A Song of Open Space

‘ there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty’ William Morris. 1884

We tell ourselves, when out in Epping Forest, or on Walthamstow or Hackney Marshes, that we are walking in wild, ancient places. That these woods and meadows have resisted the inevitable push of London to expand its boundaries. That somehow this wilderness has survived where numerous hamlets and villages have not – they after all are only remembered in the names of underground stations or the handy estate agent speak which gives us ‘urban villages’.

It’s nonsense of course. Epping Forest and the Lee Valley Park are as closely managed and curated as the parks of central London and other urban areas. And that’s nothing new. My fantasies of intrepid hunting expeditions in Epping Forest were somewhat shattered by the discovery that the Queen Elizabeth hunting lodge began life as a platform where the hunting party could stand in the dry and shoot at the carefully managed herd as they were driven into easy reach. Every meadow of course has to be mown and pollarding and coppicing are forestry techniques used for many centuries to tame the forest, to make it work for us, to make it yield the maximum possible for the least amount of human effort.

So these have not been untamed landscapes for centuries, and their relationship with the city and its inhabitants is complex. Perhaps these green spaces only survive at all because past generations of Londoners realised that left unchecked London would inevitably swallow up every copse and clearing.

Three pillars of legislation theoretically protect the fragile balance that keeps our part of London so special. The Epping Forest act of 1878 placed the Forest under the stewardship of the City of London Corporation who “shall at all times keep Epping Forest unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the people’; The Lee Valley regional parks authority was formed in 1967 to manage the Lee Valley, including parts of Hackney and Walthamstow marshes, and other parts of the marshes are designated as Metropolitan Open Land – a designation intended to protect areas of landscape, recreation, nature conservation and scientific interest’.

So that’s alright then. Previous generations have realised the value of these special places on the edge of London and ensured that they are preserved for the foreseeable future. They should not be susceptible to the short term vagaries of economic crises, or to the commercialism of multinational companies. London can be held back and we will always be able to escape into our green spaces.

But when a 15m high and 46m wide advertising hoarding appears on the Hackney Marshes centre, or when ‘the bikers tea hut’ is put out to tender and the prospect of Starbucks Epping Forest becomes a real one, or when a new changing facility and accompanying car park is proposed for the marshes we are reminded that this balance is a very fine one.

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We remember that after radio one’s big weekend on hackney marshes many of the football pitches were unusable for the whole season. That following the removal of a temporary Olympic basketball facility on Walthamstow marshes flooding became an issue due to failure to reinstate the land properly and the installation of a rubber sheet under the top soil. We remember those who fought for the common land which is now the Olympic park and perhaps invoke the spirit of William Morris in making our voices known , in scrutinising and challenging proposals which go beyond the spirit of that legislation and exceed the powers invested in the land’s temporary custodians.

Save Lee Marshes

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What have you done today, Mervyn Day?

Writing about Jonathan’s work and the transformation of the Lee Valley in my last post reminded me of Saint Etienne’s film What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? Made in 2005, the film is set on the day following the announcement of London’s successful Olympic bid and follows the teenage Mervyn on a bike ride through the Lee Valley and the area now dominated by the Olympic Park.

With scenes and voiceovers featuring the real life characters of the area the film was a timely documentation of a landscape and community on the brink of transformation through one of the biggest developments in London’s history. Scenes which stick in my mind include one in a warehouse, which may well no longer exist, filled with the largest imaginable collection of tiles piled floor to ceiling in haphazard and frequently collapsing piles, and Mervyn being served bubble and squeak in a classic East End cafe – another rapidly dying institution. Built into the narrative are reminders of the Lee Valley’s industrial past, including the invention of plastic in Hackney Wick.

I haven’t seen the film since its premiere in 2005, during which the band played the soundtrack live (and also played their excellent album Tales from Turnpike House in the second half) but there’s a trailer on YouTube – with a tantalising hint of a DVD release this year in the comments. The film is well worth trying to seek out, and already and important historical document.

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