Cycling around the nature reserves of North East London

October 2013

I am interested in the urban environment, these are usually the places that most need nice things like innovative growing spaces. Not so long ago I had the opportunity to cycle & explore around North East London in the areas of Hackney & Walthamstow. I was amazed at how lively and diverse the landscape & communities of people were here, and that you didn't have to go far to experience really interesting & beautiful green spaces. Our initial aim was to go to Epping Forest but we got side-tracked by all the things in between. From the artists who work in Hackney Wick, the people who live on boats on the canal & beside it, the Olympic Park area that seemed to have resumed back into a building site after the big game, to parks, community gardens & nature reserves.

My friend Erica's pimped up bike.

I have been trying to find out what this aster flower is. It is the season for them at the moment. It grows in places like along train tracks, waterways & roadsides. I discovered the site East London Nature and they have documented an Aster lanceolatus in Walthamstow Marshes which is now known as Symphyotrichum lanceolatum.

If this is the case it grows wild in lowland places here, but is not native to Britain, and was only recorded to have been found in the wild from 1865. It is originally from the US & Canada. It is a garden escapee and was possibly introduced by North American servicemen who were in Wiltshire. In Wild Flowers of Britain by Roger Philips there is a Symphyotrichum (Aster) novi-belgii recorded that is also a garden escapee, both can grow up to 2m.

I don't remember our exact route now, but it wasn't long before we felt like we weren't even in London.  Roughly we started from Brick Lane and went along Regent's Canal, through Victoria Park where the main pond has a wonderful jetty bit that struts out into the water, that you can sit and have your lunch on, when the adjacent Pavilion cafĂ© puts out table & chairs on them, under a canopy too on a sunny day. Then we went into the wooded areas of Hackney Marsh and into Middlesex Filter Beds, once built to deal with the prevention of cholera in London in 1852, they are now a nature reserve.

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) at Middlesex Filter Beds.

A view of one of the filter beds.

It was really interesting to see how different people used space around the canals. Some with their houses backed onto it, extended the back of their garden & site right up to the water and idyllically incorporated it as if it was part of their garden. Some property developers put as much concrete between the canal & flats as much as possible. Then there was the culture of canal boat dwellers, at certain points there seemed to be really lively hubs of people residing next to each other. Some of them seemed to have permanent moorings and a little strip of land of on the bank where they hung up washing or had a little garden or a place to sit on land.

Old shoes & trainer planters on a canal boat.

We lost track of time and drifted through Tottenham Marshes, which strangely felt like a cross between waste land and a reserve. Which is interesting because I later found out that that the area was used for gravel extraction and landfill, but it is also one of the last remaining semi-natural wetlands in Greater London.

Linaria vulgaris (Common Toadflax) in Tottenham Marshes. Lots of other interesting wild flowers can be found here too.

Even the flowers of the common bramble Rubus fruticosus has its charm.

Before we entered Walthamstow Marshes we passed by a perfect looking pub called The Hope & Anchor, that looks across the water and trains that go across beautiful fields. I will be sure to stop here when I am in the area again. We got as far as Pickett's Lock and found ourselves in between paths of a myriad of highly fenced off water reservoirs - they are the Walthamstow Reservoirs, their extensive security is perhaps not surprising, as it is one of London's main drinking water supplies. Distinctive Victorian mill buildings stand within, and we move through time as we move through the journey, as the waterworks were moved from Middlesex Filter Beds to here. The reservoirs are listed as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and they harbour a lot of wildlife and plant interest (for e.g. it is one of the top five sites in the country for herons). Apparently an inexpensive day permit can be obtained via Thames Water (the owners) to visit the sites - which are mainly used by anglers.

Through the tall metal fence of one of Walthamstow Reservoirs. Someone has managed to strike a deal for their sheep to graze there.

Walthamstow Marshes - was full of comfrey Symphytum officinale, and the swathes of Symphyotrichum lanceolatum and the common dock Rumex obtusifolius actually looked special in the falling light.

We got lost in the bewildering jungle of the North Circular road of Chingford somewhere, but thankfully found our way back into the green sanctuary of reserves and canal paths again. And we even managed to find a great little garden centre called Growing Concerns along the Union Canal, with an entrance at the St Mark's Gate entrance of Victoria Park. It seemed well stocked with good quality plants & products. Anything like this around here was a rare find, my friend Erica assured me.

From wild to cultivated, outside Lee Valley Ice Centre featuring one of my favourite grasses Festuca glauca

Growing Concerns - garden centre & community gardener.

A rough guide of the route we took.

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