I went out to get photos of small tortoiseshell butterflies that I’ve been seeing about the place since the weather changed to summer. But today it was windy; no butterfly would sit for me, not even the normally obliging brown sort you see hanging around in long grass. Personally I was glad of the breeze, and I don’t need much excuse to go to Walthomstow and Hackney marshes.
Set against an uncompromising semi-industrial backdrop, the marshes are about as wild as any place in London. What many people might dismiss as “waste ground” is home to countless small wonders if you take the time to look, and has some fine blackberry picking if nothing else at all takes your fancy.
The first thing you notice on a blazing summer day like this one is the alien mechanical whirring of grasshoppers. The sound reaches out, as far as you can tell, to infinity and yet you will be lucky if you can spot even one. In spring the marshes are a bewildering cacophony of birdsong, but by the end of July all the birds are silenced by exhaustion and the end of the breeding season and the usual urban soundtrack of sirens, trains rattling across the many bridges, kids joyriding on scooters and low flying aircraft take over.
Cycling along the River Lea towpath, a huge sky rolls out before you – a rare and exhilarating treat in such a built up city. The marshes are filled with flowering reeds and among them, particularly at the edge of drainage ditches, Purple Loostrife wave their sumptuously coloured flower spikes.
Startlingly acid yellow ragwort flame up and jostle against wild carrot and vetch, and on a day like today it’s all moving, swaying, the reeds sussurating in every breeze. The ground is dead flat, and heat bounces up from the towpath as the grasshoppers sing their hot summer day song, but it’s near water too, so the heat is just this side of bearable. Ponds and ditches have shrunk to scummy nothingness but the calming green of the reeds show that there is plenty of water in the ground yet.
The flowers of late summer are at their finest, and the appetising tang of wild horseradish is in the air.
You think you’ve got the measure of the place when you ride into a sudden, intense aroma of honey as if you have ridden into a brick wall. The buddlea, or “butterfly bush” has you in its sensual embrace, with its nodding purple blooms, clouds of butterflies dancing attendance and that sensational perfume. These non-native shrubs have taken to our waste grounds like a rat to a drainpipe – and to remind me that I was indeed in the city, as I took this picture a large rat came scuttling out of the undergrowth. I was so startled I didn’t get its photo, but I think the buddlea is probably more attractive anyway.
Some would call the pylons ugly; I think that in this particular, utilitarian landscape they come into their own. As huge sculptural presences they give scale to the land and a welcome perch to daytime hunting little owls. We are too far away to see the owl on this particular pylon, but trust me – there is one there! I have never been close to a pylon on the marshes without seeing its resident little owl.
Trains clatter across the two bridges over the marsh with great regularity. A friend of mine once went skinny dipping in the nearby reservoirs and gave astonished commuters on the way to office jobs on the square mile a cheery wave, completely naked, as their train sped by. You never know what you might see, flora, fauna, human or otherwise on an afternoon visit. I leave you with a typical Walthomstow Marsh panorama – the marsh its self, a passing train, and in the distance a fire which had broken out on a nearby industrial estate. It may be a wild refuge in the city, but city it undoubtedly is.
The last week of April saw weather that was stormy and unpredictable – every day seemed to bring thunderstorms, and hailstones battered the ground only to vanish in moments, turned to steam by sudden, ferocious sunshine. Huge and bizarre cloud formations towered over this sodden, miserable city, their crennelations putting to shame anything the most ambitious and insensitive city of London architect could ever dream up. One of the best places to watch these monstrous skies has to be Walthomstow marshes, an expanse of marshy grasslands, drainage ditches and reedbeds which is flanked by the river Lee navigation on one side and residential and industrial estates on the other. It ensures a vast unbroken view of roiling skies that is difficult to obtain in most parts of London and is thronged with wildlife, so it’s a favorite haunt of mine. Cycling along the Lee’s towpath you can see the weather coming from miles away and it isn’t unusual to spot gray herons, who nest in large numbers both in Bow and Edmonton. The fascinating thing about urban herons is their fearlessness – they are so unconcerned by human proximity that you can approach one thinking that it is a garden ornament, only for it to suddenly unfold itself like a shabby umbrella and leap into the air with a harsh kronk of protest.
I saw this heron when cycling from Victoria Park to Tottenham along the towpath, on a day that had turned from perfect early summer sunshine to violent thunderstorms within ten minutes of setting off. The ride was beautiful, the restless sky throwing shadow patterns on the reed beds and cowslips nodding cheerfully along the verge, the scent of heavy rain and things growing would make anybody feel alive. My camera didn’t often see the light of day-too wet! But at least I caught this heron and the aftermath in the sky.