Tag Archives: Corporation of London

Veteran trees that make Wanstead Park

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.

One of the magnificent oaks that provide the backdrop to Music in WansteadPark was in leaf on Friday, April 11th.
One of the magnificent oaks that provide the backdrop to Music in WansteadPark was in leaf on Friday, April 11th.

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.

This graph shows the monthly mean temperature for the periods 1814-1825 (series  1, blue line) and 2004-2015 (series 2, orange line). Notice how much colder most winters were 1814-1825
This graph shows the monthly mean temperature for the periods 1814-1825 (series 1, blue line) and 2004-2015 (series 2, orange line). Notice how much colder most winters were 1814-1825

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

130 years ago: disaster hits Wanstead Park

It was 130 years ago this morning that The Grotto in Wanstead Park was destroyed by fire.

An account of the fire appeared in the November 29th edition of the Essex Newsman
An account of the fire appeared in the November 29th edition of the Essex Newsman

The building, once part of the grand estate, was being used as a store room since the park’s acquisition by the Corporation of London. The fire, according to a local report at the time, initially started in a cottage adjacent to the Grotto and was discovered about 9 o’clock by a man who had been walking through the park.

Mr G. H. Sparrow, of Latimer Road, Forest Gate, raised the alarm with Wanstead Fire Brigade who, despite arriving quickly, were too late to stop the fire spreading from the cottage to the Grotto. Their efforts were further hampered because the Ornamental Water was being cleansed – a supply of water was 250 yards distant from the River Roding, a fact that cost precious minutes.

By the time the fire was subdued the place was entirely destroyed – only the outside walls and entrance remained intact, probably more or less what you can see today.

The building was composed of shells, pebbles, fossils, rare stones, looking glasses and “a fine painted window that was built at an immense expenditure by the Countess of Mornington”. Its destruction removed the only remaining monument of what was once one of the great estates in the Eastern Counties.

The Grotto seen from across the Ornamental Water
The Grotto seen from across the Ornamental Water

I’ve often wondered if the weather could have played a part in the demise of the Grotto. The monthly average for November, however, suggests not. A mean of 5.7C is over 3C colder than what we’ve seen this November and although it was a dry month with 45mm of rain – that total is nothing out of the ordinary for the month.

Conditions on the day were uncannily like this morning: bright though chilly, the temperature only rising to 7C after an overnight low of 2C. Perhaps one contributing factor was the north-westerly breeze which would have helped drive the flames through the structure.

One could also point to the fact that Ornamental Waters had no water to douse the flames. Though the fact that it was empty is nothing new as the entire lake system had retention problems from the park’s inception.

Perhaps it is a case that fires do just sometimes happen regardless of how careful we are in preventing them.

It is sad that bad luck seemed to hit the Grotto just like it saw the demise of Wanstead House decades before.