The first time I ever visited Wanstead Flats was in July 2000 (some 8 years before I moved to Forest Gate) when some friends dragged me all the way from my then-abode in South London to this ‘back of beyond’ to partake in the East London Mela.
I think the furthest East (of London) I’d been at that point was a series of warehouse parties in Hackney Wick but the memories of those are quite blurred.
I was just about to take a year off to go travelling around Asia and had been swotting up on the Kumbh Mela – a Hindu festival occurring every three years in one off our sacred Indian sites – in my still perfectly bound Lonely Planet. In the excitement of youthful hippie imaginings and future off the beaten tracks I got my wires crossed and envisaged this mela to be something of a spiritual idyll where I too would bathe in the waters and receive the nectar of immortality along my fellow revellers (kumbh meaning nectar, mela meaning to meet).
So, I was a little taken aback when, having walked from Stratford Station’s gleaming new terminal hall of the recently opened Jubilee Line Extension we ended up in ‘this god-forsaken scrubland’ (as scribbled in my journal at the time alongside notes on scrambling across highways and up banks – all very outlier urban).
Weirdly my mum and dad were there too, down from Yorkshire to visit my Uncle Jimmy who lived in Leytonstone, so as the random troupe of us had come all this way, we got stuck into what was actually on offer: a whole lot of bhangra beats and some seriously delicious Asian street food among the nature and wildlife of what is now my daily stomping ground and – as I now know – an important Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) to boot.
I recalled this tale as I went for a lunchtime walk on The Flats a few weeks ago, sometime in mid-March. I needed a proper leg stretch after tapping away at the keyboard for hours, so I ventured up beyond the ‘brick field’ towards Aldersbrook and hung a left towards Centre Road. It was the start of a few weeks of unexpected sunshine but that alone could not explain the yellow mirage ahead.
Drawing closer to what must be one of the highest points of Wanstead Flats aside from ‘the sledging hill’ by Alexandra Pond, I realised that this strange illumination was in fact a new or at least extended expanse of gorse (Ulex europaeus), aglow in acid yellow flowers. Not an unusual plant to find here, I just couldn’t recall it being this vivid or congregational before.
Either the sun had gone to my head (quite possible after this long, drawn out but not quite wintery enough winter), I’d lost my mind and just couldn’t remember the lie of the land (also possible) or something cyclical was also going on here. Time to get my nature head back on and with a quick scour of the landscape complete with the silhouettes of still blackened trees came a total recall of the great fire of summer 2018 – how the flames and heat had swept across and under the flats, mainly to the West above Jubilee Pond but also burning large parts of this corner to the ground. An apocalypse of charred birch trees (Betula spp.), gorse, and tufted hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), one of many grasses that grows wild here but that can also be used ornamentally in the garden (see The Front Line for March).
For those who witnessed the aftermath of this heatwave-induced blaze, the determined green shoots of many plant species did thankfully appear quite soon, pushing up through the scorched earth. The resilience of nature in full effect.
Nearly four years on, the gorse now dominates this vista, a thorny crown of spiky green leaves (similar looking Scotch Broom – Cytisus scoparius – has soft, feathery green foliage) and golden, pea-shaped blooms on either side of sandy, almost beach-like tracks. Apparently, there was also a colony of Scottish heather (Calluna vulgaris) up here, but I didn’t spot any this time. Fingers crossed it reappears soon or perhaps it will be my new thing to hunt down while out on a ‘run’ alongside Little Owl (whom I did spot recently in North Copse – one member of two pairs, apparently).
A quick scramble over the golden dunes (my new name for this corner) and it was time to head back home to work. Past the busily breeding skylarks, starling-heavy trees – masters of melodic song, squabbling chatter, and convincing mimic often of manmade sounds – across daisy – and dandelion-strewn playing fields, now happily sporting goals, school exercise classes and volley-ball teams (how weird to think that two years ago none of us were even allowed to play up here with a ball never mind next to each other), down a low rise of purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) and under the inner and outer ruffles of beech, oak, and horse chestnut trees, resplendent in their lime green spring unfurl. This god-forsaken scrubland did deliver in the end, as often unfamiliar or yet explored places do. I’d found my gathering of nectar after all.
Sonya Patel Ellis is a writer, editor and artist exploring the interconnectedness of nature. Author of Collins Botanical Bible (HarperCollins, 2018), The Heritage Herbal (The British Library, 2020), Collins Garden Birdwatchers Bible (Harper Collins, 2020) and the forthcoming The Modern Gardener (Harper Collins, 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.