East London’s riverside landscape is changing fast, but amid the ongoing redevelopment there are still good places to enjoy London’s quiet side. The footpaths at Barking Riverside won’t stay empty for much longer, so now is a good time to walk these wild Thameside paths.
Footpath 47 is a public right-of-way leading from Renwick Road, next to Barking Riverside. The path doesn’t look promising, the entrance poised between heaped landfill and dominated by construction works.
Nearby, the new Barking Riverside Overground extension resembles a half-built motorway, a monument to reinforced concrete. The rail tracks rear up to meet the terminus, providing plenty of space for retail chains and franchised coffee shops below.
This area used to be known as Ripple Level, an expanse of low fields protected from the worst of the Thames tides by walls and embankments. This area would once have been extensive saltmarsh, but river walls are likely to have gone in during the 14th century, perhaps even earlier, and the marshes drained for the grazing of sheep and cattle.
This description from 1883 gives an impression of the landscape at the time: “Beyond Barking Marsh, immediately abutting the Thames is mostly dreary marsh, crossed and intersected with straight dykes and sluggish pools, but further in land are broad stretches of pasture land, serving as an admirable grazing ground for cattle” [Walford 1st. pub. 1883].
The old field patterns could still be seen in 1950, their outlines delineated by drainage ditches, but times were changing. The land around the River Roding had been heavily industrialised in the early 1900s, along with the construction of the original Barking Power Station at Creekmouth (since demolished). Development stalled on the edges of the Ripping Levels, probably because the land was too prone to flooding, but another use beckoned.
From livestock to landfill
Post-war London needed to rebuild, and to do that it needed to remove huge quantities of Blitz and slum-clearance rubble. The subsequent dumping grounds now surround London, especially to the east and west. Between the mid-sixties and the 1980s, the Ripple Levels all but vanished under landfill and tipping.
The low-lying fields are now piled high with broken brick and buried domestic rubbish. On a June day, these low, undisturbed hills of waste bloom with colourful wildflowers, and skylarks sing overhead.
Footpath 47 tracks a riverside route, between the fenced-off landfill and the River Thames. Inland, the new apartment blocks of Barking Riverside are being pulled skywards by huge cranes. Tracks lead down to the river and the falling tide reveals wide mudflats. Small squadrons of bulky shelduck patrol the river’s edge, and seals are often seen here, lounging close to the water’s edge.
The footpath was closed without notice in 2014, leading to a campaign by local walkers to reopen their right-of-way. The developers eventually did so in 2015, having fenced off the landfill they will be developing. Soon, densely piled apartment blocks will overlook this fenceline, and the wild solitude of Footpath 47 will be lost.
The rough, rutted track heads east, patrolled by the occasional security car and few others. The path eventually heads back inland where a waterway, the Gores, meets the Thames. The Gores is an old drainage channel, now protected from incoming Thames tides by a large one-way sluice complex.
On the other side of the Gores the Dagenham Cement and Ash Terminal provides a noisy counterpoint to the tranquillity of the river path. And yet the Gores itself is beautiful, two channels threading along a narrow, green valley, banked with landfill on one side, industry on the other.
The valley is fenced, and signs proclaim it a Wildlife Concern Area, with no public access. Bird song drifts up from the waterways and reedbeds. The Gores itself used to track a different course, meeting the Thames farther east. The waterway’s original course was beyond the cement plant, feeding an area of old marshland called Horse Shoe Corner.
Horse Shoe Corner
Horse Shoe Corner resisted taming until the mid-20th century, when it was infilled and reclaimed for coal storage and railway sidings, which then gave way to industry. The Gores was pushed west, into a new, man-made channel. The re-routed waterway may also have played a part in removing the polluted waters draining from the council tip, funnelling foul water into the Thames.
The path follows the Gores away from the Thames and to Choats Road. The route, raised relatively high on landfill, gives good views of the surrounding, changing landscape. On a warm June day, with wildflowers on all sides, one could almost be in a pocket of deep countryside.
At Choats Road, a tricky barrier makes an effective guard against off-road bikers, but you can wiggle a bicycle through if you are wheeling one beside you.
The Gores continues north, and on my visit, I could clearly hear a cuckoo calling from within this fenced and hopefully protected slice of urban countryside. A map of 1915 marks this stretch of the Gores as bordering a sewage works and filter beds, now lost under landfill and partially used as an industrial estate.
Overhead, a kestrel scanned the Barking Riverside landfill, hovering on tremulous wings, perfectly focussed on the wildlands below.
The future of Barking Riverside
As Barking Riverside develops, much of the current wildlife will probably be squeezed out. The shoreline shelduck are wary of movement on the bank, and the cuckoo and kestrel will lose their hunting grounds. Without the wildflower meadows of old landfill, the skylarks will have nowhere to nest, and no seeds or insects to feed their young.
The seals may still visit, having become accustomed to the busy River Thames, but it won’t be the same. The many thousands who come to live at Barking Riverside won’t miss the song of the skylark or the call of the cuckoo. They won’t even know such wildlife lived here before them.
Barking & Dagenham Local History – https://www.barkingdagenhamlocalhistory.co.uk/barkingreachhistory.htm