One Year Since the ‘Reinstatement’ of Leyton Marsh

Caroline & Nelson 1Here’s a short essay I wrote for the Guardian ‘Shorts’ competition which asked for submissions of 5000 words on the topic of personal involvement in protest in 2012. It didn’t win (or even get close) but one year on from the fences coming down on Leyton Marsh, I thought it would be good time to reflect upon our struggle to save the marsh and what it means to be involved in a community battle for the environment. It wasn’t always an easy journey but it was a transformative one and for me it enshrined what should be the maxim of our age ‘think global, act local’. At this time when our environment is under increasing attack from those who are unable to appreciate its true value, there are lessons to be learned about working together in solidarity and the powerful forces we are up against. The authorities often disguise their real intentions through an Orwellian use of language that references the public good whilst undermining the very same. For me there is no greater example of this than the Olympics; this being just a fragment of one story, one of the thousands of forgotten stories of those who find themselves left in the wake of the machine that is celebration capitalism. And despite painful austerity being proclaimed as necessity, this spectacle of apparently auspicious celebration has billions to keep it rolling over whatever environment is deemed in need of ‘regeneration’

This Land is Our Land: The Struggle to Save Leyton Marsh

By Caroline Day

Protest originated for me in 2012 from the most prosaic of beginnings, the daily dog walk. A year earlier my partner and I had made the ill informed, and as it turned out frankly crazy, decision to adopt a beautiful but damaged rescue Saluki by the name of Nelson. But it was walking (or more accurately being walked by and frequently running after) Nelson that led me, along with many others, to the even crazier decision to take on the Olympic authorities.

How did my daily dog walk culminate in protesting the London 2012 Olympics? The route I took for this daily walk crossed the beautiful and protected Metropolitan Open Land of Leyton Marsh, a large green space in the heart of a dense urban environment, situated on the border between Hackney and Walthamstow. Leyton Marsh and the adjacent Walthamstow Marshes had a value for me beyond simply a green space; walking there with Nelson day after day, helped me immeasurably with my health, suffering as I do from a long-term chronic health condition. When you live in a densely populated, polluted city nothing can compare with the sight of the open horizon and the immensity of the sky, not to mention witnessing the passing of the seasons through the changes in the flora and fauna, an experience largely denied in the unchanging grey of city dwelling. The marshes had become my second home, a place of peace and tranquillity, where I could escape the urban sprawl and be surrounded by nature in the company of my challenging but majestically athletic hound.

When we first saw notices for the planned construction of an 11m high, 3 storey Olympics basketball training facility on this land just after Christmas 2011, my partner and I were stunned. We simply couldn’t believe that rather than use a local school or sports centre, the Olympic Delivery Authority were planning to construct a huge temporary structure on this precious land where we had made friends and spent many carefree hours.

Frantic lobbying efforts by a small group of determined dog walkers began in the run up to the first planning application meeting to be heard at Waltham Forest Council in February 2012. Many local residents felt the proposals were absurd and inappropriate and a petition of over one thousand signatures was collected against them in just four weeks. The planning committee meeting was jam packed with people, including anxious Hackney residents who directly overlooked the site, did not have gardens and lived less than the length of an Olympic sized swimming pool away from the marsh. By the time my partner arrived for the meeting on a bitterly cold February night, it was at capacity and we were unable to hear the local residents passionate speeches against the proposals or the outcome. On the journey home, a text delivered the bad news that the application had passed 4 votes to 3, a decision which was accompanied by cries of derision from the public gallery. This was apparently a pretty consistent pattern for planning decisions in that part of the world, but not a decision that reflected the will of the people.

At the beginning of March 2012, wire fences were erected around the majority of the marsh. At first I was unable to bring myself to walk there. My first glimpse was one night at dusk on the train that bisects Walthamstow Marshes, running from Liverpool St to Chingford. On arriving at my destination, I collapsed in tears on a friend of mine, unable to shake the sight of the fences from my mind and like many others, unable to believe the promises from the ODA’s glossy promotional materials that a mere 15cm excavation could sustain a 3 storey building. We all knew that the marsh would be seriously damaged by the building and the adjacent car park planned. We had also discovered that underneath the array of wildflowers and grassland, World War II bomb rubble had been dumped on the marsh 70 years previously, a scheme proposed by Mr Porter, whose name had been part of an alternative name for Leyton Marsh ever since. Local historian Katy Andrews, a fount of all marshes-related knowledge and a colourful character to boot, demanded that we called the marsh ‘Porter’s Field Meadow’ in the interests of accuracy. It was a demand that fell on deaf ears and the struggle to ‘Save Leyton Marsh’ had begun, with the first mass photo protest taking place before excavation, locals linking arms around the fences and decorating them with a huge ‘NO’ sign.

Excavation, predictably, rapidly exceeded the permitted depth and a WWII bomb was unearthed less than two weeks into works. Whilst there was no evacuation of passers-by at the time of the discovery, the authorities did protect us from the banners attached to the fences of the site that read ‘Members Only: Olympic Gated Village’ which had been removed ‘for the safety of all, particularly members of the public.’ Some people I knew stopped visiting the marsh altogether, unable to witness the scale of the destruction that was beginning. However, there were many of us that were determined not to give up on our marsh so easily. A local campaign group had formed in the run up to the planning committee meeting. At first the focus was on taking out an injunction but as this was abandoned on the basis of legal advice about potential costs that could be incurred, other routes were taken against the ‘development’. We staged weekly protests – more accurately soggy picnics – as the extent of the impending destruction was being revealed. Even if the construction was inevitable, we wanted to make our opposition to the destruction of the marsh as vocal as possible. One brave local resident, a female artist called Jane, whose beautiful illustrations of the marshes decorated our newly established website, began stopping lorries coming on to the marsh alone and inspired many others to do the same. Games of boules were played by locals, early in the morning, on the Sandy path leading to the marsh, disrupting and delaying the lorries headed for the site for hours at a time.

And then something miraculous and wonderful happened. A call out to Occupy London for support –sent into the ether of the internet – materialised into something real, changing some of our lives in the process. The sunny afternoon of 23rd March was almost pathetic fallacy; the glorious and unseasonal sunshine reflected our optimism; the day before the lorries had been stopped from coming on to the Leyton Marsh site for one whole day. An Occupy group from Finsbury Square marched to the marsh, only being detained once by an accidental detour to occupy a random playground. We shared food, drink, stories and merriment on the marsh; a trend that was to continue well into the weeks to come, forging a friendship and solidarity of a unique kind between local people and full time activists.

The sun shone on our protest, literally, and campers who pitched their tents on the marsh, initially suffering from the cold morning marsh fogs, were in need of sun tan lotion in late March! Despite the scarred marsh and sight of the uncovered excavated soil, clearly full of WWII rubble, contaminated with lead and asbestos from the industrial Lea Valley, a peace and hope once again descended on the marshes. The herons, absent from when work began, returned to the Lea river that runs alongside the marsh and cormorants perched on the banks once more, resuming a familiar sight as they spread out their wings to dry them.

Locals posted their views and memories of the marshes along the fences surrounding the compound swallowing most of Leyton Marsh but now laying silent. One of the most touching messages was from a mother recording days with her children according to how many herons they had seen on the marshes. Newspaper cuttings about our campaign were laminated and placed alongside banners created by locals and campers such as ‘It’s Not All Fun and Games’. Our Community Support Camp was well supported by the local community, many of whom came by with supplies and warm words of encouragement, including local councillors.

The lorries had ceased even coming to the marsh. The sense of unity and optimism at this point was difficult to convey but was reflected in small details; campers wearing ‘Save Our Marsh!’ badges and locals proudly sporting ‘You Can’t Evict An Idea’ and ‘Occupy’ badges on their jumpers. Whilst we had formed a movement and had the support of the community, forces far bigger than us were about to swoop down on us, like a kestrel catching a mouse on the marsh. Early one morning, the camp was paid a visit by Chris Allison, in charge of ‘counter terrorism’ at the Olympics and Robert Reed, chief civil servant. They didn’t deign to talk to us, much like the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA) who had offered the land for development and the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) who had refused any kind of dialogue with us either.  We knew that despite their reticence to talk to us, significant people in powerful state organisations were observing our protest and had plans for stopping it.

These plans manifested themselves rudely one night, delivered by a court official to a lone camper on the marsh whilst we were busy planning an Easter activity day on Leyton Marsh. A double injunction, one for possession of the land, against the camp, and the other against halting works fell into our laps, to be read in the pub in frenzied disbelief and examined by phone light and camp fire on the marshes deep into the night. In a way the first injunction, the possession order, had been expected. However, the second injunction had a nasty sting since attached to it was a claim for £335,000 of costs for 2 weeks stoppages on site against ‘persons unknown’. Well-versed activists knew it was an attempt to scare locals from protesting further. The figure, substantially higher than the total £135k paid to the LVRPA for the entire rent of the land by the ODA, represented the average house price of a property in London. Little did we know, this financial intimidation, supported and rubber stamped by the state, would continue to pursue us as we raised our voices on the ruins of Leyton Marsh.

Despite most of us never having set foot in them before, we became familiar to the High Courts. The possession order was heard within 48 hours, giving the campaign no time to seek and acquire any legal representation and the judge declaring shamelessly that he had basketball tickets for the Olympics! It was issued on the Orwellian basis that the camp, well supported by the community locked out of the majority of Leyton Marsh by the ‘development’, was causing inconvenience and disruption to the public right of way! Eviction day proceeded the Easter holidays and I remember it vividly as a strange mixture of brutality and hilarity. As I stood by, uncharacteristically almost mute, in order to be a legal observer (and consequently not lose my house if I could help it) other colourful characters performed a mischievous and yet seriously important act of dissent in opposing the eviction. Foul-mouthed, warm-hearted Rob offered us ginger nut biscuits as he was carried off to the edge of the possession order zone. Notoriously upbeat Jason quipped in his gentle Scouse accent for the bailiffs to observe ‘health and safety’ as he tapped on a stringless guitar. Campers were repeatedly carried just off site, only to run back on to the marshes again immediately. Local resident Rowena sang ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ beautifully at the last standing tent before crawling under a stationary lorry sent on to the marsh for the first time in weeks. Some of the group got inside the compound, previously a beautiful open marsh, and sat upon diggers, talked to workers about the health and safety hazards and held up banners about the uncovered toxic material stored on site. The morning was one of high theatre but it came with a serious price tag for those individuals who put up such humane and good-natured peaceful resistance. It is a price that some are still paying.

On the day, four people were arrested for the ‘crime’ of sitting with their backs to a lorry attempting to deliver concrete from entering the marsh.  They were fast-tracked to the local Bow Magistrates Court, where in front of a magistrate as hard as a Dickensian school master, three of them pleaded guilty to the ‘crime’ of ‘supporting the local community’ as one particularly principled young man, Dan, put it. Another protestor, Connor, who pleaded not guilty was given conditional bail that reflected the impending clampdown for the Olympics. He was banned from an area within a 1 mile radius of Leyton Marsh. By this time, the construction work had accelerated and the concrete foundations for the temporary building were being laid.

April was indeed a cruel month; it meant jail for five days for three members of our campaign and yet the Community Support Camp continued just in front of the ice centre located on the edge of Leyton Marsh, on the verge of Lea Bridge Road. The weather turned, dark clouds moved in but the camp continued to symbolise opposition, even if direct resistance had been made impossible. Cars, lorries and even buses beeped at the hand-painted ‘Beep for Leyton Marsh’ sign. So many, in fact, that the sign had to be taken in at night so the remaining campers could sleep! Heavy rain began and our struggle was to be lashed by its most serious opposition yet -a bitter recrimination at the hands of ruthless authorities meant to be overseeing a ‘fun’ event for the benefit of London. On release from jail, Simon Moore was presented with the first Olympic ‘ASBO’ prohibiting him from protest at the Olympics via a draconian blanket ban on pretty much the entire east London area. Bailiffs were now permanently stationed on the Leyton Marsh site, along with violent police dogs whose aggression had been proven when one night a guard dog had turned on his own handler and bitten him savagely.

The second hearing of the injunction was, to all appearances more ‘civil’ than the acrimonious affair of the possession order but the outcome was not. Rowena Johnson, the local resident who had taken part in good-humoured and theatrical dissent on the day of the eviction, was added to the costly injunction proceedings despite not being part of the campaign group and not having been arrested, complying with the police when they had asked her to move from underneath the lorry. After a shameful piece of stitch up journalism in the Evening Standard, Rowena found herself having to hire an expensive lawyer to defend herself against a costly injunction which she was told could result in the loss of her family home. The agreement she came to with the Olympic Delivery Authority to avoid this fate cost this single mother thousands of pounds and her freedom of speech. Due to the gagging order, our campaign was unable to broadcast the injustice meted upon her during the whole Olympic and Paralympics period and she was intimidated into keeping apart from the people who would have supported her most.

The feeling of repression pervaded our community. Visitors to the previously tranquil marsh were filmed by bulky men in fluorescent Shergroup suits, who often hid their faces. Helicopters circled over the site regularly, including military Chinook helicopters. A low point came with the arrest of Mike Wells, a journalist from the Games Monitor website, who was filming on the marsh for his film ‘London Takes Gold’, an alternative narrative about the consequences of the Olympics. Despite being attacked and injured by an excavator driver, it was Mike who was physically restrained, dragged to a police van and arrested. The group frantically tried to track Mike down and at first all local police stations denied his internment. All my words in phone calls regarding Mike echoed back to me eerily on my mobile phone. His bail hearing, also at Bow Magistrates, declared a number of falsehoods about his activities and arrest, claiming he had been part of a ‘violent orchestrated protest’ and that he had breached an injunction banning him from the Lea Valley area. In fact, Mike lived on a narrowboat on the Lea and had spent months documenting the effects of the Olympics, having been himself evicted from the demolished Clays Lane estate to make way for the Olympic Park.  The injunction was not against him personally and only covered the stopping of works on site, not pointing out unsafe working practices on a pedestrian pathway, but Mike was denied bail nonetheless. Meanwhile the rain became ceaseless, the camp dwindled, the exposure to traffic was relentless for the remaining intrepid campers and ugly spy rumours abounded on the internet.

At this dark time, just as the nation was being whipped into a patriotic fervour in anticipation of our ‘Games’, I remember sitting in an alternative reality in the Olympic shadow. For one whole day I was unable to visit Leyton Marsh where I had been daily, ritualistically, to visit the camp since its inception. Wracked by uncertainty, fear and doubt, I contemplated the fact that despite all my agitating and organising to try and save our marsh, it hadn’t been me that had suffered the consequences of our dissent. As wrong and unjust as the punishments being meted out to individuals were, I felt a sense of responsibility, remembering my words to a sceptical Mike just a few days before he was assaulted and arrested ‘we must continue our struggle and show our opposition whatever happens.’ Mike’s own critique was through the lense of a camera but this was enough to land him in jail. When I emerged from the seclusion of my living room and walked down to the marsh once more, resolving to break my self-indulgent introversion, I was greeted by the same gloomy weather, the hideous white elephant of the basketball courts towering into the sky and the uncovered spoil seeping into the land. Most of the campers had resolved to leave, knowing that whatever work they could have done had now been done. At the prospect of the camp’s departure, I felt a strange kind of grief, of defeat perhaps, and of loss; friends were moving on and an era of solidarity seemed over.

However, the very first Occupy banner to find its home on our marsh declared ‘This is just the beginning’ and we were to discover the prescience of that statement. During a brief burst of summer sunshine, we successfully protested in order to get the asbestos-contaminated waste removed from site, after collecting a petition of a thousand signatures including legendary Olympic athlete, John Carlos who declared ‘if it’s right, I’ll sign it’ and was true to his word, unlike the Olympic authorities with their promises about the marsh. Determined to squeeze some actual beneficial legacy from the ODA, I wrote requesting that they actually invest in local courts in parks in both Hackney and Waltham Forest. We recruited the help of British basketball athlete Carl Miller and asked if the ODA would visit the courts to offer legacy. I was unceremoniously ‘de-invited’ from this meeting that I arranged! Fortunately by this point, I’d ceased to have high expectations of the celebrated Olympic body.

In June and July we watched pitifully low numbers of coaches enter the site in order to train. The authorities had claimed the facility was absolutely essential to the Olympic Games and to expect 32 coaches a day. A few trickled in during the morning and left in the evening, no doubt mystified by the location of their training venue in the middle of a field and the local joggers and dog walkers frowning at them. After all our experiences, the campaign had transformed from a local environmental issue into a campaign asserting its very right to exist from state repression. It was in this context we organised a ‘Defend the Right to Protest’ meeting, featuring those who had been victimised in an assault on protest or were representing victims of harsh policing of protest. The meeting gave renewed vision and vigour to our campaign, contextualising it within the wider struggle to maintain our right to peaceful resistance to decisions so detrimental to our livelihoods and/ or freedoms. As the Olympics drew nearer and the cheerleading for the event reached fever pitch, the sense of enclosure and restriction for those of us left on the outside, grew ever larger. In the nights leading up to the Olympic opening, many of us became insomniacs, driven to distraction by the relentless circling helicopters. Dreaming of exploding towerblocks and frankly sinister Wenlocks, I would wake in a frenzy wondering if, like the retired graffiti artists, I would be arrested in an ill-conceived ‘pre-emptive’ raid. I gave a rousing speech about our struggle at our alternative Counter Olympic torch relay and bravely escaped into the country the very next day. I’d been so keen to avoid Olympic-related media that I’d neglected to find out I was escaping to the site of the Olympic boating events! We were the only people presumably stupid enough to travel through east London to Dorset on the first day of the Olympics. It turned out to be the smoothest long distance journey I’d ever had; people were too scared to travel anywhere having been pre-warned of logjam months in advance.

Recently a politician celebrating the success of the Olympics boasted that only 1% of the population didn’t watch the event. I was, like many sports fans, pretty religious in my viewing habits. I’d watched every single Olympics ever since a small child and mindlessly cheered on ‘our boys and girls’ in red, white and blue. And yet I’d met people displaced from their homes, seen friends arrested and worse, heard stories of the worst forms of corporate abuse and manslaughter by the Olympic sponsors. I was in no mood for cheering this time round.

I returned from my country retreat to news that our Save Leyton Marsh benefit had been a rip roaring success, despite posters for the event being torn down by council officials and the promoter receiving a call from the police and told to expect a police presence on the night. Unfortunately for us, the entire proceeds (plus many loans and donations from generous ordinary locals in the campaign) all went to paying costs towards the Olympic Delivery Authority; our punishment for taking out a judicial review against Waltham Forest Council for the decision to build on protected Metropolitan Open Land. We are not allowed to disclose the amounts involved in this offer we were forced into making whilst facing a colossal £24,000 bill for a case that the judge didn’t even allow to proceed to a hearing. Suffice to say, we regarded it as pretty unjust we were forced to paying an organisation blessed with £40m of taxpayers money to cover legal costs alone and that had overseen the destruction of our precious green space.

The news of the original £24,000 legal bill would have broken most campaigns. I remember nervously agreeing to chair one of our usually upbeat and unified SLM meetings, expecting this time to be confronted with disunity and acrimony. Anyone associated with the campaign was liable for these costs and several members had houses. But something remarkable happened, which I believe is a lasting testament to the goodness of the people involved in the campaign; after one brief walk out and just a few cross words, we resolved to deal with the situation as best we could and carried on united. Most credit goes to Matt from our group, who despite never wanting to lodge the judicial review, did all the practical work in sorting it out after having the misfortune of being informed of our debt via a phone call from an ODA lawyer.

Recently we were named by a local blogger for ‘Archipelago of Truth’ as ‘Campaign of the year 2012’ and to quote ‘not for anything we achieved but for being right’. In a sense this was true, we lost the battle to stop the courts being erected, lost all our legal challenges, were subject to unwarranted surveillance and punishment without viable redress. Yet we had been proven right about the whole ill conceived project. The LVRPA and ODA, in response to our protests, had repeatedly claimed that the land would be restored to ‘its original condition by 15th October’ and this was also the condition of granting permission to the plan. The land was not restored to public use until mid November and even then it was a shambolic mess, recycled construction waste replaced the original soil and monoculture turf was laid on top of compacted topsoil. It was still a joy to see my dog celebrate its return to public use, running at around 30mph in huge circles around the area formerly enclosed by tall blue fences in joyful abandon. He especially enjoys running through the newly created lake in the middle of the marsh, blissfully unaware like us of the rotting turf underneath and the bright orange membrane that prevents drainage and growth.

However I believe there were achievements; an artist named Stephen, who kindly supported our reclaim the marsh celebration that we held on the day the land was meant to be returned to us, told us on the occasion that our best achievement was in fact the group itself. This statement stayed with me, like a revelation that illuminated our struggle, it was not what we’d achieved in an ill-fated 2012 but what we’d begun. We were working together to reclaim our future, just as Occupy had started out to do. Many challenges remain to protect our marshes at a time when green space is regarded, not as an essential and valuable resource for all, but as an easy cash cow to be flogged in aid of an ailing economy.

Despite the deep level of opposition to the construction works on the marsh, Leyton Marsh has not been ruled out as the site of a new double-sized ice centre. Our efforts to return the area of the present out-dated ice centre to Metropolitan Open Land and to see any new facility moved on to the Olympic park, not expanded on to Leyton Marsh will be tough. We are also facing the prospect of more of our marshes being taken up as buildings for commercial livery and fenced off for private camping. But with the best people from our community working together, now as Save Lea Marshes, maybe this time we can win a triumph for common sense and our common land. As our friends in Occupy said, this is just the beginning. Amen.

A comprehensive archive of our campaign, including full details of all the events referred to in this article can be found here.

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