You can stroll into this hole and observe fragments of culture which have been pulled in and shattered to pieces by its centripetal force.
Cows drink from a World War II bomb crater. Defunct Victorian machinery juts from crumbling walls in the abandoned filter beds. A layer of Blitz rubble drains rain from Hackney marsh. Empty cocaine wraps lie beneath a classified advert, hand-scrawled by a whore in marker pen, signed with a kiss. Burst footballs bob against the weir. Graffiti on an underpass says âFuck the Olympicsâ.
Londonâs past, present and future is scattered here among the rare wildflowers and railway sidings. But you have to stop and listen. You have to put your ear to the fragments if you wish to eavesdrop on Londonâs collective dream.
A nothing surrounded by place
The area of the lower Lea Valley I walk each day has boundaries etched on my psyche. The Warwick reservoirs form its northern border. The A12 is its southern border. Its western line is the Lee Navigation. The east is traced by the old aqueduct and the River Lea, a remnant of the original waterway.
If you examine how the surrounding roads and water channels interlock, itâs almost an island. Or, the way I look at it, the opposite of an island. This is not a place surrounded by nothing. Itâs a nothing surrounded by place.
Look out from the marshes and youâll see an arc of London landmarks. To the South the Olympic stadia rise over the Hackney Marsh treeline. Anish Kapoorâs evil helter skelter prowls Stratford. The Illuminati eye of Canary Wharf winks at you from the Isle of Dogs. The Shard, GherkinÂ and Heron Towers stand together like sentinels at the Cityâs gates. To the north strides a parade of pylons, blasting electricity into the city.
But this hole in LondonÂ is the enemy of progress.Â Â It saps energy from the urban sprawl and pulls all aspiration down into the bog, like some wild beast with prey in its claws.
No towers rise here. Time slopes.
Climb to the heights of Springfield Park, look out across the marshes and all you see is a deep green depression. The ossified spine of an old aqueduct stretches across Walthamstow marsh. Puffs of black smoke rise from hidden fires by the canal-side. SteamÂ comes off the water. Freight train stegosaurs move slowly through the scrub.
This is Jurassic Hackney.
At night itâs so black it swallows the cityâs light completely. The few drifters seeking illegal raves and crack whores move through a dense nothingness. But in the daytime you can be brave. See how far you can climb into Londonâs past and future.
The Memory of an Echo
You find an enclave and crawl as far into the foliage as you can. You push past torn shirts, abandoned shoes, empty vodka bottles and beer-cans. Â When you find a secluded spot you sit there, eyes closed, hugging your knees.
Now you feel like youâre in a whirlpool with all of Londonâs detritusÂ roaring around your ears.
You hear trains rumbling, distant drills, aeroplanes, crackling Tannoys. Helicopters buzz the skyline. A woman calls for her dog. A man groans as he comes in anotherâs mouth. Your mobile bleeps.
At times it’s almost as bad as being in London’s streets. Worse even, because these sounds feel like they’re coming from inside your head.
But then… sometimes… in the very quietest moment… you realise you canÂ just about hear it,Â like the memory of anÂ echo,Â the gurgling of ancient water rushing beneath the marshes.
Londonâs oldest time.
You imagineÂ that whenÂ the London skyline crumbles to dust and man’s voice no longer rings out across the marsh, mudskippers will crawl up from these buried rivers and emerge from the drain covers, blinking in the dawn light.