Alexandra Lake, Wanstead Flats

The lake is known locally as the Sandhills Pond on account of the sandy nature of its banks and the two low hills on the southern and western banks. It is the largest of the open waters on Wanstead Flats. Its proper name of Alexandra Lake is after Queen Alexandra (1844-1925) the queen-consort of King Edward VII, in whose reign the lake was dug. (see photos)

Alexandra LakeAlexandra Lake - June 2000

In "The Lake System of Wanstead Park & The Mystery of The Heronry Pond" by James Berry & Alan Cornish, dated March 1978, it is suggested that Alexandra Lake was dug sometime around 1906/7. This was in an effort to control flooding which took place from time to time in the vicinity of Wanstead Park Avenue and Aldersbrook Road. Other work was going on at the time to enhance the flow of water into the Heronry Pond in Wanstead Park, and a solution was to have the necessary work carried out by unemployed men under the control of the West Ham Distress Committee.

Origins of the Lake

In order to cure the problem of the Aldersbrook Road having cut off the natural drainage of Wanstead Flats at this point down a narrow valley running north-east to to the River Roding (i.e. now within the City of London Cemetery), Alexandra Lake was dug. There is an overflow system in its north-east corner, near Aldersbrook Road. It is suggested by James Berry & Alan Cornish that this might lead into Perch Pond in Wanstead Park by means of a drain via Wanstead Park Avenue, but I believe that the drain follows something of the original natural drainage route through the City of London Cemetery, but now underground, and hence may be considered to be the source of the Alders Brook.

Subsequent Improvements

A year or so after the lake was dug, it was apparent that not enough water was available to fill the excavation adequately. The lake was dug deeper so that sub-surface water could be accessed and a system of drains (photos) were installed to channel surface water from the Aldersbrook Road into the lake. This certainly had some effect, because before long the lake was a source of pleasure to many local people.

Water Loss and the Repair in 1992

During the late 1980's the lake had shown problems with a tendency to almost dry up during the summers. Late in 1992 the lake was dredged of accumulated silt in an attempt to access standing water (i.e. beneath the surface of Wanstead Flats). This necessitated removing the fish stock - or at least those that hadn't perished in the abominable conditions during the summer of 1992 when many died. The lake is also used by many wild birds - swans, ducks, geese, coot and moorhen as well as others. The truly wild birds were able to make use of other waters, but many escaped birds - domestic ducks and geese - became sick and died.

Disposal of Dredgings

The silt from the dredgings were disposed of in a most inappropriate manner. A relatively small amount was tipped at the western end of the lake as a sort of beach. It was supposed to be an amenity but is in fact an eyesore. Even worse, much was tipped on the lower of the lake's two islands - the island referred to locally as Flat Island! It is no longer that; whereas it once provided a habitat for nesting wildfowl, now much of it is a tangled bramble waste. Worse still, an enormous amount of silt was tipped onto Wanstead Flats adjacent to an open hawthorn woodland to the east of the lake. This has totally changed the character of the Flats in this area, inhibiting the views across. No attempt was made even to landscape the tip - it was just allowed to dry out as a corrugated, virtually inaccessible, eyesore.


The work was otherwise successful. The lake retained a better volume of water at most times, and the wildfowl gradually returned. I had been pointing out for years that there had once been surface water drainage from Aldersbrook Road to help top-up the waters. Remains of the drains in the form of ceramic pipes could still be seen between the road and the lake and very obviously there was a gutter drain in Aldersbrook Road - but my claims were usually denied. Eventually it seems, somebody read the history, and eventually the gutter drain was cleaned out and new pipes were installed leading into the north-east corner of the lake. The original ceramic pipes could still be identified in 2002, in the form of broken pieces mixed with the gravel of the lake edge, but also still in their original situation. Interestingly, this was now within the root system of one of the London plane trees that line the road here. Presumably the drains were laid and the trees were planted at about the same time, but a little too closely. The increasing girth of the tree eventually encased the drain. (see photographs - click here)

Flooding in 2001

Alexandra LakeA 101 bus encounters Alexandra Lake on 25 March, 2001

With the lake now much better able to withstand dryer weather, another problem presented itself. In March 2001, heavy rainfall caused flooding in many parts of the country. Locally, the Aldersbrook Road by Wanstead Park Avenue was flooded by the waters of Alexandra Lake overflowing to more than halfway across the road at its worse. The problem arose because the overflow drains from the lake, which are situated quite close to the newly installed drains into the lake (although of course at a lower level) had become blocked. Once these were cleared and renovated - by which time the rains had subsided anyway - the waters went down.

Early in 2003, a ditch was dug across the rough grassland south of the lake as far as the playing fields, and then west some few hundred meters across the playing fields. This was apparently to try to improve drainage from the flats, which - as has been stated - are very prone to shallow flooding. The ditch is intended to deposit the water into Alexandra Lake and so help to maintain its level. The ditch was contoured so as to provide some interest, and crossing places were provided because it is a substantial barrier to what had been an open passage across the Flats. As well, the course of the ditch across the rough grassland followed the route of an old but useful track (probably associated originally with the prefabs that had been here). In the process, the track became unusable and the plants that grew alongside it (on slightly raised banks) were destroyed. These included the only patch of Heather (Calluna vulgaris) known on this part of the Flats.

Also in 2003, the gently sloping gravel "beach" (which can be seen in the photograph below) was modified so that a steeper bank was created at the waters edge. Presumably this was to prevent the accumulation of mud in that bay of the lake. The effect was to block the the inflow from the drain on Aldersbrook road, so that after a heavy rainfall in late September 2005, Aldersbrook Road was once again flooded so that water actually went into the shops. This was when the lake was so dry it was possible to walk dryfoot across to one of the islands! The ditch mentioned above has hardly ever seen water in it, and by 2009 the view of the lake from Aldersbrook Road had been almost obliterated by the vegetation that was now growing where the beach had been.

Excess Bird Feeding

Litter deposited on Wanstead FlatsSlices and loaves of bread left by Alexandra Lake - May 2001

The death of birds using the lake during 1992 was partially due to the increased levels of toxins in the lake caused by a persistent problem - that of overfeeding. A car park close to the lake's west end encourages people to visit, and of course many bring "food for the ducks". This pleasant pastime is one of the reasons for the vast flock of Canada geese which nowadays - in greater or lesser numbers - are a permanent feature. Many people, however, do not seem to realize that they are not the only ones providing food during the course of the day, nor have any awareness of the amount which is sensible to provide. It is extremely common to see people alight from their cars, walk to the waters edge (or even not that far) and tip carrier bag loads of food on the banks or into the water. It is not always bread - colourful concoctions of Asian foods are common, with lots of rice. The vast numbers of birds present at times - particularly geese, feral pigeons and in the winter, gulls - sometimes can't cope, and the food is left to rot. It is not uncommon to see uneaten bread in the water developing a blue bloom. The rat population at the north edge of the lake - in the woods and opposite the shops of Aldersbrook Road - flourish and try to help devour the stuff - but occasionally the water gets into a very bad state. Suggestions over the years to the Corporation of London that some form of advice to visitors about excessive bird-feeding should be provided went unheeded until some publicity began to be put out in about October 2002. Now (in 2004) there is a nice notice board with information about the lake and its wildlife, and also some signage attempting to inform people about the problems of overfeeding.

Litter Problems

Offerings left by the lakeCandles, coconuts, clothing, brooms, fruit, a basket and boxes left as part of religious ritual - February 2005

In addition to the excess bird food, ordinary litter also presents a problem. In fact, it is quite common for the plastic bags and bin-liners used to carry the food to lake are also left there! The photograph above shows one of a number of litter bins provided by the Corporation of London (they were originally used in the City of London until bomb-scares forced their removal), and at least some visitors used them. The problem was that they were open-topped. If it was windy - and the wind can blow quite strongly across the openness of the Flats - those bins particularly by the car park at the west end of the lake by Aldersbrook Road were soon losing the litter deposited in them and much of the lighter material ended up in the lake. In mid-June 2002, the litter bins in the vicinity of the lake were removed.

Another peculiar problem arises from what is presumably a religious ritual that is frequently carried out by Alexandra Lake. This involves the depositing of candles, coconuts and fruit adjacent to and in the lake. At times - as can be seen in the photograph - carrier bags and even the boxes that the candles were brought in are left by the lake, as well as clothing material.

The football games that take place particularly at weekend, but also during weekdays when numerous practise sessions take place either officially or unofficially, are often an unfortunate source of even more litter. Both the players in their break and after the session and spectators too tend to leave a selection of material including many plastic bottles after they leave. Epping Forest staff and indeed some local residents are good at dealing with this after the event but the costs involved in doing so, and the cost to the environment and to the visual enjoyment of the Flats, means that a way of dealing more effectively with the problem of litter should perhaps be dealt with more at the source.


Paul Ferris