Tag Archives: London rivers

Concrete at Creekmouth

My local river, the Roding, leaves the ‘Patch’ through a grate and flows a final five kilometres before discharging into the Thames at Barking Creekmouth. I finally visited this stretch a few days ago, finding a path hidden behind a cinema on an uninspiring retail park.

Government money has poured into this area and a mini nature reserve around the final muddy stretch of the river is well maintained.

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Warehouses, reeds, then mud and water. The low-tide trickle still had over seventy Teal dotted along the water like punctuation marks added at random to a stream of consciousness, and ended with the exclamation of a few paddling Shelduck. But what consciousness?

Fences and reeds provide barriers and curtains as if protecting the modesty of this dying river. But is it dying? It certainly meets its end at a Guillotine.

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The barrier at Creekmouth

Some three hundred tons of metal that can descend down forty metre towers of concrete to decapitate the river and cauterise the risk of flood.

The river oozes through mud and is seemingly contained in a sarcophagus of concrete on either side. To the East, the industry of demolition and waste, of scrap, rubbish, and recycling. Things being churned up by metal claws and blades and then re-processed somehow, I don’t know how; or disposed of somewhere – burnt or buried, but – like energy – never truly destroyed.

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Meanwhile, on the western bank, another form of waste is processed. The huge concrete dials of Beckton sewage works with hands that turn day and night, but tell a story other than time.

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Beckton sewage

Effluence in, again processed, and then water out. On one side of a path, the slow snaking river – the Roding – and on the other, a man-made waterway of processed man-made waste flowing straight and dark towards the same fate as its natural neighbour: discharge in the Thames.

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The concrete, the waste, the rubbish, the noise, but also… the wild. It is also here. While peering into the deep flow of this canal, this final sewer, an explosion of sound alerted me to the presence of a Cetti’s Warbler in the reeds behind me; present yet, of course, invisible.

Willows line one side of the path, while prison-style fences line the other, not keeping inmates in, but trespassers out – as if a sewage farm is an enticing prospect for break-and-entry.

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And then it ends. Both waterways, ‘natural’ and constructed, empty into the estuarine Thames. It ends, but it does not die – a river is surely the ultimate riddle or dichotomy of life: it has a beginning and an end, but it does not finish; finite yet also ‘in’-finite. So not death. But death has visited this place.

In 1878 – where the freshwater flow of the Roding meets the brackish behemoth of the Thames – two boats collided and sank. Some 650 souls lost in a matter of minutes – many drowning, not in water, but in raw sewage according to accounts of this horrendous disaster – to this day the worst ever single incident recorded in British history.

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The water continues to flow, the waste continues to churn… and a Chiffchaff continues to sing in this extraordinary place of life, death, change, and continuity. A place out of sight for most, unattractive to many, abandoned by some… perhaps abandoned by many… but not by all.

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Wanstead Patchwork: Part X (From Roding with love)

Three little birds on my doorstep
On Saturday morning I set out relatively early on to the patch with the hope that fresh air would cure me of a hangover.

I was rewarded in that, within 20 minutes, I had added a new bird to patch list for 2015. Whilst navigating my way around a number of dead frogs (don’t ask me why) on the fringes of a pond known as Cat and dog, I flushed a snipe (Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago). The long-beaked wader put up in the air in a blur of russet and khaki camouflage and flew over the Flats (where it was later seen by other birders).

A little while later I heard my first warbler of the year, and probably my first summer migrant. A Chiffchaff sang out its name from the island on Alexandra lake.

River Roding
I then took directions from Nick and Josh to go and look for my 65th species of the year, Teal. I had all but given up seeing this common winter duck on the patch as I thought they might have all returned to Siberia.

The hunting ground for my quarry was the River Roding:

River Roding

I walked South, sandwiched between the City of London Cemetery and the little river. On the other side of the water, golfers swung, hacked, and FORE!’d their way around the fairways of Ilford course while the steady hum of traffic on the North Circular served to remind us all that we were contained within the capital’s boundaries, where busy roads serve as walls.

I crept around vainly looking and listening for water rail in the reeds, whilst a few metres away people wearing purple and orange (what is it about golfers and fashion?) hit small white balls around manicured parkland. I was struck almost simultaneously by the sense of both the ridiculousness and the wonderfulness of hobbies (I used to, and occasionally still do, play golf very badly myself – my crap scores must be on account of the drab colours I wear). As silly as many hobbies are, it was at that ludicrous moment that I felt very sorry for anyone who doesn’t have a pastime to indulge in.

Dear Polly
Talking of hobbies…

I often say – to anyone who will listen – that hobbies satisfy many of mankind’s ancient and primal urges to hunt and gather. In our increasingly plastic and sanitised world, some of us seek to retrace the steps – albeit through heavily ritualised and modernised (often safe) means – of our ancestors. I contend that birding satisfies the spirits of hunter (tracking down wild animals) and gatherer (the list element and need to ‘collect’ as many species as possible) that still occupy us.

A hobby that satisfies the gatherer within us, is that of the collector – for example of postcards…

River Roding

This postcard above (a recent purchase that arrived today) is over 100 years old and depicts the Rover Roding. On the other side it reads:

Dear Pollie [sic],

I am enjoying myself allright [sic], went fishing [I am trying to ignore the fact this word looks like “fisting”] here this afternoon did not catch anything, will write tomorrow. With love from Ethel

Ignoring the fact that our long-dead friend, Ethel, seemed determined to make an enemy of punctuation and grammar, I love how she writes to her friend/sibling/lover/relation daily whilst on holiday (?) in a nearby part of London. Polly/Pollie lived in Islington just a few miles away (I actually know the street in the address as I used to live nearby and know that any house she lived in was destroyed in the war or demolished to be replaced with flats).

An even smaller river
The Roding is a small river. It often flows under bridges un-named and unmarked. It eventually seeps slowly into the Thames anonymously or, rather, under the title of ‘Barking Creek’. But this belies the fact that the Roding is an ancient and important water source. The fifty-mile long river – once entirely located within Essex, until London grew – is believed to be named after a Saxon chieftain, Hrodas, and his people, the Hrodingas, who came to Essex and subdued (read ‘slaughtered’) the local pagan tribes.

I would love to see the Roding follow the lead of its western cousin, the Wandle, and become a second London home to wild brown trout.

Not many Londoners – I am quite sure – could name the Roding correctly, and yet there exists an even smaller, sorrier river, a tributary of the Roding, that has a place in this rather lengthy story/post, the Alders brook.

The earliest extant reference to this stream is from the 16th Century. But now, I can find nowhere to tell me where this brook’s source is – other than the admirable – and hopefully correct guess of Mr Ferris in his excellent online resource of all wild matters locally.

I trampled brambles to look at the heavily algae-clogged (if not stagnant) brook and then saw, far up stream, a pair of Teal. They saw me too and swam effortlessly around a bend and behind the locked gates of some allotments.

In my desire to photograph this pair and further explore this poorly-known waterway, I backtracked and and tried to gingerly make my way through the narrow and heavily overgrown bank of the stream that runs alongside the metal fencing of the allotments. The going became impassable and so, probably luckily for them, the Teal remained unphotographed:

Alders Brook

Typically, back in Wanstead Park, I saw more Teal – despite two months of blanking them in the same park:

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

But I regretted nothing. Had I not gone in search of Teal in the inaccessible narrow waterways of East London, I may never have set foot on the narrow banks of the shamefully forgotten Alders Brook.

Along the way on my journey, I photographed for the first time this year so far…

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

and…

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) - presuming it was too early for Common Dog Violet

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) – presuming it was too early for Common Dog Violet

… and listened to my first singing Dunnock of the year:

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

… and completely forgot about my hangover.