The area known locally as 'The Flats' is the southern-most portion of Epping Forest and a welcome intrusion into the suburbs of east London. Heavily built-up areas, primarily of housing, lie immediately to the south and west, though to the north-west it is connected by way of Bush Wood to Leyton Flats and so to more northerly reaches of the Forest.
Roads and houses almost completely surround Wanstead Flats. To the east a low wall and high railing separate it from the City of London Cemetery, and in the north-west it adjoins Bush Wood. Three roads actually cross the Flats, effectively dividing it into four sections. The greater part of the whole area of some 135 hectares is flat, open grassland on the river gravel of the Taplow Terrace, which overlays the London Clay. Though historically part of a royal forest, the nature of the area encouraged people to turn out cattle and other animals to graze upon this unenclosed land. This practice was eventually recognised and granted as the 'right of common pasture'. Certain landowners and occupiers still have this right, granted them as part of The Epping Forest Act of 1878, and cattle grazed freely until 1996 when the BSE crisis forced their removal. It is probable that continued grazing on this and similar areas of the Forest helped to maintain the open aspect which they have today. (See "Cattle on Wanstead Flats")
Much of the land is liable to a degree of flooding after heavy rain, but also to considerable and quite rapid drying-out in periods of low rainfall. Drainage from the grassland should help to maintain usually three permanent open waters, although in recent years these ponds have been prone to severe lack of water at times. The largest of the waters, with two islands to its credit, is Alexandra Lake. Its local name the Sandhills Pond may be attributed to the sandy nature of the low gravel mounds by its banks. The next in size is Jubilee Pond, which until 2002 was known as the Model Yacht Pond or Dames Road Pond. Until renovation in 2002 this had stone banks, and, as its name implied, was in the past used for model boating. Lack of repair and a water supply meant that for many years the pond was often dry. The smallest water is the round pond by Capel Road, Angell's Pond. This was named after Mr Lewis Angell, the first borough engineer of West Ham, who was responsible for the construction of the pond during the winter of 1893-94. The spelling soon became corrupted, as early postcards show. This is a circular muddy hollow which can dry out completely in hot weather. The only other semi-permanent pond is that by Lake House Road know as the Cat and Dog Pond, presumably because it only exists when it has been raining 'cats and dogs'. There are some drainage ditches, but few hold water for much time. In the late 1990's a new drainage ditch was created running from the playing fields opposite Tylney Road in Forest Gate in a somewhat serpentine fashion to the south-west corner of Alexandra Lake. This was to help drain the playing fields of the surface-water that can occur after heavy rain. Although some important rough grassland habitat was disturbed in its creation (even some heather was destroyed), there is rarely if ever any water in it. Similarly, a drain was installed to take water from Aldersbrook Road near Wanstead Park Avenue - much prone to flooding after heavy rain - into Alexandra Lake. Even so, owing to lack of maintenance, the road has subsequently been seen to flood across to the shops opposite - even though the lake suffers from a shortage of water (see here). The only running water used to be a year-round spring that was the source of one of the 'marshy' areas dominated by rushes that exist in some of the more poorly drained parts of the Flats. The spring, however, is no more. It is assumed that road works and or pipe-laying by Centre Road has disrupted the supply. During a period of lake creation at the turn of the 19th/20th Century (when, for example, Alexandra Lake was created as part of a job creation scheme for the unemployed) it is said that the hollow at the junction of Aldersbrook Road and Centre Road was dug. It was supposed to have been a lake, but was not completed.
Scattered over the area are some thickets of gorse and broom, as well as a number of small woods and copses. Most of these 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. Together with the many trees lining the roadsides and some avenues, they do add greatly to the diversity of tree species to be found. Older than these is an avenue of trees in the NW portion of the Flats, running from close to Ferndale Road in Leytonstone to Bush Wood. This is known as Evelyn's Avenue, planted by John Evelyn (Author of "Sylva, or a discourse of Forest-trees") on the instructions of Sir Josiah Child after he had purchased the estate. It formed one of a number of such avenues radiating from Wanstead House. Consisting of sweet-chestnuts and forming one of the main approaches to Wanstead House, it is remarkable that so much of this is still visible after 300 years.
Nearly all the perimeter of Wanstead Flats has a ditch, often with a bank, to prohibit vehicular access. The only vehicles normally allowed are service vehicles and bicycles. Horses may be taken onto the Flats and are supposed to keep to bridle paths marked by posts. There is considerable pedestrian traffic because of the large number of people living nearby and the availability of the area for activities such as the flying of model aircraft and kites, bird watching, botanizing and the exercising of people and dogs; this must have some effect on the ecology of the area. Fishing in Alexandra Lake is no longer undertaken and model boating in the old Model Yacht Pond ceased when the pond no longer retained water.
From the times when Wanstead Flats was used to assemble cattle from the long cattle droves, through to the end of local cattle grazing in 1996, through those years when the Flats was regarded as an inhospitable and wild place to the early 20th century when it was a popular recreation area, through the wartime when gun emplacements and prisoners of war were held here to post war pre-fab housing and increasing sports facilities - the Flats have had many uses. They have also had many abuses - some already mentioned - and threats. The use of the Flats for housing is an issue that re-occurs from time to time - most recently when housing was permitted for a time post-war. Pipe lines have had to be laid - a gas pipe from the vicinity of Angell's Pond to near Park Road, Aldersbrook, and more recently the water-desalination pipe-line from Beckton to Woodford. Most recently - in the summer of 2008 - a cycle-route has been proposed, traversing parts of the Flats including from near Angell's Pond to Capel Road Changing Rooms and then diagonally across to Aldersbrook Road. Like the proposal a few years ago to provide evening sports facilities by Aldersbrook Road, the suggestion even includes lighting! From the mid 1800's people have vehemently opposed numerous proposals to radically change the Flats. It is important that these issues are monitored and oppositions to unwelcome changes are made - not just for the people that appreciate Wanstead Flats, but for the vast amount of wildlife that lives there - including a healthy population of a rare London bird - the skylark.