Sunday, March 15, 2009

Layer 136 All Along the Lea Banks

I’m a complete convert to the idea that cycling is the best way of going from place to place. Especially if you can do it away from roads and traffic. It’s silent, it’s much faster than walking - enabling you to travel much further, it doesn’t cost anything, it gets you fit, it gets the sun on your skin, and it gives a sense of absolute freedom.

Those were pretty much all the things I felt about cycling at the age of 10 or 11 when my parents bought me my first bike. Suddenly the whole world was mine to explore, any time I wanted, and all for free. My estate, the streets and estates beyond my immediate territory, and especially the open roads that led out of the city and into the countryside, the lanes, the woods and the hills on the horizon: all were mine to discover and to enjoy. Life became much more exciting.

The cycleway along the River Lea must now be the longest continuous cycle path alongside water in this country. The fact that it goes through the heart of the country’s biggest built-up area and its capital city makes it even more amazing. You can also branch off it and go east towards the Regent’s Canal as far as the Islington tunnel.

At the southern extremity of the Lea is the Limehouse Basin, and the connection with the Thames. Out of the basin there’s another canal heading north-west and a link with the Regent’s Canal at Victoria Park.

If you head north along the canalised River Lea you will eventually arrive in the countryside in Hertfordshire, if you have the stamina.

It must be the most interesting and stimulating off-road cycle route on tarmac and gravel in the entire country. Apart from the river itself there’s Hackney Marshes, Walthamstow Marshes, Leyton Marsh, Tottenham Marsh, nature reserves, ponds, lakes, playing fields, marinas, Springfield Park, Victoria Park, tennis courts, an ice rink, 18 hole pitch and putt, horse riding, the country’s biggest area of football pitches, reservoirs, locks, sailing, fishing, cafes, pubs, houseboats, rowing clubs, and riverside flats, houses, and businesses, both old and new.

There’s also wildlife, especially birdlife, galore. Cormorants, gulls, terns, herons, Canada geese, swans, coots, moorhens, kingfishers, kestrels, as well as the common varieties of city birds and others from far away just passing though - migrating down this green corridor across the metropolis. Yesterday there were magpies busy building nests.

And now we have the vast Olympic Park, currently taking shape and rising up behind fences, but soon to be available and accessible to everyone. Whatever anyone thinks about the Olympics, and personally I hate the jingoistic rivalry and petty nationalism, the medals tables and the sheer phenomenal cost of the things - there’s no getting away from the transformational effect of the building that’s currently taking place along the Lea.

This week and last there were TV documentaries showing some of the negative effects of the construction - the loss of allotments and business premises belonging to small local workshops and factories. There’s no question that a lot of local people are grieving for the loss of their quiet, run-down, post-industrial wilderness.

The question is whether the regeneration of the area - and there’s a huge area we’re talking about here, if you consider the whole of Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham - three of the poorest and most desperate boroughs in the country in pure economic terms - is worth it, on the basis of no pain, no gain.

Time will tell. Right now, I defy anyone with any imagination and full use of their senses to stand at the viewpoint overlooking the construction of the main stadium and the water sports complex and not to feel a sense of amazement and excitement at the sheer scale of the activity and the ambition of the project. In the distance stand the watchtowers of Canary Wharf and the Gherkin.

It’s now possible to see the full scale and the outline of the stadium itself, as it reaches its full height, whilst hundreds of hard-hatted project workers and enormous, strange-looking construction vehicles swarm around the entire site. There’s a constant stream of massive concrete-mixing trucks delivering concrete from the adjoining site where it’s produced.

Huge trains deliver raw materials to these works, and there are mountainous heaps of sand and gravel, and many vast silos of cement. Trucks queue beneath them to receive their next fill-ups. They shuttle back and forth, day and night.

The work is relentless, focused, and very impressive. A dozen cranes tower over the site, swinging long metal arms back and forth. Of course you might say it’s only a construction site. Well it’s a construction site, Jim, but not as we know it.

Interestingly, very few people pass by on foot or bicycle along the raised Greenway and its vantage points, and very few stop and stare. In a sense this is way off the beaten track, even though it’s right at the heart of the London conurbation, surrounded by millions of people, and the top of the stadium is now at a height that’s visible from miles away.

Very few people actually know the River Lea, let alone the Lea Valley Regional Park and its facilities, let alone make use of them. This situation will soon change, with snowball effect. The word is bound to spread, as soon as a few thousand more people get the know the area and what it offers, and then a tipping point will be reached, beyond which the awareness of the Lea Valley and its delights will be changed forever.


The absence of people in general along the Lea, especially on weekdays, is even more marked if you think about children. They don’t exist. Or old people either, for that matter.

This is criminal if you think about the beneficial effect of walking down and around the Lea. If a river walk can make even a relatively jaded, self-confessed grumpy old man feel uplifted, inspired, de-stressed and regenerated, then consider what effect it will have on young people who know only city streets and estates, and the confines of busy, crowded homes and small classrooms.

It’s a whole new land of awe and wonder, considering the contact with water and nature, with wildlife and trees, with open skies and the elements, and all the various aspects of the built environment.

And then there’s the Olympic site, and the amazing structures that are beginning to appear there. There was a certain point on my river ride yesterday when you turn a corner just beyond the abandoned Big Breakfast house at Old Ford Locks, start moving across the bridge that spans one of the canal spurs, and suddenly see the massive skeletal structure of the new Olympic stadium towering above the trees and the river in the middle distance. It’s a stunning sight, guaranteed to provoke a ‘wow’ reaction.

My point is that children should be out there, taking it all in, benefitting from it all in every aspect of their development - intellectual, social, emotional, physical and spiritual. Children, especially city children, should be able to do the same things that enrich and inspire adults, to enjoy the same things that fire our imaginations and fill our senses.

There are so many opportunities for learning out there - so many starting points for conversations and discussions, for observation, for questioning, for drawing and photography, for inspiring follow-up investigations, reading and writing. How can teachers (and parents) ignore such opportunities?

It should be compulsory for every child in the area to be taken out and to become familiar with the geography and history of the area. Thanks to the excellent rail and DLR links from north, south, east and west into Stratford, Hackney Wick and Clapton, hundreds of schools could easily organise trips to investigate the Lea and the work on the Olympic site.

So why don’t these things happen? Mainly, of course, because there’s no political will for them to happen. Plus a shortage of headteachers with the vision, the will, the confidence and the determination to make them happen. Plus teachers who lack those qualities, and who might also suffer from fear, inertia, laziness and shortage of zest and energy. Over-large classes and children with behavioural difficulties don’t help, though those things can be catered for and the problems overcome.

Strangely enough, children who go to delightful, interesting, stimulating places tend not to misbehave. Oddly, they seem to become interested in learning when given opportunities for first-hand experience that gets them physically moving, legitimately and purposefully interacting, functioning as a team member, information-gathering, and using all their senses.

These opportunities to simultaneously develop social and emotional intelligence, and their intellectual capacities, should be grasped by all teachers, parents and carers. Parents should demand that their children be offered these experiences and these types of informal and formal learning by their schools.

Spiritual intelligence is nurtured when children are encouraged to use their senses to input directly into their knowledge of the world, and encouraged to use their intuition to see patterns, to question assumptions and draw conclusions. Spiritual intelligence manifests itself in joie de vivre, laughter, curiosity, delight, motivation, self-confidence, participation and self-control.

Physical intelligence - strength, coordination, mobility, fitness and health - is inevitably promoted when children are able to go on long rambles in the open air, with the sun on their faces and on their skin.

The government and the bureaucracy pay lip-service to environmental education - learning about, in and through the environment - but as every head-teacher will tell you, nobody actually gives a damn about these aspects of learning and achievement. No questions are ever asked about whether these opportunities are offered to children. All the attention is on getting bums on seats and eyes on the teacher and the interactive whiteboard, and on worksheets, for hours on end. Active? Ha!


It so happens that one of the best tracks ever recorded is The Lee Shore, by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Written by David Crosby in the key of E minor, it uses only three chords, Em, C and Am, to create a work of great atmosphere, beautiful melody and superb, gentle, insistent rhythm. The song is about the beauty, the atmosphere and the feeling of freedom and spiritual peace to be found when travelling around the Caribbean by yachts and boats of one sort or another.

Most London kids are never going to experience the Caribbean, except possibly some of those who have family living there. The nearest they are likely to have in the way of weekly or monthly experiences of water, of boats, of wide, open skies and landscapes, and of a profusion of beautiful animal and plant life, is therefore a place like the Lea banks and the marshes. It’s criminal that the overwhelming majority are being denied it.

So why don’t we offer, allow and encourage it? Health and safety concerns? Not enough time in the week? Not in the curriculum? Or just because we can’t fucking quantify and measure the outcomes? You can bet your life that if someone could ascertain that through environmental education and outdoor experiences kids could be guaranteed to achieve Level 4 by the age of 11 (or Level 5 if they’re in a posh area) the Lea Valley and places like it would be overrun with crocodiles of children, teachers, teaching assistants, pupil mentors and special needs assistants, all with their little bags with clip boards and packed lunches.

Oh well, back to reality.


Learning from the environment, and from nature, is central to Zen and Taoism. Hence the emphasis in Zen that even in the town or the city it’s possible to create small gardens where the natural world can be contemplated in peace, stillness and silence.


To take a look at the Olympic site from webcams mounted on a school across the river, and other spots, go to
- double-click on the video screen(s) for some funky action.

Take a look at Nina Pope's excellent slide show of the construction on Flickr:

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