The Sewage Works site - or Aldersbrook Exchange Lands

Aldersbrook Exchange Lands


Though called the Exchange Land by the City of London Corporation, the area still known affectionately by some local people as "the Sewage Works" is the site of the old Redbridge (Southern) Sewage Works, which ceased operations in December 1977. In 1994 it became part of Epping Forest, gained to compensate for loss of Forest land to roadworks. It has formed an exceptionally interesting wildlife habitat, and a pleasant amenity area in the south of Epping Forest. For more details on the history of the site, click here.

The area is bounded by Wanstead Park to the north, the River Roding to the east, the City of London Cemetery to the south and allotments and a riding school to the west. These form just part of a very large area of open space in suburban East London. Until the mid 1970s the works were in use, and access was very limited. Some bird ringing was done here, and a very limited number of people visited the area at times to look at the plant-life. Even when the works were ceased, access was still prohibited and apart from some trespassers it lay virtually untouched and unused until it became part of the Forest.

The sewage works site is adjacent to the lands that were historically associated with Wanstead House, which was sold and demolished in 1824. Whereas the adjacent Wanstead Park was landscaped, it is probable that the site that was later to become the sewage works formed part of the Aldersbrook Manor - later Aldersbrook Farm - 200 acres of which was purchased from Lord Wellesley in 1853 to provide the land for the City of London Cemetery. On a map (available here) the area is shown as appearing to be perhaps rough grazing land - somewhat similar to Wanstead Flats which lies just to the west. It may also be noted that just to the south of what is now referred to as the Dell, leading towards this rough land is an avenue of trees. The remains of that avenue, in the form of a few lime trees, are still present within the sewage works site.

Wanstead Sewage Works - as it was originally called - originated in 1883-5 when the local board bought the site. A sewage farm is shown on the Ordnance Survey map of the area in 1894, and a map of 1919 shows also the filter beds of Wanstead Urban District Council. The site closed in 1978 and lay derelict and under the control of the Thames Water Authority.

In the early 1980s the Department of Transport took control of the site, to be used as was suitable as an adjunct to the contemplated road-building schemes in the area, primarily the South Woodford to Barking Relief Road (Now the A406). The D.o.T. maintained ownership of the land after the road was completed, evidently to be used as "exchange" land for other road improvement schemes which would affect Epping Forest.

A small area of the old sewage works was thought by the author to have been transferred into the ownership of the London Borough of Redbridge, also in the early 1980s. This was in compensation for land lost in that borough due to the A406 relief road. In order to gain access to this exchange land, a substantial new bridge (photo) was built across the River Roding, together with an extension of the tarmac road that runs from Wanstead Park Road into Wanstead Park Recreation Ground. The parcel of land - which effectively divided the rest of the original sewage works site into two detached areas - was cleared, and a grass field was laid. The Borough it seems originally had in mind that this be used as a recreation ground for field games by school children, but later thought that it might be used as an addition to the Ilford Golf Course which had lost two holes in the road-building. In fact, the land lay almost unused until 1994. The relatively few people that used it did so for such activities as family ball-games, dog-exercising, golf practice and such. It has usually been kept well mown, apart from a four-metre wide edge all around which was requested by the Wren Group as a gradation into the wilder Forest lands adjacent. Members of the Wren Group refer to this patch of land as "The Redbridge Field". In 2007, however, Thames Water Authority began digging a bore hole and it became apparent that the field was not owned by the L.B.Redbridge, but had presumably just been in its care.

The rest of the sewage works site remained until 1994 the property of the Department of Transport, and maintained a "Private" status. However, as may be supposed, increasingly the fences fell into disrepair, and increasingly people entered the area, though on a comparatively small scale. Over the years the vegetation grew up, and to most people the adjacent Park must have been more appealing than "the sewage works". But some people realised the amenity value of the land. The banks of the River Roding were used by anglers for fishing, and by others for walking. The river with the open land of the Golf Course on the opposite bank is an attractive place, and would be quiet but for the incessant noise of the A406 beyond. Bird watchers have appreciated the value of the area since before the works closed down.

The River Roding, from Aldersbrook Exchange LandsThe River Roding viewed from Aldersbrook Exchange Lands

The River Roding is an important migration route, and the surrounding parklands, woodlands, cemetery and other open land has a good selection of birds. Shortly after the works closed down, the nest and eggs of a red-legged partridge was found in brambles by the river bank, and pheasant were also present. Kingfishers were often seen, and probably nested along the river bank. In 1980 a report on the flora, fauna and ecological value of the site was compiled by local naturalist Colin Plant. In it he suggested that the Sewage Works and Wanstead Park complimented each other and were of equal ecological significance. He lists 14 species of mammal, 2 reptiles, 18 butterflies and many other insects, birds and plants. He concluded that in order to protect the ecological value of the Sewage Works, the site would benefit from being declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The site never has gained that status, but partly due to pressure from the Wren Group and other local people, did become part of Epping Forest - apart from the central area, known for a time as 'Redbridge Field', which remained the property of Thames Water Authority. Prior to essential tidy-up and safety work being undertaken, members of the Group were consulted on the wildlife of the area and how it could best be both preserved and enhanced. Much of the information was gained from a survey of the plant life which was undertaken by members of the Group, primarily by myself with assistance from Jennifer Charter and Ted Godden. The results were published in the 1996/97 issue of The Essex Naturalist as "The Flora of the old Redbridge (Southern) Sewage Works". A total of 237 of flowering plant species were listed in the report.

click here for map

click here for a history of the development of the site

click here for an introduction to the flora of the site

click here for Plant List

click here for Bird List

click here for Other Wildlife