Dear Readers, it isn’t until I reach the water that I really start looking upwards. There are few places in central London where you can get a good view of the clouds, but as I start walking along the Thames on my way to the nature reserve at East India Dock Basin, I am struck by the ever-changing tumble and fluff of this late-winter sky. I stand for a bit, watching it change minute by minute, and am entranced.
It’s a brisk day, and I can almost hear the groaning of the ropes that once tethered ships to the quayside here, and the chink of rigging. It’s all in my imagination though, as although East India Docks could once handle 250 ships at a time (and played an important part in the construction of the Mulberry Harbours that were used during the D-Day landings), they have been closed since 1967.
Earlier than this, the wharf just along from the dock was the embarkation point for ships taking settlers to Virginia in 1606. Three small ships, the Godspeed, Susan Constant and the Discovery made the voyage with 105 people on board. It was an eventful trip, including periods when the ships were becalmed, and a mutiny by one Captain John Smith, who later married Pocahontas. The settlers founded Jamestown, but suffered famine, disease, and attacks by the local population – by 1609 only 60 of the original travellers were left. However, Captain John Rolfe arrived in 1610 bearing tobacco seeds, and the colony prospered when these were found to do well in the climate.
While the memorial is rather striking, I was more moved by the remaining wharfside furniture, now overgrown with moss and wildflowers.
The crows were playing in the breeze, plucking at one another’s feathers and generally being hooligans. Not a thing gets past them.
And here we are!
There is a little copse of alder and blackthorn, with the cow parsley already coming into flower and robins singing from every tree.
And then the basin opens up. I wonder if the birds will be nervous, but not a bit of it. There are mudflats, and shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) are sieving the water and looking for little bits of edible stuff. These are magnificent ducks, and they have a rather lovely call – my Crossley Guide describes it thus:
‘Quite noisy, the female making a series of belly laughs with a sarcastic ring, often accompanied by the fast, breathy whistles of the male‘.
The most noticeable noise, however, is the wailing and complaining of the black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus). These gulls are never ‘black-headed’, even in summer when their plumage features a chocolate-brown balaclava, but in mid-winter they simply have a little half-circle of black where you might expect their ears to be. At this time of year there’s a whole spectrum of ‘headgear’.
But I have really come to see one particular species. One of my very favourite ducks is the common teal (Anser crecca), and in midwinter up to 400 roost here at night. I am hoping that there will be a few stragglers this morning, and so there are. It’s hard to get a decent picture of a teal, because they are not known as ‘dabbling ducks’ for nothing – those little heads are down most of the time, so it’s difficult to get a photo of the russet, green and gold feathers on the head of the male, and the subtle beauty of the body feathers.
And here is one of the beacons lit on 31st December 1999 to mark the new millenium.
There is a stand of palm trees in the middle of a disused car park, which I find a little confusing.
And the less than illustrious history of the Docklands is illustrated on the wall behind.
But as I walk around I get a better view of the teal. It does my heart good to know that this little bit of London is being reclaimed by the wildlife, providing a haven for bird travellers on their way north and south.
On the other side of the basin, a young heron is standing by the reeds, surrounded by stray plastic sheeting.
As I get to the end of the path, I turn back to see the panorama of water and cranes and new buildings rising and dereliction.
And a shelduck heads across the pond, trailing a long contrail like a passing plane.
I adore these little local nature reserves. They seem manageable, somehow: much as I love Walthamstow and Woodberry wetlands they are full day trips with lots of walking and lots of people. East India Dock Basin, and its neighbour Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, feel like the kinds of places where you can sit in one place and take in everything. Maybe as I’m getting older, I am preferring to deep dive rather than skim the surface, and a small ‘patch’ makes that easier. I just know that I’ve had a couple of hours here, and am already a little bit in love with the place. Maybe one day I’ll come back at 3 p.m. on a darkening winter afternoon, and see if the tales of the roosting teal are true.