Thursday 4 May 2017

Review: Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London's Great Forest

Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London's Great Forest Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London's Great Forest by Will Ashon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Epping Forest is an ancient forest of 6,000 acres in area, stretching between Forest Gate and Epping. It is around 19 miles long and approximately 2.5 miles wide, reaching from the urban sprawl of Walthamstow to the edge of Essex. It has been covered with trees since Neolithic times, became a Royal forest in the 12th Century and is London’s largest open space. It is into this litter-strewn green lung that Will Ashon heads, not totally sure of who or what he may discover, but he knows that some of the secrets contained in the woods will reveal themselves.

With him, we will discover well-known characters from times long gone, the infamous highway man Dick Turpin was an elusive resident, the sculptor Jacob Epstein spent a lot of time in the area and Ashon tries to make sense of his complicated relationships. There is, of course, the Royal influence that still permeates the forest, and I hadn’t realised that the City of London, a slightly sinister organisation with a fair amount of influence, are the owners and managers of the forest. There are lots of other people that have sought the tranquillity of the woods. Most have never been on the public’s radar and as Ashon ventures to parts of the forest he hasn’t been to, he sees the traces that they have left; crashed cars, initials scratched into the bark of trees and remembers the deceased that have been found there. He decides after a long period of time to have another go at climbing trees, finding that the ancient pollards offer the best opportunity for ascending into the canopy. To discover himself, is he going to be able to be brave enough to stay a night in the forest?

This is unlike any book about a landscape that I have read recently; it has a certain rawness and vulnerability to it as Ashon faces his fears. Most natural history books see the localities they are writing about through a romanticised lens; he’s not afraid to write about the ugly and unsightly things that have happened in the forest as much as the beautiful elements. There is plenty of history within the covers too, these stories are teased out and put in a modern context and his interviews with those that have sat on the fringes of society are enlightening as they are interesting. It was well worth scrabbling through the understorey with Ashon to discover the ghosts of the past, the sounds of the present and the possibilities of the future of Epping Forest.

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