Sunday 10 June 2007

Deptford Creek; low-tide walks

From the River Thames as far upstream as Lewisham Bus Station, the River Ravensbourne is tidal. The lower part of the river, from Deptford Bridge to the Thames at Greenwich Reach, is known as Deptford Creek, and is a fascinating tidal habitat unlike any other in London.

I cross Deptford Creek several times a week - usually via Ha'penny Hatch Footbridge - and am always fascinated by the river. Every time you cross it, the tide is at a different level, presenting an ever-changing view, and governing the type of wildlife that you see.

Ever since I came to Deptford I've wanted to try one of the low-tide walks that are run by the Creekside Centre, but last year they were frustratingly rare. This year, however, I finally got my act together and last weekend I set out with a small band of other eager walkers, and our guides Nick and Jill, to explore the secrets of the creek.

First step was to get togged up with thigh-high waders and a big stick. Slightly disconcerting, but don't be put off - the guides will help you skirt the deepest mud, and most of the route is along the shallow river, or over the stoney edges. The big stick is useful for prodding the mud now and then to find out how deep it is, and for turning over stones in the river bed to see if they are hiding any wildlife.

The walk, which costs £5 for adults and £3 for children (aged ten and up), takes two hours and involves trips both up and downstream from the entry point - the purpose-built Creekside Centre which is right next to the Ha'penny Hatch.

First find was a crab cast - this one from a Chinese Mitten Crab, whose 'mittens' were still visible on the end of its claws. We saw a lot of these casts during the walk, evidence of the extent of the population here, but according to Nick this immigrant species is not a problem in the Creek in the same way as it might be in rivers with soft banks. Extensive erosion can be caused by the crabs making their burrows in sandy riverbanks.

We learned that the Creek is home to about 100 different plant species, including the deadly hemlock water-dropwort, and the edible angelica; we saw tiny stickleback and flounders darting about in the shallow water; we were shown some of the measures that the Environment Agency has put in place to try and create other types of habitat to attract kingfishers, or to provide shelter for the tiny fish. Apparently shopping trollies offer good places for baby fish to shelter, but they obviously don't look so great when the tide goes out, and the intention is to try and use piles of wood to create habitat piles for the fish instead.

The Creek is home to several houseboat communities as well as a number of derelict boats such as this one, just sitting and rotting. Development along the Creek has been slow, with the only notable construction so far being the Laban Centre. Luckily this means that the knowledge and legislation is now in place to ensure that future developments are sympathetic to the needs of the Creek habitat. Piled walls for the banks are being designed with stepped levels to provide a variety of habitats for wildlife, rather than as cheap and cheerful sheet piles.

For me, the best part of the experience was seeing the Creek close up and personal, and getting chance to explore the hidden corners that aren't really visible from land. Occasionally you might catch a glimpse of this part of the Creek from the DLR as you round the corner towards Deptford Bridge, but actually being in it was really something. Seeing all the weird and wonderful rubbish that accumulates on the river bed - from TVs to DIY tools, from a suitcase caught on the edge of one of the rotting boats (containing who knows what?) to the jawbone of a cow or horse that was fished out by a previous walker.

Times and dates of the walks vary according to the tide - check the website for details. It really is a great way to spend a couple of hours, and it's fascinating to find out the secrets of this historic river.

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