Category Archives: Bushcraft Books

Fred J. Speakman – Bushcraft Writer Remembered

POTP reader Colin Tennant provided this piece on some background to early ‘bushcraft writer’, the naturalist Fred J. Speakman (his books covered in our post here). He’s just completed a 90 minute DVD of a talk with Peter Read, a naturalist and resident of Epping Forest. Peter met Fred when he was eighteen and is a font of knowledge about Fred’s work and the forest. Here’s an extract with some fasciniating oral history of the Epping Forest area.

Oral history for Loughton and Buckhurst Hill

During the first half of the 20th century Loughton played host to thousands of East
End children who visited the Shaftesbury Retreat on Shaftesbury Road. School pupils
from some of the poorest parts of London were treated to a day of fun and fresh air in
the Forest at one of the many tee-total retreats that once littered the Forest.

Joyce Casey who now lives in Chingford, remembers visiting a retreat with her

“When we got off the train and we were told that we had to be very quiet and we had to
walk along very quietly and so we did. We were very subdued but we were all bubbling with excitement inside so we walked along until we came to a clearing in the Forest and we entered this gate, and there was a kiosk in the middle and then we went
into this building and we sat down on the wooden benches with wooden tables in front
and there we were given a sandwich and it seemed to be that it was dried bread with
corned beef or paste or something in it and a glass of water and we had to have it
After we’d eaten they then said “we’re taking you to the Forest” so we were taken to
the Forest and there we were playing rounders and various other games. I remember
going to a pond and seeing all these tadpoles and the frogspawn and everybody was
getting very excited about it, of course we all wanted to take some of it – Canning
Town would be alive with frogs! But of course there was no way to take any, and we
were going in the water and coming out and here again there was no one to tell us not
to, we were just free spirits. I presume that the teachers were around, but I have no
memories of anybody saying you shouldn’t do this or you shouldn’t do that. Anyway,
after a couple of hours or so we were rounded up and then we all walked back to
where we were going to have tea.

You can imagine all these children who had been clean at the beginning of the day
were now covered in mud splashes and socks were down, and ribbons had come out
of your hair and so forth! We went back and had a current bun and a drink. We milled
around the kiosk that sold sweets and then we all had to walk back very quietly and
demurely down to the station and we all got back on the train. I remember going to
bed that night and I’m sure I must have had a smile on my face thinking about what
had happened during the day, and that was my introduction to Epping Forest.”

David Gannicot remembers meeting Fred Speakman, local naturalist, author and
educationalist, whilst watching for badgers at Goldings Hill:

“When badgers were much more common in the Forest, I often went with my brother
or a friend to a sett in Epping Forest to await their nocturnal explorations for food.
Since badgers have a keen sense of danger, it is necessary to settle down quietly in the
Forest about an hour before dark if you want to see them. To a young lad, the Forest
could be quite eerie with the trees taking on weird shapes as total darkness

The date was the late 1940s and the sett was about half a mile off Goldings Hill. One
evening, having patiently sat still for a couple of hours, we heard a quiet padding
noise from our rear. We assumed a badger had left a different sett to the one we were
observing. The muffled sound continued for several minutes and I began to think it
was not being made by a badger. Suddenly, out of the darkness a human figure
appeared. He had made hardly a sound. The man was Fred Speakman, a local
naturalist. We didn’t see any badgers that particular evening but were thrilled to
have met this knowledgeable man.”

For Kathleen Hollis the Forest was at the centre of her childhood:

“My sisters and I spent many happy days of our childhood in Epping Forest. Our
garden gate in Princes Road opened on the Forest, Lords Bushes and Knighton
Woods. We knew every pathway like a map. Many places had names- Side Path,
Middle Path, Suttons Bump, the Jungle and the Plain. We enjoyed going wooding with
my mother to get wood. We were only allowed the dead wood to help boil our
copper, to get hot water for washing and bath night. In the autumn we piled leaves in
heaps to jump into from trees, or if we were lucky enough to find an old pram, we had
a race track.

In the winter, the lakes and ponds of the Forest would sometimes freeze over. Beryl
King, who lived with her Forest Keeper grandfather Mr Humphries at Knighton
Wood, remembers hearing her relatives talking of one very important visitor who
enjoyed skating: “I believe Teddy Roosevelt used to come over. I mean I can’t remember that, it’s before
I was born, but they used to put all fairy lights in the trees round the lake and they
used to be able to skate on it! Yes, you could skate in those days. I learnt to skate up
there and my grandfather was a fine skater. It used to freeze over even after it went
into the Forest and I remember they had to put the danger warning signs up, as the
Lake was very deep in parts.”

Books – "A Forest By Night" Fred Speakman

I read a fantastic book as a boy call “A Forest By Night” by Fred J. Speakman and ever since have had a special affection for badgers. In the book which I thoroughly recommend, although it’s near impossible to get hold of now, the author, recently bereaved and injured during the second world war and unable to work spends a year in Epping Forest staying out at night and recording everything he sees, through each season – most of the activity focusses around the lives if the badgers he watches. It’s an inspiring read and one of the first books on what we would now know as ‘woodlore’ or bushcraft. The author also also wrote a seminal work called ‘Tracks, Trails and Signs’ on the art of tracking.