River Lea, Stamford Hill, London


Green Space of the Month - May 2004

Contact Richard Butcher-Tuset richard.tuset@leariverstrust.co.uk


Rivers and canals are very special green spaces, but they are not always accessible for all to enjoy. This is the story of how Orthodox Jewish boys and girls came to participate in river-based activities on the River Lea in London's Stamford Hill. A group of boys showed initiative and asked to learn rowing. Sensitive consultation then helped to raise awareness and build trust between the ethnic minority Jewish community and the gentile run sports clubs. A river-based art project by the local Jewish Girls' school inspired pupils to develop design ideas and gain a sense of ownership of the waterside environment. It is hoped that this will lead on to further community involvement in river-based recreation and amenity.

Context of community participation in waterways based activities

Rivers and canals are very special green spaces, interesting features of the natural or built landscape, they are potentially beautiful places for open-air relaxation and enjoyment. They are also potentially challenging places, prone to pollution, habitat destruction and conflicting use. Hence partnership working is vital to their successful management.

Partnership working for waterways regeneration across London

London Waterways Partnership News makes exiting reading if, like us, you are interested in ethnic communities' involvement in using, improving and creating green space. It is packed full of stories about many projects ranging from the community participation in restoration of the River Brent, through teacher training in canal heritage and narrow boat navigation in the Colne Valley, and a citizenship project including young people in decision making about waterways in Enfield, to regeneration projects involving local people at various sites along the Regents Park canal.

Minority Ethnic Orthodox Jewish Community living near, but not using, the River Lea

A glance at a map will confirm that the areas these waterways pass through are often those populated by multicultural or predominantly `ethnic minority' communities. This is particularly true of the River Lea, which passes through Stamford Hill and Clapton, home to Europe's largest Orthodox Jewish community of around 16,000 people. This largely residential area surrounding Springhill and Springfield Park houses high concentrations of Orthodox Jews, yet very few (if any) public services cater for these communities' specific needs. For instance, prior to 1998, very few Jewish children had access to river-based recreation, because youth sessions at the rowing club took place on Saturday mornings when it was impossible for the children, celebrating the Sabbath, to take part.

Background to Lea Rivers Trust, a member organisation of BEN network

Lea Rivers Trust is an innovative and dynamic water related charity based in the Lee Valley in East London, amongst an extensive network of waterways steeped in archaeological and industrial heritage. The Trust tackles a range of projects to promote and enhance the waterway environment and positively contribute to the social, economic and environmental well being of East London and the Lee Valley. LRT Chief Executive Richard Butcher-Tuset had been involved with setting up a BEN network project with Judy Ling Wong (now BEN's Director) in the early 1990s and has always been very committed to ethnic environmental participation. Richard has steered LRT to reach out to previously excluded groups within the Orthodox Jewish community, and to develop partnerships with other organisations doing the same.

Consultation on involving Jewish communities in waterways activities

Lea Rivers Trust commissioned a study on involving Orthodox Jewish communities in waterways based activities at Springhill, on the River Lea in Hackney. This excellent piece of work, undertaken by Lucille Pryce with the help of two community consultants, Yaffa Gefen and Sophie Bernstein resulted in a detailed report aimed at building trusting relationships between waterways voluntary sector organisations and the Jewish communities, in order to identify the best ways to support their sustainable involvement in existing and new waterways activities.

Report raises awareness of cultural concerns and voluntary sector groups

The report is a great resource for cultural awareness raising, covering many aspects of Jewish community life, history, customs, lifestyle and a contact list of schools and community groups. The Jewish presence in Hackney dates back to the 1780s and today comprises 21 schools, 10 Hebrew day schools, 15 boys' colleges, 15 men's colleges, over 80 community groups and 56 synagogues, many of which are in people's homes. This diverse community includes Ashkenazim (from Eastern Europe), Sephardim (from Spain and the Mediterranean) and Temamim (Yemenite) Jews among others.

The report also gives useful background information about a range of open spaces known collectively as Lee Valley Regional Park, and the voluntary organisations based at Springhill: Lea Rowing Club and Leaside canoeing and education trust, which have played a key role in linking to the Jewish communities.

Jewish Boys Rowing and Canoeing Programme

Water sports have become very popular with the Jewish boys living near the river at Stamford Hill. It all began in the summer of1998 when a group of Jewish boys approached the Springhill Rowing Club on their own initiative and asked to row. Les Fitten, a long time member of the club, agreed to teach them. Through the summer of 1999 they met on Friday afternoons when the boys have a break from school. Les was impressed with the boys' faithfulness in attendance, their enthusiasm and the support from their parents.

The following summer, Les had arranged to go on holiday to the States and could not continue to work with the boys. Youth Experience in Sport (YES) – a charity supporting the Lea Rowing Club – was concerned that the programme should continue and raised money through Awards for All to pay instructors. For the following two years (2001-2) the programme was supported by London's Waterways Partnership (LWP). In 2001 a pilot canoeing programme was added to the rowing, run by Leaside, a canoeing and cycling centre 2 minutes walk from the two courses – funding for that last year came from Lea Valley Regional Park Authority with a contribution from YES. Over this time a volunteer named Marcia Thopmson who had been working as a co-ordinator of the programmes, liased with Jewish mothers to enrol boys on the courses and working with the various organisations involved to establish funding each year.

Marcia's account of the programme concludes with some parents' comments. She reports:

`It is very obvious to anyone standing on the bank that the boys are having a very good time, that this is a genuine adventure for them. One mother told me that for an hour before his lesson her son was bouncing around in the kitchen in excited anticipation of his rowing lesson. Another mother on Lingwood Road, which borders on the Springhill Sports Ground, grew up in Vienna where she took part in many sports activities including rowing and regrets that her children have not had the same opportunities. She says of the programme, “It is a very good idea. It's relaxing for the boys and takes them away from the pressures of school. It's good healthy outdoor activity – good for the mind and the body. And it's fun.”'

An evaluation report of the rowing programme compiled by LWP and LRT shows clearly that the most valued element of the rowing and canoeing is the enjoyment factor, followed by fresh air and exercise. Although learning skills and water safety are important learning outcomes, the boys are not so much interested in becoming champions as letting off steam. Interestingly as regards awareness of the wider waterway environment, one participant mentioned having “learnt information about river wildlife” suggesting that there has been some, possibly informal but nevertheless meaningful, sharing of information over and above that relating to boats!

The main aim of the programme is to address the exclusion and lack of sporting activities accessible to children from the Jewish community by piloting the provision of activities specifically catering for the needs of this community. It is important to note that it was not a specific aim of this pilot programme that the participants should interact with people from other local communities. There regeneration focus was rather that, by using a pro-active, targeted approach, a particular community previously excluded from using the waterways would be enabled in accessing this element of their environment. However, in the interests of building trust between the various communities living in Springhill area, any new interaction that did occur as a result of these programmes can be viewed as a positive outcome. The earlier consultation had highlighted the reasons for low levels of trust:

“There is a strong fear of anti Semitism within the Jewish community. This is based on their history, personal experiences and perceptions. Whether real or perceived this means that the Jewish community will exclude themselves from activities or new experiences where they see anti Semitism as a potential threat.”

When parents were asked to evaluate the Jewish boys' rowing programme, a staggering 90% said that it had made them more trusting of the organisations involved in running the rowing and canoeing. “If I didn't trust the organisers I wouldn't have let my son participate.” There is now demand to continue and expand the programme, including additional Sunday afternoon provision for boys with possible rowing excursions further afield, and separate provision for girls' rowing. However, customary dress code dictates that Jewish girls must always wear long skirts (not trousers) and this presents an obstacle to water safety. The advice of a Rabbi is being sought to address this barrier to inclusion. Meanwhile an art activity has been carried out with a local Jewish girls' school.

Take pART - A Day in the Life of the River Lea (between Springfield Park and Markfield Park)

Between March and April 2003, Lea Rivers Trust's take pART developed and delivered A Day in the Life of the River Lea, an art project that brought together young people from the Orthodox Jewish Community in Stamford Hill and a practising artist. The two parties worked collaboratively to produce several pieces of art work inspired by the River Lea. The project originated as one of the recommendations from the consultation report Involving Orthodox Jewish Communities, carried out in September 2002 by Lucille Pryce, on behalf of London Waterways Partnership (LWP) and Lea Rivers Trust (LRT), and with the support of Yaffa Gefen and Sophie Bernstein, Community Consultants and local residents.

Artist Maria Amidu worked with forty students from Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School in Stamford Hill. The group visited the River Lea at Springfield with Maria and Jemma Lessware, the education environmentalist from Lea Rivers Trust. The young people learnt about their local waterway environment, took photographs and gathered inspiration for their artwork. The students then worked alongside the artist during several art workshops in the school, manipulating photographs taken during their visit and transforming them into patterns and designs evocative of their trip to the River. The children's images were printed onto fabric using the ancient photographic technique of cyanotype and were arranged to create a gigantic tapestry. At the end of the workshops all participants visited the William Morris Museum to look at art works related to the project.

Inspired by the work developed with the children, Maria has created a series of miniature prints under the title “A Day in the Life of the River Lea (from Springfield Park to Markfield Park)”. The images feature motifs created as part of the workshops, and have been reworked as a series of wallpaper samples. This artwork will be permanently displayed at the school, as a poetic reminder of the proximity of the River.

The young people benefited from working in close collaboration with a practising artist and from learning a wide range of artistic techniques, while discovering and gaining a sense of ownership of their local waterway environment.

“Pupils were able to experience direct contact with art in “practice” and were encouraged to find inspiration in their local natural environment and to develop their ideas. The visit to the William Morris Museum reinforced their coursework.” Teacher

Wider community involvement - Place check

Community consultants were taken to look at the facilities in Springhill. Using the Placecheck method, developed by the Urban Design Alliance, Jewish women focused on three main questions: what do you like about this place? What do you dislike about it? What needs to be improved? Their comments sound like a sadly familiar account of many of our rather neglected and unwelcoming green spaces: lack of information signage, overgrown or inaccessible footpaths and steps, litter, dogs and dog mess, graffiti, lack of play facilities and no kosher milk or snacks in the café. Aside from one or two exceptional outreach projects, staff and volunteers at the facilities did not reflect the make up of the local population and displayed an apparent lack of basic awareness of Jewish customs and culture. The report recommended training sessions to introduce equal opportunities and cultural awareness.

A questionnaire distributed to school and community groups received a very low response rate, but informal discussions at Jewish events produced some helpful and interesting comments. For instance, the River Lea is the quickest walking route to important places like Homerton Hospital, and if it felt safer, more Jewish people would use it, especially on the Sabbath when Jewish people are not allowed to travel by bus. People were interested in activities such as health walks, guided walks, canoeing and life saving. There was interest in the Pride of Lee, a boat offering trips to community groups, and it was felt that Kosher food and Jewish music would create a good atmosphere. One sympathetic idea to reduce opportunities for graffiti is to introduce climbing plants.

A number of recommendations were made, to address the issues raised in this consultation. For instance, it was noted that because of their independent status, Jewish schools were not included in mail shots by Haringey or Hackney council, so missed out on information about the trusts educational programme. This has been rectified by the inclusion of a contact list of schools and colleges.

Useful resources

River and Rowing museum, Henley on Thames

Inland Waterways Association, `Towards Greater Social Inclusion – Landmark document'.

Copies of the IWAAC Report on Social Inclusion are available free of charge from the IWAAC office: Tel: 020 7253 1745     Fax: 020 7490 7656     E-mail: iwaac@btinternet.com

British Canoe Union