Canada Water

I joined the London Docklands development Corporation in 1987, initially on a temporary basis, and when my Line manager, Jenny Coe, left I took over her role as Area Landscape Architect for the Surrey Docks Peninsula, the area south of the Thames. iIinherited from Jenny a splendid legacy of high quality landscape work and many exciting projects. one of these was Canada Water.

This dock was at the end of the Albion Channel and had the unique feature that it contained fresh water. It was fed by springs. All the other docks in the Docklands area contained brackish water, water with a salt content. Thus the ecology of each was different. Canada Water had a clay lining and it had been damaged during adjacent construction work, and the dock was now leaking and losing water. the water level was beginning to fall.

Following the damage to the dock lining, the LDDC employed the services of Water Ecologists, Cremer and Warner, to monitor the water quality and to ensure that the unique system was not damaged. It supported fish and bird populations unlke any other dock.

My first job was to complete the design of the southern edge, that nearest to the Dockmanager’s Office, which ahd been largely done by my predecessor. The work involved building a dock edge along this side as the exiting one was exposed and damaged. it was made of steel sheet piles capped with a composite granite edging. Onto this were installed posts and railings. the walkway behind had cobble paving to match the existing character of the dock area.

Selecting the composite granite edging was a careful task, and samples of various methods were made by the Contractor whom I had appointed for the work. Eventually we chose a finish which was almost indistinguishable from real granite. The cost of using real granite was prohibitive, and as it is a limited resource, we were keen to use a composite. Eventually the new edge was complete and it looked magnificent. it fitted in with the other three edges and had the character of the old docks. It transformed the appearance of the dock.

However, Canada water was still leaking, and it;s future was still in doubt unless this issue could be addressed. I was advised by the Director that if solution to the leak could not be found, it might be necessary to reconsider the function of the space occupied by Canada Water. There were several options, one of which was an extension to the car park to the Surrey Quays Shopping Centre on the Eastern edge. This would mean the end of this unique water ecology.

The LDDC had entered in to negotiations with London transport to take flood water from the tube tunnel which ran near the southern end of the dock. This water was a perennial problem for London Transport which had to pump it out on a regular basis. LDDC put a budget together of around £110,000 to install a pipeline across the car park from the tube station then called Surrey Quays, to the edge of Canada Water. I had included four granite gargoyles in my design along the new southern edge for the water to be poured into the dock. this neat system would solve two problems; drain the tube tunnel and top up Canada Water with fresh water.

At the last minute a hitch occurred. Health and Safety concerns were raised about the possibility of Weill’s disease, carried by rats, being transmitted to the Dock. The water supply was not allowed! I got medical advice from a doctor at the nearby hospital about the nature of Weill’s disease, and he confirmed that UV light would kill the disease, and our four gargoyles which gushed the water out into the light should be sufficient to kill Weill’s disease. Alas, it was no good the water was not coming, and the water level in Canada Water continued to drop.

The Director was anxious to come up with alternative plans for the site of Canada Water as there was a deadline to meet on the redevelopment of the area. In some desperation I approached Thames Water and asked if they would give us a top up to the Dock. millions of litres were require and when I told them the total they laughed quietly and said no. There was a water shortage in the south-east and they could not supply such a huge quantity for an amenity purpose, especially when it would not solve the problem in the long term.

One evening i was attending a Consultation meeting with local tenants. these meetings were held regularly with two groups, the tenants, who had lived in the area since before the LDDC, and the residents who had bought houses in the area. On this occasion it was the tenants and iIwas chatting to Elsie Marks, one of thes talwarts of the group. I told her about the Canada Water issue as she was aware of the water level falling. The purpose of these meetings was to keep local people up to date with proposals and progress. I outlined the various landscape projects we had in the pipleline. She reminisced about the paper mills that used to exist in the area, and how they used to use a lot of water. I had heard about the problems of rising ground water in London and she confirmed that the water was pumped from below the ground. She said that there used to be at least five windmills in the area pumping up this water.

Next day i rushed into the office and contacted the Contractors who were carrying out borehole tests for the proposed new Jubilee Line. There was a station proposed at Canada water and i knew they must have borehole data all around that area. Sure enough, they had lots of borehole records which gave the depths at which ground water was found, and also estimated the quantity. It was a gold mine. These records told me how deep the chalk was and how deep we would have to drill.

Next, I researched into the construction of windmills and found there were lots of designs. many of them had simple technology as they were best suited for rural areas in developing countries and needed to e easy to maintain. This was crucial as the site would eventually be handed over to the London borough of Southwark and they did not have huge amounts of money for maintenance. The technology had to be straightforward. Some designs used an archimedes screw, like the system I had seen used at Thamesmead to lift flood water used to cap contaminated sites back into the Thames, or to lift sewage or drainage water. However, it became clear talking to the system designers that the volume of water and speed of delivery would not be fast enough to raise the level of Canada water, without being a huge installation. I wanted something small and simple and easy to maintain which could deliver the water quantity we needed.

The Dock was now dangerously low and the fish were suffering and it was clear that if we did not take urgent action, the ecology would die anyway. I asked Cremer and Warner if we took water from the Thames, by opening the gates to Surrey Water and opening the gate along the Albion Channel, would it destroy the ecology? I naively assumed that if we did it when the tide was going out we would get relatively fresh water coming downstream and it would not damage the ecology. They confirmed we could take water from the Thames, but only when the tide was coming in, not going out, and only as a one-off. This was surprising. the reason was that the level of nitrates running off the farms upstream was so great that it depleted the water of oxygen killing all wildlife in its way. Whereas water coming from the sea might have a salt content, but it would be diluted, and as a one off supply, the ecology would quickly recover. I was able to put together an urgent project proposal for the necessary work to open up the gates from the Thames and let the water flow back up the system through the Albion Channel into Canada Water. It had to be carefully controlled to avoid the water spilling over the channel edges, as there was a lot of new housing development going on along the canal. The sytem worked perfectly, and Cremer and Warner continued to monitor the wildlife throughout to make sure it was not being adversely affected. When I saw the water levels starting to rise I was so relieved, and within a fortnight, it was back up to a respectable level. we had secured a temporary relief period.

Meanwhile, I had prepared a proposal for the drilling of a shaft on the island in Canada Water, it would be 80 metres long, with the first sixty metres lined with a steel tube. on top would be a windmill, which would generate electricity which would keep the pump at the bottom of the shaft pumping the water upwards into the dock. It could be retrieved easily via a cable so that it would be regularly cleaned and replaced whe necessary. It was straightforward.

The Windmill Designer and Engineer did splendid job of designing his system and installing it. on the day it started working he called me over from the Dockmanager’s office where I worked. He was perched on the edge of the borehole with two champagne glasses. He switched a button and a stream of milky water poured into the glasses.

“Cheers!” he said with a broad grin, handing me a glass and clinking the side. iIwas astonished to see him take a sip from the glass of the milky water.

“Is it safe?” I queried.

“Well, I’m still here,” he said with a laugh.

Within a couple of weeks the windmill was installed and whenever the wind blew it lifted ground water up 80 metres nto the dock, and it soon reached its maximum level. it then overflowed gently into the Albion Channel thus flushing the whole water system thrugh with fresh water. the future of Canada Water was secure! it would not become an over flow car park!

The final icing on the cake was the design and construction of the central boardwalk and pavilion, and the installation of the deal Porers Sculpture. Gibberd and partners helped to realise the design concept, whch was for a wildlife habitat. I had chosen native species to create a nesting area on teh island fr waterbirds. I hoped their nests would be safe from foxes and vandals there. the boardwalks were made from larch from a renewable source. I didn’t want to use tropical hardwoods, like iroko which is used on the balustrades along the tames, and which are a limited resource.

Sheet pile foundations go in for the boardwalk

The creation of the wildfowl nesting islands with a protective moat. I used subsoil to keep fertility low, and native species.

The swan starts nesting in the new habitat and sees of a nosey Canada goose

A heron carries out an inspection of the new island

Amusingly, during the construction of the board walks the swans started nesting on the edge of the dock n a pile of rocks near the shopping centre. they were determined they were going to raise a family although their opportunity was limited. Fortunately, I had put a clause in the Contract that should the swans start nesting all work must stop at no cost to the Client until they were finished! So we had to stop and wait!

The Deal Porters sculpture by Phil Bews was one of five submissions I secured from a list of artists. I had prepared a brief asking for something which had local relevance, possibly historical, possibly humorous. This was very deliberate as I had had my ears filled with objections to the big anonemous Corporate installations which ad been placed in the area and which local people did not like. They liked the bust of James Walker by Michael Rizello at Greenland Dock, and they also liked the Bas relief of the Docks, also by Michael Rizello, which i had placed on the top of Stave Hill. They had already threatened to chuck William Pye’s piece at Greenland Dock into the Thames!

The artists chose were people whose work I had seen at various sites around the country and who stuck me as producing the sort of work that would be appropriate on the site. The Deal Porters idea was universally welcomed by local residents as it celebrated the men who used to work on the ships, the lifters and the strappers. they carried the wood from the ships arriving from Canada Water. they had timber balanced on their shoulders and walked across from the ships at high levels like acrobats to bring the timber to the dock edge.

I had seen Phil Bews’ work in the Landscape journal and also in art fairs and otehr places. he had a sensitivity to the place and an empathy to the people who lived i nteh area, and his sculpture was universally welcomed.

I was involved in discussions for the design of the tube station at Canada Water and my hope then was that the escalator rising from the platforms would carry you upwards to the vista cross the ock, seen through a glass wall. it didn’t quite work out like that – but if it had it would have been amazing!

One concern I have about the ongoing maintenance is that the coppicing that was proposed in my origianal management plan was never carried out. This was vital for several reasons. the planting was chosen to create a thicket into which water birds could safely nest. the species used were to be kept trimmed. Some have developed into trees. This is a disaster fo the dock as the tees will damage the liner and take too much water out of the dock. they should be felled now and kept coppiced in the future.

Some days after the completion of the project, i saw a family of swans raised on the island, and a heron standing guard. in the water were coots and moorhens and it was so wonderful to see them all returning and taking over the habitat.

It was a great treat for me when Chris Packham agreed to inaugurate the new windmill.

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