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I’m now lucky enough to live close to the Hackney Marshes, a ten minute stroll takes me through Millfields Park, across the Lea Navigation, through the Middlesex Filter Beds and then onto a large expanse of football pitches, known as the Hackney Marshes. At first site this could look like any municipal area created for Britain’s second most popular participants sport, football but around the outskirts of these pitches lie many interesting natural features along with tales of past goings on, many of a dark and sinister nature. The marsh had been left untouched subject to Lammas rights (land split up into strips and used for producing hay and used only for grazing) hence why no building development had gone ahead in this area.

But in 1893 Sir John Hutton, the chairman of the London County Council dedicated the marshes to be an open space for the people of London after mounting pressure from various public groups including the Rev E K Douglass who ran the Eton Mission at Hackney Wick. Rev Douglass pointed out that the lads football club connected with the Mission has been ordered off the marshes by Drivers who had proceeded to carry off their goal posts! With growing pressure a final sum of £75,000 pounds was paid to the Lord and the commoners who had rights to the land by Hackney Council, giving the land back to the people of the borough for recreational use.

At that time the following extract from a pamphlet set out by the London Parks Committee describes the marsh as “a large area of flat meadow land, lying on the eastern boundary of London and intersected and skirted by the river Lea and its tributaries. It is 387 acres in extent, and three and a half miles from the Royal Exchange.” With this new aquisition, the council was about to change the marshes for ever but for many this was not for the better as the marshes represented a real rural idyl with the central marshes still having a sense of the wilderness about it especially when approached via surrounding villages like Clapton, Hommerton, Leyton and Hackney Wick. One such fondly remembered inhabitant lived on the outskirts of the marsh, there lay a ramshackle building where its occupants would greet passers by, by selling ginger beer and sorry looking cakes together with fish caught from the Navigation Cut laid out in dishes. Unsucessfull anglers could fill their creels with fish on return from the Lea enabling them to feed their families and keep their sense of personal pride. This wild almost anarchic  area was starting to loose its dark reputation as the Lea’s tributaries were drained and access became less of a challenge as one could now wander off the designated paths. The Lea itself was now controlled by new higher banks and flood relief channels, the marsh was now in name and not in nature.

Romany gypsies camped out on the marshes in the late nineteenth century.

The Lea of old held large fish, pike of 25 lbs, trout 11 1/2 lbs, barbel 13 1/2 lbs,  chub 7 1/2 lbs, carp 11lbs, bream 5 3/4 lbs and ells of  6 3/4 lbs. One of the principle spots to catch these monsters was around the White House fishery boasting 150 subscribers each year. The White House pub stood alone in the middle of the marshes run  in the late 19th century by widower Mrs Beresford and her sons. Mrs Beresford reputation as a courteous hostess became well known to the Walton desciples that descended onto the Lea who took sanctuary in the pub with its walls adorned with stuffed birds aquired by Mrs Beresfords late husband George a keen hunter and fisherman. In earlier days the inn was frequently visited by Dick Turpin and other like minded types who felt save in the refuge of the marshes, knowing that only the bravest of law enforcers would venture into this wild area. The inn finally fell silent in 1917 when no interest was taken in the license and so it was demolished.

The White House Inn, Hackney Marshes.

Another notable fishing Inn was the Horse and Groom on the Lea Bridge Road and at the opposite end of Hackney marshes the White Hart Inn by Temple Mills the last point where the river Lea is tidal.

The White Hart Inn, Temple Mills.The marshes are now fully tamed, dotted by endless rugby and goal posts. In the background (above) behind the row of trees lies the river Lea still frequented by a few anglers and indeed the Tuesday Swim. Behind me lies the Lea Navigation where large carp reside, yes the canal carp are still on the Tuesday Swims radar but that will be next year. The marshes have survived the Olympics tidying up policy and still retain a  real sense of the  past with the old Victorian engineering in the Middlesex Filter Beds and the meanders of the old Lea, stubborn in its path. There is still a lot more to explore in this area and I shall come back to it here at the Tuesday Swim.

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