Features Leytonstone

Notes from nature

Kelly Bewers takes a winter walk among the ancient oaks and inquisitive squirrels at Hollow Pond, Leytonstone

Hollow Ponds on a wintry day

Epping Forest is a protected strip of ancient woodland that stretches like a curled finger across 5,900 acres from Epping all the way down to the heart of East London.

And it is here, nestled between Whipps Cross Road and Hollybush Hill in Leytonstone, that we find Hollow Pond, one of my favourite local green spaces.

Like the colourful history of Epping Forest – also known as the “People’s Forest” for the successful protest movement in the late 19th century that resisted enclosure by the Crown and ensured the forest remained accessible as common land for all – Hollow Pond has its own curious social history.

In the late 1800s gravel was extracted from the land to support road building in the area. This ceased in 1878 but left a series of water-filled pits on marshy land. In 1905 a group of unemployed labourers were engaged by the council to expand the lake, creating the pools and islands we enjoy today.

To the north of the site, one of these ponds became a popular public bathing pool, fed by natural springs. It was beset by silt build up, so in 1923 the local authority invested £7,000 to develop into a lido; the largest in Britain at the time. Much loved by the local community it was sadly closed in 1983 due to ongoing hygiene problems.

In the winter months our local green spaces might feel bare and uninviting. The short days and harsh weather can impact our mood and sense of wellbeing. But look a little closer and nature still has plenty of delights to offer and a stroll around Hollow Pond can be restorative.

Hundreds of oak trees gather around the banks of the Pond like still and silent sentinels. Without leaves you can appreciate the incredible tree architecture – the lacing of branches, the unusual bend of a trunk, the lofty height of reaching limbs, the texture of the bark.

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I’m always amazed at how the oaks on the eastern side of the pond seem to grow in gravity-defying directions, creating incredible shapes and shadows. As you wander among the trees, perhaps stretch out your own limbs and reach up to the sky. Unfold from the winter curling in and remember that you are a body too!

A January walk here will undoubtedly involve mud. The paths and puddles are definitely not to be trodden in your favourite shoes. Noticing the soil during winter is another way to bring awareness to the seasonal cycles. Although the landscape during winter might seem colourless and sparse, the magic is all happening underground.

Deep beneath the brown clay and soggy earth, seeds of bluebells, daffodils and spring’s wildflowers are being enriched. The debris from autumn’s fallen leaves are nourishing new growth.

Not everything is hibernating at Hollow Pond. Despite the cold and frost, squirrels always abound. Scurrying from tree to tree, making brave leaps among the branches and pausing to stare curiously as you walk beneath them. Stay awhile to watch as they explore, gathering in nuts and acorns. Look closely at the forest floor and see what you can see; a feather, a stone, a mushroom or a sprig of holly.

Finally, look out across the water and you’ll see mallard ducks, Canada geese and great white swans floating gracefully. You might even see the heron. I find him most often on the north-eastern edge, tucked into the marshy shallows, still as a statue, waiting to dart his sharp beak into the water for a silty breakfast.

Ours is the only London borough with ‘forest’ in its name, so let’s celebrate Waltham Forest’s wild places this winter and maybe we’ll even learn something about ourselves from the wisdom and magic they reveal.

Hollow Pond is a 20 minute walk from Leytonstone Station

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