Sunday, July 20, 2008

Field of dreams: Wanstead Flats

The other day I received an email invite from Eastside Community Heritage (Hidden Histories) to go to a “walk about” around Wanstead flats next Saturday. Wanstead flats (or Wanstead Heath as it uses to be more accurately known in the past) is part of Epping Forest, owned and managed by the City of London.

We live nearby and I think that (together with the adjacent Wanstead Park) it is one of the jewels of East London. When I first moved into the area in the 1980’s I was astonished that Cattle were still allowed to roam freely around the flats. This was due to “Commoners rights”. It was not at that time unusual to chase cattle out of your gardens or to herd them from residential areas back to the flats. Remember, this is pretty much in the heart of East London. Sadly, BSE put an end to Commoners cattle. However, there are hairy beasts penned in by electric fences in Chingford and plans even for sheep to be re-introduced into the flats.

Historically, Wanstead flats are quite important. King George III reviewed his troops on the flats, there were massive battles between local people and landlords who attempted to fence off and enclose the flats in the 19th century. Somewhat ironically (to me anyway) the City of London is now the guardian (and paymaster) of our egalitarian playground. During the 2nd world war nearby was a prison of war camp. There were also anti-aircraft batteries, search lights and barrage balloons stationed at the flats. You can see even today the concrete foundations of the gun platforms and army huts. There is a metal fastening post right in the middle, for the balloons used for parachutists to practice jumps for the D-Day Landing.

A bit of personal history is that my family “thinks” (not sure) that my grandfather (another John Gray) was by co-incidence stationed on the flats during the Second World War. We know he was a NCO of a TA Searchlight company which was stationed we think on the flats during the blitz, then later on in the war he was a sergeant in charge of transport for a “Unexploded Bomb Squad (UXB).

In Centre Road which runs thorough the flats during the war there was a bus hit by bomb. I think this gruesome tale relates to this attack.

During this period there were also a number of temporary pre-fab homes built on part of the flats. They were later demolished.

After the war, the fascist, Oswald Moseley, (father of the bloke currently in hot water for various things) used to hold meetings next to the Band Stand (now demolished) near Capel Road.

There was also a controversial campaign after the war to prevent West Ham council from building Council flats and a school on the flats. A campaign I am pleased to say that local residents won.

I go running in the flats most days. During winter you often get marvellous low lying fog which makes it surreal to run thought. In the summer you can be almost deafened by the birdsong. Brilliant. Come along if you can.

As part of the Wanstead Flats project a walk across Wanstead Flats has been organised for:

Saturday 26th July 2008. Meet 11am at the Alexandra Lake car park. Bus 101 or W19

Hear about the history of Wanstead Flats, the struggles to prevent development and its wartime uses whilst strolling across the area.

The walk will last 1-1 1/2 Hours and finish at Dames Road.

Please RVSP to give an idea of numbers.

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