20 September 2015

Wetlands official tour

On Saturday I joined a tour of what will eventually be Walthamstow Wetlands, currently just the reservoirs. At the moment the place is quite freely accessible from 7:00 am until it gets dark, you just pay £1 in the honesty box. You can't cycle, children and dogs are not allowed (plus points unless you own one or the other) and there is only one way in or out, but you can walk around pretty much anywhere on the site. At the moment the place is mainly used by fishermen. Only two people on the tour had ever been there before and I think few people visit just to appreciate the wonderful semi-wild landscape. The Wetlands project is going to change that rather drastically.

Our guide, Rachel from the London Wildlife Trust, met us at the entrance on Ferry Lane and took us on a circular tour, explaining the proposals as we went. The project is a collaboration between Thames Water and the Trust: the reservoirs will remain functional but public access and nature conservation will become more of a priority. It's easy to see there is an inherent conflict there. The conservation side works best if you don't have visitors disturbing the wildlife and trampling vegetation, but public access will do just that, introducing more people, noise and litter. So there will be some new public facilities and defined routes, and various tactics and deterrents to stop people wandering off the beaten track.

The big engine house will become the Marine Engine House Visitor Centre, a cafe and education centre, hopefully more La Delice and less National Trust. The Coppermill engine house will have a lift and viewing platform within the existing Italianate loggia. There will be new entrances on the north side, at Lockwood Way off Blackhorse Lane, and to the south at Coppermill Lane, with a new concrete bicycle / pedestrian path linking the two, all of which is already constructed but won't open until 2017. There must surely be a new zebra crossing to get from one side to the other, because Ferry Lane is impossibly difficult to cross without one. So, a couple of weekend destinations on the edges of the site and a path that won’t be muddy however bad the weather.

But unrestricted access will no longer exist, except for the fishermen, who will still be able to camp out and stay there all night on the current basis (twice a month) and maybe the bird watchers will get some special privileges. For the general public, the plan is for the place to open 9 to 5, which places it out of the orbit of anyone working full time, and rules it out as a pleasant and safe cycle commuting route. There will be boardwalks, areas out of bounds, and no doubt litter bins and instructional signs all over the place. Children will be allowed in for the first time, but not dogs. Possibly the main financial driver on the project is education, so the place will be geared towards positive risk assessments for school visits - which does mean they will be able to happen. After five, the birds will be able to breathe a sigh of relief and settle down on their nests peacefully.

Like everyone else, I hardly ever go to the reservoirs, but when I do it's exactly how I want it to be. I expect the new wetlands will be quite pleasant, but can’t help feeling a little sad that the place will change into something tamer, more regulated. Quite honestly I would prefer the functional working landscape and the honesty box.

The new concrete cycle path, going nowhere until it opens in 2017