At the weekend, we walked a short stretch of the London Loop (an example, by the way, of the same error as “PIN number” — LOOP stands for “London Outer Orbital Path”) from Turkey Street to Chingford.
Enfield is on the river Lea, just above a series of huge reservoirs which store much of London’s water supply. The river splits into several branches here; one of them is the navigation channel, which is spelt “Lee”. If this makes you think of the Lee Enfield rifle (the standard-issue weapon for British and Commonwealth armed forces in the first half of the twentieth century), it was indeed originally made here, at the Royal Small Arms Factory. A pub by the lock called the Gun, including Rifles Restaurant, had closed since my last visit.
We had just crossed the last branch of the Lea when we came to a three-way sign. Our direction was to the right, but the sign pointing left announced “Gunpowder Park 1/4 mile”.
I had read years ago that there had been a proving ground here for military explosives, which had been closed for many years, and had become very neglected and overgrown, which was to be opened to the public. I guessed that this was it, and so it proved, though it was not at all as I had imagined it. We decided to make a detour to see the place.
No sign on the site gave any information about its past, except implicitly the one in my photo. This was set in a position right beside the narrow entrance gateway where on busy days you would not be able to stand and look. The visitor centre by the car park, at the furthest corner from where we entered, had no leaflets or information boards; the only person there was a man who ran a portrait studio, with no connection to the park authorities, who could tell us nothing.
So I had to find its history later, with the help of Google. Even this proved difficult; almost all the relevant websites concentrate on its present status as a nature reserve. According to Culture 24,
Gunpowder Park is 255 acres of regenerated green space. Formerly part of the Royal Gunpowder Mills used for the development and research of explosives, this land has now been regenerated into a great place for walkers and cyclists.
However, as usual, Wikipedia is more forthcoming; what we saw is not the Royal Gunpowder Mills, where numerous buildings and walls survive, and whose history is described in detail here. So still some mystery about what they actually did on the land we saw. There is a brief reference to the fact that most of the south site was sold for housing and warehouses (I recall a scandal a few years ago when houses were built on contaminated land), with the residue being made into “the 255 acres (103 ha) Gunpowder Park, which is part of the Lee Valley Park and was opened in 2004. The regenerated parkland is dedicated to the arts, science and wildlife.”
The park was a huge open space rising to a low ridge above the valley. From the ridge there were good views of the pylons, warehouses, high-rises and reservoirs of the Lea valley on one side, and the tree-capped hills of Epping Forest on the other. Most of the land was covered in wildflowers, predominantly a white umbellifer (possibly yarrow), yellow ragwort, and blue vetch, with many others including clover, thistle, daisies, and a yellow flower like hawkbit that I couldn’t recognise. Some of the meadows had been mown for hay. There were willow and alder trees, and the hedges were full of brightly coloured berries: sloe, haw, and guelder rose (whose leaves were nearly as red as its berries, unusually early in the year). Well made paths, including the National Cycle Network route 1, threaded the site, and avenues through the flowers had been mown. It was almost deserted. Warm sunshine bathed the area (though there would be rain later). North-east London was held at bay, and there was a feeling of peace finally achieved.