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Heritage - 57: Bikers in the Forest - Early 20th Century British Speedway Trials at High Beech

Updated on February 23, 2020

The event that saw the effective launch of Speedway in the UK...

The original event 90 years ago. The circular embankments are still there, although much overgrown even since the re-enactment ten years ago
The original event 90 years ago. The circular embankments are still there, although much overgrown even since the re-enactment ten years ago | Source
High Beech commemmoration 1968 programme, King's Oak Speedway
High Beech commemmoration 1968 programme, King's Oak Speedway | Source
King's Oak Speedwau 1928 event recorded on camera
King's Oak Speedwau 1928 event recorded on camera | Source
Historical colour postcard image shows the adjacent building on the left before rebuilding as a counter-service cafe at the front with small side room (faces w.c. block on its north side, with seafood stall open weekends only)
Historical colour postcard image shows the adjacent building on the left before rebuilding as a counter-service cafe at the front with small side room (faces w.c. block on its north side, with seafood stall open weekends only) | Source

Right, bikes in the forest, what's this about, and what's it got to do with a snackbar?

On Sunday, February 19th, 1928 the roads leading to High Beech were crowded, people flocked to a circuit built up behind the King's Oak Hotel for a motor cycle sport recently established in Britain. Around 3,000 spectators had been anticipated, around ten times that many watched British Speedway get well and truly launched. The excitement was tangible. People spoke of the event decades later. I was regaled about it during a walk near the site by now deceased friend Ray, who knew about it from his father and older brother, and had watched the re-enactment 80 years on.

A snack bar was established in 1928 less than a mile away for spectators on their way to the event, and later homeward bound. That was a temporary affair. In 1930 a more permanent feature was established by one Ernie Miller close to the Robin Hood roundabout (named after the public house on the east side of the road) on the A104 Epping New Road above Loughton. Naturally, standing around in the cold gave spectators an appetite for hot drinks and food. The event caught on and was repeated often enough for people to get used to the Tea Hut being there. Business prospered. Trade built up steadily due to the unexpected popularity with bikers, also horse riders, cyclists and walkers.

The location certainly helped...

A re-enactment took place ten years ago in mid-February that wasn't equally well attended, although those that marked the day left equally fulfilled. The site is now overgrown, the only reminder an earth circuit largely occupied by the Epping Forest Visitor Centre.

You'd never guess this was the site of a ground-breaking speedway event ninety years ago...

Part of the spectator embankment behind (east of) the King's Oak Hotel
Part of the spectator embankment behind (east of) the King's Oak Hotel | Source
... And the view back the other way...
... And the view back the other way... | Source
These concrete steps look as if they'd been here a long time, possibly from pre-WWII days. There are wooden benches for the students who visit the Field Studies centre...
These concrete steps look as if they'd been here a long time, possibly from pre-WWII days. There are wooden benches for the students who visit the Field Studies centre... | Source
You get an idea of the height of the embankment from here (north-east side of the site)
You get an idea of the height of the embankment from here (north-east side of the site) | Source
The visitor centre is out of the picture (right), the main part of the site now occupied by accommodation and a research centre where students of all ages come to bull up on natural history themes. Supported by the Field Studies Council
The visitor centre is out of the picture (right), the main part of the site now occupied by accommodation and a research centre where students of all ages come to bull up on natural history themes. Supported by the Field Studies Council | Source

Bikes, bikes, everywhere bikes!

Sunday afternoon in Epping Forest - at the Original Tea Hut.  Let's see what it looks like now.
Sunday afternoon in Epping Forest - at the Original Tea Hut. Let's see what it looks like now. | Source
This is it, folks, The Original Tea Hut, 1930, an historic site close to the Epping New Road in north-western Essex
This is it, folks, The Original Tea Hut, 1930, an historic site close to the Epping New Road in north-western Essex | Source
Form a nice orderly queue please... You never get any arguments, just a friendly reminder if you've attempted to jump it.
Form a nice orderly queue please... You never get any arguments, just a friendly reminder if you've attempted to jump it. | Source
Enough choice of places. This was just before 1 pm. Come much later if you like but bring your own chairs. It can get crowded.
Enough choice of places. This was just before 1 pm. Come much later if you like but bring your own chairs. It can get crowded. | Source
Up until last year it looked like this, and it could get crowded even before midday
Up until last year it looked like this, and it could get crowded even before midday | Source

I've walked the banked circuit a number of times...

You couldn't be blamed for failing to understand the significance of the site. Tree roots, weeds, briars and a couple of ponds occupy what's left of the site after a clutch of buildings takes up the greater part. There are no clues, but there are memories that don't take up a lot of stirring. Few are around any more who saw the 1928 event, if their parents took them. A lot more are around who saw the 1999 re-enactment. Many of them are customers at the Original Tea Hut. Let's get back there...

A little light reading...?

Interesting book available to read in the Visitor Centre features several pages of coverage on the speedway with period photographs from newspaper and magazine sources
Interesting book available to read in the Visitor Centre features several pages of coverage on the speedway with period photographs from newspaper and magazine sources | Source
One of the scenes in the book above gives a vantage view of the speedway course and shows the semi-circular spectator embankment at the rear of the hotel
One of the scenes in the book above gives a vantage view of the speedway course and shows the semi-circular spectator embankment at the rear of the hotel | Source

"Epping Forest Then And Now" is available from Amazon UK, but it's no 'coffee table filler' by any stroke of the imagination. This book is packed with facts about the area that stretches northwards from the Wanstead area to around Epping and Nazeing in north-western Essex and north-eastern London (Wanstead, Leytonstone, Woodford, Chingford, Loughton, Buckhurst Hill, Theydon Bois, Waltham Abbey...)

Of interest to all who frequent the High Beech area will be the coverage on the speedway and the small plateau that stretches from the back of the King's Oak Hotel to the car park near Carl's tea hut that overlooks North London and the extensive reservoirs that divide the northern from the eastern outer suburbs

Back to the Tea Hut...

Here's Brad, by the way, heir to a tradition... Caught him in mid-conversation - looks like I put him off his stride, let's go see some bikes - quick!
Here's Brad, by the way, heir to a tradition... Caught him in mid-conversation - looks like I put him off his stride, let's go see some bikes - quick! | Source
The biker 'apron' (parking area) can accommodate a large number of machines. Over a day some leave, the spaces taken by others, thus providing a change of perspective...
The biker 'apron' (parking area) can accommodate a large number of machines. Over a day some leave, the spaces taken by others, thus providing a change of perspective... | Source
A BMW ('Beemer') in black, something you don't see often, and it's got a West German number plate, a reminder of the Cold War
A BMW ('Beemer') in black, something you don't see often, and it's got a West German number plate, a reminder of the Cold War | Source
Here's a pair of Harleys to drool over, but wait...
Here's a pair of Harleys to drool over, but wait... | Source
...A 22-year-old Moto Guzzi, with keys dangling. Is this an open invitation?
...A 22-year-old Moto Guzzi, with keys dangling. Is this an open invitation? | Source
 Nope! The rider was not a yard away,, resting. Had an interesting chat. Turned out he's a Lancashire lad who also owns a 1958 Series II Land Rover. Bet it spends more time in the garage than the bike!
Nope! The rider was not a yard away,, resting. Had an interesting chat. Turned out he's a Lancashire lad who also owns a 1958 Series II Land Rover. Bet it spends more time in the garage than the bike! | Source

A bit more knowledge about the place? Certainly...

Known variously as 'Bert's Tea Hut' and 'The Bikers' Tea Hut', Brad's the fourth generation to be custodian on the site, the 'heir' to a tradition after his grandfather Bert retired a few years ago, although still shows from time to time. He doesn't have too far to come, living 'around the corner', so to speak, less than a mile away in Church Road.

Recently the Tea Hut faced uncertainty. Fears the almost ninety-year-old tradition would go with closure of the hut (a converted sea container, painted dark green like Carl's hut opposite the King's Oak) proposed by the City of London Corporation, who wanted to put the site to tender. A number of improvements and a slight relocation (about ten yards/metres) improved the situation and the Tea Hut thrives once more. A large area of outdoor seating with sun shades, improved car parking and a larger area of standage for bikes ensures a rosier future for the venue. Bikers meet here after a ride around north-west Essex and north-east London. A retractable steel awning shelters customers in inclement weather, with steel panels that provide shelving and can be pulled into position to form walls for shelter from the wind.

The towns of Loughton, Epping and Waltham Abbey are a short ride away, only a little more for four-wheeled transport. The M25 motorway is fairly close. Cyclists converge here from scattered neighbourhoods, even from outer London. Brad and his girls provide hot and cold fare for all comers.

Free full colour quarterly magazines are provided by the City of London, and periodically editions of Motor Cycle News are left to be taken by enthusiasts as well as leaflets for local events or attractions, business cards and brochures. In short this is a valuable local social hub as well as its obvious catering role.

There are veterans of the road, some museum pieces and luxury bikes on display during the day when the weather's fine enough to stand around and admire...

The number plate drew me to this one. I sat on a bench, chewing on a Kit-Kat finger, taking everything in when I noticd it. Had to take its portrait from the rear and...
The number plate drew me to this one. I sat on a bench, chewing on a Kit-Kat finger, taking everything in when I noticd it. Had to take its portrait from the rear and... | Source
The registration year of this Triumph bike is 1974. .
The registration year of this Triumph bike is 1974. . | Source
1952 Sunbeam with sidecar - you don't see many sidecars these days. Suitable for Norah Batty ('Last of the Summer Wine') to be ferried around at 20 mph by long-suffering hubby Wally - she doesn't like him 'speeding'
1952 Sunbeam with sidecar - you don't see many sidecars these days. Suitable for Norah Batty ('Last of the Summer Wine') to be ferried around at 20 mph by long-suffering hubby Wally - she doesn't like him 'speeding' | Source
The view from the front end, with the rider readying for the 'off'. Definitely veteran!
The view from the front end, with the rider readying for the 'off'. Definitely veteran! | Source
Ee-Zee Rider! Got the lot, the machine, the leathers and the helmet... Where's Peter Fonda when you need him?
Ee-Zee Rider! Got the lot, the machine, the leathers and the helmet... Where's Peter Fonda when you need him? | Source
... Before you say anything, I know he didn't ride a machine like this in the film (seen it three times, and I still prefer Dennis Hopper's bike, the one he gave a lift to Jack Nicholson on before the Rednecks got them on the open road)
... Before you say anything, I know he didn't ride a machine like this in the film (seen it three times, and I still prefer Dennis Hopper's bike, the one he gave a lift to Jack Nicholson on before the Rednecks got them on the open road) | Source
Or how about this for a laid-back approach? Like the wickerwork behind the saddle!
Or how about this for a laid-back approach? Like the wickerwork behind the saddle! | Source

The variety of motorcycles is almost a showcase of modern, veteran and vintage..

Over time, since first driving - and at one stage using public transport and shank's pony* - up to the forest I've noticed a great variety, from ultra-modern three-wheelers to pre-WWII, an A-Z of makes from around the world that includes a post-War BMW, modern and older Harley, Honda, Triumph and Yamaha as well as numerous museum pieces that crop up. Through associates or by approaching complete strangers I've struck up some interesting conversations about their machines and come away with divers pictures.

Hope you've also come away with favourable impressions. Maybe i'll see you there some time...

Here's a machine you won't see on the road...

Complete with competitor number...
Complete with competitor number... | Source
... A lean, mean machine meant to follow tracks. Just look at those tyres! What can I say? As little as possible, just stand back and admire...
... A lean, mean machine meant to follow tracks. Just look at those tyres! What can I say? As little as possible, just stand back and admire... | Source

Where? How to get there

Cross Road/Fairmead Road off the A104 Epping New Road, High Beech, Waltham Abbey, Essex; postcode for SatNav: Loughton IG10 4HR - 07883 391053

Open 7 days, times: 9 am-5.30 pm

Official re-opening 29/7/2019

Epping Forest MP Eleanor Laing officially opened the unit
Epping Forest MP Eleanor Laing officially opened the unit | Source
The location and postcode for SatNav
The location and postcode for SatNav | Source

On 29th July, 2016 Epping Forest MP Eleanor Laing officially opened the new 'hut', a shipping container re-configured in Southend-on-Sea that weighs 8.5 metric tonnes. In the picture with her are Bradley 'Brad' Melton, centre, and on the right local resident and ceramic artist Grayson Perry.

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© 2019 Alan R Lancaster

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