War and peace in Essex
Modern day nature reserves are both havens for wildlife and relaxing destinations for the people that visit them. However, for some of Essex Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves, they had very different uses during the world wars. With the London skyline within reach, the Ingrebourne Valley acts as a green lung for the local community. There are 261 hectares of interconnecting habitats and the marsh is recognised as an internationally important site for wildlife.
But during both world wars, Hornchurch Country Park in the Ingrebourne Valley was known as Sutton’s Farm Airfield, a renowned Spitfire station that played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain.
In place of the airfield today is the EWT’s Ingrebourne Valley Visitor Centre, which opened in 2015 in partnership with Havering Council. Within the centre there is a memory booth containing artefacts, film footage and interviews with people that remember the site as an airfield. The Spitfires may be long gone, but keep your eyes to the skies – you might see a lapwing tumbling from the sky or the darting blue flash of a kingfisher. Over in Shoeburyness, Gunners Park and Shoebury Ranges nature reserve looks out towards the mighty Thames Estuary. The reserve is managed in conjunction with Southend on Sea Borough Council, but for 149 years it was owned by the Board of Ordnance and the Royal Artillery, where it was used as an experimental range and a training school. Scores of structures were built on the site and many remain in place today. This nature reserve is a hotspot for migrating birds and the remains of the structures now provide an unusual home for nesting birds such as barn swallows.
The largest area of lowland heathland remaining in Essex is found at Tiptree Heath Nature Reserve, but in the mid-20th century, common land laws were suspended and it was ploughed as part of the Dig for Victory campaign. The low nutrient soil is fantastic for heather but it only produced poor crops, so in 1955 it was sown with grass seed and left to grow wild. Today the reserve is looked after jointly with the Friends of Tiptree Heath and with the help of eight Exmoor ponies. The reserve is managed to help the heathland and all three species of heather thrive.