In Epping Forest

Gillian Darley

Cricket breaks out all over at this time of year. Bell Common, a generous village green set against a backcloth of ancient trees in their dark summer foliage, dotted with men in whites, is as bucolic a scene as you’ll find anywhere in England. The grass, turning a little pale after a long stretch of hot sunny days, is a shade greener on the woodland edge. Sometimes it can be boggy over there, a reminder of natural conditions, as Peter Day, the groundsman and a former captain, told me on Saturday. One of his sons was playing, the third generation of the family with links to the club. His father was a founding member of Epping Foresters when they set up in 1947, mostly ex-servicemen who began as a wandering team. Two years later they were granted a licence by the Conservators of Epping Forest to use Mill Plain, off Bell Common, as their ground.

So far, so typical. The tiled, single-storey club house and colonial style veranda are homely, although scores are registered digitally, just below the clock. A dozen or so onlookers were comfortably installed in their deckchairs in the sun or shade, according to preference – everyone is welcome, bring a chair and come along, the website says. The Thorley second XI were bowling well against the home side’s second XI; the fixture secretary, Peter French, batting fourth, had just been bowled for 0. (Epping Foresters went on to win by 56 runs.)

I wandered into the shade of the woods, including several magnificent oaks. Through the ancient trees came an intermittent ripple of clapping; and then, hardly a hundred yards further on, a mounting, ferocious – if muffled – roar. In the distance I could see a swan-necked streetlamp. Eighteen inches below the cricket ground, the M25 passes through Bell Common Tunnel.

Since the late 19th century, and a series of hard fought battles for commoners’ rights, Epping Forest has been in the care of the City of London to ensure ‘recreation and enjoyment’ for the public, rather than to line avaricious churchmen’s pockets, as formerly. In the late 1970s, the trajectory of London’s peripheral motorway fell directly across Bell Common. But no one argues with the City of London, and so it was that, after a five-year displacement, the Epping Foresters returned in 1986 to a cricket ground as good as new (maybe draining a bit better), a new pavilion and a slightly sinister windowless tiled ‘cottage’ lurking in the bushes alongside, which houses all the plant required for a multi-lane road tunnel.

A construction giant came in the night and tore their world to bits, but it was a brief nightmare; the Epping Foresters woke up to find it all there as before, the great trees still standing, the game continuing, and, miraculously, our common rights intact.