The adventure begins on the journey. Leaving the main road between Loughton and Epping, a short way along the Upshire road, you turn again to enter through imposing gates (1) on the other side of which is a wood unlike any other area of Epping Forest. Travelling slowly on a rough track to its edge you come to a one-track bridge, that somewhat unexpectedly takes you over the top of the M25. A short way along the drive the other side, and there on the brow of a hill lost in time, is Copped Hall. An 18th century mansion and gardens, saved from the clutches of developers, literally at the eleventh hour in 1995.
On Sunday 5th July, Copped Hall opened its gates again, initially exclusively to existing members of their Friends scheme. To do so on a date which was also a scheduled ‘Garden Afternoon’ (when the mansion would be closed anyway), was a sound decision. Twenty-four acres of gardens provide ample space for social distancing even on the busiest of days, and only minimal one-way routing was needed.
Run by the Copped Hall Trust (CHT) and funded entirely by the money it raises (through sales, donations and the occasional grant), it is also entirely volunteer run (which presents its own challenges in re-opening). Welcoming Friends only, enabled a realistic estimate of numbers without the need to manage pre-booking, and volunteers could be sure that the visitors they would be welcoming, would be familiar with the site already.
Many of the key features of the Copped Hall estate are located in the grounds, so there is always plenty to see and do on a Garden Afternoon, including; King Henry’s Walk, a charming sunken rock garden, and the site of the original Tudor mansion (currently under excavation by the Copped Hall Trust Archaeology Project). But the jewel in the crown is the Walled Kitchen Garden. An overgrown tangle of bramble, weed and rubbish when it was acquired in 1999, this area has been transformed into a fully working kitchen garden, producing everything from pumpkins to fruit and honey from its own hives. Established in the 1700s and at four acres, it was believed to be the largest such kitchen garden in the South East of England.
Inside the Walled Kitchen Garden
Paths lead from a central circular pond dividing the space into quadrants, one of which is dedicated to greenhouses (currently under restoration). On garden afternoons and open days, this area is always busy with visitors, keen to purchase plants and produce. For the last few years most of our new garden plants have been bought at Copped Hall, and having been denied the option to do so through the crucial spring growing season, I was delighted to find exactly what I was looking for on sale in the Walled Garden on this occasion. This is a win, win, win situation, produce and plants are of excellent quality, often you can chat to the person who grew your purchase and can therefore advise on the best site and care, prices are significantly cheaper than one would pay in conventional outlets – and finally the proceeds are directly funding the ongoing restoration.
Another key feature of the Walled Garden is the Long Border. Strictly speaking outside the Garden, at 450 feet long, not to mention 16 feet deep, it lives up to its name. Frequently a blaze of colour with many unusual plant combinations, volunteers from the garden team are often to be found, tackling what must be one of the largest weeding jobs there is. Copped Hall also has numerous historical connections, with the Tudor Mansion believed to be the site in 1594 of the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Overlooking the Long Border
It is an understatement to say that the saving of Copped Hall and its continued rise from dereliction is an inspiration. it never fails to fill my heart with hope. It is also a reminder that engaged and determined citizens can fight off the goliath of unwelcome development. There is another way. This is a restoration literally achieved brick by brick, (marble) step by (marble) step, and one of the joys of regular visits to the site is an awareness of the scale of what has been achieved so far, (and what remains).
Copped Hall has now announced further event dates including garden afternoons in August and September and an open day (Garden Only) in August, all of which are open to the public (as well as members of the Friends). However in all cases tickets must be booked in advance. See the Copped Hall Trust Website for full details.
(1)Entrance through the lodge gates is strictly only within given hours on event days. Full details are available on the CHT website.
All text and images © Later Than You Think 2020