This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
From my new home half a world away from the shores of Britain, there is one place I genuinely miss in London’s great outdoors.
In a city whose residents are spoiled for green space and waterways, you might think it would be one of its magnificent parks, scenic canals or even overgrown graveyards. But where I have in mind is more unsung: a stretch of the River Lea by Walthamstow Marshes — a patchwork of fields, fen, ditches, ponds and woodland crossed by footpaths and boardwalks. A nature reserve that is one of the last surviving vestiges of the UK capital’s once vast and widespread floodplain grasslands.
Bursting with wildlife, including rare and endangered species such as the water vole (a semi-aquatic rodent) and creeping marshwort (a small procumbent plant with delicate white flowers), this conservation area is a sanctuary for humans as much as flora and fauna.
I was lucky to have the marshes on my doorstep for five years. Now, six thousand miles away in Brazil, I look back with memories of joy and mourning at a place where I picnicked and partied, celebrated a friend’s wedding, contracted hay fever for the first time (at the tender age of 27) and ran mile after meditative mile. From further upstream, I would cycle down the river towards my girlfriend’s house, learning each bump and bend in the path. I have grieved there, too. After my best friend died at the age of 28, it was the natural place to seek solace.
Walthamstow Marshes form part of the Lee Valley Regional Park, a 26-mile linear trail that stretches from Hertfordshire all the way past London’s Olympic stadium and down to the Thames. For centuries, local people grazed livestock and cut hay on the meadows there. Following the Industrial Revolution, the land was encroached upon with the construction of reservoirs and railways. In the 1930s the traditional agricultural rights were ended, though cattle once again roam the marshes in an enclosure at certain times of year.
Today it’s a meeting place of pastoral heritage and industrial relics reclaimed by nature. The more secluded corners of the 125 acres that comprise the marshes and surrounding areas offer a respite from urban life. Without having to venture too far, you can almost feel like you’re outside London.
To get there, take an Overground train from Liverpool Street Station en route to Chingford and alight at Clapton. From the station it’s a 10-minute walk to the river. A loop around Walthamstow Marshes can take around 1.5 hours by foot (those seeking a longer amble can follow the River Lea towpath north to Walthamstow Wetlands, another nature reserve, which is centred around 10 reservoirs). At this time of year, it’s best to wear proper walking shoes because of the boggy conditions underfoot off the main gravelly or asphalt paths.
I recommend first wandering south on the towpath: under Lea Bridge Road, past the foaming weir and Princess of Wales pub, then over the footbridge. Immediately on the left, wander through the railing gates to the Middlesex Filter Beds, a Victorian waterworks built to combat cholera outbreaks in the 19th century. Against the overgrowth, it has the air of ruins from a lost civilisation, its recesses that once cleaned water now taken over by reeds and rushes.
Here and across the marshes birdwatching is one of the main attractions. Beyond the geese, swans, ducks and coots that bob along the River Lea (also spelled Lee), the keen twitcher may catch sight of a kestrel hovering over prey or the kingfisher’s brilliant plumage, or even hear the song of warblers.
But just as rich as the wildlife is the array of people. On the banks of the river you pass solitary anglers, middle-class rowers, ruddy-faced drinkers, itinerant boat dwellers and members of longstanding East End communities out for a stroll. In warmer months, revellers stumble out of dying raves in the woods on early Sunday mornings, oblivious of the joggers and dog walkers.
In normal times the diverse cast of characters here might be found in one of the local watering holes. A personal favourite is the Anchor & Hope, a small and very unpretentious pub firmly resisting the gentrification of Hackney. Its outdoor benches overlook the river and, on summer weekends, it has occasionally hosted a jerk chicken stall.
I once met a man there known as John the Poacher, who runs foraging walks. Inside a wicker basket he pointed to a large, fleshy, orange fungus called chicken of the woods — I still remember his cackle at the prospect of selling it for an eye-watering price at an east London food market.
There are more rich pickings to be had along the river and in the marshes. In the early days of summer, fragrant elderberry flowers blossom — perfect for homemade cordial or champagne. Blackberries slip off the brambles that garland the towpath in the season’s twilight. Around the same time, you may even catch the scent of wild hops.
In these times of coronavirus, the wide open spaces and greenery have been a lifeline to the many east Londoners without access to a garden or living in cramped conditions. Though not always without incident. As in parks throughout the UK, littering blighted some spots during last summer’s heatwave. Another issue was people bathing in a section of the River Lea that meanders through neighbouring Hackney Marshes in defiance of official advice. This wasn’t just about disturbing wildlife; there is a risk of catching diseases from a waterway that was for a long time described as one of the country’s most polluted.
It may be a while before I visit the marshes again. Until then, I will have to make do with memories of the view from the raised railway line that slices through its meadows.
What’s your favourite London waterway? Tell us in the comments below
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