In a liminal land of futures and pasts, cows and skyscrapers can share the topography…
Walthamstow marsh: an elevated pathway made of boards wrapped in chicken wire stretches through a field.
The grass been left to grow wild in this fenced-off enclosure. Which means you don’t see them at first. They hide like Asian waterbuffalo. It’s only when you peer hard that you notice a brown back. Then another one. Then the curly horns.
Here is the cow sanctuary, where rare breed cattle munch on wild flowers.
There’s something surprising about seeing cows framed by new-build waterfront flats and the distant silhouette of the Gherkin.
It’s a strange union of here and there. Cow and skyscraper. Futures and pasts.
Cattle grazed here until the early twentieth century. Then a new era began. Under a bridge a hundred yards away they started building aeroplanes instead. Just for a while. To see if the idea would fly. In 1909 A.V Roe flew under the bridge and up over the marsh in the first all-British aeroplane.
Tally ho, cor blimey guvnor he cried.
Then that era too disappeared and we stopped making things. The planes were gone. And so were the cows.
Then in 2003, somebody discovered a small patch of a plant called creeping marshwort. The only patch in existence. The last marshwort. It was an environmental emergency that didn’t quite make the national headlines. But botanists were cocka-hoop.
In order to save this plant from extinction the cows were called back into service. Their job was to graze on the dominant plants and grasses, so that the weaker marshwort could get its place in the sun.
Good for them. And the cows are happy here, in the sanctuary at least. They’re occasionally moved out of the enclosed field and into other parts of the marsh. Then life gets ugly for the cows. Outside the sanctuary human beings can roam freely.
Up by the 5ft Bridge they try to hide in the thickets. But it’s a naff effort. Teenage boys from the estate come down and chase them across the field, waving sticks and brandishing camera phones. The cows are forced into deep bog where the boys can’t happy-slap them.
I don’t blame the kids. When I was 13 I’d have done the same. I don’t blame the cows either. Nothing worse than having to face a feral British public on the rampage. I’d chance my luck in a pool of shit, too.
Most people haven’t heard of creeping marshwort. Neither had I until I asked my home computer what the hell cows were doing in the marshes in this day and age. Google told me. As usual I wished I hadn’t asked. It’s much more interesting for the cows just to be there. No explanation needed.
But whether marshwort survives or some bastard comes and sets fire to the stuff, they should keep the cows. They bring out the child in me. In this East London context they’re like marvelous mythical beasts.
“I must show you the cows,” I say when I take friends or my children to the marsh. “I hope they’re there today. I hope we see one of them. Wouldn’t it be great to see a cow? LOOK! There it is. There’s a cow! Look at those horns!”
A cow. With horns. What wondrous beauty!