I hate being late, but on this crisp morning I find myself rushing. I am glued to my phone screen attempting to navigate the lined pathways through the sprawling woodland of Epping Forest, which borders northeast London and Essex. Tripping on branches and sinking in muddy puddles, I can feel the oozing thick dirt creep into the holes of my black Converse, coating my socks and feet. Cursing myself under my breath for wearing such silly attire, I continue to run through the grass to try and find a group of people somewhere in the distance, standing by a tree.
After traipsing back on myself a handful of times, I find the group and rush over. I’m joining them to attend a drawing class run by local artist Sharon Drew. Her work has appeared in interior magazine shoots for Elle Decoration and Livingetc. and she has also appeared in The Guardian. I had read about her Green Sketching sessions online, and gleed at such a zen activity back during the winter lockdown, where the only thing you could enjoy was a walk outside. Right now though, I’m feeling anything but zen.
The people in the class look calm and collected, some sit on and some lean against said tree. They spy me approaching with my wet shoes and blue jeans which are now coated in mud, too, their eyes fixated on my feet. The sunny day in London yesterday hasn’t dried the ground one bit.
We’re a smaller group (due to Covid-19 restrictions) and the rest of the class have already started excelling in their artistic skills. I see squiggles, shapes and lines all over pieces of paper. After a quick introduction, I perch myself on a tree trunk. I can feel the lines of the bark beneath me, as I settle in with my own sheet of paper, sturdy clipboard, pencils, rubber, and the main tool of the day – charcoal. “There’s plenty of charcoal here!” Sharon enthuses with a wide smile as she stretches her arms out to our surroundings.
“Just draw lines,” Sharon instructs as I catch my breath. Holding the thin brittle piece of charcoal, I draw endless loops which relax me. I then let the charcoal take the lead and my hand follows it behind. I use the rubber to etch in random white lines, smudge the charcoal with my hand to make a cloud and create fine lines with the pencil. Tiny birds tweet in the background, while a fluffy, yapping dog chases a ball. The line that the dog runs in inspires my movements with the charcoal.
Sharon collects a cluster of leaves from the floor and hands one to each of us in the group. I look closely at mine, the top of it is slightly curved, its stalk looks aged. The fine lines of the fragile leaf trail off, just like the map lines I followed earlier that morning. Scratch, scratch, scratch, all of our charcoal pieces create jagged lines on our fine pieces of paper before us.
After, we all stand and move to the following cluster of trees nearby. Shoes crack branches, trousers rustle against the leaves, the sunlight moves between the branches. Some of the other class members sit down on other sturdy tree trunks, lines of the bark swirling beneath them. I choose to stand and look up close at one particular towering tree. The curves and cracks on the bark are deep set into the tree, there are gaping holes in the centre, and I can make out a face. Two eyes, a long nose and a curved smile. Sharon comes around and looks at each person’s individual pieces. “I like how you’ve really gone into detail on the trunk,” she explains. I smile, thanking her. Seeing things up close brings a whole other dimension. Being present can bring you new joy.
We move to form a circle around each other, we drop our paper in the middle and watch as they move to and fro through the air to land on a heap of leaves. We observe each other’s pieces. “I like the use of light here,” one person compliments another's work. We look closely at our artwork, bending down to see each other’s delicate details. The achievement is that in a few hours we have created these drawings. I am no artist, but I feel like I’m exhibiting my work for all to see now. We give ourselves a round of applause to mark the end of the class with Sharon and each of us heads deeper into the forest. I may be done drawing right now, but I’m not done with walking.
I continue to set my feet through the forest. Strolling in the great outdoors has certainly brought me joy during the several lockdowns we have been through. The act of putting one foot in front of the other, and not just having to go from point A to point B. Looking up, seeing the top of that tree, listening to that parakeet sing its song, and smelling those bluebell flowers for their sweet delicious scent.
I open the Rough Guide to Walks in and Around London to find Epping Forest inside. Epping Forest opened in 1882 and Queen Victoria declared it as “an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the public” which was outlined in the Epping Forest Act of 1978. It’s this very act that made the London Corporation responsible for the conservation of the forest. It also prevented landowners from selling land off for development or from enclosing it. The space attracted thousands of visitors and ‘forest retreats’ were set up to cater for all the crowds that had arrived. Once upon a time, the place was full of entertainment such as fairground attractions and donkey rides. But for me, the entertainment is walking through the forest. I follow the map in the book to find the Strawberry Hill Ponds. They’re a tranquil space where the water bounces back the heavy rays of mid-morning sunlight. And I stand still. And I watch. And I listen. I am present. I am here. And here is where I want to be.
I rustle through my bag and take a sip of water before heading back into the heat of the city. Epping Forest is only about an hour away from central London. I sit on the tube which plummets me back into the rush of the capital. The sprawling lines of traffic, the sound of horns and the feel of humidity in the air. My afternoon will be a world away from the morning I've just experienced inhaling Mother Nature’s finest features, and I make a promise to myself to continue to look at my surroundings up close. I perch myself on a train seat. I can feel the fabric of the seat beneath me, as I settle in I look down to examine my mud-caked shoes. They are now somehow dry. I notice the lines of cracks deep within the mud. One crack shoots out to the left, another heads to the right. I fumble once again in my bag, find a pen and my notebook, and I start to draw the cracks. I etch ink into the paper and look back at the piece that I’ve created. Maybe my choice of shoe wasn’t that bad after all.
Sharon is holding some new upcoming Green Sketching sessions. They can be found and booked on TICKETLAB – enter Green Sketching in the search box. The first two sessions will be half price as part of the E17 Art Trail. Find Sharon on Instagram: @drew_sharon, or head to sharondrew.com for more information.
Find Epping Forest and many other fantastic walking routes in the Rough Guide to Walks in and Around London.
Top image: © Photography Harriet MacSween 2020