Features Leyton

Leyton depot could become ‘brownfield rainforest’ for wild swimmers

Peter Mudge on plans for “East London Waterworks Park”

What the finished park could look like (credit: Kirsty Badenoch)
What the finished park could look like (credit: Kirsty Badenoch)

If you’ve ever taken the 55 or 56 bus or cycled past the Lee Valley Ice Centre, you may have wondered what’s behind the imposing iron railings on the other side of Lea Bridge Road. This fenced-off area in the middle of a huge stretch of open land is a mystery to most people – myself included until recently – but it might not stay that way forever.

Up until the 1970s, the site served a very important function as part of the Essex Filter Beds, purifying water from further up the Lea Valley to provide drinking water for much of East London. Since the waterworks closed down and the filter beds were concreted over, it has served as a depot, owned by Thames Water.

Empty space that could be rewilded (credit: ELWP)

For a couple of years now, I and other locals have asked whether this land couldn’t be better used if it was opened back up to the public. We gave our idea a name: the East London Waterworks Park and the suggestion has proven popular, with a fundraiser last spring netting more than £60,000 in donations to help us towards our goal. However, we knew that if we wanted to move our plans forward, we had to find a way inside, which would require special permission from its current owners. Last November, thanks to a good word from our local MP Stella Creasy, Thames Water agreed to give five of us an escorted tour of the site – and this is what we found.

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While the steam engines that once pumped water are long gone, there are a number of historic industrial buildings remaining, which have great potential for being repurposed. These include the Prince and Princess Boiler Sheds, most likely named for Queen Victoria’s children, an octagonal sluice house and the engineers house, which had interesting details around its entrance and an attractive sky-light inside. More importantly, however, the site has an awful lot of open space, now home only to pipes and paraphernalia. If the concrete was dug up, this land could be rewilded, while the filter beds could be excavated to create a space for wild swimming.

The skylight inside the engineers house (credit: ELWP)

We hope to see this land become a “brownfield rainforest”, reconnecting the lower Lea Valley and opening up space for people to immerse themselves in nature. In addition to the joy and health benefits it would bring to visitors, the East London Waterworks Park would act as an example of environment-first, community-led land ownership and could transform the way we think about our green spaces.

We’re very grateful to Thames Water for allowing us to look around and are now much more confident that the park could become a reality. However, there’s a lot that still needs to be done and we’re keen to find volunteers who could help bring our plans to fruition. If you have experience in fields like architecture, ecology, civic engineering and urban design – or any other skills that could help with a community project like this – we’d love to hear from you.

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