Hugging the banks of the mighty River Lea, Walthamstow Marsh is one of the last examples of semi-natural wet land in London. It covers around 90 acres and is a site of special scientific interest due to the presence of the very rare creeping marsh wort. Although it’s now protected its future hasn’t always been assured. It narrowly escaped being swallowed up by the reservoirs that all but destroyed Tottenham marsh, and then came under threat from developers who wanted to dig the marsh up and extract the gravel that lies beneath the meadows. But thanks in a large part to the efforts of several generations of locals who have been inspired to save it, Walthamstow marsh along with the marshes in Leyton, Hackney and Tottenham have survived.
I’m often out on the marsh first thing in the morning and its mood can change dramatically. From breath-taking sunrises and clear sky’s, to mysterious rolling mists so thick you can only see a few steps ahead. It can be beautiful one day and darkly terrifying the next. I suppose it’s the ever-changing nature of the marsh that has always captured the imagination of people who live near by. From photography and poetry, to tall tales of strange beasts lurking in the mists, these ancient lammas lands have always inspired creativity and stories.
Some of my favorite tales from the marsh are about animal sightings. In the 1980’s four boys reported seeing a bear on Hackney Marsh. The terrified foursome reported the sighting to the police who, on finding the footprints of a large unidentified animal searched Hackney and Walthamstow marshes for the beast, but other than the tracks left in the snow nothing was found. Rumour spread that the boys had been hoaxed by someone wearing a costume, but this wasn’t the first mention of bears on the marsh. The year before the sighting two bear carcases had been found floating in the Lea, an explanation of how they ended up in the river was never found. In recent years several locals have reported seeing a big cat prowling on Walthamstow Marsh, thought to be an escaped puma that was surviving on the large population of rabbits. There have even been sightings of something large living in the River Lea, according to witnesses it drags swans underwater with ease and then presumably eats them as the birds never resurface.
As well as feeding the darker side of people’s imagination the marsh has also inspired writers. One of my favourite poems is called In the Heart of Hackney which was included in the poems on the underground project. This section of the poem seems to sum the marsh up perfectly as a tranquil space in the middle of the noise and activity of urban life.
Two courting geese waddle on the bank Croaking. A man unties his boat. Police cars howl and whoop. And vast and blank The rain cloud of the sky is trampled underfoot.
Behold, a dove. And in Bomb Crater Pond Fat frogs ignore the rain. Each trembling rush signals like a wand Earthing the magic of London once again.
I take photographs of the marsh all the time and last year I wrote a poem called the Banks of The Lea, the last two lines of which are tattooed on my left arm. I’m not the only local to find the marsh inspiring, there is a mixed media exhibition at the Mill on Coppermill Lane running until 8th June that celebrates the unique nature of the marshes with work created by local artists.
All the stories, tales and art that it has inspired shows that the marshes mean different things to different people. They are used for sport, they can be somewhere to escape from city life or a place to inspire mystery and conjur monsters. But whatever they are used for and whatever they inspire, I’m glad the glorious marshes, the green lung of East London have survived. As for the Bears and beasts, I’ve never seen anything but who knows what lurks in the shadows when darkness falls.