Restoring Wanstead Park

Wanstead-Park-Lake-stitched©Luciano Ocesca

As plans for restoring Wanstead Park develop, Richard Arnopp of the Friends of Wanstead Parklands explains the latest spanner in the lake restoration works. Photo of Perch Pond by Luciano Ocesca

The Wanstead Park restoration project has always been something of a rollercoaster: nothing much happens for a while, and then developments come thick and fast. There’s quite a lot of news at the moment – some good, some less so.

The single issue that preoccupies the Friends of Wanstead Parklands – and everyone who cares about the park – is the state of the lakes. Created in the first half of the 18th century, the lakes were intended to create vistas of water around three sides of Wanstead House. Originally nine in number, the five survivors (the Basin, Shoulder of Mutton Pond, Heronry Pond, Perch Pond and Ornamental Water) still form one of London’s finest waterscapes and are the park’s defining feature.

Sadly, the lakes are not in good condition. Only one – the Basin, owned by Wanstead Golf Club – seems to have no serious problems. As for the others, the water level in the Shoulder of Mutton Pond fluctuates seasonally, and it would benefit from some de-silting, but it is otherwise fairly stable. However, the other three lakes are in a bad way. The concrete lining of Heronry Pond is completely compromised, and even with constant replenishment via pumping from a borehole, it is impossible to keep it anywhere near full. The neighbouring Perch Pond looks healthy but appears to be heavily dependent on leakage from its western neighbour. Worst of all is the Ornamental Water, which has taken a turn for the worse in recent years for reasons which are not yet fully understood. Water levels have remained persistently low, and even when the lake was flooded by the River Roding in December 2019, immediately began to fall by about 7cm per week until, within a few months, it was back to where it had been before.

Addressing the state of the lake system is one of the central themes of the Parkland Plan (covering restoration and management), which was adopted by the City of London in 2020.

Making plans is all very well but they also need to be paid for. There we have run into a problem. The key to funding the Parkland Plan was that radical works were assumed to be required to the lakes to bring them into line with the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. It was anticipated these modifications could cost up to £10 million, based on what had been spent on a similar project on Hampstead Heath.

This presented an opportunity for Wanstead Park, as the spending would come from central, rather than Epping Forest, budgets, and it would make sense to carry out other improvements and repairs to the lakes at the same time. Any non-statutory element of the work could potentially have been used as match funding for a parallel bid to the National Lottery Heritage Fund to pay for a whole range of improvements to the park.

Unfortunately, the recently published engineer’s recommendations have rather thrown a spanner in the works. He concluded that the works required were far less extensive than had been assumed. Provisionally costed at around £500,000, this is only 5% of the ballpark figure we were working on before. This means the complex funding package for the Parkland Plan will need to be rebuilt from scratch.

We know that Epping Forest is working on new funding options. However, in the meantime, we will be pressing for early implementation of those aspects of its Water Management Strategy that might make an appreciable difference. In our view, the change in funding assumptions for the Wanstead Park project, as well as the worsening state of the lakes, has created a new situation. Most of these options would not be unduly expensive. In our view, they now need to be explicitly decoupled from the main project and expedited as a project in their own right.

Over the last decade, the Friends have been patient and supportive as Epping Forest officials raised awareness within the City of London of the plight of Wanstead Park. Our interventions (notably a 2017 ‘summit’ of stakeholders at the Palace of Westminster) have helped to build a ‘coalition of the willing’ and identify practical ways of doing something about it. Now, we are exploring ways in which we can unlock new sources of grant aid for the park as the requesting charity. We already have some good news where we have been able to do just that for the park’s Grotto. However, as far as the lakes are concerned, the ball is in the City of London’s court. Wanstead Park’s custodian needs to put the current setback behind it and come up with a new funding strategy. The present situation is too dire for action to be delayed much longer.

For more information on Wanstead Park and to become a member of the Friends of Wanstead Parklands, visit wansteadpark.org.uk