A History of the development of Aldersbrook Exchange Lands from the old Redbridge Southern Sewage Works

From Sewage Works to Epping Forest

In 1982, the first mention was made in Corporation of London Epping Forest and Open Spaces Committee reports of the possibility of what was referred to as the Empress Sewage Works as being suitable for exchange land, i.e. land given to Epping Forest in exchange for that lost, in this case, to road-building projects. From 1986, discussions with the London Borough of Redbridge and the Department of Transport took place. These discussions related to two areas of land - the 3.44 ha (8.5 acres) lying between Wanstead Park and the Cemetery, and the 4.64 ha (11.5 acres) by the River Roding known as the "wilderness" - as well as the parcel of land of approximately 2 ha (5 acres) separating these two and already owned by the Borough. The road schemes which required Epping Forest land were the Hackney to M11 Link Road, the South Woodford to Barking Relief Road, and the A406 improvement Scheme.

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A number of different proposals were discussed, until by July 1993 the D.o.T. was prepared to offer the two areas of land amounting to 20 acres to Epping Forest, and for Redbridge apparently to retain management of the 2ha parcel of land separating the two.

Concern had been raised about the suitability of using old sewage works land for Epping Forest, and included references to the possibility of contamination by heavy metals. An independent survey was undertaken by the Environmental Safety Centre at Harwell, and the conclusion was that the land was suitable for the intended use, subject to some remedial work. The recommendations were that roads and clinker beds be covered with at least 1.5 feet of topsoil; the side walls of the filter beds be removed and the tanks levelled to the ground and covered with topsoil; areas of decomposed sewage sludge be covered with at least 1.5 feet of clean topsoil; any areas of tarmac be covered with 1.5 feet of topsoil if required.

These recommendations were accepted, with the proviso that the D.o.T. finance this remedial work and also landscape the area as required by Epping Forest. Various discussions took place as to what landscaping was required and local advise was sought in relation to the value of the area to wild-life, including birds and plants. It was acknowledged that the area had already developed into a diverse, interesting and even attractive area, with some species of wild-flowers which - though they might not be particularly rare - should be preserved if possible. It was decided not to remove the kerb-stones nor to put topsoil onto the road and trackways, because even these had their distinctive flora, including mosses and lichens.

In late September 1993, work started on the 8.5 acre site (Areas 1,2,3,3a) with much earth moving machinery in use during the operation. However, a significant amount of care was taken by all concerned that as little damage be done to the site other than was necessary to comply with the final recommendations. The material used for the landscaping as both subsoil and topsoil was a slightly acidic sandy gravel.

The work was completed in late October, and those areas where the soil had been disturbed or new soil laid were sown with grass seed which consisted of Festuca tenuifolia, Festuca ovina, Festuca rubra rubra, Cynosurus cristatus, Agrostis tenuis and Agrostis canina. Though the old fence between the area and Wanstead Park was removed, the associated embankment was maintained, and chestnut paling fences were temporarily erected to protect the newly grassed areas. (see photos of site in 1993) Also retained was a wire fence with three stiles which had been erected some years previously to delineate the field. On 1 November 1993 this western part of the sewage works site was aquired as exchange land in compensation for loss of Forest land with the building of the Hackney Link road.

Aldersbrook Exchange Lands, Wilderness construction works in 1994Development of the Wilderness area in 1994It was intended to start similar work on the "wilderness" - the 11.5 acre site (Areas 4,5,6) - early in 1994, but access was required for vehicles and personnel to work on the National Grid power-lines that cross the area. Access was obtained by way of Redbridge's tarmac road, but as a lot of vehicular movement of heavy material was required, a lovely almost country-like grass track was widened and had hard-core laid down. The compacted track at the top of the river bank on which grew an attractive and interesting variety of plants was similarly dealt with, and even what seems some quite unnecessary use was made of grassland areas for vehicles. Near the southern end of the old sewage works, by a pylon, a number of silver birch Betula pendula were either cut down or lopped, so that even before the proposed work for the Forest was carried out, some quite drastic and unpleasant changes were made. Pylon work was still continuing in June 1994, when the paling fences were taken down on the 8 acre site, and an access route was laid across the field so that renovation work could begin on the rest of the site. (see photos of site in 1994)

The wilderness area was acquired by the City of London Corporation as exchange land for Forest land lost to the M11 link road. It was evident that as this newly formed addition to Epping Forest developed, changes would occur in the species of plants to be found there. A survey of the plant life was undertaken and the results published in the 1996/97 issue of The Essex Naturalist as "The Flora of the old Redbridge (Southern) Sewage Works". It was hoped that in future this record of what was there could be compared to that which develops. Much of the information contained in these pages is based on that survey.

The site was allowed to settle down. The chestnut paling fences erected to protect newly-seeded areas were all removed, as were the wire fences and stiles that delineated the Redbridge Field. In 2002 just a short length of wire fence - much of it obscured by brambles - plus the remains of gate posts were still visible alongside the tarmac track at the north edge of Area 5 (the northern part of "The Wilderness").  The track that runs south from here towards the river took many years to recover from the brick rubble that was deposited as a support for the vehicles used for the pylon work. Despite numerous mentions to the Conservators of Epping Forest over the years about its poor state it remained hazerdous and uncomfortable to walk upon. Only by about 2008 had it recovered sufficiently to be walked upon reasonably comfortably. The introductory photograph shows the track in 2009. The concrete fence separating the site from the bridle path by the City of London Cemetery is in a very poor state, though because of its position is not unduly intrusive or an immediate danger.

Some paths developed on the site, some disappeared - mostly the site was left to do its own thing and to be enjoyed by those that know it. However by 2000 there had been for some time a problem with overflowing water from drains near the entrance to the site near the Riding School. This appeared to be only surface water drainage, but caused the track into the site and across it (now part of the London Cycle Network) to be an almost permanent muddy stream. In the latter part of 2001, the hard standing - part of he original access roads - was used to store material for use on the re-embanking works taking place around the nearby Ornamental Water. The contractors who did the work were not monitored closely enough to prevent unnecessary damage to the site, making use of and driving over wildlife habitats. This together with the long-term problem with the blocked drains and an outpouring of water from a damaged water-supply point near the stables - for which it seems no-one would accept responsibility - gave rise to damage to at least two species of plants rare in the area and months of untidiness, mess and difficulty for people walking or cycling through the site.

Early in 2002, many of the kerb-stones that were part of the original site - lining the aforementioned access roads - were removed. It had originally been agreed that these would be retained as they provided a habitat for mosses and lichens as well as providing a link to the historical design of the place. Some kerb-stones were simply moved, and in 2004 were still on-site, but just in something of a heap, although later that year they were eventually removed. A thinning of the trees and undergrowth particularly near to the Dell Bridge access to the site also took place in 2002. This meant that now - from the park - the sewage works was no longer such a separate entity. The pleasure of going from one area to a different one was diminished. Since then, as is often the case with work carried out in Wanstead Park, the vegetation has been allowed to return.

Redbridge Field in Aldersbrook Exchange Lands, 2001Redbridge Field in Aldersbrook Exchange Lands in 2001In 2007, a works-site was set up in on the Redbridge Field by the company Barhale on behalf of the Thames Water Authority. The plan was to drill a borehole to tap into the aquifer some 80 metres below the surface. This was described in notices "to meet the challenges of increased demand, population growth and climate change" Work started on 16th July, and involved as well as the borehole the construction of a pipeline from the borehole to the Redbridge Treatment Works near the Redbridge Roundabout. By late 2007, much of Redbridge Field was being used as a site camp, with heavy vehicles having brought the machinery and pipe work in via Empress Avenue.

Initially water from the new borehole was flushed directly into the nearby sewage system that runs below the site, to carry away the chemicals used in the drilling process, and whilst the water was being tested for suitability. Subsequently, the water was diverted into the nearby Ornamental Waters, which had been getting desperately short of water. Millions of gallons were used in this operation, and very effectively re-filled the lake in a time of crisis. However, it must be said that in preparing a route for the proposed pipeline, a number of trees were destroyed at the north end of Wanstead Park, near to the Redbridge Treatment Works. As well, a significant area of Wanstead Park had barriers erected to prohibit people walking into construction areas considerably prior to any work being undertaken. This seems to me to be an example of contract work being undertaken on Epping Forest without any significant overseeing by the Conservators of Epping Forest.

By August 2008, work within the Sewage Works had ceased, although much material including pipes, hard-standings and fencing remained. On the plus side, the long-term problem with the leaking water-supply point near the Riding School entrance had been dealt with. Some new metal covers had been laid to protect the water-point, these being marked with Thames Water Authority markings. It is understood that the bore-hole has not produced the amount or possibly the quality of water that was hoped for. By 2010, most of the fencing, pipes and other material had been removed, and the land was allowed to settle down. However, the aspect was considerably different than before. A structure containing pumping equipment had been built to the north of the cycle-route that crosses the field, surrounded by a metal fence. Nearby, the ground surface had been changed from grass-covered soil to a hard standing system that is honeycombed in such a way as to allow vegetation to grow through. It does present something of a natural appearance as well as allowing for water permeability.  

During 2007 another threat to the area became apparent. This was the laying of a cycle path (part of the Roding Valley Way) from the pedestrian underpass near Little Ilford, alongside the eastern boundary of the City of London Cemetery, to eventually join up with the existing London Cycle Network route that runs east/west across the Exchange Lands. Although this could easily have been routed to continue immediately alongside the Cemetery fence, to exit into the east edge of Redbridge Field and thence along that edge to join the existing route, instead the hard-surface of the track was routed to finish exactly at the access to Epping Forest land - the Exchange Land! This was, presumably, before negotiations had been completed, or possibly even undertaken, with the City of London Corporation on the advisability of running a hard-surface cycle-route over Forest land. If this were to happen then I could foresee a significant disturbance to both the wildlife and the tranquillity and access to the Exchange Lands by pedestrians. (See also "The Alders Brook" on this website)

On 20 August 2008 it was heard that a horse-ride had been created through the site. This was seen to originate at the main access to the site by the riding school. Through the gate, the route went southwards parallel to the allotments boundary fence, turned east at the corner alongside the meadow area, snaked across to "Redbridge Field" and around the south edge of that, and across the south Wilderness area to the boundary gate near the Roding. In addition, the lower (riverside) bank of the river defence had been mowed, allowing a horse-ride north along the river to the fresh water outlet.

Apparently, this had been done to accommodate - albeit temporarily - the horse-riders who had lost some of their ride over nearby parts of Epping Forest (Wanstead and Leyton Flats?) due to the works on the Beckton to Walthamstow water-pipeline. Now, whilst this is understandable from the point of view of the horse-riders, no apparent thought had been given to the effect on the wildlife of the Exchange Lands, nor - I would say - on the impact to pedestrians.

Having been consulted in early 1993 on how best to create an environment that would enhance the wildlife and access to this part of Epping Forest, I was disturbed that in the creation of this horse-ride, lack of consultation might result in some of the best habitat being disturbed and - by the addition of inevitable horse-droppings - the potential for unwelcome changes occurring to the wildlife. In addition, when the route was walked on 22nd August, considerable pugging or poaching (damage to the surface caused by the impact of the horses hooves) had occurred along the Roding bank, making walking by pedestrians difficult. Plants that may be affected include a variety of clovers (including Hare's-foot) and vetches, Salsify, Goat's-beard and hybrids of those, Grass Vetchling, Sedum Acre, Shining Cranesbill, and even Orchids. As well, significant numbers of insects including Common Blue, Holly Blue and Brown Argus butterflies, Cinnabar, Mother Shipton and Burnet Companion moths and mining bees and/or wasps are present on this site.

Horse riding in Aldersbrook Exchange LandsConsiderate horse-riding in Aldersbrook Exchange Lands in 2008Subsequently, it was agreed to open the area for use as a trail for horses from the riding school. Still no detailed discussion seems to have taken place, although formal permission was eventually given from 1st May 2010. During 2010, the area was used by horses mainly in the form of occasional slow riding  around the main track-ways. However, some grazing was seen to take place outside of these areas, and some use was made by youngsters exercising a Shetland Pony. It was certainly noticeable after a period of about 24 hours continuous rain in January 2011 that an amount of poaching had taken place enough to make pedestrian walking uncomfortable, and at least one horse was being ridden on the day after. However, it would seem a nonsense for the adjacent riding school and livery stables not to have some access to the site - and certainly to the Roding Valley Way when complete - so long as the use is considerate to pedestrians and the environment of the site.

On that same day - January 10th - it was also noted that a considerable amount of hedge-cutting had taken place recently, and this had included a "scalping" of some track-side areas which were home to some of the site's more interesting plant species. These include Great Mullein, Stone Parsley, Whitlow Grass and Dewberry. Initial enquiries to the City of London Corporation resulted in a lack of knowledge of this, as did enquiries to London Borough of Redbridge. It was suggested, however, that it might have been carried out by National Grid, as their power lines cross the site. It may be noted that work on these power lines was carried out in 1994, and one result was that one of the nicest track-ways across the site was damaged so much that it had only just recovered from the ankle-twisting rubble that was put down to facilitate their vehicular access by 2008! It seemed that once again the Sewage Works site may be under threat from outside influences beyond the control of the Conservators of Epping Forest. (for an update on this, see here)

During the initial investigation on the damage done in at the end of 2010, I learnt that the area known as Redbridge Field was in fact managed by the London Borough of Redbridge as a recreational green until Barhale did their works for Thames Water during 2007 and 2008. It was at this point that Redbridge were made aware that the land was never registered to them, and the land actually belonged to Thames Water and T.f.L.(Transport for London).

By May 2012, the hard-surface of the Roding Valley Way foot-and-cycle path had been extended (as feared) from the point at which it had finished at the boundary with the Exchange Lands to cross the site from North to South, joining the existing West-East hard-surfaced cycle-path at a T-junction. This resulted in the country-like track-way that was mentioned earlier finally being destroyed to become - in effect - a surfaced road. It may be noted here that although posts with signage indication the Roding Valley Way were erected here and elsewhere, in fact the link between this point and the Way north of Redbridge Roundabout was not yet in existence even in 2013.

What had once been known as Redbridge Field - since the digging of the bore-hole and the erection of the pumping-facilities associated with it - by 2011 could no-longer be referred to as a field. A mowing regime was no longer taking place and much of the site had reverted to herb-cover, with a few desire-line pathways becoming established across it. This included a route by which horse-riders from Aldersbrook Livery Stables were accessing that portion of the Exchange Lands adjacent to the River Roding. Although this change in habitat meant that no longer could people use it comfortably for picnics or games, the vegetation undoubtedly was of more benefit to wildlife. During 2014, the Aldersbrook Riding Stables suggested the desire to establish paddocks for their horses in the this area, and some local consultation was made with interested parties - including the Wren Group and Wanstead Wildlife. Subsequently it was understood that negotiations took place with the site's owners (Thames Water?), and in August 2016 apparently permission was granted.

wp marker boundary stone efEpping Forest Boundary MarkerBecause the original 'footprint' of the old sewage works is now divided into effectively three areas, there is something of an anomalous relationship with the adjacent Wanstead Park. The east and west portions of the area have become part of Epping Forest, whilst the central portion remains the property of Thames Water. Epping Forest has certain by-laws, and these are signposted at significant entries to the Forest. Wanstead Park has its own by-laws, differing from those of the rest of the Forest, and thus on entering or leaving the Park or the Exchange Lands, there are Epping Forest sign-posts between the two!

Other signs of Epping Forest boundaries may still be found nearby. There are a series of concrete markers inscribed “EF”, with an arrow pointing in either direction away from the letters. These marked the original boundary of Epping Forest with its neighbour, the sewage works. They are located at ground level parallel to the northern edge of the sewage works area, near the bottom of the dividing bund.

For a review of the wildlife of the Aldersbrook Exchange Lands, click here

The photograph of the development of the Wilderness area in 1994 was taken by Jennifer Charter of Aldersbrook. Other photos are my own. (Paul Ferris)

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