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A tale of two battles at Bell Common

If you drive from Epping south towards London you cross the M25 at Bell Common and then pass Ambresbury Banks on your left. Both of these locations go down in history as battle sites, though separated by 1,900 years.

According to local legend, Ambresbury Banks was the scene of Queen Boadicea’s last stand. A Victorian guide books tell how the bones of 80,000 brave Britons lie buried beneath the forest turf and the Queen escaped only to die of poison, or that she drowned herself in Cobbins Brook.

Ambresbury Banks is certainly an Iron Age camp and was probably built during the fifth century BC high on the Forest ridge. If the trees had been cleared from the whole area it would have commanded a magnificent view, it was an excellent site for a hill-top fort. However, it seems the camp remained hidden by dense forest and was used only when a safe place was needed away from intruders to settlements in the Lea valley. This was basically a place of protection rather than a fort from which to fight invaders.

Ambresbury Banks during August

To build the camp the area would first have been cleared of trees and the line of the walls would have been marked out in the clearing in the shape of a 50 pence piece, enclosing approximately 12 acres. Our ancestors then dug a ditch about three metres (ten feet) deep, piling up the soil in a bank three metres high on the inside. This wall would have been topped by a palisade made from the felled trees. When you see the walls now, nearly 2,000 years after the camp was abandoned, it is easy to imagine how impressive they must have been when first constructed.

Archaeological excavations have turned up very little evidence of regular human occupation and it seems clear that the camp was not used as permanent living quarters. Neither was there anything to confirm the legend of Queen Boadicea (today we call her Boudicca) making her last stand against the Romans here. In fact it seems highly unlikely that she ever came near Ambresbury Banks, fighting her last battle somewhere in the Midlands. She died in AD 60 or 61.

However, the second battle really did take place and although nobody died, it was a very long and hard-fought struggle. In 1972 the quiet village of Upshire discovered that a motorway was planned to cut through their community. The Upshire Village Preservation Society was formed and joined the fledgling campaign to stop the M16, as the M25 was originally called.

This Is Local London: Work on the M25 at Bell Common in April 1983Work on the M25 at Bell Common in April 1983

In February 1973, UVPS took a cavalcade of farm vehicles, under police escort, to the statue of Boadicea on the Thames Embankment, then three coach-loads of villagers and supporters marched along the Embankment to the House of Commons where Vanessa the goat presented a petition with thousands of signatures to their MP, Norman Tebbit.

UVPS became the spearhead of the Alliance against M16, a group of local amenity societies, which then set out to raise funds to employ highly qualified expert witnesses in the fields of noise; air pollution; traffic figures; environment and landscape for what became, at that time, the longest public inquiry in road planning history taking 98 days. While QCs and others employed by the Department of Transport adjourned to the comfort of a nearby hotel, with a clerical staff ready to prepare them for the next day, the Upshire contingent travelled back to their quiet village and got out the typewriters and carbon paper.

When the inspector’s report was published in 1976, the interchange at Bell Common had been removed, the road across Bell Common was in tunnel rather than in cutting, the bridleway bridge on Woodredon Estate had been widened to encourage the passage of wildlife and a small tunnel was also created. The Department of Transport was required to provide a new cricket pitch on top of their tunnel so cricket is played again at Bell Common.

  • Georgina Green has been involved with local history in Redbridge, Waltham Forest and the Epping Forest area for 40 years and is the author of several local history books. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2021.



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