Skip to content

In Search of Untamed London

July 25, 2011
by the gentle author

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Reaching the wide bridge over the Channelsea River where the tide had withdrawn exposing car tyres scattered upon the expanse of mud, I was seized by an impulse to take the narrow overgrown trail that follows the river bank.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

You may also like to read about

The Dog Roses of Spitalfields

Blackberry Season in the East End

9 Responses leave one →
  1. July 25, 2011

    They’re a bit slow clearing the canal this year…certainly smells when they do.

  2. Gary permalink
    July 25, 2011

    A walk on the Greenway is a pleasant experience but you had one fact wrong – it is not a disused railway embankment, it is the Northern Outfall, the main sewer taking all of North and East Londons sewage down to the river. Every few hundred yards is a vent to prevent a build-up of gases. Normally there is a breeze taking the fumes to the side, but if there is no wind – as was a morning when I walked it, the air can be described as “bracing”.
    I am glad that you enjoyed the walk and thank-you for another interesting article.

  3. July 25, 2011

    The House Mill shown in this feature was the largest Tidal Mill in the World in terms of production. Come and see this historic building on a public tour (details on website)

  4. Jill permalink
    July 26, 2011

    How life affirming to see nature fighting back amongst the urbanisation. Bow Lock brings a new meaning to ‘pea souper’. What an interesting afternoon you had. You see so much more on foot. Thanks for showing us yet another side of life in your part of the world.

  5. Alice permalink
    July 26, 2011

    What is needed here, is a Bette Midler. This wonderful women has accomplished a “cleanup” of New York and bye ways and changed the thinking of dumping garbage “Not in my yard but in yours” mentality, into New York pride.
    These London areas are National Treasures and should not be lost.

  6. Chris F permalink
    July 26, 2011

    Ahhh the glorious blackberry. I look forward every year to blackberry season. (Early this year). I found a secret stash of large berries at the rear of an old pub on Saturday. I’ve just sat down to my second bowl of blackberry and apple crumble in two days. The first with a huge dollop of vanilla ice cream and tonights with single cream. Yum…..

  7. July 27, 2011

    lovely post, thankyou..some of my favourite untamed places are the sides of railway tracks..the tracks are maintained but the banks are usually left untouched by our hands.. for decades in some places, so it’s like walking back in time…”Gardens, mysterious in their unreachable luxuriance of growth”..this line resonated with me as i’ve often looked at other folks gardens and private land and wanted to sneak in for a while and sit unseen, just to appreciate the beauty,peace and quiet..and there’s something mysterious about some of them as they are off limits..

  8. Tessa permalink
    July 28, 2011

    It’s tempting to think those making submissions for the contract are asked to build something ugly the shape and style of which should say ‘ bugger off, if you are a person who wants human scale and natural textures’.

  9. Julie permalink*
    December 28, 2011

    Wow great series of green way photos but this one struck me – so surreal and spacey – well done.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS