Gathering Impressions of London’s Walthamstow Wetlands

By
Phoebe Hamilton-Jones
MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology alumnus


Standing on the exposed edge of Lockwood reservoir on a bitingly cold, grey day, the noise I am struck by first is not so much the cry of birds as the clattering sounds of construction. I count seventeen cranes, each pushing against the rim of Walthamstow Wetlands. These new developments, replete with rooftop swimming pools and indoor gyms, have sprung up over the past six years: the developments’ names mobilise and marketise Walthamstow Wetlands: Lockworks House, Tideway House, Blackhorse Mills, Lock 17, Lapwing Heights, Kingfisher Heights. 

Lockwood reservoir looks bleak even on a sunny day: skirted by telephone pylons, the moon-like gravel beach slips into an expanse of water. The rumbling of a train scores a line between the North and South reservoirs. I lean into the competing soundscape: the high-pitched whirring of a battery powering the waterworks; the distant beep of a truck reversing; but also, there’s the comical plop of a duck landing in water; a sudden flurry of birdsong; a swan skimming over the reservoir, kicking up spray; a honking goose. It is indeed, as Edward Casey suggests of places, a ‘gathering’ (1996). 

Running alongside a stretch of the River Lea in North East London, Walthamstow Wetlands is comprised of ten reservoirs, covering 211ha. These reservoirs operate as an organ of London, providing water for 3.5 million people. Over a three-week period of research, I sought to catch a glimpse of Walthamstow Wetlands by considering the different perspectives and ‘embodied engagement’ (Tilley and Cameron-Daum 2017: 21) of those who construct it as a place and who are, in turn, created by it. 

Casting an eye across the Wetlands, different interest groups emerge: Thames Water workers in hardhats and luminous jackets, security guards and London Wildlife Trust employees in another luminous shade, parents with pushchairs, young professionals, fisherfolk and birdwatchers. Importantly, while the site is large, it is dominated by water (and sky). People and plants are confined to narrow pathways which run between reservoirs. Moving through the landscape as a ‘wayfarer’ (Ingold 2007: 85), forming winding paths of one’s own, is difficult, and people are pressed together.

The site is owned and operated by the private company, Thames Water. The site is also a Nature Reserve, Ramsar Site, and Site of Special Scientific Interest, run by London Wildlife Trust. In October 2017, Walthamstow Wetlands was redeveloped (costing over £8m) and, for the first time in 150 years, opened to the public. I found that this had complex ramifications, prompting experiences of displacement for many of the traditional recreational users (anglers and birdwatchers, who have had access since the early 20th century), attracting gentrifying developments, and shifting relations between humans and nonhumans. 

The impacts of the 2017 opening of Walthamstow Wetlands are multiple and complex. The place is newly important to members of the public, clear in references to: ‘headspace’, ‘expanse’,‘edgelands’, ‘quiet’. It is often perceived as other: ‘it almost feels like being out of London’, ‘I love how you can see so much sky’. Sure enough, on a still day when the sky is reflected in glassy water, clouds seem to scud both below and above; it is a little like walking a line through a world of sky. 

Many I spoke with saw Walthamstow Wetlands as combining nature and culture, suggesting that the site might play a role in disbanding metaphysical Nature/Culture binaries (Tsing 2014). Anthropologist and ‘birdsenser’, Lewis, told me he had seen one of the site’s rarest birds, a Kingfisher, in the most industrial-appearing part of the reservoir. Forager, Fizzy, told me that when foraging in the Lea valley she enjoyed ‘feeling contextualised within London, feeling in the middle of something’.

During lockdown, visitor numbers doubled, according to a Thames Water manager. On the hottest weekend of March 2021, 6,200 visitors passed through the gates. Since the easing of restrictions, the public on weekends have been picnicking on angler-labeled pontoons, crouching beside nonchalant geese with wary toddlers.

However, the 2017 redevelopment of Walthamstow Wetlands has also caused the landscape to be contested, attracting developers and gradually displacing traditional recreational users, the birdwatchers and anglers (whom The Guardian, announcing the opening, dismissed as ‘a bunch of anoraks’ (2017). 

The 2017 opening led to London-wide publicity of the Wetlands as ‘London’s Newest Park’ (a slogan soon changed to ‘Keep it special, Keep it safe’ when Londoners started arriving with inflatables and barbecues). Such rebranding has not only created the place as a destination, but also seems to have caused ‘green gentrification’ (Gould and Lewis 2016), where ‘greening’ agendas prompt the ethnoracial and class-based remaking of an area, displacing working-class populations and encouraging the in-migration of a wealthy, white ‘sustainability class’. This ‘green gentrification’ has increasingly attracted developers, intensifying pressure on the site and altering demographics through marketing and pricing: Lock 17’s slogan reads: ‘Tottenham is on the Rise: Be part of the regeneration’. On the developments’ webpages, Walthamstow Wetlands is a primary selling point: phrases such as ‘Getting back to nature has never been so easy’ circulate. These neoliberal blocks with their in-built recreation (Blackhorse Mills offers gyms, pools, tennis courts, private dining rooms) reducing resident spending in the local area, are markers of gentrification. Save the Lea Marshes activist Lia asserted ‘The tall tower blocks are a disaster. You are just hemming it in. The open space, the sky that gives you the sense of freedom, is diminished’. She resented ‘the idea that people can buy the view of the marshes’. 

Ian, a birdwatcher, described how before 2017 ‘the place was almost deserted. Mysterious and quiet’; there was a ‘sense of having gone into another world’. He is frustrated by the limited access for birdwatching. He has ‘struggled to get a permit’ since they changed the system. While before birdwatchers paid £1 whenever they wanted day access, now the £30 year permits are ‘rationed’: ‘I now can’t separate [Walthamstow Wetlands] from the narrative of feeling excluded from what I used to do freely’.

Mark, an angler who has been fishing these waters for forty years, feels that the recent ‘impact on angling is the impact on a community’. Mark showed me the reservoirs on a day when they were closed to the public due to stormy weather. A fishing licence grants access to the site beyond public opening hours. For the first time, I was conscious of the slapping sounds of choppy water. Now the paths were emptied, I could see what they had lost. That escape into a place that was all theirs. Occasional anglers punctuated the bank, sitting low and stealthy, casting and recasting. 

‘Fly fishing is highly skilled. You need to be as unobtrusive as possible’, Mark says. While the licence allows anglers to take up to 75 trout a year, Mark tends to ‘slip [fish] back in carefully and gently. Fishermen are very humane about the fish they catch’. As we move around the lip of the reservoir Mark slows to allow a chaotic family of geese to cross our path: he is in tune with nonhumans and humans alike. All the fly fisherfolk seem to know his name, ‘well I taught most of them’, he smiles. We walk for a while with his friend, ‘an East Londoner down to his toenails’ who comes to the Reservoirs most days and who has been fishing here since 1952. His friend is also a keen birdwatcher, frequently interrupting the conversation to point out birds darting above: ‘swift’, ‘swallow’, ‘heron’. People here inevitably slip identities: resisting categories of birdwatcher, angler, environmentalist, public. Mark is philosophical, he tells me that it doesn’t matter whether or not he catches a fish: ‘I’m intrigued by the unknown […] it’s meditative’, ‘it takes you back to something elemental’.

Mark used to come here every day, now it’s a couple of times a week. He speaks about moving back to the Midlands where he was born, says he feels ‘pushed out’. Casting an eye over the new developments he mutters that they are ‘yet another sickness of the age’. He is angered by ‘men in suits making decisions about men not in suits’. 

Having the public and anglers on the West bank is particularly ‘incompatible.’ Mark demonstrates ‘back-casting’, a line whipped back with a hook on the end. Once someone threatened to throw him in; ‘it’s only a matter of time before a child gets hooked in the eye’. Mark notes the shift in demographic, inspired by the redevelopment, particularly the £4m spent on converting the Pumphouse into an ‘Islington-like café’ (associated with liberal elite clientele). During the walk, Mark skirts around the newly installed gates, saying that while it was once possible to drive in, now anglers have to walk, cutting into fishing time. 

Moreover, anglers alongside Save the Lea Marshes activists are concerned that increased footfall, particularly during lockdowns, has degraded ecology ‘In a way I’d rather they never opened it up in the first place […] it’s been a challenge for us. We want open usage but it’s also about campaigning for nature.’ (Lia) Some suggested that shrub clearances prior to opening (conducted to comply with risk assessments and create sightlines) have caused declines in birdlife. These parties also pointed out that Walthamstow Wetlands was not exactly closed to the public before 2017; it was easy enough to open the gate.

Walthamstow Wetlands gathers difference. It wears its conflicts conspicuously. Whether these narrow pathways will be able to sustain such contestation, particularly with gentrifying developments pressing against the lip of the site, remains uncertain. The landscape matters to the biographies of a diverse public and is effective in challenging Nature/Culture binaries and reshaping human relationships with ecology. Yet we should be wary that in this ‘menagerie of people’ (Anthropologist, Lewis Daly), the traditional users are not sidelined. 

References

  1. Boulter, L. (2017) Wild in Walthamstow: Europe’s biggest urban wetlands opens. The Guardian, 19 October. (Accessed: 2 May 2021). 
  2. Casey, E. (1996) How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time. In S. Feld and K. Basso (eds.) Senses of Place. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, pp. 13-52. 
  3. Gould, A. and T. L. Lewis (2016) Green Gentrification: Urban sustainability and the struggle for environmental justice. London: Routledge. 
  4. Ingold, T. (2007) Lines: A Brief History. New York: Routledge.
  5. Tilley, C. and K. Cameron-Daum (2017) An Anthropology of Landscape: The Extraordinary in the Ordinary. London: UCL Press. 
  6. Tsing, A. (2014) More-than-human Sociality: A Call for Critical Description. In Anthropology and Nature (ed.) K. Hastrup. London: Routledge. 

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