Shrouded in mist during the winter months and bathed in lush colour during the spring and summer, the marsh is just as much a part of the fabric of Walthamstow as pie and mash. This stretch of glorious green that hugs the banks of the River Lea gives us a place to escape to. When life among the concrete and bricks of our built up world starts to stifle our minds, there is no better place to go, no better place to spend an hour than the mighty marsh. For those of us that use it, the marsh is part of our lives, our living green lung. In days gone by the marsh was also part of daily life, but in a different way. It was common land where people grazed cattle and harvested the lush grass to make hay. This patchwork of green was not a place for picnics, but a place that helped people survive. This weekend the marsh was transported back to those early days by the community haystack project. The scythes came out to harvest the hay, and we went along to watch.
The Community Haystack event spanned two days and started on the 1st of August, which is Lammas Day, the first harvest festival of the year. With scything workshops, public talks, guided tours of the marsh and haystack building, this was the perfect chance to learn about the marsh as it was, and how it is today. We headed down to the event on Sunday, entering the marsh via the small gate that leads to Coppermill Field. We walked through the tinder dry grass and passed under the railway arch that’s home to the mural on the marsh. Emerging from the railway tunnel we walked to the meadow that would be used to make the hay.
For the safety of everyone involved, I decided to keep my uncoordinated self away from the blades. We plonked ourselves down near the edge of the meadow, and watched as volunteers armed with newly sharpened scythes headed out in to the tall brown grass. The grass quickly gave way to the razor sharp blades, each sweep and swing of the scythes separated stem from parched earth. This was a silent harvest, no roar of machine or belch of diesel fumes, just the barely audible sound of blade hitting stem. As trains creaked by on the criss cross of tracks that now divide the marsh, this traditional harvest was a sight behold. Surrounded as the marsh is by the modern world and the buildings of Clapton that cascade down the valley side, the small group of people cutting the meadow looked both completely at home, but completely at odds with the machine powered world in which we live.
The harvest was well under way when the ranger for Walthamstow Marsh arrived. He was running a guided walk of the marsh and I decided to tag along. Our walk started with a visit to the Belted Galloway cows that make their home on the marsh in the summer. As the ranger told us why grazing cattle were important to the marsh, the cows simply got on with the business of eating grass and lazing in the shade. Our small group stood for a while and watched as the Kestrels hovered and then dived on to unsuspecting prey. I’m a regular visitor to the marshes but I saw it with fresh eyes on Sunday. I hadn’t really appreciated how much work goes in to looking after it, I just presumed it mostly looked after its self. The ranger told us about the cycle of mowing that is important to maintain the meadows, he told us about the battle with invasive species such as Michaelmas Daisies and Giant Hog Weed. We also talked about the biggest challenge the marsh faces, people. People who bring feet to wear away paths, and litter that gets stuck in brambles. Those of us that use the marsh expect it to work for us, the rangers have a tricky job balancing the expectations of people with the needs of the wildlife and plants that call the marsh home.
It is very easy to forget that the marshes are just a stones throw from the centre of London, it’s equally as easy to take the marsh for granted. But this remarkable and ecologically diverse green space is under constant pressure, and needs constant management to protect it. Events like the community haystack weekend serve as a reminder that people have been managing the marshes for hundreds of years. In fact, the marshes are the way they are now because of how people throughout history have managed them. Sunday gave me a new understanding of just how complicated it is to manage a green space that is surrounded by the urban sprawl of London. Sunday was like time travelling, starting with the scything and management methods of the past, and finishing with the methods used to keep the modern day marsh flourishing. Thanks to the community haystacks team and our friendly neighbourhood ranger for an enjoyable afternoon out on the mighty marsh.