In the 21st of a series of articles charting the Wild Wanstead project, Iain Ambler considers the natural history of George Green and its future as a special site for wildlife in Wanstead. Photo by Geoff Wilkinson
George Green has an interesting environmental history that we can see many remnants of today. It appears to be a fragment of old acid grassland or heathland, probably in or at the margins of Epping Forest. In 1683, John Evelyn visited Wanstead and recorded the costly planting of avenues of trees by Sir Josiah Child around his recently acquired estate. The remaining massive sweet chestnut trees standing on the Green today (four in a line, three together, one towards the St Mary’s end of the green) formed part of one of these double avenues of trees radiating out for some distance from the focal point of the grand house, which was located on part of what is now Wanstead’s golf course.
With the break-up of the Wanstead Estate in the 19th century, the Green remained as a patch of poor quality pasture surrounded by buildings. It is owned by the City of London Corporation and protected by the Epping Forest Act of 1878. The day-to-day management of this urban amenity has been passed to the London Borough of Redbridge.
The tall plane trees you can see today along the western edge of George Green were likely planted under the supervision of Alexander Mackenzie, who was superintendent of Epping Forest from 1879 until his death in 1893. In the 1990s, it became an environmental battleground, focused on one of the chestnut trees on the site due for removal as part of the M11 link road construction, and probably the inspiration for environmental activists like Swampy later in the decade. And, of course, it’s named after the beloved pub.
These days, George Green is the site of a new environmental initiative. Last summer, you might have noticed the back part of the Green looking shaggier and more beautiful than usual. That’s because the park now includes a number of ‘Grow Zones’, areas where the grass is being left to grow long over summer to naturalise with wildflowers. The initiative is a collaboration between Vision RCL, Redbridge Council and Wild Wanstead, who are working together to create a network of Grow Zones across Wanstead. When we undertook a botanical survey of the area, it revealed more than 80 plant species, as well as insects that thrive in long grass habitats like the Essex Skipper Butterfly. In fact, meadowland supports eight times more biodiversity than regularly mown grass, and acid grassland is of particular importance, considered a nationally important habitat and priority for nurturing in London.
As well as the Grow Zones on George Green, there are others on Christ Church Green, Nutter Lane Field and Elmcroft Avenue Recreational Ground, as well as a number of road verges. Hopefully, as the grass and flowers grow, so too will the populations of insects, birds and other creatures that rely on them for food and shelter, helping nature to thrive on our doorsteps.