Marshes: A Walk for One A narrated audio tour through London's Hackney Marshes
Head to the corner of Millfields Rd and Mandeville St in Lower Clapton and you might spot a plaque on the wall featuring a QR code and a blogspot URL. These link to a blog with just one post which is designed to tempt you on a half hour walk into unspecified surroundings. The plaque's on a brick wall opposite a bridge leading onto Hackney Marshes so it's fairly obvious where you'll be heading, but there's no map and no given endpoint, just an audio file to play which'll reveal all. I resisted the temptation to scan ahead for spoilers, turned up and pressed play.
It's soon clear this isn't going to be a walk about history or fact, more a journey into folklore and feelings. Before very long the female voice is urging you to close your eyes and focus on your breathing while she counts backwards from 20, which had me worried, but thankfully what follows avoids slipping into shallow mindfulness. I didn't close my eyes because this is 2021 and blocking the pavement is unwise, as was confirmed when two elderly shoppers and a man with a small dog attempted to walk by. The 242 bus interrupted the peace and quiet twice. After the count reached zero I was invited to consider my place amid my immediate surroundings, then the wider cosmos, and by the time the soundtrack reached five minutes I was itching to get away.
At long last I was told to make my way over to the footbridge and pause in the centre, looking down over the river and its "citizens of liminal space", as the increasingly flowery voiceover described the narrowboats below. If you have a psychogeographic Bingo Card handy you'll also be able to tick off palimpsest, edgelands and topography before the walk is through. But I also appreciated the commentary being carefully timed to roll out in real time, its encouragement to look and listen, and an increasing recognition of my own personal insignificance amid aeons of natural existence. I drew the line at stroking a block of wood.
Yesterday was a cracking day to be walking on the marshes, the sky cobalt blue and the buds of spring itching to emerge. It was busy too as local residents took advantage of their limited freedoms, but I bet none of them were following an audio trail laid down in 2014. I admired a pylon, watched out for rooks and tried to work out why I was being asked to listen to a folktale about a sperm whale on the high seas. A more relevant choice was to focus on the mythology of the fox as I followed a long path trapped between spiked railings. Occasional cobblestones signalled a lost industrial past. A single hawthorn tree blazed with white blossom.
There were problems ahead. The underpass beneath the Lea Bridge Road was flooded though both bores, as it so often is, so a diversion up and over was required. The blog's initial directions had anticipated this possibility, so full marks for forethought, but this distraction did totally break the walk's momentum. The last few minutes were spent admiring Leyton Marsh and the light in the sky, revisiting our friend the fox and contemplating my personal nodality. The commentary ends by offering a choice, either back into reality or onwards into the dreamlike wilderness. I chose to walk on across Walthamstow Marshes, which I absolutely hadn't been planning before this audiowalk nudged me, and I thank the author copiously for that.
Connections between Hackney Marshes and Walthamstow Marshes would be greatly enhanced if proposals for East London Waterworks Park go ahead. This recently-launched project aims to turn 14 acres of concrete into a 'brownfield rainforest', mirroring the success of the adjacent Middlesex Filter Beds and Waterworks Nature Reserve. This riverside compound alongside Lea Bridge Road was also once filter beds but was concreted over to become a Thames Water depot. Planning permission to turn it into two free schools rightly failed, so the intention now is for local people to buy the site and transform it into a biodiverse habitat for communal use. Stage 1 is a crowdfunder to get a feasibility study off the ground, and such is local interest that it's already 73% funded. That should pay for a team of experts to get involved and start to engage with the landowner, but it'll be years before any sale is successful, the concrete gets broken up and any wild swimming begins. You can read more about the project here, contribute here and watch a speeded-up walk around the perimeter here.
East London Waterworks Park is just one of ten proposed parks in the capital championed by CPRE London. These are exciting projects revitalising post-industrial backwaters which could contribute much to suburban recreation. Details of eight have been announced so far, and they're a great-looking bunch.