A wildlife wander on the former site of RAF Chigwell.
Distance 3 miles (4.8km)
Minimum time 1hr 30min
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Wide byways, tracks and sections of road
Landscape River bank, open meadows and some urban views
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 174 Epping Forest & Lee Valley
Start/finish TQ 428943
Dog friendliness Positively dog friendly, no stiles and off lead
Parking Small free car park by David Lloyd Centre off Roding Lane
Public toilets None on route
1 From the information board at the entrance go through the kissing gate where there are two paths. The one straight ahead is wide and gravelly, but to start the walk take the path on the right to explore the steep embankment. Return to your starting point and take the main path into the reserve.
2 After 50yds (46m), a wooden footbridge spans the River Roding to the lake area in the recreation park. But, to follow the nature reserve, go straight ahead for about 200yds (183m) through oak and hornbeam and stop at the concrete area, site of RAF Chigwell. Continue along this concrete path, bearing right until the path ends at a small roundabout surrounded by open meadow. The seating here provides a good picnic area and a place to watch for skylarks nesting in the meadow ahead.
3 Now take the grassy path which leads away from the concrete roundabout. Red waymark signs direct you around the edge of Four Acres Field to the left and along the cross path, an ancient green lane which once formed part of the drovers' and packhorse route from Epping Forest to Romford market. Continue along this path towards the tall thin chimney which is a Victorian vent for underground sewers. Bear left into the grass area known as Lower Mead following the waymark.
4 The path now continues with the River Roding to your right providing a habitat for kingfishers, dragonflies, damselflies, bream and sticklebacks. After 300yds (274m), cross the river on Charlie Moule's footbridge, built in the 1950s to replace stepping stones. Turn right on to the concrete path with the river on your right, and continue until you reach waymark B where you can see Great Horsley Pond.
5 Continue along the concrete path passing waymarks C and D. You can now see the houses of Loughton and Debden near by, incongruously close to this lovely reserve. Follow the path to the River Roding and turn right with the river on your left. This is another fine area to sit and maybe picnic or rest before continuing ahead to return to Charlie Moule's footbridge. Cross the bridge and continue through ancient meads, or meadows, with the river on your right. The path continues ahead through thick woodland and what is almost a tunnel of dense blackthorn. Emerging from the blackthorn, the path leads into an area known as Luscious Mead. Walk a little way off the path towards the river to admire the willow trees on the river bank.
6 Follow the path between hedges to secluded Andrew's Pond, home to grass snakes and water voles. This is a pleasant picnic spot and any crumbs you may drop will soon be swooped on by the birds in the surrounding trees. Walk anti-clockwise around the pond, following the River Roding on your right. At the footbridge turn left and return to the car park.
Roding Valley Meadows Nature Reserve is situated on traditionally managed hay meadows which, from 1938 to 1968, were occupied by RAF Chigwell. Over 3,000 people lived and worked here in over 100 buildings, which included hangars, a theatre, a post office and a shop. Now demolished, it's hard to believe that this nature reserve with its peaceful paths and meadows was once home to such a community.
The starting point of the walk features a narrow hillside created from earth dug out during the construction of the M11. This path is seldom used and has become an excellent hunting ground for kestrels and sparrow hawks. Also from here you can look down on the recreation area and the lake which, although not part of the reserve, is a popular spot for many waterfowl.
The meads preserve a number of plant species. Lower Mead's meadowland is cut regularly for hay which, combined with winter grazing, is a traditional method of looking after grassland and encourages wild flowers to grow. In spring it is a riot of colour. Further along the walk, beyond Charlie Moule's footbridge, Lower Mead and Further River Mead are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and home to very rare wild flowers and grasses. Later comes Luscious Mead, which is prone to flooding when the River Roding bursts its banks. These occasional incidents are important for the survival of plants dependent on the nutrient-rich soil.
Great Horsley Pond, cleared every two years, is a haven for dragonflies. Here, the Great Horsley Fen, wet all year round, is surrounded by reeds and the rare brown sedge which thrive in these conditions.
Near the picnic area, look for the thick iron rings in the ground from which barrage balloons from RAF Chigwell were strung during World War Two. Near by is a flat stone, made by an airman from the unit, which reads, '1943 Intone.' This commemorates an operation involving a Mobile Signals Unit from RAF Chigwell, which went to the Azores to destroy German submarines.
The Railway Tavern in Buckhurst Hill provides good pub grub in a homely setting or try the atmospheric Ye Olde Kings Head at Chigwell, immortalised by Charles Dickens in Barnaby Rudge and a one-time favourite haunt of personnel from RAF Chigwell. Alternatively pack a picnic and enjoy it at the reserve.