Well, it was a builder’s rubbish dump in those days and the local population used to refer to it as the Wastelands. It was a thoroughly unpleasant, untidy heap of old plaster, bricks, baths and general debris and only slowly did it start to get cleared. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the then newly appointed Liberal council, for the European Year of the Environment, cleared it completely and skimmed it with topsoil, which absolutely transformed it from an eyesore into an area of considerable interest and significance for botanists, dog walkers and the population generally.
Tell me more about the plant life. It will probably be about another hundred years before the population stabilises; it is a battleground at the moment for territory by the plants and they are fighting for dominance. The flora changes quite substantially each year, depending on the weather conditions and the activities of the dog walkers, whether we’ve had any fires and also how wet, how dry, how hot it’s been.
The biggest danger is they were originally gravel pits, which were filled in with brick rubble from the Blitz and because of that, they are a brownfield site, where the building restrictions are less onerous than on open green areas. However, it’s also Metropolitan Open Space, but there are more and more examples now of building being permitted in such areas, despite local opposition. My main purpose in taking people to the Lands, and I also will give a talk on the flora of the Lands, which I think I’ve been doing that, to the extent I must have given it to every organisation, perhaps because it’s free, rather than because of its content… but it is a problem that it could get built on and there have been several attempts already to put quite large housing developments on it. I think the way the Ham Lands will go is not as a single building development, but it will be nibbled away at the edges, to the point where it shrinks and shrinks, and that I think is what we must be very vigilant about and to explain to people what the Lands are and why they should be preserved, especially as the Borough of Richmond Upon Thames is one of the greenest of the London boroughs, with a lot of open space within its boundaries. People are saying, why do you need any more open space when you’ve got Richmond Park, Bushy Park, Kew Gardens and the area all around the palace at Hampton.
Ham Lands as it is now has particularly benefited the people who live alongside it in Ham and Petersham. They have improved the towpath, they have opened up the vistas around Ham House, so that you can walk along avenues, along paved surfaces, instead of loads of mud. The views across the river towards Marble Hill House have been improved and also the centre of Richmond and the centre of Kingston have been transformed. We were so impressed as the committee for London in Bloom that we gave a special award, the Chairman’s Award, to Thames Landscape Strategy in general and particularly for the work that Jason Debney has done into it, in bringing about such an impressive change to the scenery from the towpath and as you walk around Ham.