Take a ‘wade’ on the wild side with Creekside Discovery Centre’s low tide walk
With the current pace of building in the capital and developers looking to seize every last piece of land to build on, London’s wildlife is being squeezed into increasingly smaller environments. As banks of rivers and streams are absorbed into manmade land and structures, many animals and birds are running out of space to build nests, or even shelter during bad weather. While we need more homes in this overcrowded capital, it’s trying to balance fulfilling demand while protecting the wildlife’s habitats that is a real challenge.
Recently I paid a visit to the Creekside Discovery Center in Deptford, south-east London to join one of their Low Tide Walks. My boyfriend and I were up bright and early on a Sunday (well, by my standards early for a Sunday!) morning to get suited up for our visit to Deptford Creek. We were told to wear old clothes and a hat, with the CDC providing thigh-high waders and a walking stick. The Center itself is a one-storey educational space in a garden full of beautiful, coloured wildflowers. In fact there are over 130 different wildflower species across the site. It was rather amusing to see various memorabilia retrieved from the Creek dotted around like a modern art display, such as shopping trolleys, rollerskates and typewriters. I’m always baffled why someone would find enjoyment by throwing a trolley into a river or creek… perhaps they should get an actual hobby?!
The name Deptford comes from ‘deep ford’, with the Creek forming the north end of the River Ravensbourne before it flows into the Thames. We started our two-hour expedition being led down to the Creek by a conservationist Nick. We entered the water – and mud – near the historic lifting bridge. It was originally built in the 1830s for the London and Greenwich Railway, which connected London Bridge with Greenwich, which was incredibly busy at the time due to its naval and royal connections. The railway was the first steam service in the capital and also the first entirely elevated railway. When it came to crossing the Creek, the railway owners realised it was problematic. They couldn’t build a regular fixed crossing as that would have blocked the many ships passing up and down the Creek. Civil engineer George Thomas Landmann (1779-1854) came up with the idea of a lifting bridge, which would allow trains to pass over while in situ, but could be lifted up for passing barges via pulleys, chains and sliding rods with eight men required to operate it. The current bridge you can see today, is a younger replacement, with several bridges replacing the original 1830s one. At time of writing, it’s been out of action for decades and is a listed structure.
During our walk, we regularly stopped to see passing wildlife, such as ducks and swans and their babies. Nick explained how the changing tides and seasons affected the Creek and its wildlife. With the water quite shallow during our visit, a lot of the so-called rubbish dumped in the Creek was exposed to us on the riverbed. Our initial impression would usually be disgust at seeing motorbikes, shopping trolleys and other human rubbish languishing in the water. However, Nick explained that due to the lack of available riverbeds and shelter on the Creek due to the encroaching building works, these bits of rubbish can actually be utilised by wildlife. He pointed out a submerged trolley covered in an old carpet, which was actually home to a lot of Chinese mitten crabs. The Center has also been responsible for building and monitoring a small, floating island, so birds can create nests.
As well as the wildlife and being mesmerised by the rich colours of the algae and mud, there was plenty of local history to take in. Overlooking the Creek on the Greenwich side is the Sewage Pumping Station. It was built in 1859-1866 by engineer Sir Joseph Bazelgette (1819-1891) when he overhauled the city’s sewage system. The Italianate buildings and neighbouring coal sheds are Grade II listed by Historic England. The sewage passing through Deptford flowed on down to Crossness Pumping Station in Abbey Wood.
Another interesting riverside structure was the former Mumford’s Flour Mills, now an apartment block. The River Ravensbourne was a popular location for mills, with 11 recorded in the area in the Domesday Book (1086). Although Mumford’s wasn’t so ancient, it was founded in 1790 beside Deptford Creek. Small boats would travel down the Creek from the Thames to supply the mills. The current building you see today is the newer mill erected in 1897 (click here for an original sketch from the same year) and designed by Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930) and Ingress Bell (1837-1914). You may know Sir Aston for having designed the Victoria & Albert Museum, Admiralty Arch, and the current façade of Buckingham Palace. At the top of the building, you can still read ‘S P Mumford & Co’.
Overall, it was a fascinating tour. Nick was passionate and knowledgeable and really opened your mind about a different approach to conservation. Although your natural instinct would be to ‘clean up’ the Creek of all manmade waste, we realised that wildlife has adapted some of these objects into survival tools. The Creekside Discovery Center does a lot of work with local schools and children to educate them on nature in the city. It’s well worth a visit if you’re a fan of wildlife and history, or perhaps want to shake up your usual weekend routine with something a little bit different. The low tide tours are usually only one a month and tend to book up far in advance.
- Creekside Discovery Centre, 14 Creekside, Deptford, SE8 4SA. Nearest station: Deptford. Tickets: Adults £12, Seniors £10, Students £10, Children (9-16) £8. For more information and booking, visit the Creekside Discovery Centre website.
For more reviews of London attractions, click here.