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Wildlife spotting on Hackney’s newly opened ‘Wetlands to Wetlands’ greenway cycle route

PUBLISHED: 15:09 24 October 2016 | UPDATED: 15:14 24 October 2016

Ramzy Alwakeel and Will McCallum from Greenpeace on the Wetlands to Wetlands cycle route. Picture: Polly Hancock

Ramzy Alwakeel and Will McCallum from Greenpeace on the Wetlands to Wetlands cycle route. Picture: Polly Hancock

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This is a contentious statement when CS11 has everyone spitting feathers, but I think bicycles belong on roads.

The view across the New River on the Wetlands to Wetlands cycle route. Picture: Polly HancockThe view across the New River on the Wetlands to Wetlands cycle route. Picture: Polly Hancock

I don’t mean this in a “these wretched cyclists should get off our pavements” way. What I’m saying is planning chiefs (and drivers) need to make space for bikes in our existing transport network or we’ll never fit everyone in – on top of which we’ll all choke to death on that filthy air everyone’s always complaining about.

So the idea of ploughing £120,000 into a “greenway” to direct cycle traffic off streets and onto a gravelled riverside path might sound basically good, but it’s a bit at odds with my politics.

Nonetheless there are other reasons to saddle up besides getting to work, so I decided I’d check it out.

Since I know nothing about the natural world I recruited the Gazette’s nature columnist Will McCallum to accompany me on the ride, in the hope readers – and I – might actually learn something beyond “the editor has a chip on his shoulder about transport infrastructure”.

Will shows Ramzy the sights. Picture: Polly HancockWill shows Ramzy the sights. Picture: Polly Hancock

The greenway is advertised as “clearly-signed” and “cycle-friendly”. In fact, the first indication the route even exists occurs some 800 yards in, after we have made several U-turns in the middle of a housing estate. Spotting the New River Path the other side of a building site, we duck down an alleyway and find ourselves on the West Reservoir, whose history goes back centuries.

We cycle for all of 30 seconds before being forced to dodge cars as we wheel our bikes across a main road. So far I am not wildly convinced Sadiq Khan’s £120,000 has been put to good use.

But then we’re riding down on the edge of Woodberry Wetlands, opened this year by Sir David Attenborough. We lock up our bikes and head into the picturesque nature reserve, where I am told:

“A moorhen is the only bird I’ve ever seen actually kill another bird by holding it underwater until it drowns.”

People walking on the Wetlands to Wetlands cycle route. Picture: Polly HancockPeople walking on the Wetlands to Wetlands cycle route. Picture: Polly Hancock

I’ve certainly never read that in one of his columns.

Will adds: “The thing I find most interesting is how much native wildlife is changing at quite a fast pace.

“We have stuff here that only 10 years ago wouldn’t have existed in anything like these numbers.

“The cormorant is getting to the point where it could be problematic because of the amount of fish they can eat.

"The thing I find most interesting is how much native wildlife is changing at quite a fast pace. We have stuff here that only 10 years ago wouldn’t have existed in anything like these numbers"

Will McCallum

“Fishermen call them the Black Death.”

He’s not sure why there are so many; a lack of predators coupled with micro-shifts in climate, perhaps.

The nature reserve is, bizarrely, competing with the tower blocks that overlook it for a Hackney Design Award. I don’t mind the contrast between wildlife and urban development; it’s actually my favourite thing about the wetlands. There is something sci-fi about the cluster of buildings rising up the other side of the water, glinting in the sunlight when there is a break in the cloud.

We negotiate another main road – this time the notorious Clapton Common – to get to the common itself, a long, narrow strip of greenery. Will spots a heron biding its time in the rushes behind a fountain among greylag geese, presumably looking for fish – an odd sight away from a river.

A coot on the New River along the Wetlands to Wetlands cycle route. Picture: Polly HancockA coot on the New River along the Wetlands to Wetlands cycle route. Picture: Polly Hancock

We are signposted down the wrong road, again, but stumble back to Spring Hill, the steep, narrow street down which I used to freewheel too fast after night shifts. A new cycle ramp over the Lea has significantly improved prospects for riders, who in my day had to hoist their bikes up and down a flight of steps onto the bridge, and deposits us at Walthamstow Wetlands. In this sprawling green lung, knee deep in reeds, you really can pretend you are miles away from civilisation.

The ride is short but beautiful and I learn to look a little more closely for nature: I wouldn’t have spotted the fish in the New River or the heron in Stamford Hill without Will’s trained eye. And being flanked by pubs almost constantly, it makes an ideal jaunt for a Saturday afternoon, especially as the seasons change.

Nonetheless, I stick to the main roads on the way home.

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