• The River Lea

  • Humans and nature

    "In this actual world there is then not much point in counter-posing or restating the great abstractions of Man and Nature. We have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out." - Raymond Williams (1980)
  • Favourate Quote:

    We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it." - Aldo Leopold (1938)
  • Lea Valley and River Photos

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A Hybrid Landscape on the edge of London

Author Sherwell described London in 1901 as “a great, hungry sea, which flows on and on, filling up every creek, and then overspreads its borders, flooding the plains beyond” (Quoted in Roy Porter, London: A Social History). West Ham was one of these “flood plains”, beyond London’s borders, that was filled with urban growth in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was an atypical suburb; an early example of industrial migration from the urban core to the periphery, where manufacturing, not commuter bedroom communities, was the raison d’être for suburban growth. West Ham was the sixth largest city in England and Wales, but with the enormous shadow cast by the Metropolis, it was unclear whether the Borough was apart from or a part of London. The industrial landscape was a polluted landscape. Chemical factories, gasworks, sugar refineries, the Thames Ironworks shipbuilding yard, and the Great Eastern Railway works burnt a lot of coal, as did many of the households in the Borough. Yet West Ham was not an entirely urban-industrial landscape even at the end of the nineteenth century. The 1893-4 Ordinance Survey Maps list four farms (one of which was located beside the Bromley Gasworks and the other three in the east of the Borough on the Plaistow Marsh). In 1915 there were numerous allotment gardens that established an urban agriculture presence in West Ham at the height of industrial and residential growth. These sites of agriculture, along with the parks, recreation grounds, graveyards, undeveloped lands and open marshes coexisted with factories, commercial high streets, slums and better off suburb communities. The messy overlap between the city and the country is one of the reasons West Ham is so interesting. It was a hybrid landscape, an unplanned garden city, often under a cloud of smoke and noxious fumes, filled with hundreds of thousands of people, moving between factories, homes and gardens: people living in both the city and the country and in neither. West Ham was a borderland, a landscape of exposure, a tormented but not defeated rural environment. It was a riverine landscape (flood plains and marshlands), transformed by humans into an industrial one, but always threatened with the chance that the River Lea would reclaim its territory, at least for a moment.


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