Thursday, 28 June 2012

Post-industrial landscape in East London 2/3

Not so long ago the marshes were a wasteland, more or less unregulated, with burnt-out cars and occasionally kids riding motorcycles, but also a true sense of wild untended nature. You could walk or ride a bike where you wanted, climb trees and bring a rope to make a swing, very like the wastelands I loved when I was a boy. The role of the LVA is to turn that into a properly regulated nature park, because for various reasons wasteland is no longer acceptable, especially perhaps because a wasteland could be taken over for development while a park cannot. Whatever the reasons, the Lea Valley is of course a huge asset to the area, but with regulation and management come corresponding opportunities for people using the place to be fenced off, confronted with prohibition notices, or actually told off in person. At one point the Authority got rid of their park rangers, who were of course educated and polite people who walked around the nature reserves, and replaced them with private security patrols who dressed in black, drove unmarked white vans, and of course knew nothing whatsoever about wildlife or walking routes. These characters made a point of interfering with families eating picnics and children climbing trees, let alone youths with a ghetto blaster and cans of beer, on the basis that they're keeping the place safe, but missing the point that perhaps the level of contact with the public might be a little excessive, and their image more threatening than reassuring. Perhaps people more vocal than myself have persuaded the Authority to tread more lightly, because I haven't seen them lately.

That was the LVA's worst excess, putting into perspective minor annoyances like unnecessary gates and barriers (supposedly only temporary), and their failure to get rid of the rubbish or to make decent paths. The chain of reservoirs nearby looks like going the same way. Currently they are operated by Thames Water, who maintain the place efficiently but leave the margins entirely wild, a true nature reserve in the sense that wildlife coexists naturally with the function of the place. Only fishermen go there, putting a pound in an envelope and dropping it into the honesty box. Now Waltham Forest have won lottery money to turn the place into another nature park. Catch it while you still can and see the difference for yourself.

Across Hackney Marsh football fields, a vast expanse of grass that's escaped the grasp of the Olympics, we get on to the canal towpath. The towpath recently got the Olympic upgrade treatment, properly laid paths that are maybe less fun than awful muddy ruts but actually quite nice for cycling, now the loose gravel is starting to bed down to a less slippery surface. Alongside the Olympic site the graffiti-covered warehouses and artists studios are still there, surprisingly not wiped out by new developments, although you can see the signs of change everywhere. One old warehouse has huge new windows cut through the graffiti-covered brickwork, and a concrete-framed building next to the lock suddenly has new glass walls, with the steel skeleton of the old loading bay still suspended over the canal.

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