Epping Forest has probably been open heathland and woodland since trees returned after the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. Considered to be ancient woodland, it is home to many thousands of ancient trees, some hundreds of years old. 

It is possible that the small-leafed lime tree was dominant in the Forest trees until almost 2,000 years ago. During the 1970s, analysis of one of the Lodge Road bogs (one of two valley bogs on the eastern side of Lodge Road) showed the small-leafed lime tree was over 90% dominant in that part of the Forest before it vanished from the ‘pollen record’, probably in about the 1st century AD. The lime was eventually replaced by the present species and communities of trees as the climate changed. 

The majority of forest tree species within the Forest have probably been unchanged for hundreds of years. Oak, hornbeam and beech are the dominant species. Birch has colonised the open plains and heathy areas of the Forest with its thousands of wind-blown seeds. It is, however, a relatively short lived tree. Sallow, hawthorn and blackthorn are common shrubs under the trees and around the edges of plains and clearings. A wide range of other trees, including field maple, ash and the rare wild service tree are also native to the Forest. 

The Main Tree Species in Epping Forest


Oak is a large, deciduous tree that grows up to 20–40m tall and can live for over 1,000 years. Its leaves are around 10cm long with 4–5 deep, smooth-edged lobes. They appear around April or May. Oak flowers are long, yellow hanging catkins and it produces acorns that turn from green to brown as they ripen. 


Hornbeam is a deciduous tree with pale grey bark with wavy vertical patterns, and sometimes a twisted trunk which develops ridges with age. It is prized for the strength of its timber. Hornbeam can grow up to 30m tall and live for more than 300 years. Its leaves are oval with a pointed tip, with a pleated appearance and finely toothed edges. In the autumn, the leaves turn yellow and fall. 


Beech trees can grow to a height of more than 40m. They develop a very large domed crown and have grey bark. Leaves are 4–9cm long, oval and pointed at the tip, with a wavy edge. The young leaves are lime green and hairy along the edges; they darken and lose their hairs as they age. They are a similar shape to hornbeam leaves, but don’t have serrated edges. 

Silver birch

Silver birch is a medium-sized deciduous tree, reaching 30m in height. They grow relatively quickly and typically live for between 60 and 90 years. Younger trees are smooth but the white bark peels and sheds with age. Its leaves are light green, small and triangular-shaped with a toothed edge, and they fade to yellow in autumn. 

Bury Wood Cuckoo Brook Hornbeam and Holly

Bury Wood, with mostly hornbeam trees and an undergrowth of holly and brambles, typical of the woodland found
on the London clay areas in the southern parts of the Forest. Photo: winter 2023

Each of the four dominant trees prefer different conditions and soils. On the London Clay in much of the southern part of the Forest, hornbeams and oaks with a holly understorey tend to dominate. While hawthorns often thrive in the more open places, birch and gorse have taken over in some areas where gravels produce lighter soils. On the hillier parts of the northern woodlands the drier soils, often better drained, are dominated by beech woodland, while birch is prevalent on the sandy gravel areas wherever there is more light.

An ancient Forest

Epping Forest is home to 55,000 ancient ‘veteran’ trees, more than any other single site in Europe. Some are centuries old and may have been growing here since Anglo-Saxon times (450–1066 AD), representing some of the oldest living plants in Europe – irreplaceable and rare. You can find out more about ancient trees from the Ancient Tree Forum. On a quiet morning or in the stillness of a misty day, the Forest’s woodland can have a mysterious atmosphere there is a feeling of history, of being among trees with old, wise stories to tell. 


Coppard Beech at Dulsmead Hollow in Epping Forest

Near Dulsmead Hollow (an ancient swampy clearing near the Wake Arms roundabout),
a group of beeches
probably coppiced in Anglo-Saxon times or even earlier.
Photo: 2024

South of the Wake Arms roundabout, in the area between Loughton Road and Theydon Road, there are great circles of pollarded beeches. Their origin is something of a mystery, but there is a generally held view that they are very ancient coppice stools that, probably more than two centuries ago, began to be harvested as pollards. Some of them are examples of clumps of trees that clearly have a common root system and progressions can be found from these clusters to ever bigger circles of trees that each seem to have a common origin. 

It is impossible to tell their age because, if they once had a common central base, it has long since rotted away. They could be a thousand years old or even much older. They must be the oldest living things in the Forest. Were they first coppiced by Saxons before the Norman Conquest? Pollen analysis tells us that in the 8th and 9th centuries, or possibly much earlier, major clearances occurred in the woodland. Not knowing for sure how old they are adds to the awe that surrounds them – it can fertilise the imagination when we stop to wonder. 

Commemorative Turkey Oak 

In 1932, the Lord Mayor of the City of London planted a Turkey oak to commemorate the Forest coming under the care of the Corporation of London. This large tree can be found on Mill Plain, adjoining the A104 at the corner of Walthamstow Forest opposite Chelmsford Road, South Woodford. The name refers to the old Walthamstow Windmill that was built nearby in 1676 and blew down in 1800. 

The commemorative oak planted in 1932 on Mill Plain in Epping Forest

The commemorative oak planted in 1932 on Mill Plain. Photo: 2009 

In 1932, the Lord Mayor of the City of London planted a Turkey oak to commemorate the Forest coming under the care of the Corporation of London. This large tree can be found on Mill Plain, adjoining the A104 at the corner of Walthamstow Forest opposite Chelmsford Road, South Woodford. The name refers to the old Walthamstow Windmill that was built nearby in 1676 and blew down in 1800. 

The commemorative tree has survived and grown quite large. Unfortunately, it is not a native oak. Turkey oaks were introduced to the UK as an ornamental tree in the 18th century. They grow much faster than native oaks and can be distinguished by their hairy-looking acorn cups. 

It should be noted that non-native trees are no longer planted in Epping Forest. 

Bedford’s Oak, also known as Grimston’s Oak

Bedford’s oak is a fine old tree situated at the junction of several rides just north of Connaught Water. Its age is a matter of conjecture, but it could be at least 400 years old. In an engraving made in the 1870s it looks much the same as it does today, now a prominent landmark close to Chingford Plain for at least three centuries. 

Bedfords Oak or Grimston's Oak, winter 2022

Bedford’s Oak, also known as Grimston’s Oak. Photo: 2022

Bedford Oak, also known as Grimston's Oak c 1880's

Bedford’s Oak, c.1880s, a wooden seat visible at the base of the trunk

Previously called the Cuckoo Oak, presumably after Cuckoo Pits and Cuckoo Brook, not far to the west, it was later named after John T. Bedford in recognition of the role he played in the struggle to save the Forest. Bedford was a member of the Court of Common Council of the Corporation of London, a leading personality in the Epping Forest Defence Fund and very prominent in initiating the fight to save the Forest in the 1870s. He was also the first Chairman of the Epping Forest Committee. A bust of John T. Bedford can be seen at the Visitor Centre in Chingford. 

Strangely, quite soon afterwards, the name was changed to ‘Grimston’s Oak’. Grimston was a well-known cricketer who urged clearance of the area around the tree at that time. Though a fine specimen, this oak is not the largest in the Forest. Its girth is around 5 metres, but there are twelve oaks elsewhere in the Forest at least as large or larger. 


This article is based on material from Ken Hoy’s book Getting to Know Epping Forest, first published in 2002 with a new edition forthcoming edited by Judith Adams.


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