Naturally …

Where my interest in nature came from is anybody’s guess, none of my family shared in it. It was evident very early, by age eight I was off on my own making lists of the birds I came across. Whipps Cross was my patch.

When I was older and got a bike I could venture further afield. I tended to concentrate on larger birds, I didn’t own any binoculars until much later.

I counted it a particularly successful outing if I managed to see a Jay or a Great Crested Grebe.

Great Crested Grebe

So, naturally, I managed to fit a little birding in between seeing the sights of London, starting with Whipps Cross where I saw both a Jay and a Great Crested Grebe plus a couple of birds that were not present in my young days, Little Egret and Egyptian Goose. Interestingly I didn’t come across Chaffinch or Yellowhammer.

Little Egret
Egyptian Goose

Other spots that I visited included Fisher’s Green near Waltham Abbey. This was a place that I used to fish at. It’s changed a great deal since then. Some old powder mills are gone. Gravel extraction has produced extensive shallow lakes. It’s now a great place to see water birds and even an otter if you’re very lucky.

Another old favourite was the Lea Valley reservoirs running from the back of Hackney Marshes out to Tottenham. Arriving there I found that Europe’s most extensive urban wetland was in development and would open October 20th. The place where I saw my first Smew was being recycled as Walthamstow Wetlands.

Although it wasn’t yet open it wasn’t all that closed either so I found my way in and had a wander and found perhaps the most exciting bird of the UK trip …

In flight it showed triangular white patches at the base of the tail. The photo shows the patterned plumage and the white supercilium. It’s a Whinchat, exciting because quite unexpected on the outskirts of London. It’s a summer visitor to Britain, I may just have been lucky to see it as it made its migration southwards.

But it’s not all about the novel or the rare. It’s nice to spend time with old friends.

Mute Swan
Mute Swan
Grey Heron

Three Mills …

Waltham Abbey stands on the bank of the River Lea. In 1577 a lock was constructed nearby. It was the first of a series that improved the river for barge transport. If you point your barge down stream you will pass through Enfield Lock, Ponders End, Edmonton, Chingford, Tottenham, Walthamstow, Upper Clapton, Leyton, Hackney Wick, Stratford, Bromley-by-Bow (past Fish Island), Poplar, Canning Town and finally Leamouth where it meets the River Thames.

You will also pass through much of my family history. Just before you go under the bridge at Leabridge Road you will have Hackney Marshes on your left. In the days when Tottenham Hotspurs were semipro my Grandfather played for them here. My father and then I too played football here although not for such illustrious teams. One of the most memorable spectacles of my young life occurred here. I was playing cricket for my school when Porter’s Paints caught fire. Drums of solvent were exploding and flying into the sky all afternoon. New Year’s Eve has nothing on it.

Shortly after passing under the bridge you will pass the site of a wood yard that occupied one side of Rock Road. Half my family occupied the other side of the road.The timber came on horse drawn barges. On hot days my father and uncles and aunt would swim in the Lea.

It was here in 1952, at a street party to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth ll that I won half a crown in a fancy dress contest. My mother had dressed me as Wee Willie Winkie, I was running around waving a candle stick in a holder. Rock Road and the wood yard are long gone in the process of slum clearance.

At Hackney Wick you will pass my first home. We lived upstairs in two rooms, there was no bathroom. The toilet was in the back yard. We shared it with the occupants of downstairs. In the London I grew up in there was an adventure playground in every street courtesy of the Germans. “I’ll be playing in the bomb site, mum”.

On the corner of Wick Road there was a pub, The Tiger. It was hit by the last bomb of the war. My uncle was standing at the bar. That last bomb fell in more places and killed more people than any other bomb of the war. That area too has been demolished and rebuilt.

But keep going, the Lea is becoming tidal now. And we’ll stop at the Three Mills, Bromley-by-bow. Two are still standing, this is the older …

It stands astride the river. It was built in 1776. There are two tides a day that filled a 57 acre mill pond, when the ebb started to run the water turned water wheels beneath the building which drove the mill stones and also did the lifting that took the grain up to the top floor. Depending on the height of the tides the mill would operate seven or eight hours each day.

The grain would come by cart or by barge, the flat stones were there so that cart wheels needn’t run over the cobbles.

The miller’s house is to the right running out of the photo. There is no communicating door between the two for the very simple reason that a naked flame would have led to a massive conflagration. Candles were OK in the house but open a door to the mill and disaster would have ensued.

My good friend Kathy is a volunteer at the mill. Her friend Tony gave me a very comprehensive and informative private tour. The paying public do not get to see the roof …

The working day was dictated by the tide not the clock. Without any artificial light it was largely managed by ear. The control room is on a lower level, an ingenious arrangement of levers and ropes controlled most of what happened on the floors above.

There have been tidal mills on the Lea throughout recorded history. The Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror to take stock of his new realm, records nine mills along this section, although it is uncertain if this meant nine pairs of stones or nine buildings perhaps holding even more pairs.

The flour produced traditionally went to the bakers of Stratford-atte-Bow who sold their bread in the City of London. By 1776 there was a more valuable commodity than bread. The output of this mill mainly went into gin production. Hogarth would have been horrified.




As you can see the building behind the stone facade is wood. The stresses imposed by the milling machinery were enormous. The carpentry owes more to ship building than residential housing.

Problems, Opportunities, Accidents …

Claudius, the unlikely Emperor of Rome, needed a military conquest to earn a little respect. In AD 43, he sent four legions to invade the Catuvellaunian kingdom in Britain. They were successful and Claudius was able to make a visit soon after. The Catuvellaunian capital was given a Romanised name and Colchester became the accidental capital of Roman Britain. It took another thirty years for the Romans to subdue the rest of the country.

Dover sits at the narrowest point of the English Channel. It was settled and used long before the Romans but they fortified it and set up lighthouses.

Between Dover and Colchester there’s a problem, the Thames. The Romans built a bridge. The site was obvious it had long been in use. At low tide it was shallow enough to ford, at high tide you could take a boat. Why exactly there?  Because a natural causeway to the south bank through an otherwise marshy area sits opposite a high point on the north bank.

The river was now an opportunity, ships could come up the Thames, goods could be transported north or south. A village grew up around the bridge.

London Bridge came before London. Once it got started it grew apace.

Between London and Colchester there was another problem. The River Lea. Just how do you spell it, Lea or Lee? You’ll find both so neither is wrong but in some contexts one is more right than the other. But the more important problem is negotiating the marshes and crossing the river. Traditionally at Old Ford, Hackney.

Bear in mind that the prevailing wind is from the west.

Problems, opportunities, accidents. A bridge, a growing town, a main road that runs northeast, the River Lea, it’s marshes, a west wind … these are some of the things that made the East End, and the East End made me.

Docks grew up on the Thames, associated industries grew nearby, ropemaking for example. Some industries are smelly, tanning for instance, put it down wind from the richer citizens. Or hazardous like making gun powder. The big city needs grain and fresh water, take it by barge down the River Lea. It’s tidal … harvest the tide for milling grain.

In 1720 John Strype described London as consisting of four parts …

the City of London, Westminster, Southwark, and “That Part beyond the Tower”.

That part beyond the Tower was spreading northeast up the main road into the countryside. It was constrained by the marshes and the River Lea.

East End. No end. Grey streets, grimy streets, streets without number, streets without meaning, streets that spread on and on under the dull, dreary eastern sky until, somewhere out past the miles and miles of docks they dissolve like an estuary, into a sea of nothingness. East End. Dead end. The East End was not a place, it was a state of mind.                                London, Edward Rutherford.

And not necessarily a sober state of mind. In 1736, the Middlesex Magistrates complained …

It is with the deepest concern your committee observe the strong Inclination of the inferior Sort of People to these destructive Liquors, and how surprisingly this Infection has spread within these few Years … it is scarce possible for Persons in low Life to go anywhere or to be anywhere, without being drawn in to taste, and, by Degrees, to like and approve of this pernicious Liquor.

The pernicious liquor was gin.