Waltham Abbey Circular Walk view of Cornmill River

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Circular Walk through Waltham Abbey Gardens, the Dragonfly Sanctuary and Cornmill Meadows.

This is a self-guided circular walk  about 3miles (4.83km) long around Waltham Abbey Gardens, Dragonfly Sanctuary and Cornmill meadows. You will walk through various habitats consisting of flooded grassland, ponds, rivers, some of the site is designated as a site of Special Scientific interest. It is a short, flat, delightful walk at any time of the year that takes you through heritage, history and nature.

Starting at Epping Forest District Museum, 39-41 Sun St, Waltham Abbey EN9 1EL. Full details of the walk and a map are on the PDF on this page for you to download.

Most of the walk is on grass paths and can be very muddy at certain times of the year (so wellies or sturdy shoes) and uneven in places. All on the flat with a few bridges. Depending on your walking speed and what you stop to look at, expect this walk to take an average of one and a half hours. If you require further copies of this walk please e-mail our Community Engagement Officer This walk has been created in conjunction with Epping Forest District's Life Walks and Countrycare departments. Find more walks and information on Countrycare here

What to look out for on this walk

This walk was created in spring which is a brilliant time of year to get out and see what is coming back to life and growing. You can use all your senses, listen out for the birds singing, look for mammal prints in the mud and smell the spring flowers. Some of the photos above were taken as this walk was being planned and information on the things we saw is given below:

The Canada Goose will be familiar to many of you as they are found across the country in various habitats. This is the UKs largest goose, but it is originally from North America. They have a grey brown body, black neck and head with white cheeks, you will see a lot of these as you walk along the river in Waltham Abbey gardens as well as some other wild fowl.

You will pass many trees and shrubs in blossom at this time of year. One of the first to flower is the Blackthorn. The flowers appear before the leaves, you can also identify it by its dark bark, hence its name. Later in the year it has a fruit called a Sloe which is a purple almost black colour with a white frosted appearance.

Muntjac Deer. Keep your eyes peeled because if you’re lucky you might actually see this small deer which is about the size of a medium dog. Its brown/ginger in colour with a pale belly and dark stripes on its face. It doesn’t have large antlers (horns) but two short single pointed antlers. If you don’t see one in the undergrowth keep looking on the ground because it’s easy to spot their hoof print.

Lesser Celandine. While you’re looking for mammal prints in the mud you will come across lots of low growing spring flowers and the Lesser Celandine  is a real burst of sunshine with its bright yellow flowers. Being one of the first spring flowers to bloom, it provides an early supply of nectar to insects. This little flower belongs to the same family as buttercup.

Walking through history

Looking at the map and when walking this route, you may be curious as to why there are so many narrow water ways fed from the stream, and why they appear to be laid out in such a uniform fashion. There are clues to be found in some of the names given to features in the area. Cornmill Stream, that runs through the middle of the route, the Calico Ditches north of the ring road and the Royal Gunpowder Mills that border the walk to the north and west, indicate an industrial past that has shaped this area on the edge of the River Lea. Along this route you are surrounded by a landscape still showing how it was adapted for processes carried out in the past. But what were those processes?

Before the steam powered industrial revolution, flowing rivers provided a powerful force that could be tapped to provide a source of water and harnessed to drive machinery. The River Lea provided such an opportunity and mills powered by water wheels provided industry and employment whilst the river itself offered the route to get raw materials to the mills and the finished products off to distributers and customers in London. As well as milling corn, mills could be used for other processes such as extracting oils from nuts and seeds and fulling cloth.

In 1080 the area was under the control of the Bishop of Durham and there were three mills operating in an area also noted for its rich pasture and fisheries. By the 12th century most of the land locally and beyond came into the possession of Waltham Abbey. The fertile lands alongside the river were tenanted by strip-farmers or used as meads - that is land for growing fine hay, and in this area, of such quality that some was reserved for the royal stables. The word mead has become the modern meadow but still features in local place names such as Town Mead, Waltham Abbey’s recreation ground, and Queen’s Mead, the large grass area within the Royal Gunpowder Mills.

In the 17th century a small family-owned gunpowder manufacturer was grinding and mixing powder with water-powdered mills (probably converted from the fulling mills first recorded in 1402) fed with a network of purpose-built streams from the Lea. Massive expansion followed acquisition of the gunpowder mills by the state and that lead to the networks of waterways that still exist today and are responsible, along with the extensive planting of Alder trees (the best for making charcoal, a key gunpowder ingredient), for producing the protected area of special scientific interest that includes this walk.

17th century fashion provides the answer to the mystery of the Dragonfly Sanctuary’s unusual landscape with its regimented narrow waterways. The opening up of trade with India allowed the importation of a new cotton material called calico (as well as saltpetre, the biggest ingredient in gunpowder). This new material came brightly printed and quickly became very popular and fashionable. The threat to the home woollen industry led to laws banning the import of printed material. As a result, merchants were forced to import plain calico and print it in England. One such print works was established at Waltham Abbey. Before the calico could be printed it was processed in bleaching grounds made up of large open areas of grassland cut by parallel, water-filled, ditches. First the cloth was immersed in an alkaline solution made from wood ashes, and then in sour milk. The cloth was then washed in the water-filled ditches and laid out on the grassland, enabling sunlight to bleach it. The Waltham Abbey print works also printed silk and incorporated a silk factory with a silk mill nearby at Sewardstone. During its heyday, the print works was an important industry in Waltham Abbey. Owned by R & E Littler, the Abbey Works were closed in around 1832 and transfered to new premises at Merton Abbey in South West London, that had been purchased in 1831. In 1904 Litter's grandson sold the Merton factory to Arthur Liberty whose printed cloth was sold in their famous London Store. At the height of the calico industry, in 1747, there were 81 acres of  ‘calico grounds’ in the marshes along the Lea between Stratford and the Abbey Mills. By 1832 the Waltham Abbey sites had closed leaving just the remains of the bleaching grounds, our walk takes you through, as a reminder.

Find out more about Waltham Abbey Church here

Find out more about the Royal Gunpowder Mills here

You might also like this self-guided walk from the museum taking you around the Lee Valley

Map & Directions

Waltham Abbey Gardens, Dragonfly Sanctuary & Cornmill Meadows Walk


Epping Forest District Museum, Sun Street, Waltham Abbey, Essex, EN9 1EL

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