Restoring Wanstead Park (part III)

©Richard Arnopp©Richard Arnopp

In the third of a series of articles looking at the history of Wanstead Park, its current state and the developing plans for restoring this important green space, Richard Arnopp from the Friends of Wanstead Parklands looks at the secrets revealed by the recent low water levels in the park's largest lake.

In recent years, the Ornamental Water – the largest of Wanstead Park's five lakes at 6.3 hectares – has suffered from low water levels. A variety of factors have contributed to this, some of which are still not fully understood. The City of London is commissioning an engineering assessment to follow up earlier studies on the lakes but, in the meantime, some interesting relics of the park's history have come to light as a result of the exposed lake bed.

The Ornamental Water runs for about one kilometre from roughly north-west to south-east. The northern section includes several islands, namely Lincoln Island, Rook Island, a group known as The Fortification and Engine House Island.

The Ornamental Water was constructed by elaborating and extending elements which already existed by around 1710. The western arm of the present lake follows the southern section of a garden canal depicted on a view to the east of about that date, while the eastern arm seems to be based on the natural course of the River Roding. The same view shows the Straight Canal as a separate lake offering a vista of water from the hill on which Wanstead House stood. We aren't sure when the present water body was completed, but the entire lake system is shown in recognisable form on Roque's 1745–1746 Environs of London map, so we must assume it was before that.

Late in 2017, Epping Forest operation's manager Geoff Sinclair informed the Friends that brickwork had been revealed in various places by low water levels, and he offered to take a group from the Friends to view it. Previously unrecorded was a culvert discovered on the western side of Rook Island. This was constructed using pre-industrial handmade bricks and seemed to make most sense as a relic of water management within the park, dating from before the existing lake was completed. A similar structure has been found on the golf course.

We also looked at the abutments from a vanished bridge linking Lincoln and Rook islands. This was known but had never been studied or described. Old estate plans suggest that bridges in Wanstead Park came and went, but one at this location potentially offers a clue to the sequencing and dating of developments in the gardens. Given that it would have interrupted the vista between the Great Amphitheatre and The Fortification, it might suggest that one or both of these features had gone out of use by the time of its construction. That in turn might be linked to another change in the eastern part of the park, namely the expansion of the wooded areas to the islands of the Ornamental Water and its eastern margins.

Long known was a bridge adjacent to the Grotto, the footings of which were also revealed by the dry conditions. This was shown on an early John Doyley plan dated 1813. Later Doyley plans – of which there are several – show no bridges at all.

Also in 1813, Humphry Repton described the islands in the Ornamental Water as being "beautifully cloathed" with trees. Could the islands have been planted by the second earl (1750–1784) and linked by bridges to provide more picturesque and interesting circuits of the gardens?

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