Balloon tethers or fence posts?
The myth has been expanded over the last decade or so by numerous photographs and many mentions in all manner of documents, publication, talks, presentations and websites that the posts on Wanstead Flats between the “East Copse” and “Centre Copse”, north of Capel Road, are barrage balloon tethers.
I have been pointing out to a variety of people – many of whom did not want to know, presumably because that isn't quite as historically interesting as balloon tethers – that they had been fence posts.
As a child, I used to watch practice jumps from a barrage balloon on Wanstead Flats. My viewpoint was from my grandparents house in Windsor Road, Forest Gate. I'm pretty sure that the actual location where the balloon was tethered was in the rectangle formed by the posts. I believe that a lorry used to bring the balloon in, and it was probably tethered to that. There used to be big concrete tethering points up at Chigwell, and I think that you can still just about see one in Wanstead Park, if you know where to look. Concrete. Heavy. Tie a large balloon to the posts on Wanstead Flats and – I'm no engineer – but if that balloon was blown about in the wind, those posts would have been bent much more so than they are now.
The “tensioning handles”, as they appear on the Flats posts, were used to tension the wires between the posts to form the fence around the perimeter of the area. I remember that wire fence. I also remember that for a time the area was used as a bit of an informal speedway track.
It was somewhat rewarding to read in the spring issue of the Friends of Epping Forest Newsletter that Mike Smith had led a walk which included a look at the posts, and that they also concluded that they were just fencing posts. Let the myth go.
Another bit, relating to East Copse and Centre Copse. It's quite fun that those terms have been used in that article. The term copse can be used for a small group of trees, because that is what they are, but the word derives from coppice, which originally meant a small wood grown for periodic cutting. These groups of trees were planted towards the end of the 19th century as a response to efforts by the Epping Forest Committee to break up what was perceived as a monotonous area of grassland. They consist of quite a variety of tree species. These include Birch, Beech, Lime, English Oak, Red Oak and Locust Tree. The last of these – also known as Robinia – is now spreading by suckers onto the grassland. It makes a grand tree, but when it is cut down or suffers badly it throws out suckers with vicious double-thorns. Quite understandably, the foot-track that passes just south of the trees has moved southwards a couple of times in recent years, with the southwards spread of the thorn-thicket.
So what is fun about “East Copse” and “Centre Copse”, which aren't truly copses? Well, I named them thus, for convenience, when I drew a map of the Flats for recording purposes back in the late 70's. Not very inventive or romantic names, but they seem to be in use!
Paul Ferris, 2 February 2016