Exploring Barking Creek & Beckton Creekside Nature Reserve

by Ian Tokelove
Thames foreshore at dusk, at Barking Sewage Treatment Works

Beckton Creek is where the River Roding meets the Thames. The path here leads to Beckton Creekside Nature Reserve, skirting alongside Beckton Sewage Treatment Works and out to the River Thames.

As 19th century London grew, it packed its more noisome industries out to the east, where wind and tide would sweep pollution away from the capital. London’s sewage was sent the way of its industry, borne in huge pipes to Beckton and the Barking Creek, where it poured, untreated, straight into the River Thames.

Beckton Sewage Treatment Works is now the largest in Europe, treating the wastewater of 3.5 million Londoners. If you brush your teeth, take a shower or flush a loo in North London, the water probably ends up here. Thankfully the wastewater is now thoroughly treated and cleansed, before releasing into the Thames in a surging rush of whitewater.

A little-visited path runs alongside the treatment works, following the path of the River Roding towards the Thames. Side-paths lead into Beckton Creekside Nature Reserve. Here, scrub grows on tumbles of riverside rubble before transitioning into reedbed and then mudflat. The tangled paths are worth exploring, delivering different views and habitats. The reserve isn’t large enough to get lost in.

The River Roding, reedbeds and the Barking Creek Barrier at low tide.
The River Roding, reedbeds and the Barking Creek Barrier at low tide.

The main path proceeds alongside the channelled outflow from the treatment works. The swiftly flowing, dark water smells faintly of perfumed soaps and laundry powder; artificial fragrances that even the treatment works can’t shift.

The Barking Creek Barrier

At the mouth of the Roding, the Barking Creek Barrier towers over the river like a huge guillotine. During high tidal surges this drops down to prevent flooding in East London. The River Roding may look grubby here, but it is a valuable feeding and refuge area for a variety of fish species, including flounder, eel, smelt and bass. Look for colourful shelduck and big-beaked shoveler on the water, along with smaller waterfowl.

Barking Creek Barrier and the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works outfall.
Barking Creek Barrier and the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works outfall.

London’s desalination plant, turning salt water into drinking water

At the mouth of the Roding an enormous, concrete-lined reservoir within the treatment works is part of a desalination plant. This takes water from the River Thames and purifies it. The plant can produce up to 150 million litres of fresh drinking water every day, and is mainly used to top-up supplies, especially during periods of drought. Currently, this is the only mainstream desalination plant in the UK.

Wildlife-rich mudflats

The path curves around the plant, heading upstream towards London. At low tide, wide mudflats support waterfowl and waders. On my winter visit I saw several pairs of gadwall feeding among numerous black-headed gulls, while perhaps a hundred teal fed at the river’s edge. Red-legged redshank patrolled and probed the mudflats, supported by a few, bulkier curlew, with their curious curved bills. At dusk, the curlew circled low over the foreshore, their lonely call carrying clear and wild against the background hum of the treatment works.

The path used to terminate at the twin desalination pipelines, but I found the gates open, so continued to follow the river wall, as far as the edge of the treatment works. There is a path beyond, but the way is barred and the path very overgrown. Along the way, a couple of benches provide a place to sit and rest, but the aroma here is distinctly whiffy. Fortunately, the wildlife doesn’t care.

Access to Beckton Creekside Nature Reserve

Access to Beckton Creekside Nature Reserve and the path out to the Thames can be found opposite the Powerleague Newham football facility, or from behind the Showcase Cinemas Newham building.

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