It hasn't rained in Wanstead for the last five weeks. Wanstead Flats are parched, and tinted an unsettling shade of golden yellow across their entire extent. So it was sad, but no surprise, when a fire broke out on Sunday afternoon and set over 200 acres ablaze. The London Fire Brigade came out in large numbers to tackle the capital's largest ever grass fire, and splashed and stamped it down late into the night.
The following morning I wasn't expecting to be allowed anywhere near. But the policeman at the road block assured me that walking across the Flats was fine, so long as I backed away from fire if I saw any. I saw none to start with, only tinder-dry grass, and long hoses draped up Centre Road towards a group of fire engines. But then I saw distant smoke, and a bunch of red-shirted firefighters with water backpacks and beaters, so diverted away.
Close to the Jubilee Pond a charred area of grass spread beyond the trees, then stopped, like a dry black lake. Smoke continued to erupt from one particular clump of undergrowth, occasionally bursting into flames before subsiding again. A few of us stared at the sheer incongruity of it all, then watched as a fire engine reversed from elsewhere... and drove straight past, en route to somewhere more critical.
The most astonishing sight was further ahead along Lake House Road. On one side were the playing fields, unharmed, while on the other lay a scorched landscape of stripped twigs, singed stalks and ash. A large expanse of scrub had been turned completely black, bar a few golden strips that might have been footpaths, or were where the Fire Brigade's hoses had lain. And all this was just one small corner of the affected area. They'll have it under control soon, and nature should swiftly recover, but we live in unusual meteorological times.