As the trees in Wanstead Park start bursting into life it is interesting to note that the oaks seem to be beating the ash trees into leaf.
After the dry vernal equinox period this could be another sign of a dry summer to come as the saying goes…
If the oak before the ash then we’ll only see a splash.
If the ash before the oak then we’re sure to get a soak.
The story behind the mature trees in Wanstead Park – several of which will turn 200 this year – is a fascinating one.
The park is virtually on my doorstep and it’s like watching a living painting as the trees change from season to season. Spring is my favourite time of year, as the character of the park transforms so quickly. Chalet Wood bursts into colour with a carpet of bluebells, and leaves once again clothe the trees.
Magnificent specimens of oak, horse chestnut, sycamore and holly stand alongside half-rotten victims of gales over the last 200-odd years. But despite storms and floods, the biggest nemesis to these trees was the former owner of the park, William Long-Wellesley. As well as demolishing Wanstead House in 1823 to help clear his debts, Long-Wellesley also sold thousands of mature trees, despite local opposition and a court injunction brought by Sir Edward Sugden, who was seeking to restrain Long-Wellesley’s depredations on his children’s inheritance.
A court report from the time states that Long-Wellesley had marked 2,000 trees for sale, which would have included hardwoods, such as oak, chestnut and elm and perhaps walnut and lime. To quantify that figure, it should be noted that the last full tree survey of the park, not including Bush Wood, in April 1990, listed just over 800 trees.
Richard Arnopp, committee member of the Friends of Wanstead Parklands, said: “There is general agreement that Long-Wellesley left the park more or less devastated, but the wooded areas subsequently regenerated within their former footprints, helped by later planting and management by the Corporation of London.”
It is not clear who bought the trees, though oak was especially valuable at the time for shipbuilding, which was still some decades away from the shift from timber to iron. Britain was at the end of the first Industrial Revolution and timber suitable for making masts, a crucial requirement for any sailing ship, and one that often had to be replaced after storms or wear, was difficult to find.
It was also a cold period. Just over 10 years previous the Thames froze over for the last time and winters were frequently very cold and snowy. Wood was one of the principal methods of keeping warm – house fires would have been burning through the winter – anyone with a wood stove would know just how much wood you can get through, even in an average winter.
As well as selling timber, Long-Wellesley reportedly sold the topsoil of Wanstead Flats to nurseries as potting compost. Most of the mature trees in the park today would have been saplings in the 1820s, thus escaping the attention of Long-Wellesley. According to the Debois survey from 1990, the cedar tree near the Ornamental Water has this year reached its 200th birthday. Also 200 years old this year are the three magnificent oaks next to the Temple, one of which has increased in girth from 319cm to 372cm since 1990.
The trees were protected for future generations when the Epping Forest Act was passed in 1878. Since that time, the Corporation of London has managed their welfare and a new initiative will soon step up this care and reinstate even more of what was lost during Long-Wellesley’s tenure.
* There is much more detail at the site http://www.wansteadpark.org.uk/
** The author has studied forestry and arboriculture at Capel Manor College in Enfield