Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Fancy a day outdoors with your kids close to London? Even if spring hasn’t quite settled yet and some trails are still muddy, Hainault Forest in Essex is a really nice London day hike with kids. Easily accessible by tube, crossing gentle countryside and featuring a zoo and boating lake at the start and finish, it packs in some nice family points. Plus, counting at 10 miles and mostly flat, this loop will get you enough exercise to feel happily tired on the Tube ride home (but not completely knackered). If you start in the morning, you’ll finish just in time for cake and a cup of tea. How’s that for a treat?
You can count 4 to 5 hours to complete this loop comfortably. We did ours in 4 hours and 30 minutes, including lunch and a stop to forage stinging nettles. We may have rushed a tad in the first half, but that’s because we had to be on time for a ballet rehearsal for my oldest daughter. Otherwise, we would have lingered around the lake or let my girls loose in the small zoo at the end. So yes, make it 5 hours and don’t rush.
How to get there
The loop starts at the second car park of Hainault Forest Country Park, 1.5 miles from Hainault Tube Station on the Central Line direct from central London. We could have walked 30 minutes to reach the trailhead but we felt lazy and the bus #247 stops at Hainault Tube Station. Why waste 1.5 miles of walking on bland suburban streets? The bus took us at the Fowler Road stop in a few minutes, it was so worth it! We crossed a field and reached the second car park.
It started by the boating lake, an early spring hangout for local waterfowls and early migrating birds. Luckily, we had packed our binoculars and my girls took turns spotting birds on (still winter bare) tree tops and on the lake. If you look closely at this picture (perhaps wwith binoculars yourself), my 9-year-old is focusing on the small dark shape in the tree on the right of the island. My husband identified it as a cormorant but truthfully, I have no idea. It was just a really big bird and spread its wings really wide for our contemplating pleasure.
A field and a few pink spring flowers later, we entered a wood where we were thrilled to discover wild daffodils among the trees. And here I thought that daffodils were always domesticated flowers! How wrong I was. They were a great touch of spring in an otherwise wintery landscape. With no leaves on the trees and a brown carpet of dead leaves on the ground, it hardly felt like the second day of spring. Are they not such a welcome sight?
We carefully crossed the road, as instructed by our book, and at the end of a lane, entered another wood. Chigwell Row Wood is a remnant of the ancient forest of Essex and we would gladly have walked its wide lanes for miles but it ended before we knew it.
Next on the agenda was the most glamorous part of the walk–going around the Chigwell Water Treatment! Ah, the romantic charm of round reservoirs and industrial fences. Well, it took ages to get through this one or at least, it felt like ages. I didn’t photograph the splendid green metal fence along which we hiked but let me assure you that London Clay is well and alive in its muddy parts. Oh, how caked with sticky clay our boots were! If I didn’t know any better, it say it was a great spot to scoop bags of clay for home pottery projects.
I could not resist photographing the signpost for Pudding Lane as the name is just too good to be true.
Even my girls were excited at the thought of seeing Pudding Lane. As if mountains of sweet treats were going to materialize on the trailside. I guess that they were already getting hungry for lunch but we were only 1/4 through so I gave them nuts to nibble on. Though Pudding Lane did not offer any puddings, it led us to fields where we found dozens of examples of a word that we learned recently – smeuses. If you don’t know what a smeuse is, you’ve probably seen hundreds in your life without knowing it. It’s a hole in a hedge created by the regular passage of small animals. Think rabbits and the like. Sure enough, two rabbits fled the field through smeuses as we were approaching!
Thanks Robert MacFarlane for alerting us to this delightful word in your book Landmarks. We shall, from now on, look for other examples of the delicious and rare words describing the outdoors.
Right before reaching Abridge, our lunch stop, we crossed a field with several horses who all took an interest in the hair of my 9-year old! She giggled loud but part of it was fear at being followed by these big animals who sniffed the back of her head like a dog sniffs a good bone. Shoo, horses, leave us be!
Of course, they obliged. Abridge was next, a small village with an authentic log cabin that serves breakfast all day (wonderful smells of bacon in the vicinity), two pubs (one of which was looking for a lunch chef so we moved on) and a deli/cafe on the main square that serves very good sandwiches. This was our lunch and we topped it off with warm sugar crepes.
The second half of the hike began on a misunderstanding and this is how our hike was cut short by a mile compared to our hike description (see The Route, below). On New Farm Drive, we couldn’t find a house called “Carousel” and opted to follow signs to Lambourne instead. It was a great move and we reached St. Mary & All Saints church in good spirits. We were even able to briefly step inside to admire the small Norman church and the priest pointed us to a Norman door outside the church (left side on the picture). I love it when a hike includes a shot of history!
From there, we crossed a few more fields and again, my 9-year old had a run-in with an inquisitive horse. Look at her teaching proper hiker manners to the animal.
You can’t see it on the picture but the yellow warning sign said in big black letters “Beware Bull beef.” Somehow, we failed to spot him and happily too. From there, it was pretty straightforward finding Hainault Forest Country Park and following signs back to the car park and cafe.
It was a nice hike and I bet that in a few weeks, the forest will be quite lush with new leaves on the trees. Enjoy it with your family!
I didn’t have a GPS with me but I scanned the map that we used and added a few notes. We took a shortcut after lunch (quite involuntarily, in fact) but it all turned out well and we easily caught up with the itinerary I was using. The yellow route on the picture shows the route that we followed. For full walking instructions, please see this detailed blog post. Our route followed Lambourne from New Farm Drive instead of going through Apes Grove. We caught up with the hike description at ST. Mary & All Saints church.
Have you taken your kids on hikes around London? Can you share your favorites in the comments?