In the eighth of a series of articles looking at the developing plans for restoring Wanstead Park, John Meehan, chairman of the Friends of Wanstead Parklands, reveals some of the park’s secrets and surviving features of its long history. Photo of the Repton Oak by Richard Arnopp.
Wanstead Park has had a variety of uses, styles and functions over hundreds of years. It has been a royal retreat, a deer park, a landscaped garden and, since 1882, a public open space managed as part of Epping Forest. Many surviving features of its long history are still there if you know where to find them!
If you enter Wanstead Park from its western end, through the Blake Hall entrance, you enter an area known as Reservoir Wood. Walk for perhaps 150 yards and you will come upon a magnificent oak to the right, with huge outstretched branches and with a newly cleared ‘halo’ around it. It is believed to be a ‘bundle tree’, which means it was not grown from one sapling but a number of young trees planted together in one hole. The object was to produce a large specimen tree with a spreading form, as all the stems merge into one huge, fluted trunk. This was a practice associated with the late Georgian landscaper Humphry Repton, and the tree is known as the ‘Repton Oak’ after him. Humphry Repton did produce proposals for Wanstead Park in 1813, in one of his last major projects, and the tree was probably planted not long after.
Reservoir Wood was named after a lake which once occupied the area. In fact, it stretched from the golf course to beyond Woodlands Avenue, and from Blake Hall Road to a large embankment, which is now cut by the path a little way beyond the Repton Oak. The Reservoir was drained by 1818, probably because of problems with the water supply. Its site was planted with a wood, perhaps to block the open view of Wanstead House from the public road.
The path continues to the east, past the Heronry Pond and, as you pass the second of the two islands, the Temple comes into view. Built around 1760, it seems originally to have been planned as a small building with an earth mound to the front, making it look as though it was sitting on top of a small hill, and looking like a beautiful Roman temple you would expect to see in the romantic 17th-century paintings by Lorrain and Poussin. At a slightly later date, or perhaps even while construction was still in progress, two brick wings were added, making the structure sit heavier within the landscape. Perhaps these were intended to house the menagerie, which we know the building was later used for.
Bearing around to the left of the Temple, taking the vehicle track to Warren Road, you will notice a huge evergreen tree, which is a yew. The path here leads past a big mound in the woods, which is covered in bluebells in the spring. This path leads out onto the Great Ride, and if you walk across the ride, you will find another, larger, mound. The two Mounts, as they were known, were roughly symmetrical features on either side of the Great Ride, designed to allow visitors to get above the highly formal garden to view the formal gardens, mazes and avenues. From above you could have made sense of the complex formal garden designs. The Mounts would have had a spiral path leading to their summits and the northern one seems to have been crowned by a little temple. Today, they are overgrown sentinels of a 300-year-old landscape that once covered huge areas, with avenues radiating out across Wanstead Flats to Leytonstone and Forest Gate.
The work of the Friends of Wanstead Parklands is to reveal these secrets in cooperation with the owners of the various parts of the park, the main owner being the Corporation of London. The landowners and other stakeholders, including the Friends, have jointly created a Parkland Plan, which sets out a long-term restoration and management programme that respects history, people and nature.