One of the grandest houses ever seen in Britain was built in Wanstead (E11) in the early 18th century. A pioneer of Palladian style, Wanstead House boasted mighty Corinthian pillars and a 200ft-long symmetrical frontage. The gardens were landscaped with tree-lined avenues and ornamental waterways, creating a spectacular estate likened to the palace of Versailles, much favoured by the nobles and gentry of the Georgian era. But almost 200 years ago Wanstead House was completely demolished, leaving only the surrounding parkland as evidence of magnificence lost, and the tale of its disappearance is worthy of a modern day soap opera.
Wanstead once had a Tudor manor, snapped up in 1667 by the extremely rich Governor of the East India Company, Sir Josiah Child. He was succeeded by his son Richard who knocked down the old house and built an ostentatious replacement, in a successful attempt to improve his social standing. Anyone who was anyone came to Wanstead House to admire, to socialise and to marvel. So far so good. In 1750 the house passed to Richard's grandson John - a dapper individual with a love of fine art. John never married (they didn't allow civil partnerships in those days) so the estate was eventually inherited by an unsuspecting nephew. And when his son died at the tragically early age of 11, Wanstead ended up in the possession of teenage heiress Catherine. Poor Catherine. She was courted by many men, but in the end discarded the portly Duke of Clarence in favour of raffish young William Pole-Wellesley. As mistakes go, this was a monumental biggie. The Duke went on to become King, and William turned out to be a womanising gambler with venereal disease and an irresponsible lifestyle. 10 years later, in 1822, William's creditors forced the sale of Wanstead House and all of its contents in an attempt to pay back a quarter of a million pounds of debt. But the house, alas, failed to attract any bids whatsoever and so was demolished and sold off piecemeal, brick by brick. Catherine died soon afterwards, tragically young, while her miserable husband lived into old age to wreck several more lives. Roll credits.
There is a second episode to the story. Half of the land was bought up by the City of London Corporation in 1878, who used some for a cemetery and opened the rest to the public, while the other half was sold off in 1920 and is now mostly golf course. The footprint of Wanstead House lies inside the latter, alas out of bounds, close to where the clubhouse now stands. But the remainder survives as Wanstead Park, a vast acreage of landscaped woodland and water, where clues to the past abound if you know where to look.
The Lakes: My word there are a lot of these. Nine significant bodies of water were originally landscaped, of which around half survive. The Basin is a large octagonal reservoir, now part of the golf course, the Heronry Pond is long and serpentine, and the Perch Pond a fraction more municipal. But most impressive is the Ornamental Water, a sprawling artificial finger of water carved out parallel to the River Roding. It's here that you can sense some of the estate's original grandeur, with sinuous inlets facing broad avenues carved through the woods, the occasional strategically-planted cedar, and a series of geometric islands once ideal for cruising by boat. Various geometric indentations make for a surprisingly lengthy perimeter, so be warned that a single circumnavigation takes at least forty minutes, with no alternative footpaths to make your escape part-way round. But it's a great walk, enlivened by geese treating the long canals as their own private runway and, at the right time of year, carpets of bluebells.
The Grotto: Every showy Georgian estate needed a folly, and this decoratedarch dates back almost exactly 250 years. Facing the main lake it was secretly a boathouse, lit from above through a dome and with shells, crystals and mirrors embedded in the walls. Opened to the public in 1882, the grotto was destroyed by fire only two years later when a bucket of tar boiled over, and now only the façade and the inner dock survive. Major renovation works in 2011 cleared away the surrounding vegetation, leaving an atmospheric skeleton overlooking the water.
The Temple: The main house may have gone but this single outbuilding survives, a grand longclassical shell with a series of rooms inside. Its original function was purely decorative - a long avenue of sweet chestnut trees aligns with a view of the frontage - but over the years it's also been used to house a menagerie of exotic birds and as a parkkeeper's cottage. What's more it was wholly restored a few years ago so, if you turn up during the right ten hours at the weekend, you can take a look inside. In the entrance hall the volunteers will welcome you, then direct you off into four other rooms that act as a small museum. The history of the estate and temple feature strongly - there's quite a lot to read - plus several old maps, even the sales catalogue from the 1822 auction. One cabinet is full of Roman remains, dug up on site centuries ago when the tree-lined avenues were being laid, while downstairs are the chunky remains of three statues thrown into the lake. Intelligent, illuminating, and free.
The Tea Hut: It may be more modern and a lot smaller, but this refreshment kiosk has been deliberately modelled on the Temple across the park. Drop by for sub-£2 coffees, hot dogs, toast and cake, plus dog biscuits and bags of bird seed at 70p a time. Rightly popular with the residents of Aldersbrook fortunate to live close by.
To explore the delights of WansteadPark, don't take the Overground to Wanstead Park, because that's badly named and almost a mile away. The nearest station is Redbridge on the Central line, except there's no direct access in that corner of the park so in fact your best bet is Wanstead. Alternatively the 101, 308 and W19 buses stop close by, and be warned that if you walk in from Blake Hall Road the muddy bridleway is currently only borderline-passable in trainers. But do consider exploring one day, to explore a fascinating slice of national history now hemmed in by the northeastern suburbs.