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  • Articles by Sonali

    Open House 2019: Walthamstow Wetlands

    On the approach to Engine House at Walthamstow Wetlands the stark outline of the structure with its chimney tower against a cloudy sky could be from a painting by Constable, if not for the Overground train running directly past the building. The Engine House is now a Visitor Centre at the heart of the Wetlands project which has seen nearly 705,000 visitors to its reservoirs and marshland since it opened to the general public in October 2017. The Wetlands provides an opportunity for people living in busy, pressurized parts of London to reconnect with nature and open spaces. I viewed the completed project, funded by Waltham Forest Council and Thames Water, as part of Open House 2019.

    The original Engine House building, designed by architect H. Tooley, was constructed in 1894. It consisted of 3 rooms or robust brick boxes housing engines used to pump water under pressure from a network of reservoirs underneath as far as Stoke Newington. The Engine House was decommissioned in the 1980s but the building has been used sporadically since then.

    On Open House Day, our tour guide Hannah, from architects Witherford, Watson and Mann (WWM) met us in the reception area which was once the boiler room. The turbine room is now used as an education area and the massive triple engine room has been converted into a café and a viewing platform.

    The building’s exterior has been gently renovated, conserving the original structure and using bricks from the original supplier – Ketley Bricks based in Staffordshire. The changes inside are more substantial but well integrated although there are a few vestiges of the building’s former purpose, including the pressure meters on the wall and the tiled walls in the turbine room (to withstand condensation). The atmosphere feels bright and airy due to the new skylights and the glass fronted entrance.

    According to Hannah it was a priority to make the structure safe and accessible.  Firstly, the floors were brought up to the same level by introducing a ramp built from polished concrete around the back edge of the boiler room.

    The Triple Engine Room has undergone the most dramatic transformation. The architects utilised the room’s 15 metre height to create a new floor: a viewing platform consisting of a square shaped room and balcony above the café, accessed by stairs leading off the Boiler room. WWM were keen to use the project to open up views of the Wetlands to the public. Visitors can walk around the edge of the new room and look out of the windows at the surrounding landscape.

    There is also a surprising feature: a square hole in the middle of the room functions as an occulus, enabling visitors to lean against the stainless steel balustrade and peer down into the café below. A new exit via a wrought-iron spiral staircase adds a final flourish to the construction. These finishing touches highlight the buildings transition into a recreational site as opposed to its industrial beginnings. Most importantly, the outdoor balcony on the opposite side offers far reaching vistas of the Lea Valley and a close-up perspective of the new chimney tower.

    There are various stories behind the demise of the chimney tower. For instance it might have been demolished during the WW2 to avoid alerting bombers to the site. The original chimney plinth remains intact and has been converted into a new entrance to the boiler room and the inside of the new chimney stack is lined with a double skin where swifts can nest and bats can roost. 

    A fifteen minute walk away is Coppermill Tower, a Grade II listed property and the second site in the Wetlands project. Our journey took in the expansive East Warwick reservoir with Clapton Hill and Stanford Hill in the distance.

    Built in 1806, Coppermill Tower cuts through the skyline with its bold, Italianate arch-topped tower. In the past the tower has been a paper mill, a flour mill and once produced copper coins. Today it’s a viewing platform by way of a zigzag wrought iron staircase which fills the space and offers a 360 degree perspective of the area. The top half of the staircase is actually suspended from the ceiling. The view alters and evolves as you climb up the staircase. The juxtaposition of the staircase against the arch windows is striking but pigeons and cormorants have gained access to the building covering it with feathers etc. which mars the effect. Coppermill Tower is popular with school groups.

    We took the scenic path on the way back – with hedgerows on one side and reservoir banks on the other. The landscape did seem removed from city life. There was evidence of rewilding and reinforcement of reed banks to promote wildlife; and several anglers were pitched up on the reservoir’s edge. We learned that many of the anglers and birdwatchers were put out by the influx of new visitors to the Wetlands.

    The complicated task of enhancing the habitat is in the hands of Landscape architects, Kinnear. In order to ensure the Wetland’s reservoirs continue to supply London with high quality clean water, controls have been imposed: dogs are banned from the site, there’s no litter and swimming isn’t allowed because of the danger of being caught in one of the underwater pipes.

    The Walthamstow Wetlands project is complex and nuanced but it has managed to deliver on all fronts. It has avoided turning the site into a theme park by including its history and through close integration with the surrounding landscape and wildlife which gives it authenticity. The project looks to the past but it has also been successfully adapted to current and future concerns in terms of our continuing practical need for clean water, green spaces, and the conservation of the environment – with spectacular views.




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