The surprising thing about Wanstead Park in east London is that, despite its close proximity to the North Circular road, the distant hum of traffic is really only noticeable from the northern side of the park. This is a lovely walk, enchanting even, for it traces the outline of the ornamental waters and its Grotto and Temple as well as Florrie's Hill. No wonder Elizabeth I kept returning.
An estate like no other
Wanstead has been associated with royalty ever since 1553 when Queen Mary, a Roman Catholic, broke her journey here from Norwich to meet her sister, Princess Elizabeth, a Protestant, who rode out to Wanstead accompanied by hundreds of knights on horseback. The estate had belonged to Sir Giles Heron but, because he would not denounce his Catholic beliefs, Henry VIII (the girls' father) took it from him. After Mary's death, Elizabeth became Queen – she was just 25 years old. The estate at Wanstead then belonged to Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, who had enlarged and improved the mansion. The two became very close and Dudley held some extremely lavish parties for his royal guest. In 1578 Elizabeth stayed in Wanstead for five days and no doubt would have spent some time walking in the wonderful grounds.
Highs and lows
When Queen Elizabeth died, James I succeeded her. In 1607 he spent the autumn in Wanstead. The manor was later sold to Sir James Mildmay. Unfortunately, as Mildmay was one of the judges at the trial of Charles I, which led to Charles' execution, the manor was taken from the family after the restoration and handed to the Crown. In 1667 Sir Josiah Child (whose family were the first private bankers in England) bought the manor and made huge improvements. Later, his son, Sir Richard, replaced the manor house and landscaped the gardens. Constructed using Portland stone, the front of the new mansion had a portico of six Corinthian columns. The building was considered one of the finest in the country, even rivalling Blenheim Palace. The Grotto was erected and the ornamental waters and lakes were also designed at this time.
But why, you might ask, is there no mansion today? The blame lies chiefly with Catherine Tilney-Long, who inherited the extremely valuable property in 1794. Despite no shortage of admiring males, she married a gambling man, who took just 10 years to blow her entire fortune. To pay off her husband's debts Catherine auctioned the contents of the house and, because a buyer could not be found for the house itself, the magnificent property was pulled down and sold in separate lots. Fortunately for us, despite this sad tale of decline, the wonderful grounds can still be enjoyed.
Turn left outside Wanstead tube into The Green, which becomes St Mary's Avenue. At the end cross the road into Overton Drive, which runs to the left of St Mary's Church. After the Bowls and Golf Club turn right, into The Warren Drive. (The building on the right, before the road bends, was once the stable block and coach house to Wanstead House.)
At the T-junction turn left and enter Wanstead Park through the gate opposite. Continue ahead downhill (Florrie's Hill) to reach the ornamental water. Follow the path to the left of the water and continue ahead as it runs to the right of the River Roding.
Continue along the main path and after another 0.25 miles (400m) the path swings sharply to the left round an area known as the Fortifications, once a group of eight islands used for storing ammunition for duck-shooting and now a bird sanctuary. Soon after this the path traces the outline of a section of the water shaped like a finger and at its tip, to your left, are the steep banks of the River Roding.
At a fork turn right to continue alongside the water. When the path bends to the left, the Grotto is ahead.
At the T-junction turn right. At a fork at the end of the water turn right again, to cross a footbridge, then take the left-hand fork towards grassland. At a crossing of paths keep ahead until you reach a refreshment kiosk. Turn left here and pass beside a barrier on to Northumberland Avenue.
Immediately turn right to pick up a path leading to Heronry Pond, which narrows and passes over a mound. At a crossing of paths turn right and then keep ahead across the grass. At the next junction turn right at a wooden post along a gravel path towards the trees.
The path weaves around the pond to reach a barrier. Pass beside this and take a left-hand fork to join a wide, grassy track lined with sweet chestnut trees. At the front of the Temple take the well-defined path on your right. Keep ahead at a junction of paths towards the lake.
When you reach the metal enclosure that surrounds the Grotto turn left, and a few paces further on take a footpath that veers right and hugs the water's edge before joining another, wider path. Turn next left up Florrie's Hill to retrace your steps back to Wanstead tube.
Mainly lakeside tracks that can get muddy
Ornamental lake and parkland
Keep on lead on roads to park
OS Explorer 174 Epping Forest & Lee Valley
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Discover Greater London
Greater London is one of the world’s largest urban areas; 33 boroughs stretching north to Enfield, south to Croydon, east to Havering, west to Hillingdon and with central London at the heart of it all.
Greater London was officially created in 1965, but the boroughs themselves all have their own histories going back much further. Greenwich is home to the Prime Meridian, which all clocks on earth take their time from, while Hounslow contains Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world. Greater London contains a multitude of parks and green spaces, from the six Royal Parks (including Richmond Park, Green Park, Hyde Park and Regent’s Park) and other huge open spaces like Hampstead Heath and Clapham Common; to smaller community spaces like Clissold Park in Stoke Newington and Burgess Park in Southwark.
The centre of London has its quiet spaces too, like Coram’s Field by Great Ormond Street, and Camley Street Natural Park, a stone’s throw from King’s Cross and St Pancras. One of the city’s most impressive features is the London Underground. Beginning in 1863 as the Metropolitan Railway, it took commuters into The City from the suburbs of Middlesex. It was the first underground railway in the world, and now consists of 11 lines, 270 stations, and 250 miles (402km) of track. It’s estimated that nearly five million journeys are taken every day, and there are nearly one and a half billion riders each year. At peak times, there are more than 543 trains whizzing around the Capital.