How hunting became the sport of kings

WE’VE been transported back to medieval England.

A quick trip round the M25 and we’re visiting an extraordinary edifice in a “royal” forest, which is why our thoughts are flashing back across the centuries to a time when hunting was something of an obsession for the monarchs of the day.

The building dates from Tudor times but reflects the importance of hunting over the previous 200 years – and not just for those in power.

POPULAR PURSUIT: hunting was important in medieval society

We’ve come to Epping Forest, but although it’s only an hour from home, this is one of only a handful of ancient royal forests which survive around the UK – along with the Forest of Dean, New Forest and Sherwood.

Here, as we discovered in the Forest of Dean last year, is a lost world of forest laws and practices dating back to a time when “kingswoods” that came directly under the king’s control were vast tracts of land covering a third of southern England, including whole counties like Essex.

Following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, King William placed a score of areas under forest law, a Norman institution imported from the continent that was unanimously unpopular with the local population.

FOREST COURT: the Speech House Hotel in the Forest of Dean

It was a separate legal system with its own courts and officers designed to protect and preserve the “venison and vert” for the King’s pleasure – with severe punishments for poaching and taking wood from the forest.

You might think those early monarchs were too busy waging war on France and Scotland to spend so much time in pursuit of deer and boar, but hunting was a favourite pastime for the king and his nobles, offering sport, exercise, entertainment and a chance to practise skills that could be of use in wartime.

By the 14th century there were dozens of royal forests across the land where the ruling class could pursue their sport, whether hunting on horseback with hounds, shooting driven game from stands or using birds of prey such as hawks and falcons.

SPORTING PASSION: Henry VIIII was an enthusiastic hunter

Some two centuries later and Henry VIII’s enthusiasm for hunting took him to deer parks across the south of England – and it was during his reign, in 1543, that a rather extraordinary Tudor grandstand was erected here in Epping Forest, now known as Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge after his daughter.

Henry’s interest in hunting as a young man was useful in helping to project his image as a renaissance prince, but by the time the lodge was erected he had injured himself in a jousting accident and was painfully lame.

It’s not known if he ever even visited the building, though Elizabeth I renovated it in 1589 and legend has it that she actually rode her horse up the stairs in celebration of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

GRANDSTAND VIEW: the hunting lodge today

Although the lodge itself is a relatively basic museum, it’s part of a much larger success story dating back to the late 19th century, when the City of London Corporation responded to public outcry and stepped in to rescue almost 6,000 acres of the ancient forest from destruction.

That means there are countless other attractions to uncover in the forest, but for now we’re just enjoying the view, trying to imagine how Elizabeth’s powerful guests might have looked out over this landscape almost half a millennium ago.

Hounds would be trained to hunt down the stag or boar by its scent, responding to commands on a horn before the huntsmen would circle the animal and chase it back towards the hunting party.

OPEN OUTLOOK: spectators would look out on a Tudor hunt

The nobles and their ladies rode on horseback behind the hounds and chased the prey through the dense forest, potentially for hours, before the prey was finally caught and killed, a song being played to honour the dying animal before a great feast was prepared with the freshly-hunted venison or boar as the main course.

High-status guests would have looked out from wide openings here, possibly even using crossbows to shoot at prey driven towards the grandstand.

And of course in Tudor times there would have been no stinting on hospitality when it came to the array of meats and poultry, Mediterranean fruits and Eastern spices on offer to show off the power, wealth and generosity of the monarch.

FIT FOR A KING: guests could expect unstinting hospitality

Some of the timbers in the lodge date from the 16th century, when timber-framed buildings were made from freshly cut “green” oak that was full of sap and would crack as it dried out.

But the fireplace is Victorian and a reminder of the 19th-century history of the hunting lodge, when the lodge’s wall hangings so inspired textile artist William Morris as a boy that they may have influenced the tapestries he started to weave in the 1870s.

The lodge served as a manorial court before opening as a museum in 1895.

VICTORIAN ERA: the hunting lodge fireplace

Given modern views about hunting, many visitors may have mixed emotions about some of the history they stumble across in Epping Forest.

Just as it’s hard not to get indigestion contemplating the profligate feasting of the Tudor court, it’s distressing to read about animals like lynx and brown bear existing in Britain when the Romans left, or about species like wolves and wild boar being hunted to extinction.

The harsh punishments of the forest courts and oppression of the peasant population may rankle too, along with those gruesome Tudor sports like cock-fighting and bear-baiting.

PERIOD CHARM: the Butler’s Retreat coffee shop

But you can escape some of the darker memories of past centuries just next door, where a beautifully restored Essex barn offers an idyllic retreat with some great coffee and cake, or something a little more substantial.

Butler’s Retreat also boasts outside seating with stunning views over Chingford Plain and an array of tasty home-made food options, making it a perfect stopping-off spot on a sunny day.

AL FRESCO MEAL: the outside tables at Butler’s Retreat

From here it’s also only a stone’s throw to Connaught Water, a perfect place to walk off the cake and ideal for first-time visitors to the area keen to find a popular easy-access path ideal for the whole family.

Take a relaxed ramble round the lake, which boasts a variety of resident wildfowl from mandarin ducks and geese to swans and great crested grebes, or embark on a slightly longer trail, one of dozens fanning out from here that are documented by local walking enthusiasts on their blogs.

EASY ACCESS: the lakeside path at Connaught Water

After a brief wander round the lake, it’s time to head back round the M25, head still full of visions of medieval monarchs and their friends rampaging through the forest in search of a noble hart.

It’s been only the briefest of introductions to a quite extraordinary landscape, but as it’s only an hour’s drive from home, it’s much more accessible than you might think: a fascinating green oasis just a walk, ride or tube journey away from the Capital with a rich heritage and a wealth of attractions for the first-time visitor.

Find out more about visiting Epping Forest here.

Coast to coast: the best of Britain’s beaches

IT’S damp, drab drizzly day in Norfolk, just enough to deter all but the hardiest souls from the beach.

But in many ways the windswept stretch of the North Norfolk coastline near Blakeney is the perfect escape, whatever the weather.

WINDSWEPT: Cley Beach in Norfolk

This is Cley Beach on the coastal path, a lonely place on a wet day in April but part of an important nature reserve at Cley Marshes, created in 1926 when Norfolk birdwatcher Dr Sydney Long bought the land and established the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Birdwatching is important to the tourist industry in this part of the world, with the 430-acre site nowadays of international importance for its breeding and wintering birds.

COASTAL PATH: boats drawn up on the shingle at Cley

We are around three hours away from our Buckinghamshire home, but this is a world away from the landlocked Chilterns – and as we discussed earlier in the year, that yearning for a breath of sea air is a regular recurrence.

Luckily this year we have been fortunate enough to indulge with a series of seaside expeditions, and this is one of our first such adventures.

With some 1,500 beaches scattered around Britain’s coastline, we have a wonderful cross-section of coastal scenery to choose from, from smugglers’ coves and shingle spits to sweeping sands and inviting rockpools.

FAMILY FUN: beach huts at Frinton-on-Sea

Further round the coast and Essex boasts an extraordinary range of seaside towns and coastal villages, some of them among the most deprived neighbourhoods in England.

But for old-fashioned family fun, the beach huts at resorts like Frinton and Holland-on-Sea take a lot of beating, while the bigger and busier resorts like Clacton and Southend have been perennially popular with generations of Londoners.

WATERFRONT SNACK: the Beach Haven cafe at Holland-on-Sea

There’s a similarly innocent feel to Avon Beach at Christchurch, one of the closest to the Chilterns and a family-friendly place of beach huts and rockpooling, with the handily located Noisy Lobster providing a range of restaurant and takeaway treats for those who find that the sea air soon stimulates the tastebuds.

FRIENDLY FEEL: the seafront at Avon Beach

Just along the coast at Mudeford Quay, the entrance to Christchurch Harbour is a popular stopping-off point, with great views out to sea and towards Christchurch town.

MUSICAL MOMENT: watching the boats at Mudeford Quay

The quay is the perfect place to watch boats coming in and out of the harbour, as well as proving a popular spot for families crabbing from the quayside.

A busy year-round sailing and windsurfing destination, there’s also a ferry dropping cyclists and walkers over to Mudeford Sandbank, which boasts some of the most expensive beach huts in the country.

EXCLUSIVE ESCAPE: Mudeford Sandbank

From here, the 95-mile long Jurassic Coast beckons, from Swanage to Lulworth and Weymouth, then on round to Lyme Regis, Charmouth, Seaton and Beer.

The world-famous geology draws the crowds here, fascinating by the rocks, fossils and intriguing landforms that make it Britain’s only natural World Heritage Site.

FAMOUS LANDMARK: visitors gather at Durdle Door

Durdle Door on the Lulworth Estate is one of Dorset’s most photographed beauty spots, a magnificent natural limestone arch formed by waves eroding the rock, but also one of the busiest attractions for miles around.

Hardier souls can escape the crowds by tackling a stretch of the South West Coast Path, England’s longest waymarked long-distance footpath and national trail, stretching for over 630 miles from Poole Harbour round to Minehead in Somerset and immortalised in print by Raynor Winn.

CLIFFTOP ESCAPE: the South West Coast Path

Even here, on a section of coast where the car parks are full of day trippers, it doesn’t take long to shake off the other tourists and find yourself alone with your thoughts.

Round the other side of Weymouth, Chesil Beach is an 18-mile long shingle barrier beach stretching from West Bay to Portland, and another of Dorset’s most iconic landmarks.

NATURAL BARRIER: Chesil Beach in Dorset

Unlike the golden sands of Bournemouth or Weymouth, this is a wild, rugged, elemental landscape where the surf crashes relentlessly onto the ridge.

It stretches off for miles towards the horizon, the pebbles graded in size from potato to pea depending on their precise location, allegedly once allowing smugglers landing on the beach at night to judge their position along the coast simply by picking up a handful of shingle.

FOSSIL HUNT: Charmouth beach is world renowned

Next stop Charmouth, a seaside village with a beach renowned across the world for its fossils.

Families fascinated in the life of dinosaurs can immerse themselves in the past at the Charmouth Heritage Centre and even sign up a guided fossil hunting session on the beach, where pyrite ammonite and belemnite fossils can often be found loose among the pebbles.

PERIOD DRAMA: Kate Winslet in Ammonite

This is also the place to find out more about the extraordinary life of English fossil collector, dealer and paleontologist Mary Anning.

Born in 1799, the discoveries she made in the Jurassic marine fossil beds along this coast changed scientific thinking about prehistoric life – though Francis Lee’s 2020 romantic drama Ammonite seems more concerned in speculating about her sex life than in her scientific reputation.

ROOM WITH A VIEW: the Rock Point Inn at Lyme Regis

In nearby Lyme Regis, her home and first fossil shop is now a museum, while a local fossil shop was used as her home in the film.

Head west from here and we’re into Devon and a whole new world of seaside delights, from the picturesque foreshore at Branscombe to the cheerful seafront snackbars of Beer.

TIME FOR TEA: the beach at Beer

Devon attractions range from the heritage trams of Seaton to the sweeping beaches of Exmouth or picturesque quayside at Exeter: but then these delights were more fully explored in our rundown on some of the most intriguing secret hideaways of South Devon.

Highlights included the town trails in Topsham, an intriguing 16-sided house near Exmouth and a step back in time on the South Devon Railway.

SIMPLE PLEASURES: on the beach at Beer

But if there’s one place where the location can justifiably be called spectacular, it’s the extraordinary Burgh Island: an iconic art deco landmark on its own tidal island, surrounded by golden beaches and restored to its 1930s glamour.

One of our favourite visits of the year, the historic adjoining Pilchard Inn is similarly only accessible via a sandy causeway from Bigbury-on-Sea that disappears under the waves at high tide and provides a gloriously laid-back outlook over the surrounding beaches.

GLORIOUS OUTLOOK: the Pilchard Inn on Burgh Island

From here, our final summertime seaside foray of the year takes us to the opposite end of the country and the equally spectacular coastline between Aberdeen and Inverness.

The Moray Coast is a childhood stamping ground where the timeless solidity of the prettily painted fishing villages have a special appeal.

MORAY FIRTH: fishermen’s cottages in Findochty

The sun may not always be shining on the north-east coast, but when it does, there’s no prettier place in the country, even if trains no longer run along the clifftop towards the glorious beaches at Cullen, where the viaduct still provides an imposing backdrop to photographs from the harbour.

But the attractions of the Moray Firth are captured in another article exploring some of Scotland’s most glorious countryside.

IMPOSING BACKDROP: the old railway viaduct at Cullen

Back home in Buckinghamshire, we haven’t exhausted our love of the seaside, but we’ve seen some glorious scenery and met some wonderful people along the way.

The Chilterns is not quite the furthest place in the country from the coast: that honour goes to a small farm in Derbyshire, according to Ordnance Survey, although Lichfield in Staffordshire also boasts a plaque laying claim to being England’s furthest point from the sea – a distance of 84 miles.

CALL OF THE COAST: a seagull in Dorset

But with the waves of the English Channel less than a couple of hours’ away it hopefully won’t be too long before we get the chance to hear the sound of the surf and cry of the gulls again.