On the trail of the Dagenham Brook

Leyton Sign Ruckolt Road

Something magical happens when you pack your bag for a walk, even on a day like today when my enthusiasm is thin. In goes the notebook and 2 pens, a copy of Rachel Lichtenstein’s new book Estuary, OS map of the Lea Valley & Epping Forest, camera + mini magnetic tripod, a light jacket, and finally a cap I stuff down the side. All of this crammed into a messenger bag that was given away by the thousand at the London Film Festival 12 or 13 years ago.

I contemplate the journey ahead over coffee at Costa in Leyton Mills – the vast carpark here with its expansive Lea Valley skies is one of my favourite open spaces in London – it’s like the American Midwest of my imagination. The prospect of the relatively short walk along the Dagenham Brook increases in appeal as the caffeine kicks in. These minor urban excursions can easily snowball into epic quests. It’s the anticipation of the unknown buried within the familiar. Of becoming lost in a suburban swamp.

Dagenham Brook
I navigate my way across the grid system of the Asda car park and over to Orient Way, under the Leyton sign to find the point where the Dagenham Brook disappears underground before making its confluence with the River Lea. This is so close to where the Fillebrook momentarily appears above ground (in a reversal of fortunes) that I wonder if these two brooks merge before running into the Lea as a single watercourse.

A broken hole in the thick undergrowth gives me my first glimpse of the Dagenham Brook. I slide down the bank getting snagged in the brambles in the process and struggle to extract myself once I’ve logged my encounter with the river. Urban river hunting is not as easy as it seems.

Dagenham Brook
Fifty yards or so further along a recently surfaced new path hugs the river as it meanders through Marsh Lane Fields. I remember the Beating of the Bounds here on a wet May Sunday afternoon 10 years ago just after we’d moved to Leytonstone. It had been organized by the brilliant New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and was my real introduction into the culture of this section of the Lea Valley with the deep passionate attachment to the landscape. Marsh Lane has had a powerful hold on me ever since.

Dagenham Brook Leyton FC
The brook curves round behind the goal of the abandoned ground of Leyton F.C. – the weeds thick, nearly enclosing the watercourse. I call artist Lucy Harrison to see if she’ll give me a quick 5-minute interview about the Warner Homes that straddle Lea Bridge Road and have the Dagenham Brook running through the gardens. Lucy did an interesting project with the residents of the Warner Estate and I wish I knew more about them – now would be my chance.

Warner Estate Leyton
Lucy obligingly popped out into Blythe Road and told me about how the houses had been built around the beginning of the last century to provide quality affordable rentable homes and had gradually been sold off since the 1960’s. Although they have lost the tidy uniformity of their early years when Warner staff trimmed the hedges and painted the doors and window frames green and cream – they retain a distinctive architectural style with the arched double front doors and elaborate gables. You know when you’ve strolled into a Warner Estate.

Dagenham Brook p1010216
The Brook gently flows on into territory where I can’t follow it closely – behind cul-de-sacs, round the back of industrial estates and allotments. There are allotments all along the course of the river – even more so than along the Filly Brook. The occasionally waterlogged, spring-fed land unsuitable for building or industrial use, I guess good for growing crops fond of wet soil.

Pumphouse Museum Walthamstow
I eventually rendezvous with the Brook again near the end the W19 bus route where it winds around the edge of Low Hall Sports Ground. I pay homage with a nod, a photo and a few seconds of video before moving on back along the road unable again to walk along the riverbank. In truth physical encounters are a bonus with urban river walking for me, it’s more of a simple device to open up what might appear an unpromising landscape unenthusiastic about yielding its secrets. The brook sets the route and tells you its story, guides the way.

St James Park Walthamstow

The Dagenham Brook suggests I take a look at St James Park, one of those backstreet open spaces known mostly to the locals but a beautiful spot. There are only a handful of people in the park – a lady sitting on the ground appears to have positioned herself dead centre of a large empty section. An access road leads down the middle of a wonderful grand avenue of lime trees. The park occupies part of the site of the 14th Century Low Hall Manor which was purchased by Walthamstow Council in the late 19th Century.

Dagenham Brook Walthamstow p1010264

The brook slides behind park and under the railway bridge now running parallel with the broader River Lea Flood Relief Channel. I’ve seen discussion online suggesting that the Dagenham Brook is also a man-made watercourse, a drainage ditch. Old OS maps of the area show an elaborate tapestry and ditches and ponds adorning the landscape – nearly all now buried or filled in occasionally rising again to flood a basement or waterlog a garden.

Seb Lester mural walthamstow
Moving beneath the railway you are greeted by a sequence of murals on the end of terrace walls. On the corner of Chester Road a verse from Ewan MacColl’s timeless song written for Peggy Seeger is painted in elaborate filigree font
                           The first time ever I saw your face
                          I thought the sun rose in your eyes

Louis Masai walthamstow

On the other end of the block is a work by Louis Masai of a Fox, Badger and Bees – the bees carry a placard appealing to ‘Save Us!’, the badger sits behind a sign saying ‘No to the Cull’. Around the corner is a colourful abstract work by Italian street artist Renato Hunto.

Mural Walthamstow
Moving in to Coppermill Lane I can’t see any further trace of the Dagenham Brook as it appears to have merged with Flood Relief Channel. I stand on a concrete block and look north along the course of the Lea and bid my farewell to this understated, wonderful watercourse.

sunflower walthamstow

Common Land in Leyton


I ventured down to Marsh Lane Fields, to the Lammas Lands – open, free, unfenced common land from the time of the earliest 6th Century Saxon settlement of the ‘Tun by the Lea’ – Leyton.
“Outside the tun lay the land of the settlement, some of it plough land or arable, some grass land or pasture. This land was not broken up into fields by hedges but formed a great open expanse. Moreover, none of it belonged to any one person in particular. The pasture land in the same way was the property not of one but all. A part of it was fenced off until the hay harvest was over to prevent stray cattle from damaging the growing grass. But when the hay had been gathered the fences were removed and the land was left open to the flocks and herds of the villagers.”
– The Story of Leyton and Leytonstone, W.H. Weston

This of course means nought to the London Development Agency (or is it the Orwellian sounding ODA) who have now fenced off one end of the ancient Lammas Land and driven a road across it – colonising it more effectively than the marauding Danes who harried this area in the 9th Century. It’s a depressing sight, this green metal enclosure where allotment holders grow their veg in what appears as a horticultural penitentiary. We will claim it back eventually I imagine – when the running and jumping and flag-waving has finished, we just have to bide our time and remember that it belongs to us and always will.

Have a look at this vid I shot a while back about the protest to save Marsh Lane Fields

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Iain Sinclair in the Lea

Just been sat in The Heathcote reading the excellent article by Robert Macfarlane about a “circumambulation” of the Olympic Park with Iain Sinclair. The inspiration seems to have been as much to visit the sites in Stephen Gill’s photographic record of the site in his book ‘Archaeology in Reverse’, as it was to be guided through this well trodden edgeland by the man who arguably put it on the psychogeographical map, Iain Sinclair (since the publication of ‘London Orbital’ in which Sinclair walks up the Lea Valley with fellow celebrity psychogeographer Bill Drummond, you can barely toss a paper aeroplane made from a LPA newsletter in the vicinity of the Lea without hitting a pot-bellied anorak wearing pale-faced fella with a satchel and a notebook). It’s impressive that their tour of the Olympic Park should start in Kings Cross a good 2-3 miles away. But maybe this was to induce a fugue-like state by the time the zone was reached. At that point Sinclair says to Macfarlane, “Right, are you ready for the zone? From here on in it’s pure Tarkovsky.” An although he’s referring to the landscape he could also be referencing the way that Gill’s photographs, taken on a 50p camera, call to mind Tarkovsky’s book of polaroids in the way they capture smudged light over blighted panoramas.

Although Macfarlane doesn’t express it as such, the very nature of the circumambulation is a significant ritualistic act – one again made famous by Sinclair’s M25 trek. When we started the Remapping High Wycombe project we performed the same rite – stalking the contested zone, the redevelopment site (see research video below). Our journeys radiated out from here but always as perimeter hugging drifts, so by looking in from the edge we gain a new perspective on the subject – a motive found in Andrew Kotting’s Gallivant and Jonathan Raban’s Coasting.

It’s interesting that Macfarlane picks up on Gill’s awareness of the activities of the surveyors, the advance guard of any development, and their “street graffiti” spray painted on the ground. He brilliantly describes the way that you are drawn to their strange markings, “you become suspicious of their heavy encryption, the landscape of interventions that they annotate and enable”.

He talks about the “improvised ecologies” among the rust and pollution in the way that Nick Papadimitriou talks of “unofficial ecology parks” sprouting in the corners of disused parking spaces. And the title of Gill’s book ‘Archaeology in Reverse’ calls to mind a phrase that I purloined from a review of Keiller’s ‘Robinson in Space’ of ‘archaeology of the present’.

This is great topographical writing and its connection to what is already an entry in the catalogue of disappearance and the use of a ritualistic circling seems to be further evidence that work such as Gill and Sinclair’s (and mine and many other practitioners), call it psychogeography of deep topography or whatever, is a kind of cognitive behavioural therapy for dealing with a unsympathetic re-rendering of our environment. Unable to stop the abuse we resort to a form of relief, a way of making sense of it, and working out the pain, as Nick says in ‘Inside Deep Library’ that like standard therapy, you must embrace the pain in order to move forward.

For further evidence of the dubious activities of the ODA see this vid I made about the destruction of Marsh Lane Fields

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Marsh Lane Land Grab – appeal for help

I received this by email from the New Lammas Land Defence Committee.

“As we expect you already know, on 12th June the LB Waltham Forest’s Planning Committee granted approval for part of our former Lammas Lands at Marsh LaneFields on Leyton Marshes to be fenced off from public use in order to relocate some of the Manor Gardening Society allotment-holders from Eastway Allotments in LB Newham.

About a third of the plot-holders at Eastway have, sadly, given up; others are still trying to get permission to remain where they are, which we also believe they should be allowed to.
This was the third major land-grab of open spaceoutside the currently designated Olympics site.

What happens next at Marsh Lane Fields will influence what happens in the future elsewhere in green open spaces surrounding the actual site – especially in the part of Leyton that falls in the Borough of Newham (where Major Road Open Space has been fenced off for relocating a Gypsy Traveller community) and Hackney Wick (where yet another part of Hackney Marshes on Homerton Road has been taken for families from another displaced Traveller community) as well as in other parts of Waltham Forest.

Any help would be very welcome indeed – if we were to give up without a squeak it wouldn’t be much inspiration to others in the future – however, this is not a likely prospect and we are preparing to fight this all the way !

We would welcome any offer of help, even if just over the coming week or so when we are all so very busy and the deadlines are so urgent?

The situation is serious and we really do need to work at it NOW if we are to save our Lammas Lands on Leyton Marshes!

For a view from the allotment-holders’perspective (bearing in mind that not all hold exactly the same opinion about what course to take) please see their www.lifeisland. com website, or visit the Games Monitor website which has in-depth analysis from a number of perspectives.

There is also a nascent NLLDC website under construction at www.lammaslands.com but there’s very little on it at present and it has not yet been officially launched.
For more information please contact marshlane@umbilical .demon.co. uk

Many thanks for any help you can give us!!
New Lammas Lands Defence Committee.
Also have a look at this short video I made about the Lammas Lands back in December when the threat first emerged.

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Marsh Lane Fields Celebration

Marsh Lane Fields has again been saved, and this time without a riot.
I got an email announcing the victory this afternoon:

“Last night the Borough of Waltham Forest’s planning committee turned down an application by the LondonDevelopment Agency to fence off about a fifth of Marsh Lane Fields in Leyton to relocate allotment-holders(who don’t want ot move!) from a lovely 85 year oldsite at Bully Point in Newham.
The campaign against this was led by the Lammas Lands Defence Committee,with a lot of help from other interested groups in the borough. We had already planned a rally on the marshes on Sunday before the announcement that lastnight’s planning cttee meeting would be deciding the application, and we therefore propose to hold a PARTYon the fields. So bring party stuff – champers,ribbons, etc. – if there’s any snow we can build asnowman or have a snowball fight! And please bringpolo mints, carrots or apples for the horses thatgraze there – they’ll appreciate it immensely this time of the year when it’s muddy and the grass doesn’tgrow very fast.”

It nice for a change to celebrate a victory against rapaciuos development.
I was worried that my video about the campaign would become an obituary piece.
There’s a good piece on Indymedia about the victory too

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Save Marsh Lane Fields – video

I’ve cut together some footage of the demonstration on Marsh Lane Fields in December. The video hopefully explains the issues, but in short the Olympic Destruction/Development Agency are planning re-locate the Manor Gardens Allotments in Hackney to one corner of Marsh Lane Fields.

The issues/objections are:
– the re-location of the allotments onto land that was used as a tip after the war will involve the removal of vast amounts of earth which will cause enormous disruption to this tranquil corner of Leyton (think of the diggers, trucks etc.). It’ll turn this quiet lane into a rat-run.

– it will involve the enclosure of Lammas Land that has been open, common grazing land since it was drained by Alfred the Great in the C9th. This is both a disaster locally but also on a larger scale it represents yet more common land being enclosed.

It’s instructive to note the two historical precedents of the 19th Century when the authorities intervened, both here on the Leyton Lammas Lands and in nearby Epping Forest, to fend of the advances of land grabbers and keep this vital open space in common ownership. But both these landmark rulings were triggered by the actions of a few.

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