Deptford Creek

The Creekside Centre in Deptford sits next to an industrial centre, off a brutal main road that links Greenwich to the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Inside, a tiny corridor is lined with shelves. This is the Centre’s collection of specialist detritus brought up from the Ravensbourne: ancient mobile phones, driving licences, bones, cans, a pair of Javan faces smoothed out from a broken statue. It looks like a conversationist’s version of the Mutoid Waste Company peopled not by dystopian desert punks but by folk in muddy red coats and waders, holding the big sticks that will keep them upright during the imminent low tide walk.

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Nick Bertrand is a conservationist with a seafaring laugh. He hoists himself onto the edge of a raised bed of wild flowers and gathers us round. What starts as a piece of incidental context – pointing out the Rue-leaved saxifrage behind him –  turns into a intriguing sermon on planting and self-seeding and the commodification of the wild. So-called wild cornflowers bought in your average garden centre, he says, actually come from Austria. “You’re being conned left right and centre,” he says, thrillingly, tossing facts about wildflowers inability to thrive away from their home like so many poppy seeds in the air. The flowers here at the Centre were translocated from a few miles away, which was lucky, he says, because the original site has been destroyed. Wild, it seems, is actually another way of saying ‘local’.

I’m here with my friend Kate Ling who wrote about this south London waterway in her award-winning poem Deptford Creek and we start the short walk to the river one in front of the other. This small incline, maybe a hundred meters, is a liminal zone. We’re already somewhere else – stepping out of normal life towards the water, dropping learned adult personas and adopting something receptive and natural. Land becomes specific: the slanted strip to our left comprises three distinct areas of marsh which changes by degrees before the transition into mudflat and water. These are distinct zones, with different needs and different communities. At the top, there’s round-headed Nordic native Angelica, down in lower marsh, there’s highly lethal water hemlock. So far, so exotic.

The creek is located at the tidal reach of the Ravensbourne, which meets our other local waterway, the Quaggy, behind Lewisham bus station before flowing into and out of the Thames. There’s the roller coaster rumble of the DLR above our heads, and we walk upstream towards a man-made bend. There are high bare walls and mud flats on either side of the slow green flow. We are in the deep ford that gave Deptford it’s name, a place that has been colonised by people since at least the 11th Century when the Domesday book notes eleven corn mills on the river, and where the original Golden Hind rested until it rotted and broke up.

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I learn a new word: ‘syzrygy’, which describes the lunar configuration of earth, sun and moon lining up at full moon and no moon, a configuration which explains why the shelves in the centre are so laden with lost and discarded items. The tide here lifts mud and objects in the water, carries them along, and then drops them down, relocated, at static high tide.

It feels good in the creek. I feel like I’m rowing the boat of myself, navigating through the water with the momentum of my big stick. Sadly I am a boat with a leak as one of my waders has a slow puncture and gradually I experience a tidal increase of water up my leg. When I eventually return and take my waders off I have a high tide mark, mid calf, where Ravensbourne dregs met not the exterior of rubber, but skin.

The creatures of the creek are all around us. Like the Asian Clam. It’s an invasive species that was first found eight years ago in Richmond, and is now everywhere. Experts have no idea what impact they’ll have. Then there are two swans, lurking in the stairwell of the creek bend. In the altered narrative of the low tide walk, the swans have become lemon-faced geezers outside a dodgy pub. They are to be respected and avoided. We purposefully avoid eye contact and pretend they’re not there.

Some creek life you have to really look for, like the baby flounder who dart around the creek bed like transparent shadows, or the algae that populates the ‘rot zone’  on the creek walls where alternate damp and sun provide perfect conditions for micro-organisms. Later in the summer the algae goes fluorescent green, then in winter it goes black, and the whole creek becomes monochrome.

Nick reaches underneath a brick and picks up two leeches. They are terrible, inky punctuation marks that wriggle across and inbetween his fingers. They are a black silky comma followed by a fat slash of the pen and I find myself wriggling backwards through the crowd when they’re shoved towards me. I do not like leeches, even if they do look as if they’ve come straight out of a Studio Ghibli film.

Safer are the Japanese Mitten crabs who live under a bit of chucked-away carpet. The crab is green, but that’s because it’s actually just a shell. Crab moved out when space got too tight. Nick opens up the flip-top mechanism of the shell, and to really does open like a hinged box. Then we find two big ones under a metal sheet. One gets away and the other is held above the water, arms and legs dancing in air until he’s gently returned to the rusting comfort of home.

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And that’s the thing. Rubbish is good for the river. When the Creekside Centre opened in 1999 they removed 14 shopping trolleys from the creek and fish stocks decreased by 50%. Our discarded debris replaces the natural habitats that used to hog the sides of the creek, like the reed beds. The trolleys are particularly good, because their metal grids become clogged with other bits of rubbish, which provide excellent hiding places for flounder, away from the bigger, badder guppy. We clear the river for people, Nick says, because of their perception of how the river should look.

It’s deep, this ford.

Originally posted on Caught By The River

Up The Woods #3

I’ve been writing each month about learning about trees. This third column first appeared on Caught By The River, as will each of the monthly posts. Illustration Matt Sewell.

I am now on first name terms with a whole swathe of common and everyday trees and a number of not-so-common ones growing in my part of south east London. I’m on nodding terms with the copper beech on the road to Lewisham; with the ubiquitous rabbit-eared horse chestnut; and even the frog-footed (distinctly non-native) ginkgo that sits on the hill that takes you out of Blackheath and back down to Lee Green. I’m now at the tree-language equivalent of being able to say please, thank you and ‘two bottles of beer’.

In my notebook, I’ve been keeping a list of trees I now recognise and the list is growing. I’m pretty confident with ash, and can almost tell an oak from a distance. It’s something about the slightly diffuse shape of the leaves that makes it look hazy against the horizon, unlike a beech, whose rounded leaves cup and curve the light more softly.

This week I grasped an important technical point: tree people describe leaves as ‘pinnate’ or ‘palmate’. It took me a while but I get it now: palmate just means that the leaf is shaped like your hand, with five fat fingers radiating out from a palm, like horse chestnut, or sycamore. Pinnate describes leaves that grow with their own little stalks off a long pin-like stalk, like ash or rowan.

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It really helps to understand this, because it’s a way of sorting and seeing families of tree types. Imagine for a minute you’re standing under a tree and it’s got palmate leaves that look a bit like a sycamore. It could be a sycamore or maybe a London plane, or perhaps a maple. Once you’re in the right general area (big tree, palmate leaves) you can start to find the detail. If you can see round, brown spheres hanging from the branches like woodland baubles, then it’s a plane. If it’s got seeds shaped like dolls-house coat hangers then it’s a sycamore, and if it’s got neither, and slightly smallish leaves then it’s a maple. I gave myself major bonus points when I stuffed a sycamore-ish leaf with a red stalk into my bag and worked out that it was probably a red maple. They’re all over the place in Lewisham! Who knew that the blue borough was a hotspot for Canada’s national treasure? If I’d have known earlier in the year, I’d have been up Mountsfield Park, fighting off the Staffie owners who hoist their dogs onto trees to strengthen their jaws, to do a bit of sap-tapping for my Saturday pancakes. I am told, also, that early birch leaves are good for a nibble, but that particular experiment will have to wait until next spring.

I’ve taken a scatter-fire approach to learning what the trees are called, using different resources including badgering people I know. I haven’t yet found a British tree book I really like, although I did get an excellent guide to New York’s wooded inhabitants when I was in that city last month. The trip included a feverish, flu-dosed afternoon lying on the grass in Central Park underneath a tree with paper-round seed pods which I eventually discovered was an elm. This felt like a bittersweet win: not only did I solve the puzzle of this particular tree, but it was an English tree in New York, and one that’s almost gone from our landscape, bar the 15,000 trees saved by Brighton Council during the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic of the 1970s.

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My New York book has been surprisingly useful, along with my trusty, basic Woodland Trust swatch of obvious trees, and a bit of internet, despite the fact that most tree ID websites are crap. There’s also my newly-developed habit of borrowing leaves to take home. I have a growing collection of faded leaves in small piles around the house, like chlorophyll cairns.

The problem with tree books is that the specimen they photograph is just one tree on one day and it’ll look different in June than it will in January. Young trees look different from old trees. No two trees look exactly the same so it’s hard to identify a tree from one single picture. I’m sure there are good apps but I left my iPhone in Rwanda (it’s a long story) and have been using a second-hand blackberry in the interim – a phone whose crappiness is perversely attractive in a world where the internet is everywhere all the time, hence still using it a month down the line even though it drives me mad.

One tree that’s hard to miss in south London is the sycamore. In fact, so many of these have self-seeded that they’re mostly considered a weed. Consequently, I had no qualms uprooting the skinny specimen on the builders hardcore and inch of soil on the side of my ’60s maisonette, where weeds fight (and win) a battle against the random plants I’ve chucked at the ground.

I have to make a confession here: I am no stranger to arborcide. When I moved in, I cut down three massive leyandii that were growing in my tiny yard because they provided so much shade that not even ivy grew. It was my own personal Scandi forest that turned my sunny and optimistic abode into permanent gothic gloaming, and they had to go. The trees had the last laugh, though. A year after they were felled, I got a man called Andy to come round with his stump grinder. One of the tree-shards flew up like a wooden Cruise missile and struck the middle of the patio doors, transforming the pane into a spiders web of shattered glass.

Learning about trees has made me notice more than just the species. I am suddenly aware of bad pollarding, like the leylandii in front of my house – yes, another one – where my neighbour hacked the top third off, leaving a jig-jag of brutalised trunk exposed on one side. On the other hand, I find myself noticing a particularly beautiful crown, like the tree on the corner of my friend’s road. I don’t what it is, but it’s in flower now and reminds me of a pretty child’s head after she’s had curlers and ribbons put into her hair. I’m not sure I’d have even noticed it before.

I remember now that I had the same experience of clarity increasing with knowledge when I decided to learn about clouds a few years ago. I had no handle on them apart from in the broadest sense (that one looks like a dog; those ones are orange and well emotional) and then after a few months they took on their individual beauty. Look how that Lenticularis sits in the sky, just there by itself like a gorgeous, soft UFO! Or, see that pretty piece of Vellum lounging next to a bunch of puffy Cumulus! Naming allows you to engage, and to like things more. It’s probably the same with people. I remember talking to a community worker on an East London estate who’d dealt with tensions simply by introducing residents to each other. The renegade kids became people with names, and the shouty, aggressive adults became people with names and everyone got on a whole lot better.

One final thing: I just read Jay Griffiths’s book, Kith. Some of her prose is a touch too pixie for me, but she has some wonderful things to say about childhood, the woods, and the roots and routes of words. The words tree, endure, tryst, trust and truth, she says, are all related to the common Indo-European, doru or dreu.

Trees, you see. They’re at the root of everything.

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