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“Well before the Lea hits the salty mouth of the Thames, it is laden with phosphates, plastic, sewage and industrial chemicals. It is, in fact, the most polluted river in Britain.”

Scattered thoughts on the River Lea

Words and photographs by Joanna Pocock

October 4, 2020

It had been raining all night and into the morning, the air was damp and chill. I put on my waterproof trousers and cycled from my home in Bethnal Green to the Olympic Park in East London. The River Lea had broken its banks. Benches and footpaths were under water, the trunks of trees had been buried. I found out later that the previous day had been the wettest in the UK since records had begun in 1891. We had received a month’s worth of rain in less than twenty-four hours. 

I have been walking and cycling this area for twenty-five years. During the pandemic, these excursions have been my lifeline. Unable to travel far and wide, I am burrowing down deep, excavating the hidden corners of East London. From above, the Hackney Marshes form a teardrop shape bounded by the River Lea on one side and the Lee Navigation Canal on the other. In the fifteenth century, the river’s name had three spellings: Ley, Lee and Lea. Today, the river is primarily referred to as the Lea whereas the human-made canal is always the Lee. It’s fitting that a river should have a fluid name.

On a map, this stretch of East London is a mosaic of marshes, wetlands, canals, rivers, and urban meadows dotted with rail lines, roads, gasworks, distilleries, sewage pumps, high-voltage cabling, food processing and waste recycling plants. There is a melancholy sense here of nature trying to have its way while we do everything in our power to crush it. 

I stop at a small patch of the River, just across from the enormous hangars and containers of the New Spitalfields Market, the largest wholesale market in the UK. This stretch of bank is known as the Hackney Riviera. On hot summer days, it is lined with families barbecuing Co-op sausages, teenagers, in swimming trunks and bikinis, swinging from trees to land with a splash in the cool water, while barefoot toddlers tentatively step down the narrow, muddy banks. It looks deceptively clean, yet despite its pastoral aura, the river tells a very different story. It flows for sixty-eight kilometres from the chalky Chiltern Hills in Hertfordshire, but well before it hits the salty mouth of the Thames, it is laden with phosphates, plastic, sewage and industrial chemicals. It is, in fact, the most polluted river in Britain.

Like a seaside resort in winter, the River Lea on this October day is slightly forlorn and appears weighed down by its past. Its meandering course is the boundary between Middlesex and Essex, but over a thousand years ago, the Lea separated the Danes from the Anglo-Saxons. In the seventeenth century, barley was floated to the town of Ware, where it was brewed and malted and then put in a barge and sent along the Lea to London. During the Great Plague of 1665–6, bargemen from Ware were not required to pay lock fees if they transported fresh water and food to the plague-ridden city of London. I can’t help but think about this now, with our own pandemic raging, how rivers symbolise escape. Like the sea, rivers can be places to run away to, they can offer a way out, a place of baptism, spiritual and physical cleansing, and an invitation to observe the fluidity of our circumstances.

Just as this area has always held a tidal pull over me, it seems to be drawing my daughter to it. When she turned twelve in the summer of 2019, she wanted to find her own spaces, her own East London away from me. Her need to escape the shackles of watchful parents took her far and wide.

She had a thirst for exploring the alleys, parks, canals, hidden clearings, and for finding her own places. She and her friends would pack their swimming costumes into carrier bags in the morning and hop on their bikes, to return in the evening, all suntanned limbs, wet hair, the tips of their noses touched with pink. When I found out she had been swimming in the Lea, I felt sick. She was so excited about finding a secret swimming spot in London, in East London with its concrete and roads, endless parking lots and gutters littered with syringes. I had to give her the bad news. I had to tell her that this water was toxic. I had to do what so many parents now have to do: I had to tell her we had poisoned the Earth.

These fragments are all related. The floods, the chemical pollution, the sheathes of plastic strangling the branches of trees, the garbage and the girl having to take on board the ravaged world we are leaving her. The Lea, like every waterway, has weathered much in its history. The word Lea likely comes from the Old English for ‘clearing’, which developed from the same root as that for ‘light’. Rivers, like light, consist of waves and particles and we rely on them for life.

Can we remember a time when rivers were sacred, when we knew we needed them, when we not only needed them, but were shaped by them, were part of them? I want my daughter to know that if she can’t live in such a time, then at least she should be aware that such a time once existed.

Let us bring back the light to the river and never forget that she is older than we are and if we are to thrive, we must listen to her. She will always remember what we have forgotten.

Joanna Pocock

Joanna Pocock’s writing has most notably appeared in Dark Mountain, Dazed & Confused, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, New Statesman, Orion Magazine, The Spectator, The Times Literary Supplement and 3:AM. In 2018 she won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for her book-length work of non-fiction Surrender about the American West, which was published in May 2019 by Fitzcarraldo. House of Anansi published it in Canada and the US in 2020 and a French translation has just come out by Mémoire d’encrier. A Spanish edition is forthcoming this year from Errata Naturae. Most recently, Joanna was awarded the 2021 Arts Foundation Fellowship in Environmental Writing. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of the Arts.

© Joanna Pocock