WaterWorks Centre Nature Reserve & Middlesex Filter Beds

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Date of travel

August, 2020

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Covid-19 has disrupted many travel plans, including ours. So, instead of relaxing in Budapest’s thermal baths, exploring Dracula’s Romanian castle and trekking gorillas in Uganda, we’ve been “walking Walthamstow E17”. In the early days when exercise was limited to an hour, we began exploring the nearby streets, highlighting our route on a map on return. Eventually we’d covered every street in Walthamstow, so were pleased when the 60-minute rule was relaxed so we could travel further afield in Waltham Forest. Although it’s not been as exciting as our original travel plans, it’s kept lockdown pounds away and we’ve discovered many new paths despite living in the borough for nearly 30 years,

Whilst walking a stretch of the River Lea Navigation from Walthamstow to the Thames, we spotted a gate leading to the “Middlesex Filter Beds”:https://www.visitleevalley.org.uk/nature-reserves-and-open-spaces/waterworks-centre-nature-reserve-%26-middlesex-filter-beds. Not only had we not explored them, we’d never heard of them. However, not wanting to be diverted, we continued onwards, bookmarking the beds for another day after we’d researched them.

Google told us that in 1852, three years after London’s worst cholera outbreak and the consequent demand for cleaner, safer water, the East London Waterworks Company constructed six Middlesex Filter Beds arranged around a central well. Filtering the water through sand and gravel, removed impurities and provided the surrounding areas with water of improved quality.

However, in 1969 the Middlesex Filter Beds were replaced by the Coppermills Water Treatment Works, adjacent to Walthamstow Wetlands. The abandoned beds became engulfed by nature and from 1988, the site has been managed by the Lea Valley Regional Park as a wildlife reserve.

Covering 10 acres, the reserve is sandwiched between the River Lea Navigation and the River Lea. The paths were well marked, and information boards provided explanations about the deep, brick lined beds and wildlife. Although there’s said to be the chance of spotting 60+ species of birds, we saw remarkably few: maybe it was the time of day, the hot weather, or perhaps we lacked patience.

It was hard to miss the monumental Nature’s Throne, known locally as ‘Hackney Henge’. It was created by east London sculptress “Paula Haughney”:http://www.paulahaughney.co.uk/ from huge granite blocks salvaged from an old engine house.

Our walk took us over a huge flat stone circle said to be a well head and remnants of iron work which we later found were parts of a sluice winding mechanism.

A short stroll across Hackney Marshes (in reality, a huge green park with spectacular views of London’s skyline on the horizon) and across a red, graffiti-clad Friends Bridge led us into the WaterWorks Nature Reserve.

Here was lots of open green space and the river. Although the banks were steep, the water levels were low, and there were numerous no swimming signs, it was obvious from the volume and type of litter, that at the weekend, the facilities had been well used, and to a degree abused. A couple of sari-clad ladies were paddling oblivious of the high watermarks halfway up their clothes. Unusual poplar trees dotted the landscaped, which we found very different to our other walks in the Oak-filled areas of Epping Forest.

As well as the river, the Waterworks Nature Reserve was the home of 19 filter beds which as there were on the other side of the River Lea, were known as the Essex Filter Beds. There were seven rectangular beds side by side and two sets of six filter beds arranged around a circular stone central well head in the style of the Middlesex beds. Unfortunately, we missed this area completely as we’d chosen the river path. Perhaps this is why we missed the “outdoor art works”:https://www.visitleevalley.org.uk/en/content/cms/nature/nature-reserve/waterworks-nature-reserve-midd/#art-in-the-park we’d read about. There is also the WaterWorks Café and Visitors Centre, but both are currently closed because of Covid.

Despite the lack of art and birds, we found lots of green open space with easy walking along wide, flat, concrete paths or well-trodden grass tracks. Judging by the number of dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, children and people picking blackberries on a Monday morning, it’s obviously a popular location.

After a very pleasant morning, we visited the nearby “Princess of Wales”:https://www.princessofwalesclapton.co.uk/ pub for lunch.

Helen Jackson

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