Richard Arnopp explains why the Wanstead Park Liaison Group will be reviewing the latest bluebell season, which has once again raised concerns over how best to protect the delicate flowers from being trampled
Every year, from mid-April to early May, visitors to Wanstead Park are treated to a memorable spectacle as great drifts of bluebells come into bloom, carpeting the ground with a blue haze. The colour builds to its maximum intensity for just a few days, during which the flowers pervade the air with a subtle, delicate scent. It’s a very visible sign of the new life brought by spring, and perhaps Britain’s nearest equivalent to Japan’s celebrated cherry blossom season.
The British Isles are a stronghold of the bluebell, with perhaps a fifth of the plant’s global population growing on these islands. The mild, damp climate on Europe’s Atlantic seaboard suits them best – further east, and the winters are too cold for them, or the weather too dry.
Bluebells like dappled shade and are widespread throughout the less densely wooded areas of Wanstead Park. They are often hidden among brambles and other undergrowth, but in Chalet Wood, large areas have been kept clear by members of the Wren Conservation Group so the flowers can be seen at their best. In recent years, paths have also been demarcated by tree trunks to encourage visitors not to step on the main areas covered by the plants. These are easily damaged by trampling and may take several years to recover and flower again.
The first Covid lockdown in 2020 was followed by a huge surge in visitors to our open spaces, including Wanstead Park. Even during the gradual normalisation in recent months, numbers have remained elevated, as the new visitors keep coming back. The bluebell display, which is one of the best in the London area, has received attention both on traditional and social media. This has doubtless attracted additional visitors from outside the area.
It’s good to see Wanstead Park becoming better known and appreciated, and it’s important to emphasise that most visitors keep to the demarcated paths. Unfortunately, some don’t and, given the increased visitor pressure, this has raised anxiety among local people who understand the fragility of the bluebells and feel passionate about protecting them. This year, several hundred people signed a letter of concern on Facebook.
The main problem comes from people succumbing to the temptation to step over the barriers to take photographs among the flowers. Some trample the visible plants, perhaps not realising the damage they are doing. Others try to keep to little meandering paths and bare patches – not realising these have been created by people in the past and that they are preventing the plants from recolonising these areas by walking on them.
The bluebell season is discussed every year by the Wanstead Park Liaison Group, which consists of Epping Forest management and other stakeholders. They will be looking at whether signage and barriers have been adequate this year and whether anything can be done differently in the future. We’ll keep you posted.
For more information on Wanstead Park, visit wnstd.com/park