Save Lea Marshes is proud to be part of a long line of local groups that have stood up to defend the marshes from development. Mike Knowles shares his personal story of the Walthamstow Marshes Campaign of the 1970s and 80s.
In 1980, 34 years ago, a group of us living near the Walthamstow Marshes, almost all of us living on the Hackney side of the River Lea, saved them from obliteration at the hands of the Lea Valley Park Authority. The Park Authority wanted them to be dug up for gravel extraction and we stopped it. I am writing this account because I want the real story about how that was done to be known, or at the very least to be on record. The marshes were saved because of us. Five years later members of the campaign won for the marshes the designation of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) from the Nature Conservancy Council, now called English Nature. That designation, based on the evidence of both fauna and flora which campaign members had collected, was official acknowledgment of their great natural value and made their care and preservation secure. We live today in a social order where hardly anything, no matter how precious and beautiful and health-giving to humanity and to all forms of fauna and flora, is safe from exploitation. The designation SSSI is one immense protection against it. If this account of the Marshes can help local people who live near them today and those who visit them to appreciate and cherish them, it will be a very good thing.
On Sunday 29th December 2013 five of us visited the Marshes again. They were as alive and as lovely as they were all those years ago. We stood on Horseshoe Bridge over the River Lea at the foot of Springfield Park and looked again at the beds of sedge and bulrushes which we had saved. The sight made me think that our campaigning should not go unrecorded. Why should it? I still feel a deep attachment to all the members of the group. I can see them, I remember them, I remember how we got on and how we worked and how we combined, and where we met, and what we said and did month after month and the things that happened. I want them remembered. The Walthamstow Marshes are our monument. They are a monument to what a determined group of people, even when confronted by the powers of the land, can achieve.
And what also got me to write this record of our campaign was the realisation that unless I did it, and did it at once, not only will our campaigning and its achievement go unrecorded and be forever unremembered, but that an inadequate, and indeed somewhat misleading, record might even be substituted for it. The Lea Valley Regional Park Authority, which owns the Marshes, and has legal responsibilities for the whole stretch of the River Lea and its reservoirs and adjacent fields and meadows from Hertfordshire down to the Isle of Dogs, published a booklet in 1986 which endorsed the value of the Marshes. It did not mention however in the booklet that it had in fact been the body that applied for planning permission to obliterate them. That is not putting it too strongly. That would have been the outcome if their application had been approved. It was our opposition that saved them. As we walked the path in glorious bright winter sunshine just a couple of days before New Year on the Walthamstow side of the River Lea, which, I believe is the ancient boundary between Middlesex and Essex, the Middle Saxons and the East Saxons, I decided I would try to put the record straight. A small group of us saved them, and we saved them because we valued with an indescribable intensity both the wild life they sustained, both fauna and flora, and their wildness and untouched naturalness. They’re not the Grand Canyon or the Lake District or the Brazilian rain forests but they are ancient fenland, existing for thousands of years, which thanks to their specific circumstances, their location, have never been dug up and destroyed, even though they are no more than four miles from the City of London, that ultimate symbol and agent of the unbridled pursuit of money.
Without us the Walthamstow Marshes would no longer exist. Instead the eighty eight acres they occupy would now be nothing but another marina for people who can afford a boat. All the sedge, bulrushes, willows, dock, adders tongued fern and another two hundred different types of flora would have been dug up, carted away and dumped, heaven alone knows where, and all the ancient accumulation of gravel beneath them, laid down over thousands of years by ice sheets, would have been excavated and carried away in fume-belching lorries, to the depth of 36 feet by the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority. Gravel was cash and a marina meant more cash.
It was a lovely sunny winter’s afternoon that last Sunday in December when the five of us went for a walk along the River Lea and along the tow path running next to the Marshes. One of the five of us, Anna, was born during the Campaign. It was great to be outside in the sunshine, down there again from Cheshire if only for the weekend, and great to see it all again, great to see it was all still there as we had left it three decades before.
I suppose I should say a few words – just a few, just enough – about myself and my interest in the Walthamstow Marshes. We – my wife Jane and myself and three children – lived at 35 Spring Hill, which runs from Clapton Common in E5 near Stamford Hill down to the River Lea. Our house was opposite Springfield Park and a mere 200 yards from the river. The marshes are the other side of the river, separated from the Warwick Reservoirs by Coppermill Stream. The map I drew will help locate everything. Jane and I were very active in Trade Union activities throughout the 70s and I was Hackney Trades Council secretary during that time. I taught at South Hackney secondary school on Cassland Road, E9 and I cycled there and back daily along the path that runs by the river, so I experienced the river and the marshes in all weathers and in all four seasons. During the period 1979-82 I wrote a regular nature column in the Hackney Gazette about the river and its fauna and flora and those of the marshes. I did that under the pseudonym Leasider. There isn’t a clump of grass or a bush, a reed bed or a pub, a bridge or a kestrel, a heron or a cormorant, that doesn’t bring back memories. It turned out to be a very popular item, provoking a fair amount of comment and helping to make people more aware of the natural environment on their doorstep.
As the five of us came from the direction of Lea Bridge Road, after looking at the filter beds and their fascinating abundance of plant life, I saw the notice board that had been put up to tell people a little about the Walthamstow Marshes. The same notice board was at the other end too by the Coppermill marina and Spring Hill. It just said enough to alert people to the fact that this was a marsh distinct from the others along the River Lea and it mentioned that a group of local people had saved it. It also said that the presence on the marshes of a rare plant, the adders tongue fern, had made that possible. That last bit wasn’t the case at all. We didn’t campaign to save the Walthamstow Marshes just because of an adders tongue fern; in fact I’m not sure how many of us had ever heard of an adders tongue fern when we set up the campaign. Close and detailed botanizing came later, from one of the members of the campaign group whom I will mention in a few minutes. After the campaign had been won his work proved very instrumental in having the Marshes declared an SSSI some 4 years later. The adders tongue fern was saved because we saved its habitat, and most of us didn’t even know it was there when we began the campaign.
I read and re-read that short phrase ‘a group of local people’ on the notice board, and it struck me that that is all there is as a public record by which to remember us. Just ‘a group of local people’ it said, but otherwise not a single solitary detail about the campaign, how it was fought, the opposition it met, who its supporters were, the sort of people we were and why we did it. There was nothing there at all, as indeed there just couldn’t be, about the camaraderie and about the huge wealth of abilities and expert knowledge of some and the enthusiasm, dedication and ingenuity of all. How could there be on a three foot by three foot notice? Yes, we were nothing more than a group of local people. But we did have our day, we did something, we fought and we saved something for posterity, a little patch of mother earth, which because of us still breathes beauty and health into the atmosphere, defying the onslaught on the environment that still goes on, nowadays more than ever before. The Walthamstow Marshes are our monument. Because of us thousands upon thousands of people now stroll the path that runs beside them, all their 88 acres, and look at them and see the sedge and the bulrushes, the birds dipping in and out of them, their appearance in all weathers, and enjoy them and drink in their loveliness and their peace.
A couple of weeks after our re-visit to the Marshes I was looking for a map drawn by John Nash, a most imaginative and ardent member of the campaign and I found I had kept a copy of a publication by the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority: Walthamstow Marsh, A Guide to the History of the Area. I didn’t remember till then that I had kept it. The Park Authority brought it out in 1986. It is a mine of the most helpful information and I appreciate that of course. However, when I read the following section on pages 10 and 11 I knew beyond any doubt, if I didn’t know before, that I had to put pen to paper and write this account. The section, written by the Park Authority, mentioning what development had already been carried out within its territory, reads as follows:
One of the most potentially devastating threats of all [to the Lea Valley Park] began to appear however in the form of plans to extract gravel. The Walthamstow Corporation Act of 1956 defined the limits of land where gravel may be extracted and included areas of Walthamstow Marsh. Had extraction taken place, as in areas in the north of the Lee Valley, the workings would have destroyed the considerable wildlife and landscape interest. The Lee Valley Regional Park Authority acquired Walthamstow Marsh from the London Borough of Waltham Forest in July 1969. Since then three factors have combined to dispel the gravel extraction threat: firstly the refusal of the Greater London Council to grant planning permission for gravel extraction in 1980, secondly the Park Authority’s review of its original 1969 Park Plan, and thirdly an increasing awareness of the nature conservation value of the area culminating in its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest by the Nature Conservancy Council in 1985. This means that the future management of the marsh as a nature reserve with controlled public access and educational use is now secured.
The observation has to be made that though there’s not a single word in this LVRPA publication that isn’t true, it is very skillfully ‘economical with the truth’. It does not acknowledge the simple fact that it was the Park Authority itself that would have ‘destroyed the considerable wildlife and landscape interest’ of the marshes for good and all.
2. THE BACKGROUND TO THE CAMPAIGN TO SAVE THE MARSHES
The booklet I have just mentioned has the great merit of supplying an immense amount of information about the marshes. For example, when in the year 894 the Vikings sailed from the Thames up the River Lea to carry out a raid on the town and district of Hertford, the river probably was at that time over a mile wide
with reedy channels ebbing and flowing between patches of in accessible marshland. Throughout the Middle Ages up to very recent times it has been worked on to make it more navigable for the transport of boats of all sorts, carrying all kinds of products. It has been straightened and canalized, indeed in parts it looks more like a canal than a river, its banks made into towpaths and the marshes either side have been drained, with reservoirs being built, housing estates laid out and industries established. The closer it got to the Thames, the more industrial it became and railway lines out of Liverpool Street Station were constructed across it.
As I have said, for a number of years in the 1970s I myself cycled a section of its tow path daily to and fro from work at South Hackney School on Cassland Road. The school was closed in 1983. The river’s commercial use was still active up to then. On its west bank, for example, there were two timber yards, the Latham Timber yards to the south of Springfield Park, and another to the north, both now closed down and the properties converted into housing. Given their location on the river and facing the marshes and the reservoirs I imagine the houses there are very expensive. But the timber yards were places where men worked, worked by hand as well as by brain.
There were few sights I can recall so magnificent, so locked into my mind’s eye, as that of the great barges pushing their way through the water, sailing up from the Thames through the Isle of Dogs, loaded with huge tree trunks, which had been unloaded in the London docks and transferred onto the barges, making their way to the timber yards, the waves they created rising up against the prow and splashing over the decks. It was splendid honest physical work; and the sight of it all on a frosty winter morning, the sun gleaming and dancing in the waves and the surging resisting waters, is simply unforgettable. That’s all gone now of course. As far as I could make out, leisure craft in marinas have replaced it all. But I saw it when it was there, and I am glad. The LVRPA booklet has this to say:
Today the River Lea is something of a backwater, a place for leisure boats, and a far cry from its hey-day when river barges carried thousands of tons of coal, copper, malt and timber.
They used to dredge the river regularly then, from barges with cranes on their decks. I recall one finding a motor car on the river bed right under the Roe arches which span the river between Clapton and the marsh. It was there that Alliot Verdon Roe constructed Avro No. 1 triplane in July 1909 and made the first all-British powered flight. The dredgers hoisted the car onto the bank, they did it very carefully, gingerly even, not knowing if they might find a body inside. It was an open sports car. There was no body in it. On another occasion, near Lea Bridge Road I think it was, I rode my bicycle past a group of policemen standing over a very sad-looking black plastic body bag. The drowned man or woman had been taken from the river.
For the many centuries of usage of the marshes prior to the Industrial Revolution the marshes were meadows for grazing and many sorts of agriculture. The booklet provides lots of interesting details about strip farming, Lammas land, the manorial system, the significance for the then agricultural society of Candlemas Day which commemorates the day when the boy Jesus at the age of 12 was presented in the temple in Jerusalem (2nd February), Lady Day (the day of the Annunciation 25th March which is today the beginning of the legal year), Midsummer Day and 1st August when there was a festival of thanksgiving; and it provides information about the way working life was regulated through the Manor Courts. In Walthamstow cows and horses could be turned out to graze on the marsh from Old Lammas Day (13th August) to Old Lady Day (6th April, nowadays the start of our tax year). With the Industrial Revolution everything changed. Since then we have had the construction of the railways, the reservoirs and filter beds along the Lea Valley, the establishment of industry of all sorts, the massive spread of housing and nowadays our huge leisure industry: marinas, football pitches like on the Hackney Marshes, in 2012 the Olympic Park (Stratford) with all its performance sites. As the LVRPA booklet informs us, the 1934 Walthamstow Corporation Act put an end to all ancient and traditional agricultural rights
Lammas or otherwise, on the marsh by giving the Borough of Walthamstow the power to buy the land for use as a public space or recreation… It was the beginning of the end for country traditions near London.
However, Walthamstow Marsh got lucky. It wasn’t flattened for recreational use and only a small fraction of it was dug up to provide a marina. In the early 1970s, just before we came to live on Spring Hill, the Park Authority dredged out a section of the river to make the Springfield Marina, leaving a small wooded island in the middle of it. The Coppermill Stream flows through it into the river. A boathouse for rowing boats had been built at the bottom of Spring Hill, and a café. The café was to figure in our campaign. The crucial thing was: the rest of the marsh was left untouched, its beds of sedge and bulrushes and, where it was drier land, its willows and grasses, all undisturbed. I can only speculate why. Its eastern boundary was the Liverpool Street railway line to Broxbourne and beyond, carried over the river by the Roe arches and constructed on a high embankment. Its western edge was the river, and its northern edge was the Coppermill Stream. None of this made the marsh inaccessible for vehicles, certainly not from the Lea Bridge Road, the southern end; but it did not make development inviting. Whatever the reason, when in 1978/9 the Park Authority applied to the old GLC for planning permission to excavate the vast amounts of gravel 36 feet below it, its ancient fen character was still there, loved and admired but untouched, puella intacta still, some 88 acres of it a mere four miles from St Paul’s Cathedral and the City.
And, it has to be said, the Lea Valley is still alive and bursting full of nature. The river and the reservoirs are replete with fish, the banks of the Coppermill stream are thick with wild flowers, throughout the valley there are rushes and sedge and great water grass and in the summer they hum with the sound of dragon and damsel flies and all sorts of insects, there are voles in the banks, there are woods and fields, there are gorgeous islands in the reservoirs with clumps of trees where the herons nest and perch when they are not standing still and silent in the shallows, surveying the water for fish with their beady eyes. There are the cormorants that fly like bullets the length of the river or perch on branches or posts, standing still, loving the sunshine when they can get it, wings stretched out to dry their feathers, black as night. There are the anglers that line the banks as patiently as any bird, respecting the silence, lovers of peace and silence. Except the one occasion when I saw them break that silence, en masse, collectively. It was on the river tow path a mile or so up from Lathams Timber yard, in the district of Tottenham, there was a very long line of them, it was an angling competition. A seagull above them, or it may have been a tern, suddenly spied a fish, swooped down, diving like an exocet missile, took it in its beak, plucked it straight out of the water, flew off and away in triumph; and the whole bank of anglers burst into applause.
3. HOW THE ‘SAVE THE MARSHES CAMPAIGN’ STARTED
One day in early 1978 a letter was handed to me at our house in Spring Hill. Spring Hill runs from Clapton Common and its pond down to the river where the river is crossed by the High Bridge. It was handed to me by the secretary of the Springfield Park and District Association, of which I was the chairman. Residents on the north side of the park, along such roads as Spring Hill, Ashtead Road, Overlea Road and Lingfield Road and both sides of Clapton Common had formed the Association some time earlier.
Interestingly, the great majority of the Association committee members were from a specific Jewish community. The district of Upper Clapton and Stamford Hill is the home of the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox Jewish movement, predominantly the Hasidic community. Interestingly too, in other districts of the borough such as Stoke Newington, Clissold, Dalston, Haggerston, Shoreditch, London Fields, the Wick, Homerton and Hoxton there were many other residents of Jewish extraction who had a very different background, very many of them being deeply engaged in the English socialist and trade union tradition. It is worth mentioning that it was in central Hackney that Jewish members of das Deutsches Bund, an important element of the German trade union movement which was hunted down and oppressed by the Nazis, who had escaped and survived, founded an office in the narrow little lane immediately to the left of the entrance to the Hackney Town Hall if you are leaving it. It was still there, and was still used, in 1975 when the Hackney Trades Union Council held its 75th anniversary celebration in the Town Hall.
The Trades Union Council held its first meeting on 1st April 1900; its first chairman was Frederick Demuth, a member of one of the engineering unions, the illegitimate son of Karl Marx. His mother was Helena Demuth, housekeeper to the Marx household. Friedrich Engels claimed, or feigned, paternity in order to conceal the truth from Jenny, Karl Marx’s wife, in order I suppose to protect Helena’s job and to keep the household together. At the exhibition marking the 75th anniversary we had the actual hand-written minute books of the first year of the Council. Frederick Demuth’s signature as chairman endorsing them as a true and accurate record is in them. They had been supplied to us by two very elderly sisters living in Surrey whose father had for some reason had them in his possession. Somehow the two ladies had got to know about the celebration. At the end of the exhibition, with their agreement, we handed the minute books into the safekeeping of Hackney Council Archives. I hope they have kept them safe. They should be on permanent exhibition.
In one general election in the 1970s this community contributed the parliamentary candidates of all the political parties standing in Hackney North and Stoke Newington: Labour, Tory, Liberal and Communist, which reveals the width of their political and social outlook. Their contribution to the political and trade union life of the Borough of Hackney, indeed of the whole East End, was an immense one and it had been since the beginning of the century, and they played a huge part in the resistance to the Moselyites both before and after the 2nd World War.
Springfield Park is a beautiful park. It gets a great mention and description with photographs in the LVRPA booklet, which contains extracts from publications written over a hundred years ago.
I would venture to affirm, states Benjamin Clarke in this 1894 book Glimpses of Ancient Hackney and Stoke Newington,
that no more beautiful landscape of meadows, forest, hill and water is to be found so near London or anywhere near London in so small a place.; and when the estate was bought by the London County Council and opened as a park on 5th August 1905 a journalist wrote in the Daily Graphic newspaper:
There is no more charming space than Springfield Park in all the vast area of the metropolis. The park must be the highest part of all the banks the whole length of the River Lea. It has a wonderful view over the river, marinas, reservoirs, Coppermill stream and the marshes both in the direction of Walthamstow and northwards. When we lived there, our house facing on to it, often there were men hunting with metal detectors both in the Park and on the marshes. We occasionally chatted with them as they went past our door. They showed us Roman coins, as I recall, found in the Park.
The letter our association secretary handed to me was from Hackney Council. It invited submissions from interested parties along the river, of which our association was one, concerning an application of the LVRPA to the Greater London Council to excavate the Walthamstow Marshes for gravel extraction. That application will be filed somewhere in the archives of the Park Authority as well as in those of the Greater London Authority (GLA) which, after years of political machinations stirred up by Margaret Thatcher, determined to take all power and influence from Ken Livingstone, has now replaced the GLC. It is a delightful irony that it was Ken who became the first Leader of the GLA and held the post for eight years. I mention Ken because his support as a member of the GLC proved to be of very considerable importance in our campaign to save the marshes. Ken had a reputation for having a great interest in newts. Fortunately it wasn’t only newts, great-crested or otherwise, that interested him.
Thinking back on it now, it might be said that that Hackney Council planning department letter had a bit of luck. They sent it to a man who, because as he said to me he had himself no objection at all to the marshes being excavated for gravel and turned into a marina, could easily have just put it on one side and that would have been that. But he didn’t. Instead he brought it the hundred yards down Spring Hill, knocked on our door and gave it to me, and luckily I was interested. Luckily too there were a number of people I knew with similar interests living nearby, and they in turn knew others. All this might well have not happened, but it did. It was fortunate too that the GLC had to consult with the Hackney Borough Council even though the marshes are in the borough of Waltham Forest. Their conversion into a marina would have imposed high levels of extra road usage permanently on local Hackney roads, not to mention a very long period of their usage by lorries removing the gravel. In addition the marshes are right on the border of the borough of Hackney and because of their location they are overlooked and visited by far more Hackney residents than those of Waltham Forest. Hackney people have immediate access to them over the Horseshoe Bridge at the bottom of Springfield Park and the High Bridge at the bottom of Spring Hill; and if anyone sits out or stands outside the Anchor and Hope pub on the Hackney bank of the river, glass in hand, he or she looks across to the marshes. A busy railway line and a high railway embankment cut them off from the rest of Walthamstow. Thank the Lord for that railway line on one side and the river on the other, they isolated the marshes and kept out the developers – until, that is, the Park Authority sniffed the money locked up in the gravel beneath them.
Some five or so years earlier, as I believe, the Park Authority had already acquired planning permission to excavate them for gravel and turn them into a marina but they hadn’t acted on it, not even to start digging them up in even a small way. The permission had lapsed; it had to be re-applied for. It could well be the case that those five years made all the difference. By 1977/8 the public attitude towards the environment had moved on, there was a growing concern about it, far more people had become aware of environmental issues. Greenpeace was founded by a small group of activists in 1971 and the Green Party of England and Wales was founded in Coventry in 1972. I had some friends and acquaintances of that tendency and they in turn had many more.
The fact was: the Park Authority was out of touch with all such environmental and ecological perspectives, its focus was on the wrong thing, it eyed the Walthamstow Marshes just as a money-making opportunity and while it put no value on them as marshes, it did put an immense amount of value on the gravel deposits going down to a depth of 36 feet beneath them. But, weirdly, that decision to apply for planning permission to obliterate the marshes turned out to be a most fortunate error of judgment. There was, there is, always the possibility that the Authority might never have given much consideration to the marshes in the first place and just left them alone. They might still be there. Who knows? But because instead the Authority showed such awful ignorance of their real value, it made the huge error of judgment of submitting an application for planning permission to obliterate them, which brought people together in opposition who did know the real value of the marshes and who made it known and not only got the application rejected but ultimately had the marshes declared an SSSI and their preservation assured. In this way it was a most fortunate mistake on the part of the Park Authority; but of course the fact is: it all could have turned out very differently, and disastrously.
Taking the Hackney Council letter with me the first people I went to were John and Jane Nash who lived at 93 Mayola Rd in Homerton E5. I think I can say that they became the very nub of the campaign. Jane was a teacher, quiet, determined, painstakingly careful, she took all the minutes, she was totally reliable. She quietly knew what she wanted and she did it. Those minutes have been kept. They’re in a cupboard in their house on the Isle of Wight, awaiting some zealous postgrad to do the research and indeed maybe build a doctorate and an academic career on them. Why not? John was different, a romantic. He played the guitar and he taught it in the local schools. He drew his own map of the marshes, he injected a sort of spirituality into our campaign and gave different areas their names which, either accurately or imaginatively or both, were inspirational.
I have had to be reminded by Jane where first I met them and why. I now wonder whom I might have turned to if I hadn’t met them. If John and Jane hadn’t been in the Save the Marshes Campaign, would they have been saved? It is some noisy motorbike riders we have to thank for us meeting up. Sometime round about 1977 a group of them were tearing up and down the River Lea towpath and crossing the river to and from the marshes using Horseshoe Bridge. It wasn’t just a matter of noise and of danger to walkers, their tyres were also tearing up the plant life of the marshes. A meeting was held at Chats Palace with representatives of the Park Authority to put a stop to it. It did stop, it had to. That’s where I met Jane and John for the first time. It was at their house that we took the decision to start a campaign.
Jane it was who took the initiative. She went straight off to the offices of the Hackney Gazette, which if my memory serves me right, were in Kingsland Road. She spoke with one of their reporters, Gerry Messenger. He took it up immediately. It made the front page headline the very next issue:
Fight is on to save wildlife marshes and it appealed for support from the public. Two people who knew Jane and John wrote to them to join. They lived then on Southwold Road in Upper Clapton, where the Nashes had had a council flat, they now live in Leighton Buzzard: Paul Ferguson a picture framer and his wife Jesse. Jesse took on the PR work for the campaign, she was a total natural at it. She had one of those voices which aren’t just crystal clear but attract the listener, win their interest with a mere word, she could put things so well and beguile the most reluctant soul. They both had been at the motor bike meeting. Others joined too but now after a gap of thirty years I must be excused if I cannot remember all their names.
There was Mike Gray, also from Homerton about whom a few words in a minute; and Norman Olivec from Upper Clapton who became the treasurer of the campaign, utterly meticulous and careful with every penny. I recall that his daughter went on to Keele University in Staffordshire. I also recall that when we knew our campaign had been successful, we gathered at a restaurant in the East End somewhere, in Bethnal Green or Bow I think it was, for a celebration; and contrary to my suggestion Norman was absolutely adamant that not one penny of the campaign funds would be spent on it, not even on a bottle of wine; and not one penny was. There was Laurie Elks, author some years later of the definitive history of the Criminal Cases Review Commission of which he became a long-serving member. He lived at that time in Glenarm Road in Homerton but he now lives in South Hackney. He had a long-standing interest in the Park Authority and campaigned for the Park Authority to abandon its 1969 Masterplan. He and colleagues had been keeping a careful eye on its activities, and indeed still do. There was Gloria Calloway, a friend of Jesse and Paul, headmistress at a primary school in the Green Lanes vicinity, who had the most beautiful handwriting. There was John Loftus who performed the unimaginable feat of collecting something like between 10,000 and 20,000 signatures in support of saving the marshes by walking up the river path between Lea Bridge Road and High Bridge at the north end of the marshes and button-holing all and sundry.
There was Dave Gibbons who tried as I recall to rope in Donald Coggan the Archbishop of Canterbury somehow or other (I suppose a campaign such as ours always attracts, what shall I call them? dreamers? eccentrics? the odd visionary or two, the sort of people governments, political party managers, big business and bureaucracies just can’t stand) and he also had, again this is something lodged in my memory and I might be wrong, a boat off Bardsey Island at the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula. I would imagine that that was the sort of place the Park Authority would come to wish it could banish us all to. There was Ina Egan, Director of Community Nursing in the Borough of Newham; and her dear friend and partner, Roy Askew, the heart and soul of any gathering, from 1942 to his retirement in 2000 a self-employed haulage contractor working out of Stratford fruit and veg market who was up on the potato farms in Lincolnshire and the counties of East Anglia around 3am every morning, collecting 10 tons of potatoes each day for delivery to Stratford Market wholesalers. He always arrived at our meetings with a sack of potatoes to be handed round. There were many other members of course, all characters, enthusiastic, hard-working, but thirty years of absence have drained my memory.
We met regularly in two places, the first was the café at the bottom of Spring Hill, on the river bank, next to the boat club, right near High Bridge. We met there until Brenda its owner died. She always made us welcome, it was the ideal place to meet. It was only a hundred yards from our house and we often went there for a cup of tea or coffee or a cake. I was very pleased to see when we went by it on that last Sunday of 2013 that it was still being run as a café. Brenda was special. She became very dear to us. When she died, very unexpectedly, I wrote this short tribute to her in my Leasider column in the Gazette. It appeared in the 11th April issue 1980:
A coot standing on one leg on the barrier where the stream enters the Lea, scratching itself with the other; the island in the marina, a green haze of new buds against the black and brown of hawthorn and willow; the limpid racing blues of the bright sky, warm and brilliant light, speeding in great waves of sunshine over the grasses, reeds and sedges of the marsh; mallards rising in pairs from the stream, necks outstretched like the figureheads of Viking ships of war surging up into the sky; a warm invigorating fresh and Easter wind, full of resurrection, full of sun and life. Amid all this sweet new Easter gladness Brenda of the café has died. The river outside her house a river of tears, High Bridge a bridge to new life, to God, from whom like a drop of rain from the sky, a leaf from a tree, a flower from the marsh, we all descend.
Our meetings were like meetings the world over – though maybe not. There was news to tell everyone and decisions to take, apologies received and accepted, minutes to be written down, the minutes of the last meeting looked at to see if people had done what they said they’d do, letters from this person and that, from the Park Authority and the local council and such like, whom Jane Nash as secretary had written to, cups of tea to be handed out, enquiries and gossip when everyone first arrived, more gossip when the meeting was over. As I have said, the actual minutes in all their detail, all taken by Jane, copies of all letters written and received, in those far-off pre-email and word processor days, and all relevant documentation are with her and John still in their house on the Isle of Wight, awaiting the researcher which is what they merit. There was however one rather significant difference from many meetings of organizations I have belonged to. I am thinking, for example, and it is but one example, of the meetings of political parties. Political parties are full of political ideology, and rightly so. Political ideologies and the decisions that political groups have to arrive at can be, indeed are, the cause of disputes, often bitter disputes. Political decisions affect people’s lives intimately. There is never anything easy or simple in what they have to decide and do. In the Campaign to Save the Marshes fortunately we had none of that. Our aim, on which we were all agreed, was a single and a simple one, to defeat the planning application put to the GLC by the LVRPA.
I have mentioned documentation. Undoubtedly among the most important documents that came to us, maybe the most important, was one from Brian Wurzel, a member of the campaign. He lived off Stamford Hill. We met him this way. We had decided to hold a picnic on the marsh, a really great decision as it turned out, soon after we had formed. I remember that picnic well, not least because Jane my wife took with her a beautiful pure leather Italian handbag from Bologna where I had taken a party of South Hackney pupils on a week’s trip, sponsored by Bologna trade unionists, and she lost it somewhere, somehow in the reed beds. In my mind’s eye I can still see the moment we met Brian. He was walking on the path at a point across from the Anchor and Hope. He just bumped into us, he was curious seeing all the groups of picnickers scattered over his beloved marsh. He stopped to talk to us. He taught the piano, he came eventually to teach my eldest daughter. But more particularly he was a botanist. He was also an expert on butterflies, not just native to England but across the world. I have a recollection he had been involved in the collection of butterflies in the butterfly house in Syon House.
He joined us. We soon found out that he had spent years botanising every square inch of the marshes. It was his passion. He had the complete list of every plant there was on it, from humble grasses to tall-standing bulrushes to dock plants, even a unique hybrid dock plant, to giant water grass to sedge to purple loosestrife to meadowsweet, even to hops growing with blackberries in the wild hedge at the bottom of the railway embankment and the adder’s tongue fern, hundreds of plants indeed from the rare to the common. He joined us on the spot. He put all the vast information he had at our disposal. Our campaign was very fortunate. He armed it to the teeth. It was an enormous wealth of expert botanical information about the marshes which we could not have done without.
We held a public meeting at Chats Palace just off Chatsworth Road, in Homerton. Mike Gray kindly and generously paid for the hire. Its large hall was packed, not least because Jesse Ferguson had secured the attendance of the famous botanist David Bellamy, at that time of immense fame across England through the power and the force of his pugnacious personality whenever he appeared on TV. He made as many as 400 appearances on TV as Wikipedia informs us; and now, on looking him up on Wikipedia I am wondering if one reason he agreed to speak at our meeting – after all, we must have been just one of any number of groups all over the place battling for the environment – was that the venue was Chats Palace on Chatsworth Road. The primary school he attended in the 1930s and during the War was Chatsworth Road Primary School. All right, that was in Cheam in Surrey, not lowly Hackney (lowly working class Hackney then, now thirty years later it is very trendy and very much in love with itself), but when Jesse told him the name and address of the venue, maybe it stirred fond memories within him. Who can tell? He spoke with total vigour, he laid it all out with complete clarity and power, and possibly the Park people who had come along to listen and gauge the feeling of the people their authority existed to serve left with plenty to think about and take back to their HQ. We certainly did. Members of the campaign addressed the detail; and he came with us to Jesse and Paul’s house on Southwold Road afterwards for a cup of coffee, people squatting on their living room floor, fascinated by every word he spoke.
We then tackled the three council bodies that mattered, Hackney Council, Waltham Forest Council and the Greater London Council, the second two being the important ones; and of course the GLC being the planning authority in this case was the one that would make the decision to approve or to refuse the application. A decision by the Mineral Committee of the GLC to approve would settle it. Though this did not happen with the marshes, in general the planning procedure is that where protestors against an application lose, they have no right of appeal; but where the applicant loses, he has; and if he wins the appeal, his costs are met by the other side. It is grotesquely unfair.
We went in a body to both the planning committees of Hackney Council and Waltham Forest and each one allotted us time to present our case and to be questioned by the members. Councillor Richard Gee presented our case before Hackney Council and Jane our secretary presented it at the Waltham Forest meeting in its town hall while the rest of us looked on in the body of the hall. In each case the recommendation to refuse the Park’s application was unanimously endorsed. Though neither of those two councils had the authority to refuse or approve it, they had the right to make a recommendation to the GLC; and the recommendation of Waltham Forest was the more significant one because the marshes were in that borough. No one from the Park Authority turned up to put its case in any one of the three meetings. With hindsight it would appear that the Authority by then, after months of our campaigning, the adverse publicity we were generating against it in respect of this application and the argument we were making, was beginning to lose confidence in what it was applying for. My own personal judgment now is that it was changing its perspective on what the real value of the marshes consisted in.
4. THE BBC
This section of the account I am writing has had to undergo one most interesting development. At this point in writing my account I had started giving an example of the sort of publicity we were managing to get for the campaign. It was a TV contact: Jesse Ferguson had succeeded in getting the BBC Nationwide TV programme to come to Spring Hill to listen to us and weigh up if there was anything in what we were doing to merit being reported. I remembered their visit well and I had a pretty fair recollection of how it turned out. I was in fact in the very act of writing it all down when John Nash rang up from their house on the Isle of Wight. He had been searching the internet to see what was in it about the marshes and the campaign, when he had come across the actual film made by BBC Nationwide in the summer of 1979. It’s all there, the whole thing, in colour, even though there is a bit of an irritating gap, not in content but in presentation, in the middle. It was an amazing coincidence for one thing; and the film itself presents the campaign better than anything I might write.
Two reporters came round and the more we described what we were doing and why we were doing it, the more interested they became. Within the week they were back, with the programme makers sparing no expense. There was a reporter, a film director and a cameraman and a boat on the river sailing between the marsh and Springfield Park, the young lady reporter sitting on its deck explaining what it was all about, then pushing her way through tall bulrushes as if she were in an impenetrable rainforest, interviewing Brian Wurzel who shows her wild hops growing on one side of the marsh and introducing her to a hybrid dock.
Looking at the video now I am delighted with it. It gives such an accurate impression of everything, it was the height of summer, the reed beds were at their very best, as indeed was Brian. His dialogue with the reporter is a little gem. The film wonderfully captures the feel, the richness and the atmosphere of the marshes. Brilliantly too the film shows us holding an outdoor ‘committee meeting’ in lovely bright sunshine in the garden of Brenda’s café, which as I have said was within yards of the river. I say ‘brilliantly’ because, though it is the most manufactured committee meeting possible, it conveys so much about us. We never held a committee meeting in Brenda’s café garden, we never had as many little children at a committee meeting as adults. The BBC producer must have persuaded us into it. However, all the vivacity and zest that comes across from this committee meeting were in every one of our actual committee meetings, and that was the case from start to finish of the whole campaign. There was a terrific zest, youthfulness and spontaneity about our meetings, anyone could attend, whoever turned up with or without their children. Thinking back on it now I believe that the BBC people, professional film-makers, saw that in us. We weren’t stodge, we were vivacious and open. Click on the link and see it for yourselves.
5. LONDON COUNTY HALL
Two of our best campaigning efforts took place in County Hall. For present-day Londoners who might not know it, County Hall is the huge building on the south side of Westminster Bridge the other side of it from Parliament. That was then, and perhaps still should be, London’s County Hall. It faced across the river to the House of Commons. Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister in 1979 and Ken Livingstone was to become the leader of the GLC after a very neat coup within his own party in 1981. Ken was a thorn in her side which she had to, and eventually managed to, pull out no matter what. She abolished the GLC in 1986, followed by the Inner London Education Authority, and shut down County Hall. However, in October 1979 the old County Hall was London’s HQ of local government, indeed remained so until 1986, the same year as the marshes were declared an SSSI. It was there the fate of the marshes would be determined. We decided on having a Marshes exhibition of its plant life in County Hall itself for all the councillors to see. The botanical input was massive, all plants taken from the marshes themselves, conveyed all the way to County Hall, arranged and explained with total professionalism by Brian and John, it was very impressive; and with it we had a display of photographs of the marsh taken by Mike Gray. I wonder if he has kept those photos. Some years later he went to live in Spain, not far from Toledo, and I know that his health was not too good.
Ken Livingstone played a most helpful role, he was at that time GLC councillor for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (just one stop out of a number during his long nomad journey through London Labour politics), he supported the campaign from start to finish and on this occasion he booked the hall for us, whispering to Jane Nash, jokingly, tongue in cheek, a smile on his face: ‘Don’t dare tell anyone I did this for you.’ The room the exhibition was in was one the GLC councillors had to pass through to get to their debating chamber. We lobbied them as they circulated round the exhibits. It was a very good effort.
The next big occasion at County Hall was 4th February 1980, the date the GLC Minerals Sub-Committee met either to approve or to refuse the Park Authority’s application. As a campaign we had been, to use the phrase, in continuous session for the previous eleven months. We had met together at least once a month, and informally many more times. We had lived the whole thing day in day out. We had squeezed a tremendous amount into that short period, such as, for example, a jumble sale in Chats Palace to raise money, for which Roy and Ina went about in his lorry around Walthamstow collecting all sorts of stuff. We did far more than what I have recorded here, most of it lost to memory since it was 35 years ago but fortunately, as I have mentioned, the minutes Jane took have been kept. I have not gone through them: this account is just to put the fundamentals of the story into the public domain.
On 4th February 1980 we all gathered in the room where the GLC Minerals Committee held their meeting. We occupied the seats put out for the public. The councillors were seated round a long oblong table; behind them was a platform one or two steps high. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, the councillors gathered together at the far end of the table. And in my mind’s eye I can still see so clearly, as if it were happening this very minute, just as the discussion between the councillors ended and all views had been expressed, seconds – literally just seconds – before the vote was taken, how the door on the far left from us at the far end, burst open and in came some thirty or more primary school children. I for one had no idea they were coming. No one had mentioned it at all, at least not to me. They had their teachers with them. They were from Harrington Hill Primary School, Hackney, they had come by bus. Though they were late, in a way the timing of their arrival, totally impossible to arrange, was simply perfect. They all piled into the room and onto the platform behind the councillors, within a couple of feet of them, on top of them almost, the very moment the vote on the future of the marshes was about to be taken. What perfect timing! Unscripted but brilliant! And what impact, what pressure, bursting in at that precise moment. They had missed the debate but they witnessed the vote. The children’s teachers just couldn’t have done it any better. And rightly so. The school overlooks the marshes. It is located within yards of the river, just up from the Hope and Anchor pub. It looks right across it at the marshes. Visually the Walthamstow Marshes belong to Harrington Hill Primary School, there for its children to look at across the river, its willows, its sedge, its bulrushes, its grasses, hundreds of other wild plants, its herons and its cormorants, its silver sheen when covered in winter by its pools and the reflection of the early morning sunshine in its waters.
The vote was called. It was unanimous. The application to dig up the Walthamstow Marshes for gravel extraction and replacement by a marina was rejected. The campaign had been won. That didn’t of course put an end to the campaign. Far from it. The Park Authority had a right to appeal, they could even go to the Secretary of State if they lost their appeal. Planning law in England gives priority to development, with both environment and localism secondary considerations. We had to continue to meet and keep an eye on the situation. John Nash and colleagues produced a magnificent map of the marsh, and quilters made an equally magnificent quilt of it too. It was – it is – simply brilliant and it has been preserved. To our immense pleasure the Park Authority did not move to an appeal. It was a body open to argument and for that we are all most grateful. Nothing could be better than the situation we all ended up with, agreement between campaigners and the Park Authority. It was the seal of approval.
Then in 1985 the whole marsh was placed before the Nature Conservancy Council, and botanists, landscape specialists and others, both from within the original campaign membership and others, made the case for it to be declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The NCC, after going through all its procedures and considering all its requirements which are rigorous and exacting, accorded it that designation the following year. The job was done. However, we live in a society where nothing environmentally good is safe, no matter what benefits, even necessary benefits, it brings to people. The Lea Valley Regional Park Authority first and foremost, the councils of East London, especially those of Waltham Forest and Hackney, and all the people who live in them, and the London mayoralty, must make themselves fully aware, and remain constantly aware, of this precious and cherished feature within their boundaries and be always on guard against the false blandishments of transient profit or ephemeral pleasure. If a small group of us, which we were, could save the Walthamstow Marshes, they should be able to preserve them.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet.
Long live the weeds and the wildness yet.
Gerald Manley Hopkins