Uncovering the Alders Brook
The winter rain in 2014 has beaten all records, so it is not surprising that we have seen the Shoulder of Mutton Pond and Heronry Pond in Wanstead Park as full as we have seen them for many years. The Perch Pond has been overflowing – as it should – through the Dell and into the Ornamental Water. It is only the latter that is still not as high as it should be.
We know all too well that there is a significant problem with the water supplies into and out of our chain of lakes, which start with the Basin on Wanstead Golf Course. Part of the reasons why the Shoulder of Mutton and Heronry Ponds are both so full are that their outflows are blocked – the Shoulder of Mutton should be providing excess water to Heronry Pond and that to the Perch Pond. Simple maintenance!
And on Wanstead Flats, Alexandra Lake has been flowing across the pavement into Aldersbrook Road, and the water gushing down a surface drain to go who knows where. Where it should go, I am sure, is through the lake's outflow, which is a concrete structure at the NE corner of the lake, almost opposite the large house on Aldersbrook Road which is the cemetery Superintendent's house.
Alan Cornish in his investigation into the reasons why Heronry Pond is so often so lacking in water1 suggests that there is a drain from the Alexandra Lake which should transfer water to the Park's lake system, but if ever this were the case it doesn't make sense to me. If you go into the cemetery through the main gate and turn left, you will in a few yards notice a depression in contours of the landscape, which derives from near the gardens of the Superintendent's house and can be seen to fall away and become more pronounced towards the New Crematorium buildings and the Catacombs beyond. This is a natural valley, the obvious course of drainage from the near part of Wanstead Flats, in the vicinity of Alexandra Lake. Indeed, when what is now the City of London Cemetery was the the grounds of Aldersbrook Manor – once the property of the Lethieulliers – the area in front of the Catacombs, or Columbarium, was once known as Aldersbrook Pond and later the Great Lake2. Man-made lakes are typically formed by means of damming watercourses; the watercourse in this case is the Alders Brook. Beyond the east end of the lake, there is an area of land long used as a tip for waste material from the cemetery. This is known as the Shoot.
Beyond the Shoot is an area of “wild” land, part of which incorporates the cemetery's Nature Reserve, The Birches. It is only within The Birches that the Alders Brook nowadays becomes visible, as a small pond surrounded by trees which itself was artificially created as a wildlife resource. The outflow from the pond can be seen in the form of a culvert which runs under the cemetery's east boundary fence, under the Bridle Path near the Bridle Path Allotments where it can be seen as the Alders Brook proper.
The inflow to the small pond in the cemetery can also be seen: this is a culvert which tracks back underneath the Shoot area, and thus from the direction of the shallow valley through the cemetery which derives from near Wanstead Flats.
On a visit to the cemetery on 21st February I'd seen that all but one of the Poplar trees that had lined Poplar Road, at the north edge of the Shoot, had been felled. I was told that the intention was to make some use of the Shoot area for burials, as space within the cemetery is now so limited. The felling of trees around the area had provided me with something of an access to what is usually not part of the public part of the grounds, and indeed – to an area which possibly hadn't been accessed for decades! It is incredible that such a wild area can exist in such formal and urban surroundings. I found myself in an area, adjacent to The Birches, which was a hidden world of valleys, undergrowth, fallen trees and a bank of snowdrops. apart from birds, foxes were the only other sign of animal life, loping off as I approached, then standing to look at me over their shoulders before disappearing.
On a return visit on 27th February I ventured into The Shoot area proper, a desolate landscape of tipped vegetation, broken machinery and muddy turned-up ground. It is higher than the general ground level of the cemetery, so the views from the top are different from elsewhere. A large area had been dug out, once a strange mix of smoking, compost-like tippings, complete with the sound of House crickets, beautiful area of Gorse and other wild plants – and a haven, of sorts, for such creatures as Foxes. The crickets have long-gone, and much of the gorse, but on this day there was a temporary fence to stop one falling over a cliff! Below, was the dug-out area that will presumably be part of the new burial grounds. More or less in the centre of this churned up earth was what appeared to be a hole, temporarily covered up. I carefully made my way down to what I suspected to be the exposed top of the culvert that carried water through to the pond in the nature reserve area nearby. Sure enough, I could hear the sound of water below the covering board. Not much, which did not surprise me; as I've already noted, the overflow from Alexandra Lake has been all-but blocked for a long time. I just about remember when the brook ran open from just about here, and even a Kingfisher had been noted at one time. The culvert had been extended at some time to allow more use of the Shoot.
I spoke later to the Superintendent of the Cemetery, and he confirmed that the watercourse had been unintentionally exposed. He told me too that the water did indeed derive – in theory anyway – from Alexandra Lake, supplemented by surface water from the cemetery. Chatting to one or two people associated with the Conservators of Epping Forest, I was told that it would probably be the responsibility of the Environment Agency to ensure that the outlet for overflow water from Alexandra Lake be kept clear.
1. CORNISH, A. M.Sc. 2006. Wanstead Park - A Chronicle. Originally published by the Friends of Wanstead Parklands in 1982 and updated and republished by Wanstead Parklands Community Project.
2. DAVID LAMBERT 2006. The Cemetery in a Garden - 150 Years of the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium. City of London Publication.