Stepping out at East Dagenham station, I glanced around rather sceptically. There didn’t seem to be much evidence of the ‘green corridor’ I was hoping for. But I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge as just across the road and down a short slope began a brilliantly wild day, walking over 8 miles without ever leaving parkland.
I started in Beam Valley Country Park which is nestled along the southern side of the District line tracks and bordered to the east by the River Beam. Formerly derelict land, it now contains species-rich woodland, grassland and wetland habitats spread out over 74 hectares.
Mounds covered in tangled bramble and lacey cow parsley are just inside the park entrance, presumably concealing spoil heaps from railway excavations but now a suntrap hotspot for butterflies. Within a few minutes, I’d seen six different species: Brimstone, Large and Small Whites, Orange-tip, Holly Blue and Green-veined White – what a great start.
Continuing along the main path, the spring greenery was thriving after some much-needed rain and the abundant hawthorn blossom exhaled its almondy scent. A couple of battered-looking Peacocks flitted between willows, a whistling whitethroat perched in a cherry tree puffed out its white beard and some blackcaps were making their characteristic clacking noise like two marbles hitting together. Being a lone female walking in urban green spaces, it can sometimes feel a bit unnerving but something about this place made me feel very at ease from the outset.
Crossing over the railway at the footbridge, I arrived at the second nature reserve of the day, Eastbrookend Country Park, a former gravel and sand extraction area that was also used as a dumping ground for rubble after the Blitz, it opened as a park in 1995. Similar to Beam, it has the varied mixture of habitats you might not expect to see in such an urban area. I stopped at one of several small lakes and watched a coot family slipping between the exposed roots of the lakeside willows. I often wonder whether coot parents look at their chicks and just think ‘What on earth?’ Their scorched little heads look as if they might have been trapped in a George Foreman grill for too long. As I pondered this thought, a passer-by called over, ‘If it’s nature you’re after, head down there, it’s like ‘Arry Potter World’, while pointing towards a wooded path. Who could resist such an enticing prospect?
The closed-canopy path with dappled sun certainly had that magical quality that some woodland paths have, such that I wouldn’t have been too surprised if a fairy had flitted past. No fairies today but I was rewarded with another butterfly encounter. Two Speckled Woods spiralling round each other like campfire smoke rose into the treetops. The males of this species are highly territorial and often exhibit these aerial displays to warn off would-be rivals.
I moved on across the grassland, disturbing grazing bunnies whose cotton-tailed backsides I saw disappearing down burrows as I passed. The middle of the park is home to the Discovery Centre, an ‘environmentally-friendly building of the future’ housing a café, education centre and toilets. I didn’t go in but was impressed by the community-focussed outdoor areas nearby, including an orchard and minibeast garden. Fittingly, the minibeast garden is where I spotted two Green-veined Whites locked in a passionate embrace. When butterflies are pairing, it is often the easiest time to get a photo as they are somewhat preoccupied with their task and they don’t find it easy to fly off while attached. Green-veined Whites, along with their cousins the Large and Small Whites favour areas with plants in the cabbage family including Garlic Mustard and Cuckooflower as these are the preferred foodplants of their caterpillars. The delicate dark veins on the underside of the Green-veined Whites’ wings distinguish them from other white species but also act as a great form of camouflage.
Adjoining Eastbrookend was the third nature reserve of the day, The Chase, which includes a mixture of horse-grazed meadows, marshland, woodland and scrub and is home to several nationally important species. Nearly 200 species of bird have been recorded on the site, great crested newts can be found in the ponds and six of only 600 mature female black poplars remaining in the UK are growing beside the River Rom. Once a common sight, these gnarly beasts with knobbly growths called ‘bosses’ are now extremely rare due to the loss of their flood-plain forest habitats. This Dagenham sisterhood of six adds dramatic character to the riverside woodland as they tower statuesquely over the other woodland residents.
The path wound along ribbon-like, following the contours of the river. I’d seen signs mentioning the presence of water voles so got very excited when I heard a rustle and saw a mammal of some description disappear into the undergrowth on the bank. I stayed very still, holding my breath, and hoping it would reappear. It did. A chubby brown rat, not quite as rare and exciting but an entertaining character nonetheless.
A fallen willow tree provided a handy if somewhat precarious bridge to the other bank where the waist-height cow parsley made me want to raise my arms up as if wading into a foamy sea. Orange-tips and Small Whites bobbed along in front of me on the path and it was very easy to forget I was in London.
After a quick scoot around neighbouring Harrow Lodge Park and having to shelter from the rain under a bus stop, I returned to the wilder side of the A125 and headed back across to the southern end of The Chase. The extremely dry spring meant only small puddly pools existed in what would normally be a much wetter wetland but nevertheless the buttercup family were making best of it with golden Celery-leaved Buttercup blooming alongside the delicate white flowers of Common Water-crowfoot.
Re-crossing over the railway tracks back into Beam Valley Country Park, the change in the weather had caused all the butterflies to vanish, no doubt hunkered in dense scrub or clinging low down on grass stems. A lone, tattered Comma fluttered limply across the path, a wide tear across one of its wings meant it was barely able to lift more than a few centimetres off the ground. I tried to encourage it off the path to stop it being trampled but it kept flopping back to the same perilous position so I gave up and wished it luck.
Flocks of juvenile starlings chattered and moved in messy murmurations as I looped around the park once more and brought a splendid day of spotting to a close. Nine butterfly species and three nature reserves explored, I was blown away by Dagenham’s green heart and would highly recommend a visit. Urban rewilding is a hot topic at the moment, but it could easily be argued that the wilding of these Dagenham brownfield sites has been happening for decades and they now represent a fantastic example of what can be achieved.
Map of the Dagenham Corridor (shout out to the LBBD Ranger team for sharing this and for keeping the area looking so fab).