The name "Epping Forest" was first recorded in the 17th century; prior to this it was known as Waltham Forest (which gives its name to the present-day London Borough of Waltham Forest, which covers part of the modern forest).
The area which became known as Waltham, and then Epping Forest has been continuously forested since Neolithic times. Embankments of two Iron Age earthworks – Loughton Camp and Ambresbury Banks – can be found in the woodland, but pollen profiles show that Iron Age occupation had no significant effect on the forest ecology. The former lime/linden Tilia-dominated woodland was permanently altered during Saxon times by selective cutting of trees. Today's beech-birch and oak-hornbeam-dominated forest was the result of partial forest clearance in Saxon times.
The forest is thought to have been given legal status as a royal forest by Henry II in the 12th century. This status allowed commoners to use the forest to gather wood and foodstuffs, and to graze livestock and turn out pigs for mast, but only the king was allowed to hunt there. "Forest" in the historical sense of royal forest meant an area of land reserved for royal hunting, where the forest laws applied, and did not imply that it was necessarily wooded.
In Tudor times, Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I may have hunted in the forest, though no documentary evidence has survived to prove it. In 1543, Henry commissioned a building, known as Great Standing, from which to view the chase at Chingford. The building was renovated in 1589 for Queen Elizabeth I and can still be seen today in Chingford. The building is now known as Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge, and is open to the public. There is another hunt standing, which now forms the core of the Forest HQ at the Warren, Loughton.
There were disputes between landowners (who enclosed land) and commoners (who had grazing and cutting rights). One group of commoners was led by Thomas Willingale (1799–1870) who on behalf of the villagers of Loughton continued to lop the trees after the Lord of the Manor (Maitland) had enclosed 550 hectares (1,400 acres) of forest in Loughton. This led to an injunction against further enclosures.
The Epping Forest Act 1878 was passed, saving the forest from enclosure, and halting the shrinkage of the forest that this had caused. Epping Forest ceased to be a royal forest and was placed in the care of the City of London Corporation who act as Conservators. In addition, the Crown's right to venison was terminated, and pollarding was no longer allowed, although grazing rights continued. This act laid down a stipulation that the Conservators "shall at all times keep Epping Forest unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the people". In compensation for the loss of lopping rights, Lopping Hall in Loughton was built as a community building.
When Queen Victoria visited Chingford on 6 May 1882 she declared "It gives me the greatest satisfaction to dedicate this beautiful forest to the use and enjoyment of my people for all time" and it thus became "The People's Forest". The City of London Corporation still manages Epping Forest in strict conformity with the Epping Forest Act. This care is funded from 'City's Cash', the private funds of the Corporation rather than any money for its upkeep coming from local rates or taxes. The Conservators administer the forest from The Warren, modern offices built in the grounds of Grade II* listed Warren House, Loughton. Warren House, formerly known as the Reindeer Inn, was built around a smaller hunt standing, known as the Little Standing. Its grounds were redesigned by Humphry Repton in the early 19th century.
Until the outbreak of BSE in 1996 commoners still exercised their right to graze cattle and every summer herds of cattle would roam freely in the southern part of the forest (and occasionally in the streets of Leytonstone and Wanstead). Cattle were reintroduced in 2001 but their movements are now more restricted to reduce conflict with traffic. Commoners, who are people who live in a Forest parish and own 0.5 acres (0.20 ha) of land, can still register and graze cattle during the summer months.
The right to collect wood still exists but is rarely practised and is limited to "one faggot of dead or driftwood" per day per adult resident.
Originally a barn built in the mid-19th century the Grade II listed building Butler's Retreat is one of the few remaining Victorian retreats within the forest. The building is adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Hunting Lodge and takes its name from the 1891 occupier John Butler. Retreats originally served non-alcoholic refreshments as part of the Temperance movement. After closing in 2009 the building was refurbished by the City of London Corporation and re-opened as a café in 2012.
On 12 July 2012 The Duke of Gloucester—the official Epping Forest Ranger—opened the View interpretation centre at Chingford. The building a former Victorian coach house and stables together with Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge and Butler's Retreat form the Epping Forest Gateway.
The age of the forest and the range of habitats it contains make it a valuable area for wildlife, and it is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Its former status as a working or pasture forest has had a great effect on its ecology. This is particularly evident with the pollarded trees, which, as they have not been cut since the passing of the Epping Forest Act, have now grown massive crowns of thick, trunk-like branches with correspondingly large boles. This gives the trees an unusual appearance, not known in other forests. Often the weight of the branches cannot be supported by the parent tree, and the large amount of dead wood in the forest supports numerous rare species of fungi and invertebrates.
Predominant tree species are pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), European beech (Fagus sylvatica), European hornbeam (Carpinus betuloides), silver birch (Betula pendula) and European holly (Ilex aquifolium). Indicator species of long-uninterrupted woodland include service-tree (Sorbus torminalis) butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus) and drooping sedge (Carex pendula) A wide range of animals are found, including fallow deer (Dama dama), muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi) and European adder (Vipera berus).
Although the Epping Forest Act almost certainly saved the forest from total destruction, it has to some extent had a deleterious effect on the area's biodiversity. The pollarded trees allowed light through to the woodland floor, increasing the numbers of low-growing plants. Since the Act, the vast crowns of the pollards cut out most of the light to the underbrush. In addition, the area surrounding the forest is now to a great extent urbanised; the corresponding reduction in grazing has led to former areas of grassland and heathland being overcome by secondary woodland – this has been exacerbated by the majority of the forest's deer being enclosed to prevent impacts with vehicles on the major roads that run through the forest. In recent years, the Conservators have experimented with pollarding in selected areas of the forest, and a herd of English Longhorn cattle has been reintroduced to graze the heathland and grassland.
Over 100 lakes and ponds can be found within the forest varying in size and age. They all provide important habitats for numerous species of fauna and flora. Many of them are man-made with the majority of them created through gravel extraction. Several were formed as part of a landscape design and a few were the result of World War II bombs and rockets. Activities allowed on the waters include angling which is permitted in 24 of the lakes and ponds. A wide range of freshwater fish can be caught. All of the lakes and ponds are accessible to the public and are located on or close to forest paths.
There are several leisure activities associated with the forest.
On Thursday, 6 July 1732, an imprecise location in Epping Forest was the venue for an important cricket match in which London played Essex & Hertfordshire. The result is unknown. The match is the earliest known reference to both Essex and Hertfordshire as county teams. The terms were "for £50 a side, play or pay; wickets to be pitched at one o’clock precisely or forfeit half the money". This is the only time that the forest has been named in connection with top-class cricket.
Epping Forest attracts large numbers of mountain bikers. Mountain biking is generally permitted except around the Iron Age camps, Loughton Brook and other ecologically or geomorphologically sensitive areas. Despite clear signposting, a minority of mountain bikers and horse riders continue to cause damage in these areas, and the Conservators of Epping Forest have expressed their concern. A number of clubs organise rides, particularly on Sunday mornings. The forest is also used as a training area for many national level mountain-bike racers as it is highly regarded for its fast and tight flowing single track trails. This type of terrain is known within the mountain bike fraternity as cross country (or XC). Epping Forest was considered as a venue for the mountain-biking event of the 2012 Summer Olympics, though the final choice was near Hadleigh Castle.
Horse riding is popular in Epping Forest. Riders need to be registered with the Epping Forest conservators before they are allowed to ride in the forest. Running as a form of recreation in Epping Forest goes back almost to the birth of the sport in the 1870s, including hosting the inaugural English Championships in 1876. Orienteering and rambling are also popular. There are numerous guidebooks offering shorter walks for the casual visitor. The most important event in the ramblers calendar in the area is the traditional Epping Forest Centenary Walk, an all-day event commemorating the saving of Epping Forest as a public space, which takes place annually on the third Sunday in September.
High Beach in Epping Forest was the first British venue for motorcycle speedway and opened on 19 February 1928. The track was behind The King's Oak public house, and drew large crowds in its early days. The track was closed when a swimming pool was added to the pub's grounds after the Second World War, though enthusiasts and veterans still gather at the site every year on the nearest Sunday to 19 February. The remains of the track are still visible, in the grounds of the Epping Forest Field Centre behind the King's Oak.
A field centre in the forest provides a variety of courses.
The forest has three visitor centres: Epping Forest Gateway at Chingford incorporating The View interpretation centre, Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge and Butler's Retreat: The High Beach Visitor's Centre, High Beach and The Temple, Wanstead Park.
Public transport serves most locations in and around the forest. In the 1980s, the name "Forest" was given to one of the districts in which London's buses was divided, covering east London, and including the south part of the forest. Its logo was a squirrel above the London Transport roundel. Later, from 1989 until its collapse in 1991, London Forest part of London Buses Limited, was the name of an arms length bus operating unit of London Regional Transport in the area, with an oak tree as its logo.
Epping Forest has frequently been the setting for novels, and has attracted poets, artists and musicians for centuries. Many of these artists lived at Loughton, q.v. Loughton is also home to the East 15 Acting School and its Corbett Theatre.
Sculptor Jacob Epstein lived on the very edge of the forest for a quarter of a century at Baldwins Hill, Loughton. Sir William Addison says that he wanted his sculpture Visitation, now in the Tate Collection, to be sited overlooking the Forest. In 1933, he exhibited 100 paintings of the forest, and continued to paint during the war. His gouache, an essay in green tints and textures, Pool – Epping Forest, of Baldwins Hill Pond, was exhibited in 1945. Many of his forest painting are in the Garman Ryan Collection at the New Art Gallery, Walsall
Elizabethan poets such as George Gascoigne and Thomas Lodge lived in and around the forest. The writer Lady Mary Wroth lived at Loughton Hall. Ben Jonson, best known for his satirical play The Alchemist, was a frequent visitor to the forest with George Chapman.
In the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft, writer, philosopher and feminist, spent the first five years of her life growing up in the forest.
In the Victorian era, Charles Dickens' novel Barnaby Rudge begins with a description of the forest in 1775. Alfred, Lord Tennyson lived at Beech Hill House, High Beach, from 1837–1840, where he wrote parts of In Memoriam A.H.H.. Suffering from depression, he stayed as a guest at Dr. Martin Allen's asylum, where he would have encountered poet John Clare, whose behaviour became so erratic that he was removed to the asylum in 1837. William Morris, artist, writer and socialist, was born in Walthamstow in 1834, and spent his early years in what was then rural Essex, close to the outlying sections of the forest. Arthur Morrison, "the English Zola", lived successively at Chingford, Loughton, and High Beach in the forest, and – particularly in To London Town – the forest is used as a contrast to the East London deprivation he wrote about. Horace Newte, his contemporary and friend, lived at Loughton and Theydon Bois.
The poet Edward Thomas was posted to a temporary army camp at High Beach when he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles in 1915. Although the conditions in the camp were squalid, Thomas enjoyed the forest and the following year moved with his wife to a cottage at St Paul's Nursery, close to High Beach. One of his last poems, Out in the dark, was written at High Beach at Christmas 1916, shortly before he was killed in France.
During the 20th century, several writers used the forest as a setting for their novels, including R. Austin Freeman's Jacob Street Mystery (1940), partly set at Loughton Camp. Dorothy L. Sayers' 1928 mystery Unnatural Death includes the discovery, in Epping Forest, of the body of a young woman possessing knowledge that could incriminate a murderer. The horror writer James Herbert used Epping Forest as the setting for his novel Lair (1979). In the book, a horde of Giant Black Rats establish a colony in the forest and embark on a murderous campaign against humans. Herbert mentions a now obscure legend attached to the forest – the legend of the white stag. Supposedly, the sighting of this animal is an omen of trouble and death. Natural historian and author Fred J Speakman lived at the Epping Forest Field Studies Centre, High Beach. He wrote several books about the area, including A Poacher's Tale with Alfred T Curtis, a Waltham Abbey-born poacher, and A Keeper's Tale, describing the life of forest keeper Sidney Butt.
T E Lawrence owned an estate at Pole Hill, Chingford; this was added to the Forest in 1929 and Lawrence's hut re-erected in the Forest Headquarters at the Warren, Loughton, where it remains, largely forgotten, today.
Actor and playwright Ken Campbell (1941–2008) lived in Loughton, adjacent to Epping Forest; his funeral took the form of a woodland burial in the forest.
The song "The White Buck of Epping" by Sydney Carter (1957) refers to a sighting of (and subsequent hunt for) a white buck in the forest.
A track on Genesis's 1973 album Selling England by the Pound is entitled "The Battle of Epping Forest", and refers to a real-life East End gang-fight.
The interior of the gatefold sleeve of the progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer's third studio album Trilogy features a photomontage showing multiple images of the band in the forest carpeted with autumn leaves.
The forest featured heavily in an episode of Living TV's Most Haunted Live over New Year 2003/2004 as the team, made up of Yvette Fielding and Derek Acorah, investigated the forest in the hope of discovering the spirit of Dick Turpin. The team got lost in the forest live on air, and a ranger was required to find them.
In the British BBC soap opera screened in February 1999, EastEnders, fictional character Steve Owen (Martin Kemp) accidentally killed his stalker Saskia Duncan (Deborah-Sheridin Taylor). He later panicked and buried her body in the forest. It was discovered 10 months later.
An episode of the BBC series New Tricks which was set in the forest was broadcast on 3 September 2013.
In the episode "Day Trippers" of the UK (Thames Television) sitcom Robins's Nest, first broadcast on 27 November 1978, the main characters picnic in the forest.
Currently (2013) the forest has been used as a location in fourteen films including the Black Knight sequence in the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The forest has long standing criminal associations. The highwayman Dick Turpin had a hideout there. The tree cover and the forest's location close to London have made it notorious as a burial area for murder victims. Triple policeman murderer Harry Roberts hid out in the forest for a short time before his arrest in 1966.1966 Marian Hartley, a 15-year-old schoolgirl was killed by Joseph Kiely, 20. Kiely dragged Hartley into the forest late at night, in the Chingford area, after she had been to a school dance, whereby he sexually assaulted her and strangled her.
1970 The bodies of Susan Blatchford (eleven years old), and Gary Hanlon (twelve years old), were discovered in a copse on Lippitts Hill, after they went missing from their homes in Enfield, north London, in March 1970. The case was to be known as the 'Babes in the Wood' murders. Thirty years later, Ronald Jebson, already serving a life sentence for the 1974 murder of eight-year-old Rosemary Papper, confessed to the murders.
1981 The thin decomposed 6 ft body of a white European man aged 30–40 was found in the undergrowth in the forest. He had a money belt containing English and Spanish money and wore a watch, costing approximately £40. The body remains unidentified
1989 Terence Gooderham, an accountant, and his girlfriend, Maxine Arnold, who were both killed in a hit-man-style slaying whereby they were both shot with a double barrelled shotgun. Although unsolved, it has been reported in the press that James Moody, described as "Britain's most notorious hitman" may have been responsible for the killings, although he was also murdered a few years later. It has been further suggested in the press that Gooderham was targeted because he creamed off £250,000 in drugs money that he was involved in laundering and that the hit was order by the Adams Family criminal organisation, which is also known as the Clerkenwell crime syndicate.
1990 Patricia Parsons, who ran a massage parlour, was found dead in her car having been shot in the head with a cross-bow. It was suggested that she had a 'black book' of clients and was subject to a contract killing following the possibility that she was going to sell details to a newspaper. The murder remains unsolved.
2000 Wendy Woodhouse, 31, was taken to forest in Essex, stripped, tortured and beaten to death with a snooker cue by two men who thought she had cheated them in a drugs deal. Courtney Peters, 28, an illegal immigrant from Jamaica, and Ewing Thomas, 25, of Stoke Newington, north London, were jailed for life for her murder at the Old Bailey.
2004 The remains of Ivor Willis were found on Wanstead Flats, who had been missing for two years.
2004 The body of a person aged 40 years or more was found in the forest. Experts could not identify the person's sex as the body was believed to have been there for up to 20 years. The body remains unidentified.
2005 Shah Afruj Ali, 40, was lured to forest and stabbed, before his body was burnt by his younger lover Joygun Nessa, 27, and her brother Azhor Khan, 18, in 2005.
2005 Rafal Czapczyk was found, after passers-by heard gunshots, with ballistic wounds to his head at Wake Arms. He died later in hospital. The body remained unidentified for several months until his family in Poland recognised mortuary pictures that had been released by police. It is not believed that his killers have been found.
2015 Scotland Yard launched a murder inquiry after the body of Hidir Aksakal was found close to Hollow Ponds, Leytonstone on 9 September 2015.