In Trekkers:Edgeland Renegades from Londonâ€™s Lie-Dream I wrote about the people who ran away to Hackney marshes and Epping Forest to escape the Blitz bombing.Â In doing so, they were banished from the history of the war. But if you look closely, trekkers still exist in todayâ€™s marshland.
The tent appeared in February, near the back of one of the filter beds, nestled among the trees. At first I thought it was a discarded tarpaulin and passed by without much thought. In these parts you often stumble upon duvet covers, torn dresses and groundsheets. Once I found a silk curtain, elegantly draped like a toga on the branch of a tree in a thicket behind the railway lines.
The next day I took a proper look. I could see that the tarpaulinÂ formed a large tent. It had a raised wooden floor with shoes racked beneath. I dropped from the stone ramparts into the bed, clutching my camera. Something shifted in the darkness behind the flaps. I panicked and moved away.
What was it doing here?
Tents regularly appear in the marshes. Usually theyâ€™re small one-man deals concealed in the wilds of Walthamstow marsh. I imagine their occupants to be opportunists. An urban explorer. A vagabond preferring a sleep in the woods to another waking nightmare on the savage streets. Adulterers out for a sneaky fuck. Teenage mushroom voyagers on a trip.
But this enormous thing was right slap-bang in the filter beds, the only bit of this edgeland that comes close to being a tourist attraction.
It was admirably brazen.
The following day I saw a scattering of belongings outside the tent door. A water bottle. A small pile of wood.Â A hat on a stick. As days rolled by this detritus increased. Human junk started to spread across the filter bed. Now there was a clothes line, festooned with shirts, slung between two tree trunks. I saw a kettle, a scorched fireplace and suitcase on wheels, the sort businessmen drag through airports.
This went on for a good few weeks until the filter bed seemed properly occupied â€“ and by just one couple. I finally saw them on the day they were kicked out. A couple in their late twenties yelled furiously at each other in what sounded like an Eastern European language as they plucked their belongings off the clothes line. In the stone plateau at the centre of the filter beds a Lea Valley ranger tapped his fingers on his vehicle, the engine humming.
Then they were gone.
I felt sad to see them go.
The secrets of the atemporal tent
There was something atemporal about that tent. It enmeshed Londonâ€™s future, past and present in a single sheet of blue tarpaulin.
…It offered a vision of Hackney marshes after mainstream society has collapsed into civil war and anarchy – aÂ time when refugees hide on the urban fringe, living off salvaged leftovers.
…It harked back to the Second World War, when trekkers camped here to escape the Luftwaffe bombers.
…It told of an epoch before the city when humans lived and hunted by the River Lea.
…It said something about how this place still attracts people who want to escape whatâ€™s expected of them.
And no wonder the lure of the marshlands is so strong. Once you cross the canal from Hackney, there are no more security cameras. No more advertising billboards. No synagogues, churches or mosques. No schools. No property. No rents. The state and its institutions lose their power here. Their communication lines are severed.
Thereâ€™s a comforting anonymity to the network of paths, overgrown verges and boggy fields. The city exists here only in fragments. Bottles and cans. Syringes. Submerged cash machines. The red flash of a bus breaking cover on the road overhead. Broken slabs. A gurgle from a subterranean sewer.
You can piece together these fragments into your own narrative. Make of it what you will.
Men who arenâ€™t allowed by their culture to shag other men come and shag other men. Ravers who arenâ€™t allowed to play loud music and gather in public places gather here in large numbers and play loud music. Teenagers who arenâ€™t allowed to do anything at all come here to smoke, to drink, to tell tall tales.
Alcoholics and junkies congregate in the undergrowth. A Hasid teen smokes a cigarette. A Turkish businessman heads off for some gay nookie with a lover. A young mum sups a can of lager.
These are Londonâ€™s neo-trekkers, on the run from whatâ€™s expected of them in the grand narrative.
Instinct tells them that this is one of the few places where you can step outsideÂ the chronology of the city.
On this atemporal fringe of the city, you can wander ancient marshlands beneath a circling hawk and imagine the last hundred years never happened. Â You can imagine the present is nothing more than a fake, painted skyscraper backdrop on the skyline. You can stand on the ruins of a water filtration plant and imagine youâ€™re a hundred years in the future and all that you know of is dead.
Suddenly it’ll hit you.
You donâ€™t want to go home.
So you crawl beneath a bush. Pull a sheet of plastic over yourself. Open a bottle. Let the night shroud you in darkness.
You sit and watch the lights of the distant city rise like flames.
COMING SOON TO THE CHRONICLES… a conversation with a ghost.