As an industrial heritage site, The Royal Gunpowder Mills is pretty much unique. Where else can you find such a collection of crumbling in situ structures and buildings that depict the history of explosives manufacture and research dating back to the 17th Century? The site’s significance in terms of national defence and local employment is immense and to tell its story here is to showcase a niche in British history that might otherwise be closed to the general public.
The value of the built heritage on site is without question and rightly reflected in the listed status of a great many of the buildings. They stand in what can appear to be a wasteland of scrub and decay, looking in some ways like some lost civilisation, where nature is gradually reclaiming the long abandoned factories, magazines and mills. It can appear desolate and sad, but that is not so – far from it. It is a highly complex, living environment offering its own unique natural heritage, itself worthy of conservation. Fortunately this has been formally recognised, and the wooded area of the site has been afforded legal protection by way of its designation as a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” (SSSI) by Natural England (the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England). Natural England states on its website that such designations are bestowed to “protect the best of our wildlife, geological and physiographical heritage for the benefit of present and future generations,” and that their purpose is to provide legal protection under The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The area protected by this legislation at the Mills is one of over 4,000 SSSIs in England, covering around 8% of the country. It’s not a lot.
The nature reserve at The Mills represents the culmination of centuries of dynamic industrial activity, and ultimately a decade of human abandonment before it was managed as a visitor attraction from 2001. This created a world where nature, science and history intertwine. It is ironic that a place where materials intended for destructive purposes were once created is now one of natural continuity and peace. The pernicious chemicals and pollutants that were once integral to its productive activities are also long gone. The site is decontaminated and supports a wealth of species. Its famous population of fallow deer, so beloved of visitors are merely ambassadors of the countless flora and fauna, which are held together in a delicate and balanced ecosystem.
Natural England describe Waltham Abbey SSSI as “an area of Alder woodland on damp alluvial soils overlying fluvio-glacial gravel in the valley of the River Lee, where the woodland supports the largest heronry in Essex.” It is where the present canopy has largely regenerated from coppice stools and is dominated by Alder trees, with Sycamore, Ash, Poplar and Crack Willow. Elder and Blackthorn are the main shrub species. The ground flora is dominated by Common Nettle and Ground-ivy with locally dominant Butterbur. Birds reported from the site include Tawny Owl, Tree Sparrow, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Garden Warbler and Blackcap.
Among the rarer species are barn owls which nest in the old cordite factories, which are now at risk of being leased and renovated for accommodation, and otters, which enjoy the quiet unpolluted streams and water courses that the reserve offers them. There are numerous badger sets on site too, many very old and well established. The old buildings provide perfect roosting opportunities for bat colonies and similarly the old alder pollards make ideal nesting sites for birds across the food chain from the small siskins, which feed from the alder cones, to raptors like sparrow hawks and buzzards. Kingfishers nest in the old canal banks, and there are innumerable reptiles, amphibians and small mammals, which exploit the various habitat niches of the woodland and wetland that provide shelter, predator protection and food. These animals in turn provide food for other animals. They are all highly sensitive to human disturbance and activity, as are the many plant species, which make up a diverse range of habitats and create much needed pollination opportunities for bees and other insects.
The decaying wood, rubble heaps, dilapidated buildings and swathes of nettles, might suggest disorder and wilful neglect. Nothing could be further from the truth. The site is an oasis of biological perfection, the legacy of a fascinating secret world.