Bob Gilbert's The Green London Way was revised and reissued to coincide with the 2012 London Olympics
An Urban Pilgrimage
by Jon Every
November 7th, 2012
Jon Every takes the message of The Green London Way: Walking The City's History and Wildlife, by Bob Gilbert, to heart
Unique brownfield sites were bulldozed to create ‘Nature reserves’
Earlier this year I met the author of this book, Bob Gilbert and in between talking about how he keeps chickens in the east end of London, he told me about the updated edition of his book which was being republished to coincide with the 2012 London Olympics. Hearing Bob describe the circular route around London that he had first devised over 20 years ago (when the book was first published), and all the issues raised by looking at all the different social and environmental changes, made me think one thing … I’m going to do it!
The book is divided into 18 walks, which together make up the 110 mile route through our capital city. This updated edition starts and finishes in the east end at Stratford Station in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium, and takes us through Greenwich, Crystal Palace, Richmond and Hampstead.
Although The Green London Way has been written for armchair hikers - as well as for active walkers - I didn’t want to just hear about the ecological impact of London 2012 but to see it for myself. I was not let down. The ever-changing social and natural history was brought to life via the introductory narrative at the start of each chapter. The planning is so precise that each walk begins and ends at a train station so it is possible to just follow the clearly laid out instructions and try to take in everything around you. The struggles for open spaces, the scars left by war and the latest attempts to create community are all highlighted and revealed.
So earlier this year, I spent five consecutive days walking The Green London Way and was lucky enough to be joined by the author for two of them. Bob has been a stand-up comedian and his wit and sense of humour shine through the book. Stories behind the architecture and infrastructure that we passed through are told in his unique voice and his perspective is as clear when read in print as it is when he speaks.
As part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of his own extraordinary peace walk, the editor of Resurgence, Satish Kumar, joined me on the last day of my urban pilgrimage. Members of Wild Law UK, Occupy London, The Sunday Times, The University of Cambridge, Leaping Hare Press, Seed Freedom and the also NHS came along and supported the walk.
The landscape I encountered along the Green London Way is completely different to the North Devon coast where I live and I was taken aback to witness animals which are so common place at home - chickens, pheasants and deer - fenced off in urban zoos. The changes in both species diversity and abundance is well documented throughout the book and comparisons to the natural make up of the city since the first edition was published in 1991 are a worrisome read. As expected there have been some rather distressing changes but there are some good news stories too, such as the increase in numbers of the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), the goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) and the long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudutus).
The beauty of this book (and the clue is in the title) is that it uncovers London’s tow paths, woodlands and commons and creates a long distance living network of green spaces. Each time the tarmac takes over and you are subjected to the concrete jungle you find yourself longing for the next green portal to take you back into the more familiar and natural living and breathing habitats.
Each walk is accompanied with an illustrated map by the ‘urban Wainwright’ Graham Scrivener and along with Gilbert’s meticulous navigation notes it is almost impossible to go wrong and get lost (I only managed that feat twice due to absent mindfulness).
London 2012 was eagerly promoted as a radical event being the first truly sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games. I don’t doubt that the artificially-sown wild flowers were very attractive and well managed but they will now be competing with some of the area’s existing specialities such as the poisonous lesser elder (Sambucus ebulus). And as part of the much touted ‘Olympic legacy’ the fact is diverse and unique brownfield sites were bulldozed to create ‘Nature reserves’ and sections of the tidal Lea River were dammed to create official ‘wetland areas’.
The new edition of the book also reflects on the rate and scale of the development of new communities and the accompanying loss of neighbourhood and local identity as the creation of hasty placeless spaces begin to look like … well … everywhere else.
The Green London Way provides a wealth of information about the plant and animal life of London, including some surprising instances of rare species. In terms of nature, landscape and history, The Green London Way is full of discoveries for any walker or reader, and provides a new awareness of Greater London.
The Green London Way: Walking The City’s History and Wildlife by Bob Gilbert is published by Lawrence & Wishart, 2012
Jon Every is a botanist, sustainability consultant and Nature Engagement Educator
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