The Bluebells of Wanstead Park
The bluebells of Wanstead Park are increasingly being realised as one of the best colonies of these plants in the area; in Chalet Wood and in Warren Wood particularly, there are thousands of them.
Perhaps the best place to appreciate the show is in Chalet Wood, within sight of the Temple and convenient for visitors to the Park from either the Wanstead end at Warren Road or the Aldersbrook end at Northumberland Avenue. The local conservation group - the Wren Group - has been working on this wood for years to enhance the show - and from the numbers of visitors this seems to have worked. Back in the 1970s, I wrote that the wood was one of the best places in the Park to find ferns; this is no longer the case because much of the undergrowth that supported these has now been removed to make way for the bluebells.
Probably the wood would support an even better show than it does, but there are problems with invasive bramble and - sad to say - people. Because of the nature of the wood particularly during the autumn and winter, there are few clearly defined pathways through the woods; even those that are tend to get covered in leaves. This means that in early spring, just as the bluebells are beginning to show above ground, people tend to wander at will - and damage to the plants and compacting of the soil means that the plants struggle each year to make any new ground. Even the very visitors that come to enjoy the show can add to this, by walking amongst them (however pleasant this may be), or stepping on them to take photographs. Other activities that are not deliberately harmful to the flowers yet significantly inhibit their increase include the construction of "camps" in the woods - where large logs are dragged through the wood to typically erect a tent-like structure around the bole of a tree. The areas around these structures in particular are so trampled as to leave little vegetation growth.
It might be possible - and has been suggested - that defined routes are created. Just how the definition is made is the problem. No-one wants to see fenced-off areas in Wanstead Park - indeed it would probably be against bye-laws - but perhaps just a well-formed low log edging might at least act as a psychological deterrent to some to keep to the paths?
Last year, notices were put up on simple boards at appropriate access points to Chalet Wood that explained to visitors that the bluebells were special and were easily damaged, and asked that not only that they should not be picked but that they should not be trampled upon.
It is hoped that the notices will go up again this year, as the increasing show is generating increasing visitors, and without care we might see less rather than more of these beautiful flowers.
The bluebells in Chalet Wood are all of our native species, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, and Wanstead Park holds an important population of them. However, many other woodlands have been invaded by the more vigorous Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), which are sold as garden plants and if discarded may interbreed and spoil the native population. And Chalet Wood is threatened in the same way; along much of Northumberland Avenue - which borders Wanstead Park to the south, Spanish Bluebells are flourishing, discarded from houses along the road. Even very close to Chalet Wood itself, between the Sweet Chestnut avenue and the vegetation that borders the southern edge of Chalet Wood, clumps of the invaders are present. I suspect it wouldn't take much to dig these out and dispose of them before they hybridise with our own species - but without permission from the Park's owners - the City of London Corporation - this would be illegal.
There are thousands of bluebells in Wanstead Park, other than in Chalet Wood, and there could be some sweeping views elsewhere. The problems elsewhere are that in many cases the pathways are now blocked or brambled, or the numbers of fallen trees or branch-litter inhibits the views. Without wishing a tidying-up process anywhere near the extent that has been carried out in Chalet Wood, much could be done to make the bluebell experience in Wanstead Park as a whole a glorious thing!
Paul Ferris, 5th April 2010