Sometimes a place gets under your skin, it soaks in to your fibre and becomes something that influences you. For me, the marsh is one of those places. I first went to the marshes one boxing day not long after moving to Walthamstow, and have loved it ever since. I’ve always been a regular visitor, but when I took up running my visits increased. I run on the marsh all year and see it change from season to season, from the lush green meadows of summer to the mist covered expanse of winter. The change of seasons is always more noticeable down by the river, especially at the this time of year when the marsh gently hibernates for the winter before. The atmosphere changes as the days get shorter, the sleeping green suddenly feels a little wilder, a little less controlled, a little more dangerous. My morning runs at this time of year are like a trip through a different world.
As soon as I pass the old Coppermill, it’s like I am passing in to another world, suddenly everything feels different. Buildings and the water works give way to trees silhouetted against laden grey sky. Running under the low railway bridge is like leaving normal life behind, the bleakness of the winter marsh fills my field of vision as I emerge from the rabbit hole like tunnel. The path that leads away from the tunnel is almost like an island, the green frog weed covered Coppermill Stream one side and the ditch on the other. At this time of year the ditch is full of semi dead reeds and vegetation, the foliage cut off from the roots, abandoned by the heart of the plant to ensure it survives to the spring.
Before long I’m running on the sandy gravel path alongside the River, still flanked by cold dark water on both sides. The path makes a very satisfying crunch beneath my feet, an imagined sound as I have head phones in, but satisfying non the less. Beyond the decaying plants I sometimes catch a glimpse of the cows that live on the marsh, steam bellowing from their noses. Swans patrol the Lea, keeping an eye on the border and monitoring human activity. In the grey early morning the marsh seems endless as nothing can be seen beyond its boundary, only the Victorian scar of the railway and its mighty brick archway restricts my view.
Passing beneath the arch, the path leads me to the now healing Leyton Marsh, memories of the building that clung to its pastures like a parasite in 2012 slowly fading away. Crossing over the bridge there is a fantastic view along the river. The buildings that roll down the valley side in Clapton are stopped in the their tracks by the Lea, like an army of invading giants that have been turned to brick and concrete. The river water is murky, impenetrable, anything could be lurking beneath its surface. New buildings cling to the river bank and are reflected in the tea brown water, balconies elevating residents out of reach of the beasts that live in the water below.
Following the course of the river, I pass by the metal tree that guards Millfields Park, and then make my first pass under Lea bridge road. on the other side of the bridge is the weir where the river splits, half following the old course and half following the new, man made route. Boats line the way now, the air heavy with wood smoke from the boat chimneys. Sometimes there is no breeze to carry to the smoke away, so it gently drifts, then hangs in the air. Smoke from dead trees hanging in the branches of their sleeping, but still alive relatives.
Rounding the corner my route now takes me on to Hackney marshes, a green space dotted with countless goal posts and the broken dreams of a hundred footballers. The pylons, the ever present giants of the marshes accompany me for a while. Their metal fingers pointing the way back back home. I cross the old River Lea, a place that remembers Vikings and invading armies, a now almost forgotten border with trees draped in the dead of the marsh. The zombie hand now points the way, reminding me of the creatures that roam the the marsh in the dark.
Charlie Chaplin watches over the way back in to Walthamstow, standing guard at the entrance to the graffiti covered tunnel that leads me for the second time under Lea Bridge road. My route now follows the long gone viaduct that once took water from the reservoirs to the filter beds. Rusting and rotting reminders of the paths former purpose remain, cage like grills, long closed hidden metal doors, and the remains of bridges that once carried the good folk of Walthamstow across the old water course.
The appearance of the mural on the marsh indicates that I am leaving the mist and mysteries behind. The colourful painted foxes, birds and cows almost shout “Keep going, nearly there, but don’t look back”. Passing under the railway for the last time I run past the summer blackberry fields, now only full of damp air and rot. Finally I find myself back at the rabbit hole where my journey started, turning right I head back up the hill, past the Coppermill and through the split leaf back in to the real world. My runs are just as much about exercising my mind as my body, I let my thoughts wander and build stories of mythical beasts and past times. The marsh feeds my imagination, lets me escape for a while, helps me dream as my feet carry me along its paths and passage ways. A glorious and mysterious holiday right on my door step.