Has Wanstead become a byword for neglect?

The grotto, Wanstead Park, a symbol of neglect stretching back two centuries

At the turn of the millennium Redbridge held the dubious honour of being the only borough not to feature any places of interest in the official Blue Guide to London. Despite the restoration of Valentines Mansion in Ilford between 2006-09, Redbridge remains missing from the Blue Guide for 2017; though at least it now shares this distinction with outlying boroughs of Bromley, Croydon, Havering, and Sutton.

Whereas other boroughs have majestic buildings of note, Redbridge just has a hole in the ground where Wanstead House once stood

This sense of neglect is no more epitomised than by Wanstead, an area of historical importance that is nonetheless too keenly associated with loss. Since the demolition of Wanstead House, Britain’s first and finest Palladian mansion (1824), it can sometimes feel that the circus has left town and that Wanstead has nothing left to offer but memories of a glorious past. Yet anyone who knows Wanstead and its environs would rightfully assert that today, even without its magnificent mansion, Wanstead Park remains a jewel in the crown not just of Redbridge, but of the whole of east London.

Wanstead Park – Loved yet unknown to most Londoners

Despite a chronic lack of investment, during which time its ornamental waters have drained and dried up, Wanstead Park remains a doggedly popular leisure amenity. It is enthusiastically championed by a dedicated group of Friends, anxious to turn back the tide of decay which is allowing this enclave of London – once favoured by Tudor Kings and Queens, to slip away without ceremony before our very eyes. The Corporation of London, current custodians of Wanstead Park have long asked us to accept that their finances have limits, yet one can’t help feeling that Wanstead is well down their list of priorities, and certainly easier to ignore than more high profile assets such as Hampstead Heath, with its richer and more powerful supporters.

News today however, that the future of St Mary the Virgin Church in Overton Drive is now under threat because its owner the Church of England are finding it too expensive to upkeep, may just be the tipping point at which we must all stand up and demand change. A church has stood on this site for 800 years, and the present version (c.1790) is the only Grade I listed building in the borough of Redbridge. A by-product of Britain’s East India Company and slave trading past, St Mary’s is both architecturally and socially significant; well worth a visit for anyone interested in London’s cultural history.

I had the good fortune to visit St Mary’s recently whilst a choir practice was in progress and it was a truly memorable experience not only for the delightful interiors but the wonderful acoustic provided by its galleried aisles – leaving me chuffed to know that we have this gem of a building in our midst

Of course buildings like St Mary’s Church are costly to maintain, and reports that the congregation has dwindled to a few dozen mass attendees, clearly contribute to the Anglican Church’s decision to review its future. But isn’t this so typically Wanstead, so typically Redbridge? Here we have the Church of England, sitting on landholdings conservatively valued at £8bn, pleading poverty and implying disinterest as a means to disengage. One must ask the obvious question – why hasn’t the Church invited proposals to increase the use of St Mary’s? Is it because they don’t want help to keep the church open – and are simply looking for excuses to bail out?

The M11 Link protest of early 1990s proves that Wanstead does not always have to take decisions lying down

In the long run listed status will conserve St Mary’s for future generations but doesn’t this whole episode smack of yet more neglect, and a rather patronising assumption that the people of Wanstead will accept another loss in their usual stoic manner? One can only hope that this news will be greeted with a call to arms (like to M11 link protest days) rather than a collective sigh passively confirming that Redbridge, and especially Wanstead, really do deserve to be overlooked by the London guidebooks.

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