Just beyond Lea Bridge Road, at the place where the river divides, a war is raging. There are no guns or tanks or missiles, just roots and moss and decay. You won’t hear the fighting, this is a silent war, a war that only has one outcome, utter defeat. Of course, all war eventually ends in defeat, but the victor of this conflict was decided long ago, before the war even began. You can’t stop it you see, time and nature, rot and decay. No matter how permanent we think something is, no matter how strong we build our walls, nature will always reclaim. Time will always defeat the efforts of human kind, rust will decay metal, roots will crack concrete, places will fall from memory. This particular battle is taking place on a small strip of land wrapped in the arms of the River Lea. To one side the old river, flowing with the blood of long dead Vikings. To the other, the Hackney Cut, trade route and former artery of industrial London. This half lost piece of land once helped to save London, it cleaned our water, cleansed it of disease, saved thousands from cholera. It was important once, but we let it go, handed it back to nature, and nature welcomed it with open arms.
The Middlesex filter beds were built in the 1800’s to help combat the devastating spread of cholera. During the outbreak in the 1840’s more than 14’000 people died in London alone. The third cholera pandemic struck in 1852, it raged through streets of London, killing, attacking people via the one thing they couldn’t live without, water. The filter beds cleaned London’s water and saved countless lives, but as London grew, the beds could no longer meet the demands of the swelling population. In 1969 the filter beds were closed and abandoned, humans turned their backs and nature took hold. Trees slowly began to form small pockets of woodland, reeds and rushes crept in to the filter beds, rust started eating away at metal.
Walking through the site today is like visiting a lost world. Crumbling, litchen covered walls nestle among trees. Metal valves and cogs rise out of the moss and concrete, like the rusting remains of some ancient machine. At the centre of the site is a large open piece of concrete, the perfect place to stand and see just how much of the filter beds nature has clawed back. The raised circle is bisected by green lines of moss and grass, it looks like a giant fossilised parachute. If you visit the filter beds, and there is no one else around, stand in the centre of that circle, close your eyes and listen, the surrounding sound scape is really pretty special. The distant roar of a dozen football games over on Hackney Marsh, the faint rustle of reed as the breeze trips across the beds. Bird song comes from almost every direction, the crack of wood as something unseen moves through the trees. The gentle sounds of nature taking back its land.
Its amazing how quickly nature has taken hold of the filter beds, in the grand scheme of things 1969 isn’t really that long ago. Eventually nature will win I expect, the rotting concrete and powder soft bricks will simply crumble in to the earth. For now though, this nature reserve is a pretty unique environment. A place where decay hangs in the air, but at the same time, a place that is packed with life. The filter beds are no less important than when they cleaned our water, they are just important for a different reason. The beds are a vital home for wildlife, and a reminder to us that little of what we do can really be classed as permanent. A small glimpse of how things would be if people were suddenly removed from the planet, and nature was left to its own devices. To find out more about this lost but not forgotten corner of East London, click here.