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