What do William Morris and Woolly Rhinos have in common? If your answer is not very much, then you’re wrong. Big Bill and the long extinct Rhino, are both former residents of Walthamstow. You no doubt already knew that William Morris lived here, but the Rhino thing, that’s probably a revaluation, right? Long ago, before humus was invented, Woolly Rhinos and Mammoths roamed around Walthamstow. I imagine they stomped around without a care in the world. They didn’t have to worry about house prices, parking spaces or sour dough bread. They simply wandered around, feeling smug because their woolly coats kept them warmer than everyone else. What on earth is he on about, that’s what your thinking isn’t it? Don’t worry, I haven’t been at the absinth again, but I have been to the Vestry House Museum, and whilst there I met a Woolly Rhino, well, a bit of a Woolly Rhino at least. The Rhino, lets call him Eric, is part of the Water and Life exhibition, which is all about the Walthamstow Wetlands, and I had a wander around the exhibition on Saturday.
I know museums aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but this exhibition is fascinating, I promise. It covers the history of the reservoirs from the time when Eric and his woolly mates were hanging around, right through to the present day and the creation of the Walthamstow Wetlands. We take the reservoirs for granted now, but they haven’t always been there, and that’s the starting point of the exhibition, what was there before the reservoirs, or more to the point, what was found when they were excavated. Archaeological evidence indicates that ox, wolves and elk roamed here. The builders of the reservoirs also found Roman coins, prehistoric flint, and an Anglo-Saxon sword. Come on, that’s amazing right, this is food for the imagination, the stuff stories are made of. OK, so my inner geek may be coming out, but I can’t help my self, I love a bit of history.
One of the exhibits that really caught my attention was an ancient pair of shoes. Again, I realise that may not sound like the height of excitement, but come on, ancient shoes, that’s incredible isn’t it. They were found when one of the reservoirs was being excavated, and were probably worn by someone who worked out on the marsh. This is when my imagination goes in to overdrive again, why were the shoes left on the marsh? Did someone abandon them, did the marsh swallow them, or did something terrible happen to their owner? We’ll never know of course, but the fact they survived long after their owner had been lost from memory, is pretty incredible.
Water and Life reminded me how important the reservoirs are. They are still Thames Water’s biggest source of drinking water, and will become London’s largest wetland nature reserve when the Wetlands open in 2017. This is a place where nature and humans have battled for centuries, a place where industry and wildlife have fought pitched battles against each other, a place where hopefully, finally, a balance has been found. The exhibition follows the story of the Wetlands, traces each battle, follows each step on the journey from its time as the home of Woolly Eric, to becoming one of the most important sites in London. As you can probably gather, I really enjoyed my visit, and would really recommend it if you haven’t already been. To find out more about Water and life, and the to see what else the Vestry House offers, visit the museum web site.