Wet walk on the wild side

Stephen Hoare

Stephen Hoare describes how an unpromising site in London's docklands has been transformed into a wetland ecology park

Poplar better known to viewers of TV soaps as the real-life location of EastEnders is not a place many people would associate with ecology and nature study. But recently EastEnders actress Michelle Collins (Cindy) met the Year 4 pupils of Wolmore Primary School to make a film about how the children have helped transform a local derelict plot of land into an ecology park.

The park, taking shape on a tiny peninsula of land where the River Lea meanders to join the Thames at Bow Creek, was designed and funded by the London Docklands Development Corporation, a government agency set up to help bring people and jobs back into the area.

The site was too small for office development or housing and is crossed by a railway viaduct, so an ecology park seemed the best way of cleaning the site and safeguarding its future. Kieron Murphy, LDDC's ecology project manager, says they wanted "to do something that would benefit the local community, and an ecology park for schools seemed the best use".

The LDDC has applied to the Millennium Fund for a grant to help pay for an interpretation centre on the site basically a classroom, lecture theatre and exhibition area where children can sit and learn about the park. Assuming the funding is forthcoming, building work could begin next spring. Otherwise a new backer will have to be found.

The park is based on water features such as a pond and wetland area. Over the past two years, Wolmore pupils have been helping to plant waterside vegetation, including the black poplar trees which were once so common on the riverside mud flats of the Lea and the Thames that they gave their name to the area.

Wolmore was one of two primary schools invited by the LDDC to help set out the ecology park which eight- to 12-year-olds can visit as part of their study of local geography and the environment.

Within walking distance of Bow Creek, Wolmore is a typical inner-London primary school surrounded by a Tarmac playground and hemmed in by houses and an industrial estate. The ecology park was a godsend.

Wolmore's science co-ordinator, Andy Bridewell, says: "When a guy from London Docklands Development Corporation phoned and gave us the opportunity to use the site, we jumped at it. We wanted to monitor the plants and wildlife right from the beginning."

When the pupils first visited the site two years ago, what they saw was a wasteland of old car tyres and builders' rubble. Now landscaped and planted, the park provides a range of water environments with a pond, stream, and water meadows planted with trees, shrubs and aquatic plants. Wooden walkways span the site, giving access down to the water's edge for able-bodied and disabled alike.

Basic landscaping was carried out by contractor English Woodland, which worked with ecologists to create a self-sustaining environment where animal life could thrive.

It took 12 men 10 weeks working with mechanical excavators and dumper trucks to dispose of 2,000 cubic metres of muck and rubbish and bring in fresh topsoil to landscape the park. The pond and water channels were dug out and lined with PVC before being planted and landscaped to look like naturalfeatures.

Across the site, water is pumped from the Lea and there are sluices children can open and close to alter the flow of water and study the effects of flooding and the different levels of water in the stream bed.

A coppice of willows demonstrates to children how the fast-growing tree is pollarded to create a mass of annual shoots which can be cut to provide a renewable source of fuel. Pollarded willow shoots are being used in some parts of the world to fuel experimental power stations.

Bow Creek's wetland supports a growing population of frogs, newts and other pond life. And on the concrete piers of the recently-built Docklands Light Railway viaduct are boxes for nesting birds and bats. There is even a giant box for kestrels which, like the poplar, used to be a common sight before the docks sprang up. Now, nesting pairs have been successfully introduced to the docklands.

Mr Bridewell's first task for the pupils was to get them to compare Bow Creek's newly-dug pond with one that had been established earlier at Lavender Mill on another docklands site. Wildlife was encouraged by planting at the margins of the pond, and Wolmore pupils helped plant yellow flags and other aquatic plants.

Over the course of a year, in which pupils visited the park every fortnight, they began to notice changes. Mr Bridewell says, "They saw the park covered in snow and the pond frozen over. Then it all gradually came to life. It is amazing the number of self-seeded wildflowers that began to colonise the area. We used the pupils' notes in the study of seasonal change and science, taking water samples for sieving and purification."

The LDDC has also redeveloped the East India Dock basin as a dockside heritage site and waterfowl sanctuary. Wolmore pupils helped launch its floating nesting platforms and pupils have observed terns, cormorants and herons.

The docklands are an invaluable geography and science resource and pupils are able to compare features on the ground with map symbols. And when studying rivers, they take water samples to test for purity, as well as observing the river's depth and flow.

Pupils are keeping diaries of the changes they see in the park and of sightings of birds, water and plant life. The diaries will form a permanent record at the school to help new generations of pupils understand the balance of nature. Mr Bridewell describes it as "a record of day-to-day observations over the years cross-curricular history."

But the greatest change has been to give the pupils a sense of ownership. Whenever the children visit the site, Mr Bridewell says they take a bin liner and pick up rubbish: "There's a definite feeling that it's theirs to look after and cherish."

Birds of the Docklands, a photocopiable education resource pack, is available free from London Docklands Development Corporation, Thames Quay, 191 Marsh Wall, LondonE14 9TJ

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