Falling into the Suntrap

Waltham Forest Echo

February 2019

Helen Bigham writes about an environmental centre has been educating local schoolchildren for decades

Not all classrooms have four walls. Visiting Suntrap Forest Centre reminds me of this. Similar to many residents who’ve grown up in Waltham Forest, I nostalgically remember being taken on school trips into the depths of Epping Forest to visit the imposing Victorian Suntrap House, now an environmental education centre. When mentioning this to a friend new to the area, however, she was under the impression that I was referring to a tanning salon!

Memories of Suntrap include the large winding wooden staircase leading up to a long corridor with rooms full of weird and wonderful artefacts discovered in the forest; display cabinets holding stuffed animals, such as a grizzly badger and an indignant squirrel, but also a menagerie of live ones such as Sammy the owl with the broken wing who had to be hand-fed. Admittedly I don’t remember the fox so tame it could be walked on a lead!

I associate Suntrap with having the adventure and freedom to escape the confines of a routine learning day. As an adult I appreciate the privilege of being so near to a green space that is free to visit and can be enjoyed by everyone. From these early days I’ve developed a love and respect for Epping Forest with everything that it has to offer. As well as the enjoyment of eating a packed lunch while being out in the open, whatever the weather! Through outdoor learning I can still recount that the four main trees native to Epping Forest are oak, hornbeam, ash, and silver birch. To be found on the forest floor is one of the widest variety of fungi in Europe. The mantra “take only pictures, leave only footprints, kill nothing but time” remains with me to this day.

Suntrap prides itself on its hands-on teaching and this is not just restricted to the building, outreach visits to schools are also provided. These will be increasing during the time the centre is closed for a massive refurbishment in July this year, with a reopening planned in 2020. If you remember the ‘Suntrap Line’ or just want to experience something very special, now is the time to visit. Easy to get to by car or cycle, alternatively only 30 minutes bracing walk along a bridle path through Epping Forest from Chingford Station. Or why not join me as a ‘Friend of Suntrap’? The charity supports the centre and always welcomes new volunteers.