Under the bridge of shit and out towards The Ghost Factory flows the artificial channel – known as the Hackney cut. Over the precipice of the weir crashes the natural channel, called The Old River Lea.
This detour round the back of Hackney Marshes follows the route of the original river. In this brief stretch the water remembers her old self. She meanders over rocks and rubble in a burst of nostalgia. Dirty brown pipes arch over her, but she’s unembarrassed. Metal hatches spew filthy overflow into her, but she’s unimpeded. Upturned shopping trolleys jut from her muddy banks like skeletons, but she’s full of optimism.
“I’m a river again,” she burbles, “I’m a river. Now get out of my way!”
The birds love Old River Lea. Herons, cormorants, seagulls, swans, ducks, moorhens and geese converge on her rocky islets. Dogs love to crash into her in search of sticks and good times, emerging thick with ooze. Fisherman huddle on her banks, burn small fires of worship, stare at her lovingly.
Oh, you’ve got to hand it to Old River Lea. She’s a precious old hag. She shrugs off the rubbish she’s forced to carry in her currents. When heavy rains come she breaks her banks, swells into the trees, flows as far wide as she can, VOMITS the pollution on to the earth.
When the waters subside hundreds of plastic bags are left draped on the trees. During winter, this is the principle source of colour, the only foliage you can see. The high water mark of the Old River Lea becomes a parade of blue flags. Where branches stoop into the water, polythene streamers flutter. The mud sparkles with bottle-top confetti.
There’s something primeval about this stretch of water. Something that hundreds of years of industrialisation won’t beat down. Despite flowing past the international Eurostar train lines and an enormous blue-roofed warehouse, Old River Lea rediscovers her atavistic soul.
Even the graffiti artists who paint there doff their cap to nature. On the bridge by the gold-course: a bright blue woodpecker. By the railway lines: a giant bird that doubles as a triple ice-cream cone.
The council don’t bother to come and whitewash this artwork. It’s been there for years. They know well enough to leave it alone.
The river can look after herself.