that the rather dilapidated building had a completely new look and demolition took place in 1748.

The new look was very much down to John Coyne's cultural interests and plans for a Palladian mansion were instructed by architect John Sanderson. The new building was erected on a new site altogether and comprised a vast dome, a portico and attached curved colonnades which led to symmetrical pavilions.

The original grounds of the Elizabethan house were largely left as they were and a rock garden was planted in what were the cellars of the former house. An impressive four-acre walled garden was designed for growing fruit, flowers and vegetables.

In the 19th century, the house was owned by the very wealthy Wythes family. Ernest Wythes, on inheriting the mansion, felt it wasn't grand enough and made further changes.

Copped HallCopped Hall

These included replacing the only recently added North Wing, changing the roof line by adding a balustrade and also adding ornate chimney tops. The garden was also given a makeover and by 1900 the estate employed 31 gardeners and 27 house servants, even though the family was rarely in residence.

As with many large private houses, Copped Hall changed significantly through World War I. Servants went off to serve or become Land Girls and the house itself was used as a home for wounded soldiers. In 1917, the house was badly damaged by fire and the family relocated to another house on the estate.

Although the laundry, stables and motor house remained in use and were fully staffed, and the gardens continued to produce fruit and vegetables, Copped Hall did not get rebuilt.

Mr Wythes died in 1949, followed by his wife two years later. The estate was sold in 1952 and the house and gardens were stripped of anything considered to be of value. When the M25 appeared in one part of the park, the destruction seemed complete and prompted developers to start making their bids on the mansion.

Copped HallCopped Hall

Those who appreciated the rich history of the house knew it could be restored to its former glory with time and patience, so in 1992, following bids and legal wrangles, the parkland was bought by the Corporation of London and in 1995 the Copped Hall Trust purchased and saved the mansion and its gardens.

Although restoration is still in progress, people interested in the history and the current work being done can attend one of the monthly guided tours.

As well as the tours, there are several events held throughout the year which include theatre performances and concerts, art classes, study days and furniture restoration workshops.

If only walls could talk, what tales the Copped Hall could tell?

After so many years, so many changes and numerous owners, it would surely be quite a story.

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