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The Countryside of East London Part 4

Visiting The Green Spaces of Hackney

Hackney was once a rural retreat for Londoners. Samuel Pepys described how he visited the countryside here. Now it is one of the most built up areas of London - and yet it is possible to escape into places which are surrounded by nature and where peace and quiet can be found.

A half hour walk takes you from one green space to the next but there are also buses and trains that link them together.

Start at Clapton Station

Springfield Park

May had arrived by the time I reached Springfield Park and everywhere seemed lighter and brighter. Turning off from the canal path I headed up to the top of the hill where there is a lake - a natural looking stretch of water with frogs and toads.

The lake in Springfield Park

Under the ground there are springs - which give the park its name. Looking back down the hill, the grass is bright and fresh.

The green, green grass

Yet the view here would have been very different in Victorian times, when children were put to work making roof tiles and chimneys, and the air would have been filled with smoke and dust.

It is quite extraordinary how many former industrial locations around East London have once more become country spaces.

Follow the path at the top of the hill and you find yourself dipping down into a thicket - a dense grove of trees and hedges. Hidden here is a strange brick mound - perhaps a remnant of those dark days.

A brick mound

Peep through the trees here and look across the valley: the far distance is a blue haze that is Epping Forest, rising up on the ridge. The view of the river and the land beyond would have been little changed over the centuries.

Blue haze in the distance

It was over there that I began my walk last Autumn. Along the way I have come across so many sights and there are more here to stop and look at.

A crow sits atop a tree that has grown up and trailed back down to the ground. It is as still as a statue.

A stature like tree and crow

A tree has come back to life.

New life

Left to its own devices, nature can restore itself and can be relied upon to do what is best for the Earth. Grasslands that are left to grow naturally can become much more bio diverse and in Springfield Park the grass grows tall, with daisies and buttercups scattered around and paths mown through them.

Grass paths

A few minutes' walk from Springfield Park is a fragment of Clapton Common, a patch of grass with a pond and wildfowl who fly in and skim across the water. Around the edge of the common the enormous trees stretch out their branches above the common, making asymmetrical shapes.

One sided trees

Catch the 106 bus to Abney Park Cemetery - the bus takes you past Stoke Newington Common.

Abney Park Cemetery

Step inside the gates of Abney Park Cemetery and you soon find yourself in an eerie and mysterious place. The lane leads you deep inside this overgrown sanctuary for wildlife with the deepest shades of green of the plants that have spread over the whole site.

With just the sound of birdsong and the rustle of leaves on the trees, it is easy to imagine that at any moment a scene of Gothic horror will appear from around the corner with black horses pulling a hearse and men with top hats and flowing black capes.

A lane leading into the deep grove

The ground all around seems to be swelling up and shifting the surface, with trees and tombstones leaning this way and that.

Lanes become more narrow and the paths turn into tunnels, with the trees growing up and overhead. They bend and fork, making it impossible to see further along the rides.

Soon you lose your sense of direction and wonder if you will ever be able to escape from this strange place.

The path becomes more narrow

The air is filled with the powdery scent of cow parsley and all around there are creatures hiding - bats and owls, and insects who are thriving on dead trees that have been left to decay.

The paths become so narrow that they are impossible to walk on - maybe they are the ones that are used by foxes who go hunting around here at night.

A fox tunnel

Even under the canopy of tree branches and a grey sky overhead, the ivy leaves shine as if they have been polished. Perhaps the prowling foxes have awakened one of the Victorian maids who lays sleeping here, still with a duster in her hand.

Shiny ivy leaves

Nature can be kind. Here there is a grave under a cold, hard slab of stone but now it is being covered with a soft blanket of moss.

A moss blanket covering a tomb

A cemetery is a place of death but also of life. Elm trees across the whole country were devastated by a deadly disease and can rarely be found now. Yet here there are Elm suckers, sprouting from the trees that were planted here a hundred years before the Victorians buried their dead here.

And Abney Park Cemetery was designed to be a botanical garden as well as an arboretum - or tree collection. Many have survived to this day.

Those who came before us have gifted us a rich treasure of nature. And there are more open spaces around Hackney that have been saved for us by people who created a long lasting legacy for us.

#abneyparkcemetery #elmtrees

Catch the bus 276 or take the train from Stoke Newington Station to Hackney Downs Station

Hackney Downs

This common land has been preserved for local people over the centuries - not always by peaceful campaigning. A century and a half ago a riot took place here, when 25,000 people tore down fences and built an enormous bonfire.

The name Hackney is believed to come from old English words for raised place and here on the downs there is the shape of a mound.

The Mound

Looking at this photograph, there is another feature of Hackney Downs: a Desire Path. This is a walkway that has been worn by people who wander off from the paths that have been laid. But there is more hidden history to the paths across Hackney Downs.

They follow the same pattern that appeared on maps hundreds of years ago - with a diagonal cross joining each corner and meeting up in the middle.

The paths are lined with trees, and the Grey Poplars that grow alongside one of the main paths have light coloured trunks. Each one appears to be several trees growing pressed up, one against the other and blending into one tree with a strangely shaped trunk.

A Grey Poplar Tree

The grasslands have been left to grow here, with paths mown through the meadows, filled with clover, buttercups and daisies.

A meadow path

Perhaps I will return in late summer to pick blackberries - or fruit from the tangle of young trees that are already sprouting their apples.

Blackberry bushes in Spring

But on this Spring day, the rain began to fall. April showers continued long into May. Thankfully there was shelter under the canopy of the tree branches and a view across the downs.

Shelter from the rain

When the rain stopped it was time to walk down to Sutton House - a National Trust property here in Hackney. I walked past St Augustine's Tower and along Church Path, by the Walled Garden.

St Augustine's Tower

Sutton House dates back to Tudor times - a home for a family who lived in the countryside of Hackney. It has been restored and preserved, with a courtyard and small gardens surrounding the building. Sutton House may be on the edge of a busy, urban stretch of road yet the approach from St Augustine's Tower takes you along a paved alleyway which is pleasant, green and lined with trees.

Sutton House

How appropriate that a visit to the countryside can include spending time at a National Trust house - here in Hackney.

Hackney Downs Station, Hackney Central Station, bus 277

It was Sunday morning when I set off from Sutton House to spend some time on Well Street Common. An urban fox crossed the road in front of me as I headed towards one of the best preserved rural spots in Hackney.

As I approached the common I noticed a row of ancient almshouses hiding shyly behind a brick wall and a pair of Arts and Crafts style houses that displayed their rustic beauty. The houses around here are more than a century old. They are substantial and serious with doors and window frames painted in dark colours and well established front gardens;

each one would surely have a piano inside and shelves of books. A small but solid house stood on the corner near to the church yard, with a pointed archway and church like doors.

On that Sunday morning the bells of St John of Jerusalem were ringing out, its tower of the softest green rising above the rooftops. The Victorian villas that back on to the common have high brick walls, some with honeysuckle tumbling over the top of them, and doors that lead out onto the common.

St John of Jerusalem

The trees were now in full leaf. Patches of grass had been left to grow - a sight that can be seen more and more as the benefits to wildlife are becoming more appreciated.

Well Street Common

I slowed down on my walk across the common to look more closely at the wildflowers growing in the shade under the trees.

Shade loving flowers

From Well Street Common I would walk across Hackney and I set off towards Victoria Park. It was time to stop for a cup of coffee and here there was a cafe which would once have been a corner shop.

As I walked in I could once again feel myself stepping back in time. There were loaves and bread rolls being lifted into brown paper bags by a moustached man wearing a long apron.

China tea pots were arranged on the shelves behind him and above them a row of earthenware pots and jugs. There were bare floorboards with worn wooden tables and chairs.

Someone from the Victorian age would have felt quite at home here although they may have been puzzled by the letters W I F I written on a black board.

Outside there were such a variety of shops that would make any English town or village proud. A fishmonger, a toyshop, a greengrocer. A butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker.

I didn't actually see the last one as it was only the food shops open on Sunday but there were no doubt candles in the pretty little shops that sold hand made arts and crafts.

And then through the magnifient royal palace style iron gates of Victoria Park. It began to drizzle as I reached a row of trees and followed the desire path beneath them, sheltered by the canopy of leaves and branches.

A desire path

The path was alongside the canal and I hoped that further along I would be able to find an opening and step down onto the canal side. In the far corner of the park there was a patch of land that had been left to nature. The rain had stopped and I found an open gate.

The far corner of Victoria Park

And here I joined the canal path where the only sounds were birdsong, the rhythmic tap tap tapping of the joggers' feet and the occasional purring of a canal boat as it made its way upstream.

Regents Canal

Further along I there was a flower bed on the side of the path, with brightly coloured nasturtiums spilling out from a wooden frame.

Nasturtiums beside the canal

A little further along I came across Sheep Lane, a clue that I was near to the way of The Black Path - the direction that farmers took to walk their livestock to Smithfields many years ago.

It was a short walk from here to Hackney City Farm. It was busy that day with visitors of all ages escaping from their urban surrounds and into a rural sanctuary.

Hackney City Farm

Twelve little piglets, only three weeks old, were snuggling down in the straw until three of them jumped up and moved around, ready to play fight and bite each others' necks. Their mum was hiding away from them in the corner of the pig sty. This was her fifth litter.

Three little piglets

Outside there were donkeys and goats in the fields and an enormous pig wallowing in mud. In the cobblestoned farmyard there were chickens pecking at grains of cereal and ducks gathering together.

Ducks in the farmyard

A cockerel stood away from the ducks and chickens, too proud and important to be part of a crowd.

A cockerel in the farmyard

Over to the side of the farm is an open air eatery, with plants climbing up wooden structures that create walls - a space protected from wind and rain. A path leads to a fenced off area where people were sawing and chiseling, reviving the ancient crafts of woodworking.

I walked back across the farmyard to visit the gardens, full of interest and character with a wide variety of plants and trees and grasses struggling to all fit in.

Hackney City Farm garden

I followed a path that led through the garden, with shoulder high plants moving gently in the wind.

A path through the gardens

A hollyhock seemed to be pointing me towards the end of the garden.

A hollyhock showing me the way

And so I went through the archway into what felt like a secret garden.

A secret garden

But now it was time to leave. I wanted to visit nearby Columbia Road flower market to buy some herbs and plants. There were hundreds of different plants on the stalls and I chose a fox glove, growing tall and strong.

Fox Glove

My visits to the green spaces of Hackney would end here. I took the plant home to plant in my garden and thought of the gloveless fox I had seen earlier that day.

Buses 26, 55, 149 or Hoxton Station


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