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Camino Blueways x London Ecology

One of the things that we are passionate about at Camino is the ancient art of being curious.

Blueways are not a race.

In fact the biggest winners are almost always the folk who take the longest time to finish them. Break them up - stop - observe - look around - take slower folk with you to regulate your pace.

Ultimately to really soak up some of the millennia of history and culture that surrounds us in our beloved London.

So last year we spoke to long-term Camino runner and friend Anson Mackay (Professor of Geography, Ecologist and super Green & Blue lover like us) about introducing some new features to the Blueways challenge. We wanted to learn more about about our rivers, canals, lakes etc and become Citizens of (the) Science x

So here is the first of several blog posts from Anson introducing the subject. Please get involved. Be curious. Ask questions both inside and outside of the Blueways. Remember that a big percentage of your entry fee has gone to make one of London's most ambitious ecology projects a reality - EAST LONDON WATERWORKS.

They still need over £12000 to make it happen otherwise the whole thing becomes Grey - Concrete!!!!!

London contains a network of about 40 rivers that have been integral to its existence over millennia. And although many of these rivers are now largely underground, they have been essential for providing us with food and water, as well as regulating local climate and flooding. London’s rivers have also been essential as the start and destination for international trade since the Roman times, contributing to the city’s rich cultural and often problematic history of empire.

Camino Greenways #8 runs by Tilbury Bridge in Essex, where runners

are encouraged to visit the fantastic site-specific art exhibition by EVEWRIGHT, that

documents the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948.

London’s waterways (including its rivers, canals, wetlands, lakes and ponds) have also been essential for cleaning up our pollution and taking away our waste. Indeed, for much of the past 300 years London’s waterways have suffered from pollution, making them toxic to life, and dangerous to us as amenities.

The Silent Highwayman (1858). Death rows on the Thames, claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up.

Only in the past few decades have London waterways benefited from major environmental improvements that in turn have seen life return to the Thames, and most recently Londoners taking to wild swimming.

However, problems still exist. London’s waterways still suffer extensively from pollution – only 1 river is classified as being “good” under EU guidelines (Carshalton Arm, the source of the River Wandle, Greenways #10), while three are “bad and five are “poor”.

Two of the worst-impacted rivers are the River Brent (west London), and the River Lea (east London). Both are hugely important to London’s residents,

both are ecologically significant, and both feature as Camino Blueways challenges for 2023.

Here we’ll just focus on the section of the River Lea that links the canalised waterways of East London to Walthamstow Marshes, as we will run this in February during Blueways #2 (We will blog about the River Brent to tie-in with the future

Blueways route later on in the year):

East London Historic Canals.

The River Lea, a river of international ecological importance

The canalised lower region of the River Lea in East London forms part of an historical

network of waterways (the Bow Back Rivers) dating back over a thousand years, connecting the Lea with the river Thames. This network was important for providing water to local industries during the industrial revolution, and more recently for local transport and mitigating against flooding. But the network fell largely into disrepair until their regeneration as part of the 2012 Olympic legacy in Stratford.

This region is intrinsically linked to Camino’s Greenway #3 from 2022, the New River. The New River was built to supply central London with more water during the 17 th century, firstly from Hertfordshire to the north of London, but then soon after from the Bow Back Rivers in east London. As this withdrawal led to a decline in water-levels, extensive canalisation of the Bow Back rivers was needed to maintain water-levels for transport and water flow for the watermills.

As we run northwards, Blueway Route #2 follows both artificial channels of the river, such as the Hackney Cut, as well as parts of the river that drain the Hackney Marshes and Walthamstow Wetlands.

It may surprise you to know that the Lea Valley portion of the River Lea is what we call a Ramsar Site, a region of international ecological importance that supports a diverse range of wetland plants and animals! There are also eight Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), (including the Walthamstow Wetlands formed out of the Walthamstow Reservoirs) in the Lea Valley, based on their national importance in terms of flora and fauna, geology and other physical geographical features. These SSSI classifications provide statutory regulation to help protect the river and wetlands in terms of the international Ramsar Site designation.

The Lea Valley is also a Special Protection Area for the conservation of wild birds in the

region. For example, the pochard was once very common in the UK, but is now under

threat, and listed as vulnerable by the International Conservation Union. The UK, including the Walthamstow Wetlands is an important winter destination for this species.

Cormorant at Walthamstow

Wetlands. Credit Ian Phillip


(under threat)

Which is what makes the continued pollution of these waterways so damaging. And while efforts are being made to clean up pollutants of old (from shopping trolleys to heavy metals), other pollutants are growing in importance, including microplastics, road run-off (e.g. hydrocarbons from oil & diesel spills, and particulates from braking rubber), fatbergs and wet-wipe reefs. Sewage overspills are also still a problem. On top of all this, global warming and increasing climate instability threaten the very existence of the Capital’s waterways, its aquatic biodiversity and quality of life in general.

As well as the rich cultural history of old east London that Blueways Route #2 offers, we

encourage you to also take in and appreciate the importance of these waterways as habitat and home for hundreds of species of plants and animals, some of which have national and even international importance. Appreciating biodiversity and natural habitats can add an important happiness and awareness dimension to our runs.

How Caminos can Get Involved:

A new collaboration between local residents and members of the UCL East Campus in

Stratford was recently set up, to see what more could be done to help people who live on and around the River Lea who are interested in turning this part of the River Lea into a wildlife haven. If you want to get involved, take a look at Thames21, the voice for London’s waterways, who engage thousands of volunteers every year to help clean up and protect the capital’s rivers and canals.

You can also record environmental threats (e.g. sewage pollution, plastic pollution etc at this on-line portal called River Ranger.

Hopefully later on in the year, we will be able to organise a Camino-Citizen science event along one of east London’s waterways. Watch this space!

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