Tensions surface as music is used to clean up River Lea’s ‘metallic’ pollution

Dead fish poisoned by River Lea's pollution at Olympic Park

Dead fish poisoned by River Lea's pollution at Olympic Park - Credit: Archant

Conservationists fighting to clean up pollution along the Lea River have turned to music and the camera to help get the message across to the public.

Polluted Lea River at Canning Town's Cody Dock

Polluted Lea River at Canning Town's Cody Dock - Credit: Archant

The Thames 21 charity is running a ‘Love the Lea’ campaign to weed out the river’s decaying leaves, oil slicks and duckweed.

The worst pollution was when hundreds of fish were washed up by the Olympic Park two years ago, poisoned by chemicals in the water .

The campaign has turned a music idea drawing from both art and science, which explores and documents pollution along London’s second largest waterway after the Thames.

Ben Fenton, the ‘Love the Lea’ coordinator, got in touch last summer with Rob St John, an artist and writer from Lancashire, with a unusual commission, to design a project to explore and document its pollution.

A nesting coot has to contend with River Lea's litter pollution

A nesting coot has to contend with River Lea's litter pollution - Credit: Thames 21


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Nearly a year on, the result is Surface Tension, an album of new music and field recordings taken along the Lea on the artist’s trek from the river source in Hertfordshire through Hackney and down to Bow Creek over several months.

“The name Surface Tension comes from different ‘surfaces’ in the Lea Valley,” Rob St John tells you. “The polluted river surface is overgrown with neon green weeds and gleaming with oil slicks, running over rusting and crumbling brick and metal, creating a sound telling us about people, places and the environment.”

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He painstakingly examined his way along the river banks, through Clapton, Hackney Wick, Old Ford, Bow, West Ham, Canning Town and Poplar, as far as Blackwall where the Lea dumps its pollution into the Thames.

His album is twinned with a book of writing and photographs for an exhibition planned at the Stour Space in Hackney Wick throughout April.

Musician Rob St John walking along polluted River Lea from Hertfordshire to Bow Creek

Musician Rob St John walking along polluted River Lea from Hertfordshire to Bow Creek - Credit: Thames 21

Fenton, in his campaign to clean up the Lea, is using Rob’s work to “reach new audiences” in some desperation to put right decades of neglect and misuse.

“The Lea suffers as it travels through east London,” Fenton explains. “So we are raising public awareness and taking action to help the river.”

Tape loops of the field recordings with specially-composed music were soaked for a month in tubs of polluted Lea water—with its duckweed, decaying leaves, oil slicks and all. The loops slowly disintegrated when the artist replayed them, which peeled off and faded away. The photo negatives were given the same dirty river water treatment, with the prints developing odd microscopic marks, layers and flares.

Thames Water was ‘flooded’ with 500 complaints five years ago about foul-smelling water from kitchen taps. Industrial chemicals were found to be polluting the mains.

Polluted Lea River at Canning Town's Cody Dock

Polluted Lea River at Canning Town's Cody Dock - Credit: Archant

The company hurriedly stopped taking supplies from the river for its Walthamstow waterworks in 2010.

Scientists later identified two hydrocarbon chemicals commonly used in glue production and food processing, which were three times the recommended level in the water.

One householder on the Isle of Dogs, Maria Morphopoulos, first noticed an unusual smell from her hot tap that year.

“It had a whiff of aviation fuel, the sort you smell around airports,” she recalled at the time. “Drinking water from the kitchen tap tasted like petrol.”

Other households across east London complained of a “metallic” taste to their cuppa.

Rob St John’s Surface Tension album to raisin public awareness of the Lea’s pollution is released on April 10.

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