Crocodile and sex cult history of Hackney Marshes revealed in new book

Gareth, the Marshman. Photo credit Marc Burden

Gareth, the Marshman. Photo credit Marc Burden - Credit: Archant

A Victorian sex cult and sightings of crocodiles form part of a rich history which is stranger than fiction in a new book about Hackney Marshes.

Author Gareth Rees mingles stories about time travel, mad men dressed as bears, and zombies who drown in the River Lea, with psycho-geography in Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London.

Mr Rees felt he had “discovered a lost world on his doorstep” in 2008 after his wife became pregnant and he began walking his cocker spaniel Hendrix in the Lea Valley nature reserve every day.

He began writing a blog about the area two years ago under the guise of The Marshman, after getting “this weird feeling” people didn’t know what he was talking about when he described the place.

“It was definitely an obsession for a while,” he admits.

“The story I wrote before the book, about the pylon was a parable based on truth. A lot of my life had changed a lot,” he says, referring to his short story, A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes.


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The story is about a man who has a nervous breakdown and embarks on an affair with an electricity pylon.

“Here I was, a freelance writer with two little kids and a dog, and all these responsibilities.

“I stopped for the first time in my life and explored and wandered around and thought, and engaged with a place.”

His book tells the stories that “might not necessarily otherwise be told”.

Local legends like the 1981 sighting of the Hackney bear, which prompted 50 police and helicopters to search the land, and a bomb found before it blew up St Paul’s Cathedral that was then strapped to a truck and detonated on the Marshes.

The Church of the Good Shepherd in Clapton Common also gets a mention.

Built by a Victorian sex cult, the community wanted to expand to London from Somerset where it had a walled community.

“The guy was in his 80s and had numerous soul brides. He was marrying all his parishioners,” said Mr Rees.

“When he died another guy took over and nearly caused a riot in 1902 when he said he was the son of God.

“There are all these weird things that sound like they are made up, it’s a subliminal land between what’s made up and what’s not.”

Mr Rees believes the layers of memory and time bring the place to life.

“You are on ancient land that was grazed by cows since the time of the Knights Templar, some of it has never been built on, in the Victorian era they found a Saxon boat.

“Then you have the Victorian filter beds and aqueducts and railway bridges, Blitz rubble from houses drain the football pitches, then a modern thing going on with the Olympic Stadium.

“You get a feeling of all these times, and even the future.”