Wanstead Flats has been pretty quiet whenever I’ve been up there recently. Although I still use this magical space for walking and running and giving my kids a blast of fresh air or energy-burning run-arounds, I know many of us are quietly craving a part of lockdown that actually worked in our favour: a connection with nature that went deeper than a brief walk through the woods from A to B; a need for ritual and observing the seasons; the time to look closer at the plants and flowers as we escaped from our homes for our once a day ‘exercise routines’.
Writing about nature is largely what I do, through books and articles or as part of exhibitions and workshops. But even I have found it hard to connect with nature as I did then. Perhaps I’m just busy trying to catch up with work and family life. Perhaps I’m just physically and mentally exhausted from the fall out. Or maybe I now associate nature therapy with a sense of emergency.
A few early morning runs (a.k.a. walk, run, take photo, repeat) have taken me back to this time last year however. A time when I was rising every morning at dawn (currently 6.01am for astronomical twilight when the sun is 18º below the horizon but it technically gets light; 6.41am for nautical twilight when the stars and horizon are visible so its possible to navigate; and 7.23am for civil twilight when the sun is just below the horizon but its rays still light up the sky) and heading out to meet a friend for a walk or running solo as soon as I knew other people would be around.
The Flats at this time in the morning is one of its most beautiful incarnations. A time when mist can hang in ribbons above the football pitches, the sun rising like a golden orb in the East its rays hitting the Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers on the other side of Centre Road, unexpected fevers of tangerine skies, and the grass and its congregation of fallen leaves and seedheads sparkling frost or dew. Often you can also see the moon before it retires in the West.
It feels like therapy again to write these connections down. To remember how important communing with nature is and that all it often takes is one dedicated trip out, just to stop and look. To see the mist rising, spot the Little Owl in the woods, forage for elderberries or rosehips, pickup an acorn, observe the ducks doing their thing by Alexandra Pond or just walk that walk with a friend – little things that lead to all sorts of thoughts or conversations about the bigger picture.
On that note I’ll be pulling into The Forest with more nature-inspired musings about Wanstead Flats and around, including prompts for wellbeing and connection for anyone who would like to join me in writing it down. I’ll also be launching a series of local writing workshops so stay tuned.
In the meantime, pick one day to watch that sun rise. Try and describe it in just one line. When life is uncertain, the sky – even in its undulating cloak of many colours – is one constant that remains, and the Flats offers connection that we can all share.
Sonya Patel Ellis is a writer, editor and artist exploring the interconnectedness of nature. Author of Collins Botanical Bible (Harper Collins, 2018), The Heritage Herbal (The British Library, 2020), Collins Garden Birdwatchers Bible (Harper Collins, 2020) and the forthcoming The Modern Gardener (Harper Collins, March 2022) she is often to be found roaming around nearby Wanstead Flats or in her garden for botanical inspiration. See www.abotanicalworld.com for more details plus signed books and botanically inspired prints. Writing for wellbeing workshops coming soon.
Photography © Sonya Patel Ellis