The Kings Oak, High Beach, Epping Forest
Like a stereotypical Essex rogue, the Kings Oak is a bit of a rough diamond. A massive Victorian pile in the heart of the ancient woodland of Epping Forest, the exterior isn’t particularly good looking, but has a charm of its own inside with a beamed pub and multiple function rooms serving as weekend restaurants and venues for weddings and bar mitzvah celebrations, among others.
Linzi Pollard, the current owner, has carefully uncovered the original tiled Victorian floor in the hallway and revealed intricate architrave. Although in many ways the Kings Oak represents Essex, blending that particular TOWIE type of glamour – heavy on the pink and sparkle – with a setting in some of the most beautiful countryside that I know of with a suitably colourful history, connected to famous figures from Henry VIII to the Kray Twins, who stayed here in the rooms upstairs. It was chosen as the Essex pub to host Olly Murs recent one-off Happy Hour on ITV.
No longer a hotel, the Kings Oak is said to be named after Henry the VIII who reportedly waited here for news of Anne Boleyn’s execution, and the royal connection continued when Queen Victoria visited Chingford on 6 May 1882 and declared "It gives me the greatest satisfaction to dedicate this beautiful forest to the use and enjoyment of my people for all time" and so it became 'the People's Forest'. Now muddy-booted walkers come here just as they did back in Victorian times when rail access to Loughton and then Chingford gave it the nickname of the East Enders’ Playground. The Visitor Centre to the rear of the hotel serves as a museum-cum-shop with advice and maps of local walks. An unexpected celebrity walker joined the throngs last October in the form of Justin Bieber, who dined in the bar on salmon, mash and a glass of milk (the glass ended up on eBay) after enjoying the delights of the ancient forest ahead of his gig at the 02.
My daughter and I stopped off for a pub lunch on the way home from visiting friends in nearby Waltham Abbey. The original old beams still exist, painted black against walls given an Essex-twist of deep Barbie pink paint (above, right). A real fire burns in the hearth and a menu by head chef Jean Luc Desormiere, who’s previously cooked for Madonna, includes pub classics such as steaks and ploughman’s as well as less traditional dishes such as Andalusian tiger prawns pil pil. The weekday set menu offers a bargain three courses for £13.95 and two for £9.95.
With time ticking we had two courses, both beginning with tomato soup, which was a rich paprika shade with a hint of pepper and a swirl of cream served with warm, crusty baguette. The soup was so tasty I didn’t even slather on the butter that I’d asked for. We mirrored each other’s main courses too by both ordering seafood linguine, a dish made differently in every restaurant I have ever been to. This one was light, tomatoey and full of good things from the ocean including squid and huge shell-on prawns. Other guests were families with children, muddy from walks and playing in the green expanse of beer garden fringed by the forest.
Come summer, the enormous outside swimming pool built in the 1930s becomes a Marbella-style beach club with day beds and poolside snacks.The management works hard to draw in the local crowd hosting multiple events from psychic nights to club nights for over 30s and it’s a rare venue where you can bring both your high heels and your walking boots.