Exploring South Ockendon landfill, ancient woods & wild meadows

by Ian Tokelove
A man walks over a wide expanse of scraped, bare earth towards a tall white wind turbine

South Ockendon, a small town in Essex, lies just beyond the M25. On the northern edge of town, West Road passes the railway station, bridges the rail tracks, and passes the grey bulk of a Next distribution warehouse. Across the road, flat agricultural fields stretch into the distance.

At the junction with Arisdale Avenue, a rough path leads up to a low plateau of dusty landfill. This battered landscape is in the early stages of transformation into Little Belhus Country Park.

Little Belhus Country Park
Little Belhus Country Park in the making

This was farmland until the 1940s, when food production gave way to a lucrative new crop of gravel and sand, dug from the ground with extensive quarrying. The quarries and pits were then filled with household and industrial waste, leaving the site contaminated and potentially hazardous.

A couple of wind turbines dominate the horizon, and a path leads to a landscaped, accessible part of the new country park. Even on a sunny day, only a few others were sharing the path, family groups and occasional joggers.

The M25 borders the western edge of the park. An unofficial path leaves the landscaped park here, and follows the motorway, dropping into woodland.

A very rough track leads towards trees
Following a rough track away from Little Belhus Country Park

Ghosts of Belhus Mansion

We skirted an active landfill site and continued into more woods, following the motorway. A glimpse of dark water reveals the Long Pond, an ornamental lake created in the mid-18th century in the grounds of Belhus Mansion. The pond and parkland around this grand country house were designed by Capability Brown, described as ‘England’s greatest gardener’.

Time has not been kind to Mr Brown’s designs. Belhus Mansion was demolished shortly after World War II, its scant remains now buried under a nearby golf course. The London Orbital now slices the former grounds in half and thunders over the Long Pond, which is lost below its shadow.

A footbridge crosses the motorway just south of the pond, and paths lead into Belhus Chase. This former arable farmland was acquired by the Woodland Trust in 1998 and is now a patchwork of woodland and wild meadows. Paths meander through the Chase and it’s easy to get a little lost.

Meadows, woodland and a path
Belhus Woods Country Park

Ancient woodlands

At Belhus Woods Country Park, ancient woodland leads to a succession of lakes, popular with young families. Seeking a quieter route, we crossed the road and wandered the paths of Warwick and White Post Woodlands, and the younger Cely Wood. We got lost but didn’t mind. The main paths are wide and firm; others twist tightly through mature woodland and lush vegetation.

Narrow track through wild grasses, flowers with young trees on either side
Tangled paths all lead somewhere, eventually

We chose a different path back, following the motorway down to the leisure centre at Belhus Park. Here, another bridge spans the motorway. A path leads back to Long Pond, the landfill, and Little Belhus Country Park.

The bulldozed edge of South Ockendon landfill site
Wide expanse of flat, bare land
South Ockendon landfill site stretches away like a desert.
Looking over bulldozed earth at a blue lake surrounded by trees
A surviving gravel pit at South Ockendon, next to the landfill site

Thanks to Ed A for joining me on this explorative walk, undertaken on 31st May 2020

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