Park Life: In search of the lost palace of Wanstead Park

On the map: the location of Wanstead Park, in the wilds of east London. Image: Google.

Way out in deepest east London, in the southernmost reaches of Epping Forest, lies Wanstead Park. It’s basically fine, as parks go. There are all the normal things you could ask from a park: some grass, some trees, a shortcut to the supermarket if you’re me. Like a lot of parks ultimately the history is broadly speaking, quite simple: “A load of rich bastards owned it until they couldn’t be bothered to anymore and flogged it off to a municipal authority.

But had a single decision gone the other way, a walk across Wanstead Park could have been a walk through the grounds of a royal palace. Oh, and the last 200 years of British history might have run a very different course.

For several centuries the park formed the grounds of various different buildings known as Wanstead House – one of which was even a Royal pad for a bit Henry VII bought it for the convenient hunting opportunities (possibly also as a nice quiet place to fiddle some finances), and apparently the ghost of Elizabeth I haunts the grounds pining after another owner, Robert Dudley (when she isn’t in one of the seven million other places she’s supposed to haunt, I guess).

Eventually, the house passed on to New Money, namely Sir Josiah Child, a humble merchant’s son who had made ‘mad bank’ by ‘doing imperialism’ with the East India Company - and then to his son, Richard, aka the Early Tylney, who knocked the house down and built a massive, massive replacement. Built in the then fashionable Palladian style (i.e. lots of columns and triangley bits to give the impression of a Greek temple), it was extravagant in the extreme, a palace in all but name - it was likely the first private house in the UK to include a purpose-built ballroom. The gardens were completely remade around the same time - the park’s extensive series of ponds are in fact the remains of ornamental lakes.

Wanstead House as completed in 1722. I'll take 3! Image: public domain.

So where is it? Well, by the 1800s the ‘family line’ had zigged and zagged a bit due reasons such as ‘inheritor of house not interested in sexy times with ladies’ and ‘inheritor of house dies as child’ and in 1805 it and the associated fortune passed to teenage heiress Catherine Tylney-Long, who for totally unrelated reasons immediately became the most marriageable woman in all of England.

The front-runners for her hand were a) the Duke of Clarence - cons: quite old and fat, had spent the last 20 years living with (and had had 10 kids with) his mistress, pros: the future William IV, king of the United Kingdom or b) William Wellesley-Pole - pros: dashing Mr Darcy prototype, relative of top war hero the Duke of Wellington, cons: total wanker. For inevitable swooning related reasons, Wellesley-Pole won, and they became the Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesleys. Inevitable jokes about William’s Long Pole were promptly born.

 The Grotto - the remains of a folly in which Wellesley-Pole was reputed (hopefully falsely) to have kept his wife locked up. (mage: author's own.

And he truly was a dick of the highest order: not only was he a philandering shitbag, within a decade he'd managed to burn through as much of Catherine’s money as he could get his hands on living the highest life he could afford. With cash exhausted and debts mounting up, he was left with no choice other than flogging the contents of Wanstead House, and then, because he was not legally allowed to sell to the house itself, the component parts. He literally had it smashed it up and sold it for scrap.

His wife died shortly afterwards, at the least miserably but plausibly of actual misery, and the line ended with their kids, neither of whom ever married (perhaps after seeing what it had done to their mother). Catherine’s ghost supposedly haunts the park, presumably on some kind of timeshare deal with Elizabeth I.

The Temple - originally home to Wanstead House's collection of exotic birds, now intermittently open as a visitor centre. Image: author's own.

What was left of the estate passed to a cousin, who in turn ended up flogging the chunk that’s now Wanstead Park to the City of London Corporation which by that point had taken up the cause of ‘Hey guys what if we didn’t chop down all of Epping Forest?’.


But what if a butterfly had flapped its wings, William Wellesley-Pole had crashed his horse into a tree, the future William IV and Catherine had fallen in love at the Under The Sea dance, and she’d become his queen?

In an alternate 2019, Wanstead House still stands but as a palace in name as well as affect. William IV’s niece, Victoria, got nowhere near the throne and instead his son William V led Britain into the glorious era historians refer to as ‘Big Willy Time’. But due to Civil War 2.0, today his descendants only rule over the small kingdom of Wanstead, which the Republic allowed them to keep in return for a cut of tourist revenue. I work in one of the kingdom’s factories, gluing Beefeater uniforms onto teddy bears for 16 hours a day, but my television has recently been picking up signals from a better world, where the palace gardens are open to all and I can get to the shops 20 minutes faster. The revolution starts here.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”