Dear Readers, I wanted to let you know that at the moment I am right in the middle of a very intensive four-week CELTA course. CELTA is a qualification that will enable me to teach English as a foreign language, and I am planning to volunteer to work with refugees and asylum seekers when I complete the course (if I pass). All free English language courses have been cut by councils as they struggle to manage their budgets, and many people who have just arrived here cannot afford to pay to learn the language, so I would like to help. So, in other words, I have not been able to respond to your comments as quickly as I usually do, but believe me I have read every one, and they have kept me going when the assignments are piling up :-). The course finishes on the 16th September, and if you hear some cheering on the breeze, that’ll be me! In the meantime, here is a piece about my old home town, Stratford in East London.
When I was growing up, the area between Stratford Station and the river Lea was a wasteland of brambles, railway tracks, small industrial units and canals. Nobody ever went there if they could avoid it, because why would you? From the platforms at the station I would occasionally spot a fox skulking amongst the rosebay willowherb, and once there was a kestrel hovering above the clinker, but largely it was a ‘brownfield site’, unwanted and unloved.
And then came the Olympics.
Today, I finally went back to Stratford to see what had been done here. Of course, I remember the 2012 Olympics and the television shots of the Aquatic Centre and the Stadium, but I’d never seen them in real life. I can see the Arcelor-Mittal tower from the streets of Muswell Hill, but I’d never stared up at it. And so, as I walked out of Stratford Station and ambled through the vast glass halls of the Westfield Centre, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale of the place.
The first thing that you see is the stadium, which is now hung with banners welcoming West Ham football club. It seems strange that Upton Park, the basic, hang-dog stadium that was home to West Ham since its inception, is now empty and silent. This place is huge, and also unfinished: for the Olympics it had an athletics’ track around the edge, which meant that the audience was a long way away from the action. This has now been remedied, and the stadium will be ready for the new season. I imagine that it will often be partially full, because it’s enormous, but the transport links are extraordinary: Stratford now has not only the Central line and links to Liverpool Street, but the Jubilee line, the Docklands Light Railway and the Overground, and shortly it will have Crossrail. All in all, poor old Stratford is definitely now on the map.
Across from the stadium is the Aquatic Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, who also did the Birdsnest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics. What a boon to the local neighbourhood this is. I remember going swimming in Romford Road baths, in the echoing Victorian rectangle that was the main pool. This new place is popular, and enormous, and state-of-the-art.
There are lots of other things too: you can rent a swan pedalo to go up and down the canal. There are boat trips in a barge. There are restaurants, both in the park and in Westfield. Stratford now has John Lewis and a Waitrose! Blooming hell. It’s come a long way from the draughty, miserable shopping centre that replaced Angel Lane and most of the little shops. The lady who serves me soup in John Lewis tells me that apparently even this sixties eyesore is booming, because people buy stuff on their way to and from the Olympic Park.
But, me being me, I want to know what’s being done for the wildlife. Although this area might have felt unloved in the past, it was a refuge for animals, and the new park feels tidy and manicured. At first I am inclined to be pessimistic – the verges are planted with typical ‘prairie plants’ like rudbeckia and Echinacea, plants that seem to pop up everywhere these days. But as usual, the trick is to be patient.
I start taking some photographs, and my eye is caught by some young wagtails feeding in the grass. I notice that there are islands of clover, carefully mown around, to provide food for bees and caterpillars. This is a good start. Some youngsters on bikes are taking advantages of the paths and stairways to practice on their mountain bikes, and I wonder if there isn’t a ‘proper’ bike track somewhere, maybe over near the Velodrome.
I spot some Giant Hogweed on the opposite bank of the canal, and am delighted. It seems like an anarchist in a field of fairies. How has it escaped the control of the gardeners, I wonder? After all, it can cause blisters and all sorts of nonsense. I rather love it, and take some photos because I fear that it will not be around for long.
I plonk down on a bench opposite the prairie planting, and think. The degree of change in this area is very disorientating, and there are new tower blocks everywhere. To my right is the Arcelor-Mittal tower. This was twisty enough before they added an undulating silver tube to the outside. You can now pay to slide in this tube from the top of the tower to the bottom. Needless to say, they would need to pay me to get me to do anything so daring.
It takes me a while to notice that there is a small flock of birds in amongst the chrysanthemums and daisies in the border opposite, such is my reverie. But when I hear the little bell-like calls, I realise that there are twenty or thirty goldfinches feeding on the seedheads of the grasses and thistles. I love to see birds feeding naturally, and these birds are so athletic, hanging upside down to get the seeds out and clinging to the stems as they blow about in the breeze. In this way, this border is definitely working: as migratory birds pass through (and they often follow waterways such as the Lea) this will be a valuable source of food for them, just as the brambles and grasses that used to grow here were. The past has been swept away, but the lessons have not been completely lost.
I walk on towards the Lea itself, passing an empty carpark. A young woman in a hijab and tracksuit pounds past. Here, the borders are wilder, more overgrown: yarrow and poppies mix with sedum to form a swathe of seedheads and flowers. I am trying to get a picture of all this when, in my peripheral vision, I see a brown bird flying fast and low over the top of the plants. It disappears behind a tree, and I walk along the path, wondering where it could have gone. And then I see it, sitting on top of a wooden hut – a kestrel.
I take a couple of long shots, wondering how long it will sit there. Then, I notice that folk are walking past right below it, oblivious. The bird watches them go, unperturbed. I wonder if it will be as relaxed around me? So I approach it, taking a few photos every few steps, expecting it to fly at any moment, but it sits. It sees me, but it doesn’t care. I am able to get within ten metres of it, close enough to see the bars of black on its chestnut wings, its huge black eyes, the yellow skin at the base of the hooked bill. It is still sitting there when I decide that it has been patient enough, and turn to leave it. People are still walking past, buried in their conversations or their phones. I want to tell them that the bird is there, but in the end I decide not to. You can never tell what is important to people, and what their reactions to nature will be. And somehow, this feels like a present from the past.