Rescued for nature: a dozen bath tubs and an abandoned riverbank
In honour of London becoming a National Park City, we invited travel writer Dixe Wills to take a trip to Grow Wild projects past and present in the East End of the capital, to celebrate how nature can thrive in the most urban of environments.
It started out there.’ Alice White, Curator for Local Audiences at the PEER Gallery in Hoxton, pointed behind her towards the car park. It didn’t seem the most likely place to start a mini green revolution.
London’s designation as the world’s first National Park City hit the news last month, with praise being heaped on the capital’s fine array of large parks and wetland areas. But what of the city’s lesser-known green spaces? I rode over to East London last week to have a look at two smaller projects that have received Grow Wild funding. To be honest, I didn’t expect to be talking car parks with an art curator.
It was in the unpromising tarmac quadrangle indicated by Alice that PEER’s founder Ingrid Swenson saw twelve bath tubs being dumped in a skip. A dedicated recycler, she promptly asked if she could rescue them. But then a question arose: what on earth should she do with them?
‘PEER has always questioned where art exists, who it’s for and what a creative outlook can enable,’ Alice told me. It was out of this spirit of inquiry that the idea was born of turning the tubs into artworks and filling them with plants.
‘Lots of people locally don’t have a green space,’ Alice continued, ‘and we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if they could adopt a tub?”’
Thus began the work of securing spaces for the baths around Hoxton, overcoming initial resistance from the local council, applying for Grow Wild community project funding and getting the word out about the project.
The Grow Wild funding was mostly spent on plants and soil, while the frames in which the baths sit and the perspex screens on which each tub’s artwork will be printed had all been discarded by local businesses and were destined for landfill. PEER’s Jane Heather developed comprehensive maintenance plans for each of the Hoxton tubs, ‘and we’re still open to new volunteers to help maintain them,’ added Alice.
If you want to get involved, PEER has devised a route so that members of the public can see all 12 tubs.
We went into the car park to see what was buzzing around two of the tubs’ floral displays.
‘The butterflies love the Buddleia in the one sitting outside St John’s church,’ Alice enthused. Humans have benefitted too, with residents who live in less salubrious parts being particularly appreciative of the colour and life the tubs bring. Given the success of the scheme, the folk at PEER are considering producing a document explaining how others can do something similar in their own area.
Heartened, I pointed my bicycle east and headed for Canning Town.
You couldn’t accuse Simon Myers of not being able to spot potential. When the founder of the charity Gasworks Dock Partnership spotted Cody Dock while cruising along east London’s River Lea in his live-aboard Dutch barge, the long abandoned two-acre site was buried under literally thousands of tons of débris and rubbish. It took over a year and a lot of voluntary help just to clear the decks. Handed a 999-year lease by Thames Water, Simon and his team have since transformed Cody Dock into an oasis of calm amid a sprawling industrial estate.
It’s also become an oasis for wildlife. Grow Wild funding in 2015 helped Cody Dock create Cody Wilds, a kilometre-long public riverside path beside the Lea that acts as a vital green corridor for wildlife.
Ben Bishop, the project’s Citizen Science lead, took me for a wander along the river bank to show me what they’d done. For the second time that day, I faced a venue that didn’t look immediately promising. Like Nature, developers abhor a vacuum, and blocks of newly-built flats are fast filling up the vast open area on the far side of the Lea. But Ben quickly drew my attention to a wonderful broad swath of reed-bed hugging the nearer bank, which turned out to be a little miracle.
‘This is ancient,’ he informed me, ‘the very last scrap of what was once a huge marshland here going back thousands of years.’
The Cody Dock team has installed grid-like cages on the wide banks of the Lea beyond this plucky survivor and planted them with reeds. The results are impressive, as we strolled further along the river, what once was bare concrete now bristled not just with reeds but with a range of other riparian plants. On the other side of the path a thick hedge of native species – in parts 3-4m deep – provides more valuable nesting space for birds and a rich habitat for insects. I noticed the blackthorn shrubs were also heavy with sloes awaiting some lucky gin enthusiast.
‘We’ve seen massive increases in sedge warblers and reed warblers along here,’ Ben told me enthusiastically. ‘And the greenfinch population has almost doubled.’
More than 50,000 visitors have come to Cody Dock since Cody Wilds was opened, among them myriad groups of inner-city schoolchildren whom Ben has led on explorations of scientific discovery along the riverbank (you can see some of the results of their studies in the site’s spacious gallery). The project allows them an all too rare opportunity to connect with nature. Much needed pollinators love it too. ‘I’ve seen Tree bees here,’ Ben informed me, ‘and Jersey Tiger moths. And butterflies as well, including the Common Blue and…’ – though he’s careful to say that he didn’t get a proper look at it – ‘a Chalkhill Blue too.’
Over 6,000 people have volunteered at Cody Dock over the years and the project is keen for more individuals of all ages to come along and help, whatever their abilities (and all volunteers get 50% off in Cody’s al fresco café too, which is a nice touch).
If you live too far away to help out, how about looking out for similar re-greening projects in your town or city? Or you might even ‘do an Ingrid/Simon’ – spot an unloved space and help turn it into a haven for nature.
As part of the Totally Thames festival, Cody Dock is hosting an event to encourage people to engage with the River Lea. Lighting Up the Lea takes place on the 21-22 September weekend and will include various water sports and (rubber, one assumes) duck racing.