James Cracknell talks to Abigail Woodman from the campaign group Save Lea Marshes
When London 2012 organisers decided to build a temporary basketball training facility on Leyton Marsh – which is Metropolitan Open Land – a disparate group of people decided to take action.
Dog walkers, nature lovers, local residents, anti-capitalists from Occupy London. All joined together to form the campaign group Save Leyton Marsh, and fight the Olympic Delivery Authority.
Abigail Woodman, a Higham Hill resident, was one of those who got involved. “I found out about it on the local news,” she tells me. “I had done some conservation work on the marshes before so I decided to go along to one of their meetings.
“From the day we got the Olympics I always felt it was a white elephant that wouldn’t benefit local communities. These guys were actually doing something about it, and it was a really interesting mix of direct action – the fun stuff – and the organisational stuff as well.”
Save Leyton Marsh set up camp on the site of the proposed basketball facility, granted planning permission by Waltham Forest Council in February 2012. The camp was later served with a High Court injunction banning their protest. The order was defied and several activists spent nights in jail for it.
Despite failing to prevent the marshes being built on, as well as losing a court case against the council, campaigners decided to continue under the new guise of Save Lea Marshes.
“The group is smaller now than it was then,” Abigail admitted, “but we still have about 100 people on our mailing list and between eight and ten people who go to our meetings. Considering the Olympics was three years ago that is quite an achievement.
“I had been on climate marches before and signed petitions but joining Save Lea Marshes was a watershed moment for me. I consider myself a green spaces activist now.
“What I think is so brilliant is that it’s a random group of people from a wide range of backgrounds who all want the same thing; to keep green spaces open and as wild as possible.
“We did lose the Olympics battle, the basketball court got built and everything we feared would happen afterwards did happen. But although we lost in the short term, I think we will win in the long term. We cost the Olympic organisers a lot of money by fighting them, and the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA) knows now we are a force to be reckoned with.”
Other battles are now being fought by Save Lea Marshes, the most recent being their campaign against a new car park and sports pavillion that would see part of Hackney Marsh concreted over, as well as the removal of a car park on the east marsh built for the Olympics.
“We ensured there was a public inquiry,” said Abigail. “We put together a kick-ass case and although we didn’t stop the pavillion we showed Hackney Council we aren’t just a group of angry people, we’re knowledgable, and we won our argument that the east marsh car park must be removed.
“We went through 20,000 sheets of paper and had to take two weeks off work. We didn’t have a lawyer so we were learning as we went along, it was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done.
“I think the power of the law is used to influence people, we were told we were at risk of losing our homes. I started a law degree just because I wanted to have more confidence.
“We are still campaigning for the reinstatement of the east marsh and we are trying to stop Hackney Council cutting down a tree. We even set up a Twitter account called @Tfortysix to raise awareness of it.”
But Abigail says Save Lea Marshes is more than just a protest group. “We realised we can’t just be negative all the time, so we organise regular walks around the marshes, and after Leyton Marsh was reopened we had a little festival to celebrate.
“There is money being spent by LVPRA on a new mural project and we made sure the community is involved in choosing the artist. We’re working with the authority to improve mowing regimes and ensure no pesticides are used on the marshes.
“All the people in Save Lea Marshes want to protect them for both nature and people. The birds, bees and butterflies don’t have a voice so someone needs to speak up for them.
“It is about fighting. Even if you lose you can still make something less bad than it might have been. It is about speaking truth to power and reminding them of the promises they made.
“It takes perserverance but it is worth it. I used to feel more depressed about the state of the environment, but now I am doing more than just my recycling.”
For more information and to get involved with Save Lea Marshes visit www.saveleamarshes.org.uk