The Centenary Walk stretches from Manor Park in east London to Epping in Essex. The full walk is about 15 miles long and explores the length of Epping Forest. There is a halfway point around Chingford, allowing the walk to be done as two shorter walks.
A short walk from Manor Park station gets you to Wanstead Flats. These are part of Epping Forest, but the ancient woods are long gone from this area. The Abbots of Stratford were grazing sheep here in the 12th century, and it has been rough, open grassland ever since. Later tree planting has created small, cosmetic copses, and there are thickets of gorse, broom, and scrub.
Wanstead Flats also boasts countless football pitches, their side lines patrolled by dog walkers. The trees provide a playground for children, and shade for the inevitable drinkers and spliff-smokers, hooded but harmless.
Barrage balloons at Wanstead Flats
Less typical of an urban park are the occasional, incongruous metal posts with no obvious purpose. Some say these were used to tether barrage balloons to the ground during WW2. Such balloons deterred low altitude attacks by enemy aircraft, but as the Germans typically used high level bombing raids against London, they were largely ineffective.
However, barrage balloons were typically anchored to lorries, ships, or chunky concrete foundations. Others suggest the posts simply held a tensioned fence cable.
Rose Stephens lives locally and shared the pic’s below. She tells me she’s pretty sure the posts have something to do with the barrage balloons which flew here, but their exact purpose remains a mystery.
#WansteadFlats Barrage balloon anchor and the flats this evening @LondonNP @BestLondonParks @EastLondonGuide pic.twitter.com/qvGh3EM7Ww— Rose Stephens 🐝 🦊 🕷 🕸 🍄 (@RoseNWF) April 17, 2015
Two roads cross the Flats, the A114 and Lake House Road. Between them lies Jubilee Pond and a section of heath which is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This is wildlife-rich ‘acid grassland’, a previously grazed meadow which has escaped the sterilising effects of modern intensive farming.
The Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers
Ahead, the Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers dominate the horizon and the football pitches and scrub below. During the 2012 Olympics, these monolithic blocks were topped with missile launchers, to defend against terrorist attack from the skies. Now their tenants await a new threat, redevelopment or demolition, although plans are currently on hold.
The Centenary Walk heads north, bordering an unkempt treeline and bushes, and then into Bush Wood. Away from the open fields, there are less people. The path passes under the busy A12 roundabout, then escapes into an open stretch of scrub and vegetation, leading towards Hollow Pond.
Trees and fungi
Passing the small car park at Snaresbrook Road and then skirting a school, the natural surroundings seem to step up a notch. Open meadow mingles with patches of mature trees. Like much of Epping Forest, this is also an SSSI. With lots of dead wood on the ground, autumnal fungi were everywhere. I stopped here awhile, grabbing some lunch. A hungry crow kept me company, carefully sizing me up while awaiting crumbs. Aside from a couple of dog walkers, I had the place to myself.
Losing the Centenary Walk
I lost the Centenary Walk here, as it isn’t well signposted, and I was admittedly concentrating on the colourful fungi. My path took me to the busy A406 roundabout, where it loops over the dual-carriageway and under the feeder roads. Police tape was wrapped around a shattered, truncated streetlight. Bedraggled flowers and a white floral cross snagged drifts of car-thrown litter. All rather grim. A better path crosses the carriageway via a nearby footbridge.
Back on the correct path, I walked up to the boating lake in Highams Park. Here I saw a couple of big-nosed shoveler duck and at least two little grebe. The little grebe are fast and small, resembling hyperactive windup toys as they repeatedly dive for food.
The River Ching
With dusk falling around me, I crossed the A1009 and followed the River Ching’s braided channel through woodland. By the river, a tree hollow held a soggy collection of soft toys, a plastic doll, and a child’s book, perhaps a spiritual offering or memorial.
At Hatch Plain, the Centenary Walk was sticky and muddy underfoot, the route churned by cyclists. At the A110 I considered abandoning my walk and following the road into Chingford, but I pushed on, into the murk of Whitehall Plain.
With luck I found a bridge across the Ching, then walked a spacious, wooded path towards Rangers Road. In the dark, nearby, an owl called.
Chingford and chips
The path led me to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, which dates back to 1543 and is now a museum. The neighbouring Tudor-style Premier Inn is impressively over-the-top, dating back to 1879, but rebuilt after fire.
The path follows the road into Chingford and its end-of-the-line station. I finished off the walk with Chingford chips, then hopped onto an Overground train and headed home.
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