Fish Island & Lea Navigation

Word and pictures by Nick Fallowfield-Cooper


Fish Island and the Bow Back Waters in East London, was a lost corner of East London, a blank grey patch on a over-crowded map, a place that had been slowing down since its industrial peak two or three centuries ago. In it's demise a new life emerged in the form of small factories, workshops, allotments, a sunday market, and a gypsy caravan site that all took advantage of the cheap neglected land. Heavy metals in the soil from years of industrial abuse were rumored, even the developers showed little interested in Fish Island, until 2007 when the bid for the 2012 Olympics was won. This site was never going to be a straightforward to develop, interlaced throughout were the Bow Back Waters a network of brooks, the Lea Navigation and the Old River Lea, Chinese Knotweed and contaminated soil were also a huge and costly problem to solve. Some of the brooks were removed, victorian factories were raised to the ground, while the Old River Lea was re-landscaped and turned into a water feature for the Olympic visitors.  

Today the river course is guided by high manicured banks and ordered reed beds, where hoards of people can enjoy open air concerts, sports events all within easy reach of a flat white coffee and a pain-au-chocolate. There was a time when I could walk or cycle the Bow Back Waters where the only soul would be a lone dog walker, or an elderly fisherman who still knew where to find the shoals of roach.  There was a kinship with these people who knew and loved this space, a nod and the occassional word was all that was required, sometimes though I would engage in the older fishermen who would drift off into a post war halcyon monologue, fond memories that I was gald to share. 

One summer I found a group of carp basking on the far bank of a relief channel, on a few occasions I hooked and lost these nomads, usually snagged on the huge weed growth, this was place of pure neglect. Thankfully in 2008 these fish were removed before the developers moved in and placed them in the nearby Lea Navigation where I believe they still thrive. I was very lucky to have this haven to myself on many occasions, sometimes I was unsure if the rest of the world had left me behind and I was the last man standing.

With the news of the winning Olympics bid, I took my camera out one misty morning in March 2007 knowing that this was going to be one of the last times I would experience Fish Island as it was, the sun was starting to burn through and the light was perfect, I had to say one last goodbye to this lost corner of London.