The Royal Forest Hotel in Chingford is a mock Tudor behemoth deformed by fire and forced to live out its old age bedecked with Premier Inn and Brewers Fayre branding.
When Jess told her Mum that we were staying there her reaction betrayed her memories of The Royal Forest’s reputation in the 1960s: “Ooh, get you!”
As a child growing up in Walthamstow Jess knew it as a place where you parked to eat your fish-paste sandwiches but wouldn’t dream of entering. It was alien territory – Essex culture, with Essex prices, not posh but still out of reach. We think with research that it was a Schooner steakhouse, Watney’s answer to the Berni Inn, if that helps place it in terms of culture and class.
Certainly its location between golf course and a genuine Tudor building, along with the sheer raging pretentiousness of its architecture, permits a certain grandeur to linger.
Ray’s first encounter was this weekend, rounding the corner on foot to see its high flank with black-and-white timbering and multi-pane windows peering between the branches of old oak trees: “Bloody hell, it’s Nonsuch Palace.”
The corporate makeover isn’t elegant – plastic signs glued here, gaudy menus nailed there – but there’s the ghost of some old brewery livery at the front and a magnificent stained glass window inside, which you’ll probably only find if you’re staying over, or nosy.
Pinning down its history proved tricky, even with a trip to the local library on Sunday morning. Was it terribly ancient, or built in 1880, 1890, or the 1920s?
Eventually we decided the most efficient approach would be to contact London tour guide and Chingford history expert Joanna Moncrieff. We’ve followed on Twitter (@WWalks) for years and know that runs a guided tour of Chingford.
She laid it all out for us in an email (lightly edited):
It was built in 1879 as a hotel to accommodate the hordes of people visiting the Forest. It was renamed the Royal Forest Hotel in 1882 after Queen Victoria’s visit to Epping Forest to dedicate it to the People.
It was originally built by Edmond Egan, the Loughton architect who was responsible for some of the very decorative houses in The Drive and Crescent Road, Chingford.
The hotel’s busiest period was around 1910 but then there was a serious fire in 1912 which resulted in the hotel being re-built minus its top storey.
Until 1968 it was a terminus for buses.
Because it was a centre for tourism there are quite a few contemporary sources, such as A Forest Holiday from around 1890:
On the walls are some fine water-colours of forest scenery.
The wide staircase is decorated with a fine stained-glass window representing Queen Elizabeth and her Court at the famous Epping Hunt.
The landing is of noble dimensions, and lighted by another large window, opening on a broad balcony, from which is obtained a charming and extensive view of the Forest.
This source goes on to tell us of the great dining hall with its tapestries and heraldic designs, and of the six private dining rooms: Japanese, Watteau, Spanish, Queen Anne, Indian and Queen Elizabeth themed, with “furniture and appointments in harmony”. (An early theme pub?)
The fire is interesting. Of course “legend has it”, according to to hack-work local histories, that guests and firemen were killed and of course they are “now said to” haunt the hotel. But we looked at some contemporary newspaper articles and if anyone was killed, journalists were oddly silent on the matter, suggesting instead that most of the guests were out at the time.
At any rate, it didn’t feel haunted to us, as a lively 50th birthday celebration rocked the wooden beams, and the beer garden heaved with drinkers despite the whisper of drizzle.
Or did we perhaps hear the chug of a spectral beanfeast charabanc in the night?