Country and Gardens: The forest comes to Dagenham

Country Matters
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The Independent Culture
The eastern fringes of London are hardly the sort of territory in which you expect the Forestry Commission to be active. Indeed, until recently it owned no woodland in that part of Essex. Now, however, it has become closely involved in an imaginative scheme to rescue the area from the dereliction that has blighted it since the Second World War.

First steps towards restoration were taken in 1990 with the launch of the Thames Chase Community Forest - one of the projects initiated by the Government to improve the environment around major conurbations. The designated area of Thames Chase, 15 miles from central London, extends to nearly 10,000 hectares. It straddles the M25, which here runs north and south.

For a first-time visitor, arriving from wild country far in the west, this is a landscape from hell. Major roads criss-cross it in all directions. Pylons march over it. The massed houses of Brentwood, Romford, Hornchurch, Dagenham and lesser conurbations crowd in all around. Of the remaining open land, much is derelict, and dotted with heaps of rubbish left by travellers who, pretending to offer a disposal service, accept fees from householders for clearing rubble or fallen trees, and then dump lorry- loads in the first field they can find.

Building apart, the chief agents of destruction have been the extraction of sand and gravel and low-quality restoration of worked-out sites. The area offers a vivid illustration of how wildly the value of land fluctuates. Agricultural land, lying above London clay, is worth about pounds 2,500 an acre. Land with sand or gravel beneath it is worth many times that. A worked- out hole in the ground is also extremely valuable for land-fill - the tipping of domestic and industrial waste. But once a land-fill site has been restored - capped with clay and a layer of earth - its value is practically nil, because it can never be built on.

It is this quirk that has given the foresters their chance. On the one hand, the owners of restored sites are keen to off-load them on to an organisation that will take over their long-term management; and on the other, research has shown that trees will grow perfectly well on old rubbish tips provided that the pits are capped by a deep enough layer of soil. Thus the woodsmen can acquire considerable areas of suitable land - either by purchase, or on a 99-year lease - for next to nothing.

Already Thames Chase has made encouraging progress. In nine years 425,000 trees have been planted, and several areas have been transformed. The most striking contrast between old and new is visible at the site known as Aveley III, owned by Hanson Waste. Half of it is still a gigantic hole, 20 metres deep and hundreds of metres across, into which bulk-carrier lorries are bringing household waste from East London. When I visited, the pit was full of noise, vehicles, dust, clay and rubbish, with a swarm of seagulls screaming over it.

Immediately beyond a wire fence, the reclaimed part of the site has become Kenningtons Park - an oasis of calm and greenery, with trees, shrubs, well-made paths, lakes and fishing-platforms. When Thames Chase published its final plan for this transformation, the local action group - Cappa, or the Campaign Against Poison Pits - which had been strongly opposed, suddenly turned into its greatest advocate.

From the start the Forestry Commission backed Thames Chase with funds and advice, but in the past few months the Commission's executive arm, Forest Enterprise, has become much more actively involved, appointing a full-time project officer, Joe Watts, working from a former farmhouse near Upminster.

The aim now is to create a substantial area of woodland - at least 1,200 hectares - over the next 10 years, and to manage it as much for public amenity as for timber production. New plantations will include paths and open spaces; though, inevitably, they will be dotted about rather than in one large block, the hope is that they can all be linked by cycle tracks and bridle paths to make a really worthwhile recreational area.

Already, by patiently cultivating local contacts, Mr Watts has identified enough potential parcels of land, and the first 17 hectares will be planted this autumn in the Ingrebourne Valley. There, above a huge, filled-in pit, the top layer of earth on areas designated for grassland is being compacted by bulldozers in time-honoured fashion; but on the area planned for trees 1.5 metres of soil have been loose-tipped, and vehicles are being kept off it as much as possible to give seedlings the best chance of putting down roots.

As to what Essex Man and Woman will make of having a proper forest on their doorstep, only time will show. A walk in the oak and ash plantations at Thurrock revealed how cautious East Londoners are about entering a greenwood.

The "plantations" - misleadingly named - are a 10-hectare block of semi- natural ancient woodland that has miraculously survived among the devastation all around. With the M25 roaring close at hand, it is hard to believe that these were once the grounds of a large country house, Belhus Park, and that "Capability" Brown landscaped the park. But there in the middle of the wood is a long, narrow waterway - once part of his grand design - and the old trees have grown fine and tall.

Yet, according to Isabel Baxter, principal planning officer of Thurrock Council, "people were quite fearful of using the wood" when it was first incorporated into Thames Chase. "They felt there were things going on in there that they wouldn't want to get involved with." Now, with paths opened up, directional signs posted and some areas thinned, more people enjoy it, and the wood is seen as a major asset.

Jean Mitchell, a councillor for the London Borough of Havering, and for five years chairman of Thames Chase, says local people "are welcoming Forest Enterprise's involvement with open arms". Already, she says, the Community Forest "has made great steps in the greening of the area", and everybody is looking forward eagerly to the further spread of the trees.