“What the hell is that?”
The man was at the bottom of Millfields Park in Hackney, can of lager in hand. He frowned across the Lea River at a cormorant bobbing in the water.
“I dunno,” said his girlfriend as I passed by. “A black swan?”
When many Londoners come to the eastern edge of Hackney, where the Lea River carves a liquid border, they’re bewildered by a sudden confrontation with wilderness. The London they know falls away. Gone are the tower blocks, playgrounds, Victorian terraces and grumbling traffic. On the other side of the water stretches a landscape of ancient wetland, overgrown ruins, wildflower meadows, pylons, railway sidings and reservoirs. Kestrels hover over rare breed cattle. Woodpeckers dart between poplars, willow and ash. A heron hunts in a flooded World War II bomb crater. All of this framed by a skyscraper skyline.
This is the ‘marshes’, a strip of greenbelt land in the Lea Valley consisting of Hackney, Walthamstow and Leyton marshes. Only Walthamstow’s marsh remains a wetland. Hackney and Leyton’s marshes were used as a dumping ground for rubble during the Blitz. This helped drain the fields effectively enough to create pitches for Sunday League football, for which this area is most famous. But the marshes are many things: Lammas Lands where commoners once grazed cattle, a Victorian water filtration system, the site where the first British aeroplane was built and flown, a rave site, venue for both dog-walking and dogging, a home for narrowboaters, and a nature reserve.
Walking through this terrain is like
being dragged back to a time before London.
This is by no means a natural unspoilt wilderness, but it is wild, untamed and unchanged in some parts since the Iron Age. And this is what makes it so disturbing. Hogweed, nettles and buddleia burst from sidings, riverbanks and the remnants of sluice gates and bridges. Butterfly colonies thrive at the feet of pylons. Migrating ducks from Siberia preen themselves on discarded car tyres in a stretch of tidal river, where kingfishers hunt and the remains of shopping trolleys are sucked into the mud banks.
Walking through this terrain it feels as if you’re being dragged back to a time before London, when man competed with beasts for food. At the same time, it intimates a future after mankind, when nature will burst through the cracks in the city and reclaim her dominion.
The effect on the visitor can manifest itself in a form of psychosis, characterised by temporal disorientation, loss of contact with reality, even hallucinations. This isn’t some exaggerated effect I’ve dreamed up. It has made headline news.
When Crocodiles and Bears Attack
In 2006 the sudden disappearance of a goose in front of boat trippers travelling up a section of the Lea between the Olympic Park and Hackney Marsh was blamed on a crocodile. “Boat Trip Fuels River Croc Tale” ran the BBC headline, despite there being no sighting of a crocodile and many other possibilities, such as an otter or a pike.
When another goose was dragged beneath the water in 2011 it sparked more news stories “Killer beast stalks Olympic Park as experts fear alligator or python is on the loose” cried The Daily Mail. Again, there were no actual sightings. The leap of invention that created the phantom crocodile was a product of human imagination, tricked into primal fight-or-flight hysteria. It’s a result of the disruption experienced when stepping from a modern city into a land where progress is rendered suddenly meaningless. In the marshes, railways, reservoirs and pylons share the same space as defunct technological schemes: the ruined elevation of a coal-fired power station; abandoned Victorian filter beds; a cemented aqueduct; anti-aircraft trenches from the Second World War. It’s a fragmentary non-linear world in which you’re never sure what lurks around the corner.
In 1981, the headless, skinned bodies
of two bears had been found in the river Lea.
This might explain the bear sightings, the most notorious of which was on 27th December 1981 when four boys on Hackney Marsh stumbled upon “a giant growling thing” and fled in terror. Weeks before, the headless, skinned bodies of two bears had been found in the Lea. So the police took the boys’ claims seriously. Fifty officers stormed the marsh with sniffer dogs and marksmen but found nothing.
There have been other recorded sightings since and not only bears. A reader of my Marshman Chronicles website claims he found big cat remains in the late 1970s. Another more spurious account I found online talks of a sabre-toothed tiger roaming the land.
Whatever the truth behind these sightings, they gain traction because of the marshes’ peculiar topography. It’s common for cryptozoological sightings to occur in liminal zones between human habitation and wilderness. The marshes are such a threshold, made more peculiar by their existence in the middle of a megalopolis, surrounded on all sides by densely populated urban sprawl. Hackney and Walthamstow are undergoing intense gentrification, sharpening that contrast between the super-heated city and a place where time doesn’t progress, but swirls and loops.
There is sonic disruption too. As you enter areas of woodland or dense scrub, your ears are filled with the sounds of the city. Chirruping birds harmonise with drills. Leaves rustle to the sound of crunching excavator scoops. Tannoy announcements drift through the undergrowth from industrial estates on the eastern edge of the marshes. You can stand in dense woodland and shudder to the roar of the concealed A12 flyover. The effect is dreamlike. Nightmarish. Or somewhere in between. This has a potent effect on the imagination, as I’ve discovered first-hand.
Dreams and Nightmares at the Edge of London
Before I started walking the marshes in 2008, my life in London was a whirlwind of work, pubs and socialising along the trajectories of public transport networks. Then my wife got pregnant. We moved to a flat by the marshes. I bought a dog. Then I wandered with him across the Lea River to see what was there.
I was shocked to discover a lost world on my doorstep, that there was still this wildness within London, if you looked and listened closely. It ran beneath the streets in the form of lost rivers. It burst through the city’s concrete crust in anomalous zones like the Lea Marshes. Even the few people walking on the marshes seemed wild, stripped of their urban context, drifting through long grass or emerging from scrub: a Hasidic Jew, a Turkish businessman looking for gay sex, a city boy on a bicycle, kids sneaking out for a joint, alcoholics seeking shelter for a boozing session, lycra-clad joggers, construction workers in hard hats, pensioners in flat caps. These figures had stepped outside of time and place, like ghosts.
For me, the marshes exist somewhere
in between the real and imagined, the historical
and the mythical.
I struggled to explain the unique weirdness of the marshes to my friends, so I put up a blog called The Marshman Chronicles where I could get to grips with my growing obsession. What was most exciting for me was the fusion of untamed nature and decayed industrial heritage. I became obsessed with an electricity pylon in the filter beds. It would have seemed insanely futuristic to the Victorians who once worked there but, to my mind, the pylon was a quaint relic of the post-war boom. As a child of the early ’70s, this object was as intrinsic to our British landscape for me as an old oak tree. When they decided to take the pylon down to ‘prettify’ the filter bed site for tourists, I was dismayed. In response I wrote a semi-autobiographical story called A Dream life of Hackney Marshes, about a man who has a psychotic breakdown after his first child is born and begins a doomed affair with an electricity pylon.
For me, the marshes exist somewhere in between the real and imagined, the historical and the mythical, the city and the wilderness. This quality has inspired countless stories which I have weaved together in a book called Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London. I am just one of a series of characters in the book who drift between factual and imagined events across multiple epochs in the marshes’ history. Yuppies in a riverside development are haunted by a factory, a magic narrowboat takes passengers to the time of Dick Turpin, Victorians get into scuffles with 21st century teenagers, post-apocalyptic Hackney tribes eke out a living among the rushes.
In all of the stories, it’s the primal memory of wild, untamed nature beneath the veneer of modern London which haunts those who venture out onto the marshes. The extraordinary persistence of this wilderness in East London reminds us that, eventually, when the human project ends, nature will swallow up all that have achieved.
Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London is out now on Influx Press.