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Type ‘Hackney Riviera’ into Instagram and a paradise will appear before your eyes. A pretty swimming spot on the north-east side of Hackney Marshes, it’s a place where young people splash around in the sunshine and lounge in the shade of overhanging trees (one 2018 post shows model Edie Campbell there, tucking into an ice lolly). The scene is so idyllic — and yet so close to urban sprawl — that it feels too good to be true.
Photographer Nick Waplington knows it well; he spent a month there with his camera in the summer of 2018. “I was amazed by it,” he says. “People were barbecuing and swimming and there was music playing. I’d never seen anything like it.” His photographs, published in the book Hackney Riviera (which can be bought with a print at jesusblue.co.uk), conjure up pastoral scenes by John Constable. One shows a line of women swimming while holding hands, while another captures a young man sitting on the branch of a tree.
Unfortunately, there were clues even then that this was not utopia. “I had a cut on my foot and it went septic,” says Waplington. When he returned the following summer, Hackney council was warning visitors not to get in. When I ask around now, one friend is quick to tell me that he’d never dream of swimming there. Why? “Dysentery, mainly.”
The Riviera — as it has been dubbed by locals — is a section of the River Lea, which flows from Bedfordshire through Hertfordshire and Essex before joining the Thames. Unfortunately, it’s not as lovely as it looks. The Mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville, puts it plainly: “We would discourage people from swimming in the River Lea, as there are significant health risks.”
A report two years ago found that for more than 1,000 hours in 2019, a Thames Water overflow pipe had discharged raw sewage into the area. A video tweeted at that time showed condoms and faeces floating downstream. Floods have also increased the amount of rubbish in the water: clean-up volunteers have reported finding mattresses, tyres and an enormous quantity of wet wipes.
It’s a topic that infuriates locals and nature lovers. Environmental groups engaged with the River Lea include Plastic Free Hackney, Stonebridge Lock Coalition, Lower Regents Coalition, Wildlife Gardeners of Haggerston and Save Lea Marshes. They all agree that the situation is a horror for both wildlife and the community. But who’s responsible? It’s a knotty one to unpick.
Many blame Thames Water and the Environment Agency for the discharges, but the response from both has been that the sewer system has to overflow from time to time to prevent flooding of homes. There have also historically been problems with old pipes in the area that incorrectly mix rainwater with more contaminated water. This comes at a point when the practices of water companies are under huge scrutiny with outrage over reports of raw sewage being discharged into British rivers (372,533 times) last year and calls for more rewilding of rivers and waterways by organisations involved in the recent London Rivers Week. The fact that wild swimming is booming has increased public interest — and public pressure.
Several parties are now working together to sort out the situation in Hackney Marshes. “Officers and politicians from Hackney council have already met with the Environment Agency, Thames Water and the Canal and River Trust so that a plan of action can be developed,” says Glanville. “We are also considering the best approach with neighbouring boroughs, where the river runs through. It is clear there is no quick fix to this problem. It will take a concerted and collaborative effort.”
A spokesman for the Environment Agency tells me that it has secured a £250 million investment from Thames Water to upgrade Deephams Sewage Treatment Works and improve the quality of effluent discharging into the river.
While these plans take shape, people continue to swim at Hackney Marshes despite the warnings. This summer, hot days have already seen the banks as packed as ever. It has a party atmosphere that attracts the young and carefree, but it’s also popular with families. Several people say they’ve gone in the water. “We didn’t even wash afterwards,” jokes one friend who went with her daughter. “It was like a Euro rave — loads of Spaniards on bikes and local cockneys and Australian backpackers all piling in the water.”
Writer Kate Wills, whose book A Trip of One’s Own is about having adventures in your own backyard, shows me a picture of herself there. “It was a bit rank — a few Fosters cans and shopping trolleys,” she says. “But we gamely got in anyway. It’s a bit like Shoreditch House pool, but with extra wild swimming kudos.” I tell her about the pollution. “I’m not surprised at all. It was definitely not a head-under situation.”
She’s not the only one who swam there despite her better judgement. One Londoner, Emma, who used to live in the area confesses to doing the same. “It was just beautiful and so fun, there are areas where it’s deep enough to jump in,” she says. “On face value, the water looks clear. I think I might have even known at the time that there’s sewage there, but I went in anyway.”
The clarity of the water is misleading, says Peter Mudge from Save Lea Marshes. He’s been monitoring the levels of phosphate in the river since last August as an indicator of the presence of sewage. “A lot of the time the river looks beautifully clean because phosphate dissolves. It would only look cloudy if the nasty stuff that’s in it is insoluble.” Water quality in rivers is graded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as poor, moderate, good or high. “Since I’ve been monitoring, the quality has been consistently worse than what is called poor, which would be up to 1mg of phosphate per litre,” says Mudge. “The best it’s ever been was 1.6mg, which is considerably worse than poor, and it’s averaged between 2mg and 2.5mg.”
It’s worth remembering that the so-called Riviera is not a designated bathing spot, which means it’s not monitored or protected by the Environment Agency with swimmers in mind. If you want to go wild swimming, it’s wise to search the term ‘Swimfo’ online: that will bring up a map of designated bathing spots with information about quality.
Mudge points out that the very people who enjoy Hackney Marshes are also causing damage. “We know for a fact that kingfisher nests were abandoned because of the noise and disturbance. Both riverbanks have become largely denuded of vegetation too, so there’s a lot of bare earth now. At times, there are also a lot of discarded plastic bags.”
A solution may be on the horizon. A campaign has been launched to build the East London Waterworks Park, which would create a more sustainable paradise a stone’s throw from the Riviera. “The idea is to buy up an area of former filter beds and turn it into a nature reserve with wild swimming,” says Mudge. “It’s all going to be very ecological, with the water cleaned by natural processes.”
Donations are needed and the crowdfunding page is illustrated with designs of the planned development. It all looks blissful; not a floating condom in sight.