• Tiger Lily Raphael

Sanctuary in the City #1: Walthamstow Wetlands

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

In a new monthly column for Balance Garden, Sanctuaries in the city, I'm exploring urban oases and wellbeing. For the first one, join me as I wade through the January blues from Walthamstow Wetlands...


It feels good to get into January. December can be a bit confusing - ‘tis the time to be merry’, sparking a social onslaught for many, an obligation to be out night after night during the darkest time of the year when most animals stay in and conserve their energy until the days grow warmer. Instead, we warm ourselves up with celebrations of light as the planet slowly starts its migration back towards the sun (see Mark Sparrow on winter solstice).

Expectation of Christmas and New Year euphoria can often be at odds with how we actually feel, enough in itself to make the stuck feelings these times may invoke all the stickier. Like any difficult emotion, the harder it gets pushed down, the tighter it holds on.

In January, once the afterbirth of the new year has been cleaned up; the mood moves in a more aspirational direction toward reflection and renewal. This seems to me like a better fit with the season as the bare branches begin to prepare their new buds, ready to spring into action in a few months.

I moved to Walthamstow in September, and finally, on January 4th, once freed of the festive schedule, I made my way to its Wetlands. Once off the canal path, almost any immediate signs of the city started to be concealed by the corridor of countryside I cycled down; so I arrived already inebriated, parking my bike, wide-eyed, outside the copper mill.

Reflected in the huge reservoirs, London’s high rises meet the reeds, marshes and trees of its largest wetland nature reserve, mirroring the city-country divide in me; I lived my first 9.5 years in London and the next 9.5 in Somerset. Both still feel like home, but without London’s green spaces I don’t think it would. For the other animals seeking a home in this sprawling city, these spaces in between are even more essential.

Walthamstow wetlands sits within the 211-hectare site of Thames reservoirs that provide 3.5 million people with water. Humans are 60% water, our brains and hearts 73%; it’s the first thing we need for building and maintaining every cell in our bodies, flushes the waste out, absorbs shock and keeps our muscles moving.

I sat on the decking of the Engine House, in the fresh winter sun with a cup of tea, working on my intentions for the new year. Setting them involved processing the previous year’s trials and celebrations and my tears, when I let them come, helped to flush through hard feelings, accept and understand them. It’s not only plants that need watering to grow; tears have been found to contain stress hormones and toxins, released through crying, which also causes the production of endorphins - a natural pain killer.

There’s very little space for sadness, or whatever form it takes, in this place and time, so the cracks tend to be ignored and painted over until the house falls down. We learn to show and tell only the sunny side, try to fulfil our own and others’ ideals of us and ideas of perfection, even when those are inherited and in conflict with our values, or impossible.

Birds flock to the isles of their watery kingdom, reassuring me that it’s normal to be nomadic and move in different cycles, whether physically, emotionally, or both. The rigid rotation of the clock and ceaseless activity of the post-industrial world drown out the quiet rhythms our bodies are attuned to; it can be hard to hear them through the racket.

The messiness of nature, it’s ebbs and flows, death, decay and regeneration, can be a helpful reminder that we are part of it; inconsistent, interchangeable and intertwined with the seasons. This is just one of the many good reasons for spending time in the wild pockets of this city, and island, and why they are essential for the being of human and non-human animals alike.


Visit Walthamstow Wetlands for free, open every day from 9-4pm.


“In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will only love what we understand, we will understand only what is made known to us.” — Baba Dioum

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