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

The ghost horses of Marsh Lane Fields

The most poignant moment in making this elegy for a London meadow – Marsh Lane Fields, came when I couldn’t recall where exactly the horses had been tethered beneath the pylons. It was the memory of that image – so striking when I’d first seen it on my personal discovery of Marsh Lane Fields, new to the area Beating the Bounds in the driving rain with the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee – that made me realise not only had the horses been erased from the landscape but the pylons as well. How was it possible that I hadn’t noticed before. I’d surveyed the changes to the site when passing through on one of the walks for This Other London and the fact I was running late for the wassailing in Clapton made me hurry through.

marsh lane fields horses

Sunday night I dug out my old camcorder from the top of the wardrobe and spooled through a miniDV tape I shot in December 2006 when the NLLDC returned to Marsh Lane to lead a protest against the proposed enclosure of one end of the ancient Lammas Lands by the London Olympic Authorities for the relocation of Manor Garden Allotments from Hackney. One protest had begotten another. First time this was attempted, in 1892, the people of Leyton marched onto the fields led by their councillors and tore the fences down. A plaque on the Eton Manor Athletics Club commemorates the event. It’s said the land was drained by Alfred the Great and bequeathed to the people of Leyton as common pasture based on the old Lammas grazing system. This mattered little to the Olympic people and their fences went up.

I fast-forwarded through the footage of the protest, the singing of an old marching Song sung during he footpath protests of the early 20th Century. Were the horses a misplaced memory of the stables on the site of the Lea Valley Pitch and Putt (was that a figment of my imagination as well?). But eventually there were the horses munching the grass in Standard Definition, today closely mown and rebranded Leyton Jubilee Park, grazing where now allotment holders cultivate rhubarb.

Beating the Bounds on the Lammas Lands

Went out beating the bounds on the Lammas Lands of Leyton Marshes Sunday after seeing an article about it in the Leyton & Leytonstone Guardian. It rained all day but still at least 20 hardy souls turned out to enact this ancient ritual led by local activist Katy Andrews of the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and Rev Dr Meic Phillips.

My interest in the practice of Beating the Bounds comes from the Remapping High Wycombe project when I did my own symbolic circuit of the town’s boundary. I was intrigued to see it done for real though, particularly as here on Leyton Marshes it wasn’t just a quaint re-enactment of an old custom whereby the devil was beat out of the locality and youngsters where shown the parish limits, it carried a real political message.

The idea of Lammas Lands is based on the Celtic system of cattle grazing. Parishioners had common rights to graze cattle on these lands from Lammas Day (1st August) till the old Celtic New Year’s Day of 25th March. People stopped grazing cattle here some time ago, after the railways carved up the area, but in 1905 a determined group of local people got together and fought for the of the Lammas Lands to be “devoted to the purpose of an open space in perpetuity.” This still stands and the right to free access to the land and for it not to be fenced in is an important local right, especially at a time was more and more of London is being taken out of circulation by developers. But with the 2012 Olympics on its way, the London Development Agency have their hungry eyes on all the spare land they can grab, and without a word to anyone, they’ve decided that a chunk of the Lammas Lands would be a good place to relocate allotments from Hackney that are going to end up as a Badminton Court or something else equally useful.

Leyton Marshes are a great expanse of land, the like of which you just don’t expect to see in London. Horses grazing, some tethered to the great electricity pylons that straddle the Lea Valley. Into it we plunged with our willow wands bedecked with ribbons. I missed the first “child sacrifice” because I got lost on the pitch and put. I was slightly surprised that this bumping of a child would be carried out, however traditional, the idea of Druids carrying out child sacrifice is now thought to have been Christian propaganda aimed at undermining the influence of pagan practices.

Rev Dr Meic Phillips boomed out snippets of local history and oddities of English law, such as the way that footpaths are established (by carrying a coffin between a dwelling and a church – and you can still do it if you can find a dead person). I struck up conversation with the vicar of the Parish of Clapton and it dawned on me how this distinctly pagan ritual is being appropriated by the church, but not in a christianised form but a blatantly pagan one. Looking and listening to Rev Dr Phillips, I could see that he was just a Druid in disguise, and I started to wonder whether the Druids hadn’t died out but they’d just entered the fledgling Church of England and quietly subverted it.

Opposite the River Lea Navigation Katy pointed out the former site of James Latham’s timber yards, currently been turned into the sort of Legoland housing estate that John Prescott plans to have spreading throughout southern England like an outbreak of measles. This was the place my Dad had told me to look out for. He used to drive up from Wycombe to pick the timber up from Latham’s wharfs, back in Wycombe it would be turned into veneered panels. The Lea Bridge Road is my old man’s only point of reference in this neck of the woods.

Through a ditch and up a muddy bank, the rain lashes down, people going down left right and centre, I fall head first into a patch of stinging nettles. This is the stuff, there won’t be a riot like there was in 1905, but we’ll at least get some mud under our nails.

On we go around the marshes, with references to how the calendar change of 1752 divided the grazing practices of the parishes Leyton and Walthamstow who had peacefully co-existed for thousands of years (well a couple of thousand at least). It meant that the people of Leyton who had adopted the new calendar had to take their cattle off the Lammas Lands eleven days before those of Walthamstow who had stuck with the old system. Caused a bit of a row back then apparently.

All along the way there were reminders that our common land rights are under greater threat than ever. There was a real mood of protest and defiance, however twee we must have looked with our ribbons fluttering in the wind.

At the end of the walk, drenched, we cast our willow wands into the Dagenham Brook, a symbolic act of returning the willows to water. The next symbolic act was the adjournment to the Hare and Hounds for a pint, where it all started back in 1905.