hidden europe 64

A London oasis: the Walthamstow Wetlands

by Rudolf Abraham

Picture above: London’s Docklands and Canary Wharf area viewed across Low and High Maynard Reservoirs, part of Walthamstow Wetlands (photo © Rudolf Abraham).


To have the opportunity to observe a landscape through the seasons, whether an urban swath of green and blue or something more obviously exotic, is a rare and wonderful thing. Over the past year and more Rudolf Abraham has watched the Walthamstow Wetlands transform, and here he reports for us from his home patch of London.

As the tentacles of suburbanization spread out of central London from the mid-19th century, the flat and marshy land surrounding left-bank tributaries of the Thames downstream of the city centre remained relatively untouched by the relentless expansion of the city. Rivers like the Roding, the Lea and the Beam looped lazily over their flood plains. These quiet, melancholic flatlands with abundant reed beds were places where the illusion of rural Essex could be maintained even as the speculative builders were busy all around.

The Lea Valley developed in time into a major source of fresh water for thirsty Londoners, with a chain of reservoirs extending downstream from Enfield Lock to Walthamstow and beyond. Rudolf Abraham, a regular contributor to hidden europe, invites us to join him as he explores the wetlands of Walthamstow.

Walthamstow Wetlands in north-east London form one of the largest urban wetland areas in Europe, covering some 211 hectares, and providing an extraordinarily rich habitat for birds and other wildlife. Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), they form part of the Lea Valley Special Protection Area (SPA) and Lea Valley RAMSAR Site (a Wetland of International Importance). The ten reservoirs of Walthamstow Wetlands were built during the second half of the 19th century, in several stages, with work finishing in 1904.

Opened to the public in 2017 following significant investment in the site, the Wetlands are threaded with walking and cycling paths. The area still serves as the main water supply for over a third of Londoners. I’m lucky enough to live just five minutes walk from one of the main entrances to the Wetlands.

Walking along an embankment above a reservoir, or between the blaze of yellow gorse and flowing weeping willow which line some of the more hidden pathways, you almost have the feeling you’re not in London — but here we are just a few kilometres from the very heart of the city. There’s such a feeling of space, even if the fringes of that space are clearly defined by the outlines of Tottenham Stadium, the belching smokestack at Edmonton Incinerator, and the twin clusters of modern skyscrapers at Canary Wharf and Bishopsgate. The drone of traffic, that constant, nagging companion to London life, is magically gone, or at least dramatically muted. Even more surreally, in a pandemic year with much-reduced air travel, there are almost no jet trails across the sky. Low, wooden platforms extend beyond the water’s edge, waiting to be claimed by fishermen or families out for a picnic, while islands dot the reservoirs, each with a different character and habitat. Perhaps you’ll hear the huge, whistling wing beats of a swan passing overhead, as the tall reed beds rustle softly in the breeze, or if you’re lucky you might see the iridescent blue flash of a kingfisher flitting past.

This is just an excerpt. The full text of this article is not yet available to members with online access to hidden europe. Of course you can read the full article in the print edition of hidden europe 64.
Related blog post

Escape from the world: the fascination of islands

What is it about islands that so powerfully fuels our imagination? Paul Scraton ponders the question while on an excursion off to the Farne Islands. In his bag is a trio of island-themed articles published in hidden europe magazine of which the full text is made available on this website today.

Related article

An Essex backwater: Discovering Harwich

The old town of Harwich, a port in the county of Essex on England's North Sea coast, is tucked away on the end of a peninsula. Maritime connections have shaped the development of Harwich. It's a place for sea breezes, rock oysters and watching the ferries come and go.