Our tour guide Nick used a long wooden stick to steady himself, as he squelched through the water and mud. The water level of the creek came no further than mid-calf during low tide. Much of the riverbed lay exposed, the still-wet mud glistening in the light of the midday sun.
We came to a halt, not far from the creek’s beach, where the tour had begun. Nick thrust the wooden pole into the mud and leant on it to steady himself.
“People think they know everything there is to know about London.” He shrugged. “The truth is, we don’t. And this creek provides ongoing evidence of that.”
Exploring the Deptford “Deep Ford” Tidal Creek
Deptford’s Creek runs into the United Kingdom’s most famous river – the Thames.
Each day the tide falls, leaving around a kilometre of the riverbed exposed.
So, twice a month, the Creekside Education Fund open their doors to those interested in exploring Deptford Creek during low tide, in all its muddy glory.
Upon entering the Creekside Discovery Centre, tour participants are instructed to don a pair of thigh-high boots (mind out of the gutter folks, these are wellies after all), pull on a bright red waterproof coat and choose a suitable walking stick.
From there, centre workers and volunteers will lead the group down the back of the building, through the river beach and into the depths of Deptford Creek.
For two hours, participants trod through mud and are given a thorough rundown on creek-related conservation efforts and the wildlife that call the area home.
As the Creekside Discover Centre states aptly in their tagline: You don’t have to leave London to have a wild day out.
Turns out that London is bustling with all sorts of animal activity – beyond pigeons, squirrels and rats. From leeches, to shrimp, crabs, flounder and a range of birds, there’s plenty of fauna (and flora) who call Deptford Creek home.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the tour are the ways in which local animals have adapted to both the disruption of their habitat by humans and the presence of foreign invaders.
The Ongoing Trials and Tribulations for the Wildlife of Deptford Creek
Nick fished his hand into the riverbed, pulling out a small crab.
One of the younger and bolder members of our tour stepped forward to examine it.
“What is that?” She asked.
“This? Why this is Chinese Mitten Crab,” Nick replied.
“A CHINESE crab? What is THAT doing here?” That got a laugh from the entire tour.
“Good question,” Nick chuckled. “A long time ago, Britain used to make things…”
That got a further laugh from the group.
The Chinese Mitten Crab as it transpired, was nothing more than a rogue stowaway.
Back in the days when England was a leading source for production, China was one of their biggest trading partners.
They’d ship goods to the east by boat and unbeknownst to them, often travel back with these crabs lodged into cracks and crevasses within their vessels.
When they came back to London, they’d unload empty shipping containers… and this particular type of crab. They bred like mad and maintain a prolific presence within the creek today.
The Human Impact
Hundreds of years ago, Deptford Creek was surrounded by woodlands. As London developed, the river was built into. The walls that run adjacent to the creek are Victorian and have been there for well over a hundred years.
Wandering past discarded mattresses and upended shopping trolleys, one might question what place they have in the creek today. Isn’t it the Trust’s job to keep the area clean and free from the junk that litters the riverbed?
As it turns out, the Trust had had similar thoughts. They’d discovered just how important these objects were to the local environment.
In the 1990s, citizens rallied together to undertake a massive clean-up of the creek. During this time, over 400 shopping trolleys were removed from the riverbed.
Sounds like a good thing, right? Unfortunately, further examination demonstrated that this clean-up had the opposite of the intended effect.
A study of the creek as little as a week later showed that the number of fish present had halved in size. As it turned out, as the ecosystem of the area had changed, the animals there adapted along with it.
Fish had been using the shopping trolleys as they would natural coral reefs – for protection from the big fish that swam their way in with the tide. With nowhere to hide from prey, they’d vacated the area.
“Human beings are appalling,” Nick sighed, as he explained this. “We make a situation worse for wildlife by cleaning things up.”
The Trust has learned from its errors and these days it’s understood that a thorough clean-up of the creek is out of the question.
Under the sediment of the riverbed lies layers of pollution – everything from chemicals of the industrial age, to human waste.
Keeping in mind that this creek connects up with the Thames, I think we can all hope that these layers lie undisturbed for centuries to come.
Highlights of the Low Tide Tour
“Around the corner you’ll see Deptford’s one and only waterfall – Deptford Falls,” Nick stated, inspiring some excitement mutterings within the group.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” he quickly added.
I wasn’t expecting wonders, having been ruined by Icelandic waterfalls for life.
Indeed the “waterfall” was merely a small weir. Damage incurred from a fall down it probably wouldn’t equate to more than a wet backside.
Further on in our journey, Nick lifted a discarded European number-plate, pulling out a couple of leeches.
“Who wants a hold?” He asked. I stepped forward, my hand outstretched.
“I hope they’re not the blood-sucking kind,” I remarked, as the leech wrapped itself around my thumb.
This is England after all, so they weren’t. These leeches could use their mouths to suction onto human skin. Mine moved with lightning speed down my hand, towards the nearby dark alcove where the sleeve of my shirt detached from my arm.
I examined it for a little while, thrilled to be making contact with some kind of wildlife, before handing it back to Nick, who was sure to put them exactly back where he’d found them.
We made our way back to the beach, to spend some time scooping baby flounder up in nets, for closer examination. From there, we walked under the bridge, heading downstream.
Here the level of the tide rose, so that we were sometimes knee deep in water. Mud was in abundance this side of the bridge, much of it covered with a brilliantly green algae that shone brightly in the light.
There was something very satisfying about sploshing through the mud. My excitement was further exacerbated by the appearance of a family of geese – fluffy babies in tow.
On Nick’s instruction, we stood still, watching as the geese swam around us. They did so warily, keeping their eyes on us and their necks twisted in an angle that suggested that they were poised for a fight.
Our time in the creek had come to an end. We reluctantly turned round and made our way back to the beach. Back at the centre, we washed off our waders and returned our walking sticks.
The centre is chockers with all manner of strange items that have been pulled from the riverbed. We spent a few minutes examining some of the kookier objects, before leaving the premises.
The Low Tide Walk at Deptford Creek is run bi-monthly. Bookings can be made via the Trust’s website.
This is what I love about London. There’s always something just waiting to be discovered. As Nick pointed out, we’re nowhere near knowing everything there is to know about this city.
And with luck, we never will.