In Search of Untamed London
On these hot dusty Summer Sundays in July, I get a longing to go on country rambles – a desire that is not easily fulfilled in Spitalfields – but when the esteemed Herb Lester Associates asked me to contribute some introductory words to their map of Untamed London and then a copy arrived in the post this week, it inspired me to seek out the best approximation of such a walk without leaving East London.
I shall never forget the first time I was driven in a car from the West End out past Hyde Park as a child, and I thought “London is a big city, but we’re in the country now.” I had a similar feeling as I stepped onto the Green Way at Hackney Wick, with its innate bucolic promise. Yet, although there was a certain delight to be savoured from walking upon this former railway embankment lined with wildflowers while gazing upon the industrial landscape on either side, I had not bargained on the Green Way leading me through the centre of the site of the 2012 Olympics. On one side towered the vast white stadium, looking as if it had just landed from Outer Space, and on the other side bulldozers were at work, flattening acres of land as far as the eye could see – I think we may categorise this as “Tamed London.”
It was a relief to leave the Stratford Marshes behind – marshes only in name now – as I headed South-eastwards upon the Green Way towards the Mills Meads where I took time to appreciate the extraordinary dense variety of wild flowers growing beside the path including cow parsley, clover, yarrow, coltsfoot, vetch, rosebay willow-herb, buddleia and mallow. At this moment of high Summer, the dominant colours are pink and blue, and there is a sweet scent drifting on the soft breeze for anyone that choses to stand and contemplate. Already now in mid July, the rose hips have reddened and blackberries are ripe on the briars. And, from this raised causeway, I took great pleasure in pausing to peer down into some beautiful back gardens overgrown with creepers and verdant life – mysterious in their unreachable luxuriance of growth.
Reaching the wide bridge over the Channelsea River where the tide had withdrawn exposing car tyres scattered upon the expanse of mud, I was seized by an impulse to take the narrow overgrown trail that follows the river bank. Climbing down from the Green Way, I descended to a dirt path bounded by undergrowth where the surrounding developments are hidden by leaves. Here, for half a mile you can walk among balsam and willows, where rowan berries and hazelnuts hang over the path, and be shaded from the heat of the afternoon sun by deep foliage. In this narrow neglected strip of land on the river bank, beyond the perimeter fence, for the first time in my walk I could say I was in a place that could be described as “Untamed London.”
This path led me to to Three Mills Lock and, passing beside the ancient tidal mill, I crossed over to follow the bank of the River Lee – with a fine coat of green duckweed, undulating barely perceptibly and broken only by the trails of moorhens. And then at Bow Lock, I turned right, taking the cut back to the Limehouse basin (where it was necessary to visit the Grapes in Narrow St for refreshment), before crossing Commercial Rd and wandering up through Stepney to the fine old church of St Dunstans. From here I walked along the road where a path once ran across the fields to Spitalfields, now absorbed into the street network as Stepney Way, meeting the Whitechapel Rd at the Bell Foundry – here it still retains the name of Fieldgate St.
My hunger for roaming was satisfied, and in the very margins of the fringes of the city, I had discovered consolation in green places new to me. Although I set out to find “Untamed London,” as if it were a separate location, I realised that “untamed” is a relative concept, and everywhere a weed pokes its defiant head up may, to some degree, be described as “untamed.”
Nature accommodates and hangs on as tenaciously as we have been thorough to obliterate it. I often think of the dwarf oaks pointed out to me by the Mudlark in the river bed at Limehouse Reach, part of the primeval forest that was here before London, and of the broadleaf forest that has grown up and overtaken Bow Cemetery in recent years. One forest reminds me of the Untamed London that was here before we came and the other forest presages the Untamed London of that indeterminate future, after we have all gone.
The vast white stadium, looking as if it had just landed from Outer Space
Beside the Green Way
Gardens, mysterious in their unreachable luxuriance of growth
In the Channelsea River
The Tidal Mill at Three Mills Island
Oasthouses at Three Mills Island
A lone moorhen’s nest
Duckweed at Bow Lock
The path home through St Dunstan’s churchyard.
The map of UNTAMED LONDON with some introductory words by yours truly is available directly from Herb Lester Associates
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