River improvement works where sparrowhawks and kingfishers live

New community group gets busy on a South East London river. Thames21’s Martin Holm braves the weather and investigates what the Friends of River Pool work group is all about.

The relentless rain certainly isn’t making anything easier. The wheel barrow is nearly sinking in the deep mud and as he balances it down the slippery bank Phil Taylor’s wellington boots could be mistaken for ice skates. However Phil is a determined man and he manages to offload the content of rocks and tree branches, exactly where he wants it, on the newly built platform on the bank of the River Pool – a natural platform that will soon turn into a haven for wildlife. More on that later.

It’s a wet Wednesday in October and I have joined Phil, The Chairman of Friends of River Pool, and the group on their weekly workday near Catford Bridge in South East London. Since leading London waterways charity Thames21 got involved with the area two years ago, thanks to a Biffa Award grant, large parts of the river have been transformed into nature friendly habitat for the benefit of both people and wildlife. Building on this work, the group is taking it next level. Where visitors previously had to keep their distance and stick to the public path, they can now walk right next to the river following a winding nature trail that makes you feel like you are anywhere but in London.

In another spot the group has cleared away brambles and cut back willows, allowing a small previously overgrown pond to come back to life. Nature has immediately acknowledged the effort and robins, blue tits and wrens are busy feeding everywhere, gearing up for winter. A neighbouring estate has also benefited from these improvement works and one of the residents is eagerly waving at us from an open window.

Michael Kendra (pictured left), a volunteer who has been part of the Biffa Award funded Thames21 work group for one year, tells me the group is open to anybody with an interest in wildlife and habitat management – or ‘energetic gardening’ as he calls it: “As we are well underway with putting wildlife friendly structures in the river and applying soft edges to the river, we are now looking to move into the more managerial side of things” Michael says and continues: “We are doing this to make the river look and feel more like a ‘real’ river – and for the benefit of people and wildlife. If anybody would want to be part of this and do a bit of gardening, they are more than welcome. It is very important for us to get the local community involved and where else do you get the chance to work, where sparrowhawks and kingfishers live?”

Very true – I actually did catch a glimpse of the exotic looking kingfisher a bit earlier in the day as it shot past me like a blue arrow, inches above the water surface.

Back by the river itself, the new platform is rapidly turning into a piece of nature and a pair of moorhens is closely monitoring the progress from the bank on the other side. The work group is carefully using pieces of wood and rocks as foundation for the platform, filling the structure with soil before planting appropriate vegetation. Phil echoes the importance of involving local people: “So many people from the local community have asked us questions about who we are and what we do, so the idea of forming a local work group in addition to Thames21’s activities started floating around” Phil says and adds: “We therefore thought, why not create a local group and involve the wider community in the work, whether it has to do with river clean-ups, nature walks or gardening. We welcome all the help we can get and I encourage anybody with an interest in the well-being of the River Pool to get in touch and get involved. ”

As the heavy, steel-grey clouds decide to turn up the downpour even more, the group agrees to call it a day and warm up with a well-earned hot brew. I thank Phil, Michael and the rest of the group for their time and head off, impressed by all the fantastic work the group has done, and their passion for keeping the river clean and natural.
As I walk back towards the train station, the moorhens have crossed the river looking quite at home on the platform. They seem to completely ignore the interest of a passing dog and its owner, also checking out the interesting new river feature. I guess this just proves that the crucial habitat works of Thames21 and Friends of River Pool are indeed for both people and wildlife. I will definitely be back.

For more information on Friends of River Pool and how to get involved, please contact Michael Kendra at riverpool@gmx.co.uk

For more information on Thames21’s work in South East London, please contact Habitat and Restoration Officer, Victor Richardson at victor.richardson@thames21.org.uk

For more information on Thames21, please contact Marketing and Communications Officer, Martin Holm at martin.holm@thames21.org.uk