Joe Crowley explores London's hidden countryside, from the bombed out church transformed into a public park to the historic ponds of Hampstead Heath.
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We have a Country Tracks with a difference.
Normally, we seek out the countryside,
but today, we're as far from it as you can get - the centre of London!
I'm seeking out the of the best green space
our capital has to offer.
'My journey begins in the Square Mile,
'London's historic financial centre, seeking out a very special oasis.
'Next, the short hop to Pepys Street, where a new hotel
'is showcasing Europe's tallest green wall.'
It's not just a hotel for paying guests. It's a hotel for wildlife.
'Leaving the Square Mile, I'll head north to Dalston,
'where I'll be checking out a farm in a shop.'
There isn't a project like this in the world.
'I'll end my journey in the open space of Hampstead Heath,
'where I'll take the plunge,
'swimming in its historic ponds.'
Along the way, I'll be looking back at some unusual wildlife films made here in London.
Welcome to Country Tracks.
'London is one of the great cities of the world.
'Many of its historic landmarks are famous the world over,
'having survived plagues, fires and bombardment.
'The city welcomes more than 20 million visitors every year.
'Many visit London's well-known parks,
'but I'm on a quest to find green spaces
'in more unexpected places.'
London's a massive city. I live here, but I didn't grow up here.
There's loads of parts that I haven't been to.
I'm hoping we can uncover some gems on my journey today.
'Over the centuries, London has sprawled outwards,
'creating a vast urban landscape.
'And yet, there are precious pockets of green,
'even here, in London's financial heartland.'
I've been cycling round the City hoping to find an oasis
to set the tone in my quest to find London's best green spaces.
I hope my destination is just round the corner.
'This beautiful ruin is St Dunstan's in the East.
'A church has stood on this site since the 11th century.
'Today, it's no longer a place of worship,
'but one of quiet reflection,
'almost totally reclaimed by nature.'
I love places like this.
This has great architecture.
It's being reclaimed by the trees and bushes, by nature.
It's just a place to come, sit, relax, leave the office,
turn the phone off, leave the nagging boss behind.
Take a bit of time for yourself, just sit, think and relax.
'The original mediaeval church was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666.
'It started only four streets away, where a monument still stands.
'In the years following, the church was rebuilt,
'including a tower by London's great architect, Sir Christopher Wren.'
Catastrophe struck again in 1941, during the Second World War.
The German bombing campaign, which became known as the Blitz,
devastated huge parts of central London,
including right here in St Dunstan's.
But, luckily, Wren's beautiful tower survived.
'The ruined church became derelict and abandoned.
'Then, in 1967, the Architects and Parks Department decided
'to turn it into a garden.
'Martin Rodman is in charge of looking after
'the City of London gardens.'
Martin, here we are in the centre of the business Square Mile.
Why was this ruined church turned into a garden?
The City of London has always had a very passionate and forward-thinking
Open Spaces Committee.
Back then, in 1967, when we purchased the space from the Church,
the Trees, Gardens and City Open Spaces sub-committee had a vision
that you should see a tree from every corner in the Square Mile.
After the Second World War, there was the opportunity
to buy up lots of small bomb-damaged pockets of land
and many bombed-out churches.
It's thanks to their vision that we have so many open spaces.
You can hear a bit of traffic but, considering there's a major road,
it's pretty good.
Cladding it with climbers deadens the noise, soaks up pollution.
You don't realise that Thames Street is just a few metres behind you.
I've seen quite a few people around, but do people come here a lot?
They do. They come in their droves.
We have 330,000 commuters coming into the Square Mile every day.
No disrespect to Heron Tower and to the Gherkin,
they're wonderful but you can't tell the seasons from steel and glass.
It's the right space in the right place.
People come to see the changing of the seasons and to get away from that office environment.
'What an amazing sight that church is!
'It never fails to amaze me just what you can find in London.
'Even bee-keeping is thriving here.'
'It's an ancient method of food production
'flourishing in the heart of the capital.
'Orlando Clark and Steve Benbow are among those who harvest London's honey.'
Bee-keeping in the last three years has become almost fashionable.
People are wanting to produce their own produce, like keeping chickens.
It's a way of producing a product and putting it on your table.
The idea of bee-keeping's very popular at the moment.
In the association I'm a member of in Twickenham,
we've had over a 40% increase in membership in two years.
I've ended up with two acres in King's Cross.
I keep a dozen hives up there, plenty in my back garden.
I've also got bees on my allotment, over towards Brixton.
We were asked to install hives for Fortnum and Mason three years ago, here in Piccadilly.
They're based on architectural designs such as Mogul and Gothic.
Each has a different facade.
They're oak with a gold-leaf finial and a fantastic copper roof.
Height is key to keeping bees in an urban environment.
They're out of sight, they don't drop down to street level
and start hassling people.
They head out at that height,
drop down to what they're foraging on, then work their way back.
They'll fly up to three miles so there's plenty in London for them.
In an average city garden like this, with neighbours on both sides,
about 15 hives, maybe,
somewhere in the region of half a million bees in the middle of summer!
Bees can come in with honey from April to the end of October.
Beginning of November, I've seen honey coming in.
I was ten or 12, the first time I'd gone into a reference library.
I remember picking up three books. One was on ventriloquism.
Which I'm still no good at!
The other one... There was one on printing presses.
The third book was on bee-keeping.
I was fascinated by that and got the rest of the books on bee-keeping.
I started keeping bees on the back of my council block in Bermondsey,
a brilliant place for keeping bees.
They would head off across London,
bringing in the most amazing honey.
So we give them a little puff to say we're coming.
This generally calms them down.
They think there's a fire. They gorge themselves on honey.
They're a bit more passive to deal with - hopefully.
In the city, I've worked on an average of a hive producing
about 50 pounds of honey a year.
My best hives have been producing
between 120 to 160 pounds of honey over the last three years.
At this time of year, they're coming in with lime honey.
It's got a real bittery sort of taste to it.
I love that honey.
It's a fantastic honey on fruit or mixed with yoghurt.
It's a really lovely honey.
Then, later in the year, you get almost like a butterscotch honey.
That's really complex and different to honey from the countryside.
On a day like this, when the sun's shining,
it's just rained, everything's fresh,
the bees are working nicely and buzzing around,
there's nothing I'd rather be doing.
It's really relaxing, very enjoyable, almost meditative.
One of the great things about keeping bees in the city is the variation of forage.
There's usually something in bloom that the bees can be feeding on.
You've got so many diverse flowering plants and trees,
people replacing bedding plants in their gardens
and in these fantastic parks.
You don't have the same agricultural pesticides and herbicides used.
The bees seem to thrive a little better.
And it's great for bees because they continue to fill up their stomachs
with the most amazing nectar sources.
You can hear the sound of traffic below
but above it all is someone is tending their bees,
often oblivious to the other people in the city and I like that.
I think it's quite fantastic.
I think people are interested
and engaged with where their food comes from.
I think bee-keeping is another strand of that overall interest.
'The bee-keepers of London.
'I'm on a journey through Britain's capital city in search of its hidden green spaces.
'I've moved on from the secret garden in the ruins of St Dunstan's,
'and travelled a couple of blocks to Pepys Street,
'still in London's Square Mile.'
Most people going along here keep their eyes at street level,
but if you do happen to glance up,
you'll catch a bit of green, an enticing peek
of Europe's tallest living wall.
'The Mint Hotel on Tower Hill opened in December 2010,
'a modern building close to the Tower of London.
'Its unique selling point is an astonishing
'born out of a push to bring biodiversity into the Square Mile.
'Landscape construction specialist Aidan Lane designed a garden
'that defies gravity.
'It's made up of modules of soil,
'each carefully slotted into place to create a towering wall of green.
'I'm here as monthly maintenance is carried out,
'but it doesn't need much work.
'The plants were carefully chosen to stay fresh all year round.'
Aidan, this living wall is incredible.
What's going on right now?
-These two guys on this hoist?
-They're checking the moisture.
They're also checking the foliage
and removing any dead branches that may be there.
You designed this. What was the brief?
I was quite keen to have a biodiversity wall.
Again, having a number of species, which we have here 45,
rather than having one species.
It gives more interest for the hotel guests.
How many plants in total are used on all the walls?
-In total, about 180,000 plants.
How does this help biodiversity?
I look at it like a little green lung for London.
The cities and urban areas are under huge stress at the moment,
particularly in biodiversity.
We need to get bees into the urban areas, and moths, caterpillars,
butterflies and invertebrates.
It's not just a hotel for paying guests. It's a hotel for wildlife.
-What are the benefits for the wider environment?
-We've got to look at the urban heat island effect.
You've got a lot of concrete and tarmac. Cities are getting hot.
It's taking in carbon dioxide and giving out oxygen,
so you're getting clean air.
We're also helping to cool down the cities, and that's a big plus.
How does this help with flooding problems that cities are prone to?
The green infrastructures, the walls and the roofs will soak up the rain,
but they will hold between 40% and and 100% of that rainfall.
If it does release that water,
it will be several hours after the flash floods.
How much potential is there to open up roofs and spaces to be green?
All new buildings are having green infrastructure, which is great.
The big picture is the retro-fit of existing buildings, getting roofs and walls onto those buildings.
I'll give you a stat.
If you took a six-kilometre radius from Trafalgar Square,
there's a potential 10 million square metres of retro-fitting green roofs.
Imagine what that would do in terms of biodiversity, water attenuation.
It's incredible, but it needs commitment from government,
individuals and companies to make it happen.
It's been a revelation seeing these visionary projects bringing nature into the urban environment.
One in an old church, the other here at this brand new hotel.
Not only is it nice to just see greenery around you,
but I really believe it makes sense on every level.
'Walk a couple of hundred yards south and you come to the river.
'The Thames is 215 miles long.
'As it passes through London, it creates one of the world's great urban waterfronts.'
Over the centuries, the Thames has been a source of food,
a transport artery and a place of recreation.
As London grew bigger and bigger,
man's activities had an increasingly negative impact on this great river.
Industrial waste and sewage had a devastating effect on water quality.
So much so that, in 1957, the river was declared biologically dead.
'The good news is that the Thames recovered.
'It's one of the cleanest capital city rivers in Europe,
'home to 125 species of fish.
'Some end up at Billingsgate Market, but when angler Charles Rangeley-Wilson went,
'he was looking for something specific -
'wild trout caught in London water.'
'If it's true that the Thames is cleaning up
'and its fish are nosing their way up-river,
'then the fishmongers at Billingsgate will know.
'They may even have a few fish from the estuary.'
Red snapper. Won't find that in the Thames.
-Ever get sea trout?
-Like ginger-headed girls. Very rare!
-Not that rare!
-It depends where you go.
-Have you ever heard of them?
-You do see them.
-They show up?
-They are rare. Why, I don't know.
I'm trying to find trout in the Thames.
Er... I don't know if Lee does them over there.
He does have a few sea trout, but why they're rare I don't know.
-Salmon's coming back.
-It's a lovely river.
Underestimated now. Years ago, you'd catch the flu out the water!
-It was dead really.
'The Thames was once so prolific,
'it supported hundreds of fishermen catching thousands of fish for the market.'
Some amazing stuff here.
'But in the early 19th century, it was suddenly suffocated
'by sewage and industrial pollution.
You don't have sea trout?
-Do you know where I can get one?
-You can try Lee's.
-Can I help you?
-Are you Roger?
I want to pick your brains.
-Not a lot of 'em, sir.
-I was talking to your man down there...
-..about fish out of the Thames estuary.
He says you might know if they come in occasionally.
We got herrings, we got sprats, we got Dover sole, skate.
This time of year you get a tremendous amount out of the Thames.
There's more fish now caught out of the Thames... Yeah?
-More fish now... What's he want?
-Seven and a half pounds of halibut.
-Right, this time of year...
-Roger's a busy man.
It's very seasonal fish out of the Thames estuary.
Another two months, you'll get a load of sprats.
The Thames has never been so clean for 100 years than it is at this time.
If you go off Westcliff, which is right on the Thames estuary,
there's even a colony of about 12 to 15 seals.
Which is a tremendous sign that it's clear and the fish is good, there's enough for them to eat.
So it's got better and better.
Do you ever hear about sea trout in the Thames?
On the odd occasion. We have had them on the odd occasion.
We do have them on the odd occasion.
Thank you very much. That's such good news.
There's boxes of fish here from the Thames estuary.
I didn't expect to find a sea trout on a slab
from the Thames, but he's heard of them so that's fantastic.
'It's the clue I'd hoped to find.
'The real test is whether the sea trout can get beyond the Thames
'and spawn in London's once-dead rivers.
'This amazing fish can live in fresh and salt water,
'as brown trout or sea trout.
'To catch either would be a miracle.'
'We'll be catching up with Charles later to see whether he finds that elusive fish.
'My journey through London continues.
'On the Thames sits the Tower of London.
'It's been a prison and a place of execution since the 11th century,
'and remains one of the city's most imposing buildings.'
This place has seen its fair share of famous people.
Before she was Queen, Elizabeth I was incarcerated here, Guy Fawkes was tortured here
and Henry VIII's wife, Anne Boleyn, lost here head here.
'Today, it's one of London's principal tourist attractions.
'Those visiting can't help but notice its resident population of ravens.
'Chris Skaife is Yeoman Warder, as well as the Tower's Raven Master.'
I look after the safety and the welfare of the ravens at the Tower.
The first part of the day is to let the ravens out their cages
so that they can go and find their territories.
Good morning, Erin. How are you today? Come on, darling.
Out you go.
Ravens are fed on a diet of meat,
and they're fed twice a day.
The public have a tendency to feed them,
but they don't really like crisps or cheese and tomato sandwiches.
There we go, girl.
An ancient legend says, should the ravens leave the Tower of London
it would crumble into dust and a great harm befall England.
I have quite a responsible job to ensure that doesn't happen.
They are wild birds. We trim their flight feathers
to keep them on the ground.
We do that every two to three weeks.
It's like cutting their nails. It doesn't harm them in any way.
There are six ravens, by Royal decree.
This came about in 1660,
when Charles II was restored to the throne of England.
Is that good?
You're like a baby, aren't you? Eh?
To be a Yeoman Warder, you have to have served in the military,
a minimum of 22 years in the Army, the RAF,
the Royal Marines or the Navy.
We have to be the rank of a Warrant Officer and above before we retire,
and have one of these, a long service and good conduct medal,
which is 15 years' exemplary record.
There's a good girl! Gonna say hello? Say hello?
CAWS Good girl!
To be the Raven Master,
there is no set criteria - of course, you need a love of animals.
It's not just about the day-to-day looking after the birds.
It's about their welfare,
knowing what they're thinking, knowing their characters
and understanding the birds' day-to-day needs.
They look at me as their main alpha male, if you like.
The interaction of ravens with the tourists, we keep to a minimum.
They are wild birds.
I keep them wild. They are not friendly towards the public.
Although we do have some odd public that go up there
and try to put their finger in a bird's mouth, they will bite.
I have a fabulous job at the Tower of London. Who can be called the Raven Master?
It's an honour to live and work inside the Tower of London.
'The Tower of London's wonderful ravens.
'So far, we've seen, hidden away among the buildings and streets of central London
'little pockets of green and a hint of wildlife.
'In the southwest of the city,
'Bill Oddie headed to one of the more famous open spaces
'for a breathtaking early morning sight.'
I haven't nipped up to Scotland.
I'm barely five miles from Westminster,
in Richmond Park, London's biggest nature reserve.
These are red deer.
It's barely...half past four in the morning.
Not surprisingly, it is wonderfully peaceful.
Very surprisingly, it's wonderfully natural, too.
I love the way the light's changed.
In the last half hour, it's gone from blue to pink to orange.
Some rather splendid stags around.
You can identify individual stags by the points on their antlers.
They call them a ten-pointer or 12-pointer.
Some of these have got more than that.
Oh, dear, oh dear!
Look at the state of that!
It's very hard to believe
we're almost in the middle of London.
The heart of the city has to be the river. That's half a mile away.
The vast majority of the banks along the River Thames in London
are not natural, they've all been shored-up with bricks and concrete
to make sure they don't fall into the river.
This is one of the very few stretches
of what you could call a genuine wild river bank.
Even this is in danger of disappearing.
Why? Not development. Nothing like that.
It's all because of a rather sinister little creature.
So, what made all these holes in the river bank?
A rat? No. I wouldn't keep a rat in a bucket!
The holes were made by a crab, or rather hundreds of crabs.
I have one representative here.
There he is.
This is a Chinese mitten crab. This is quite a small one.
They can grow to the size of a dinner plate. They come from China.
They appeared about 100 years ago.
Probably in the water ballast of cargo boats.
The mitten bit, that's these claws on the front here.
They're sort of furry, and when that gets in the water, it swells up
and makes them look particularly impressive
along with these nice white claws,
for the male to show off to the female.
But he has been rather naughty.
He and his chums have been causing an awful lot of damage.
They make these burrows. The banks are being riddled with these holes.
They're eroding all along the natural shoreline
and trees are collapsing.
Fortunately, I'm going to take a bit of hope.
A lot of cormorants, a lot of herons around here.
Crab, perfect food for them, I say.
'Bill Oddie, and just some of London's wildlife.
'I've left the Square Mile behind me
'and my journey's brought me north to Dalston
'in the borough of Hackney.'
This is a really busy area - lots of people, lots of traffic.
Tarmac, concrete. It's not exactly the place you'd look for a farm.
But I'm told there is one right here in this shop.
This is Farm:Shop, quite a unique place.
Part farm, part greengrocer, part community centre, part cafe.
This is their farm-made ginger beer.
You'd struggle to find any other place like this in London.
'Andy Merritt is co-founder of Farm:Shop.
'The aim is to create a place where food is grown and sold,
'where urban dwellers can experience food production,
'get in touch with nature, have a cuppa and maybe be inspired
'to try something similar themselves.'
-Andy, I'm Joe.
-Good to see you.
This place is incredible.
How come there are fish right here by a main road
in almost your front room of the Farm:Shop?
We wanted to do a laboratory of food growing in London.
So we got this average London shop
and we're testing to see how much food we can grow.
Aquaponics is one of the food systems that we're using.
Talk me through aquaponics. There is so much activity in the room.
Water dripping, fish feeding, plants growing.
It's all one system.
It's basically fish linked up to vegetable growing.
It's like a mini ecosystem.
All the poo, basically, from the fish
provide the nutrients for the plants.
At the same time, because these plants are sitting on water...
-Oh, yeah. There's no soil.
-No. They're on air-filtered water.
It means the roots are nice and healthy,
feeding off the faeces from the fish
and filtering the water.
This whole system's linked together.
By the time it gets back into the tanks, the water's a bit cleaner.
They don't look like British coarse fish. What are they?
They're tilapia, Nile tilapia.
-The second most farmed fish in the world.
A lot of countries eat them.
-Are they good eating?
-Yeah. They're like a white-fleshed fillet. You get two fillets.
They're good for aquaponics cos they're immune to diseases
so they can grow in these small conditions.
That's how they live on the Nile. It's a big river, but they group together!
-If you see, some of the fish have got pink heads.
They're the ones that are the bosses.
If you take them out, another fish will take up their mantle.
-And they'll get a pink head.
-Wow! So it's very tribal.
So you can farm the fish. You can eat them.
You've got your salads, different plants, all in one system.
I've never seen anything quite like it, especially in this location.
In the centre of a city,
we're pretty sure there isn't a project like this in the world.
'And from shop-front aquaponics, we come to back-yard farming.'
So, here we are in the polytunnel,
-where we're growing in something called soil.
-I've heard of that!
In a polytunnel, it extends our months of growing.
There's a sense of scale here. It is all very small.
-It's in very urban London.
So, you know, how does that work?
-If everyone said, "I want salad," you couldn't really do it.
Food growing is one part of it. It's also educational.
Because we're in the city, a lot of people can come in here,
see how the food's growing, which they normally wouldn't be able to.
Because normally, you buy your food, it's already packaged up,
you don't really understand how it's been grown.
Here, you can see something turn from seed to plant to plate.
That educational side is very important.
We want it to be fun.
The technology is also quite engaging to younger people.
-They're not particularly interested in dirt.
-Can you keep it going?
Is there enough in this to make it sustainable from the point of view of paying for it?
It's a non-profit organisation.
Because we're in the city, we've got a lot of people around.
We want to use the space for other things as well as food growing.
We can do talks. We have bands playing.
-I noticed a glitter ball.
-It turns into a dance area!
We're very adaptable!
We also see the limitations of how much food you can grow
in a small shop and backyard.
So we have been looking into using other bigger spaces in London.
There are warehouses empty around here, and other large buildings.
-We'd like to turn those into farms as well.
-Great. Let's go.
'Finally, it's up to the roof to check on the hens.
'There's a chicken coop in Dalston!
'Out of reach of those urban foxes
'and laying plenty of eggs for Andy's shop.'
-So here they are!
-Yeah. We've got four hens on the roof.
They've come from a farm that's just outside of London.
They've been laying ever since.
-You've got something for them?
-A bit of leftover basil for them.
Just the rough cuts so we can feed them.
Let's see if we've got any eggs.
-Have they laid?
-Yeah. We've got one.
One healthy little egg.
-Got two more.
-How many do you normally get a day? One each?
-Three or four.
Pretty good day.
Very good! There we go.
A proper Dalston egg, metres from Dalston Junction.
-Thanks for showing me round. We should get these on display.
It's its own little world in there. I can't believe that's in the heart of Dalston!
'Earlier, we saw angler Charles Rangeley-Wilson embark on a quest
'to track down wild trout in a London river.
'After a fruitless search fishing all over the capital,
'his journey has now pushed him to the city's outer limits.'
'Right from the start of my search,
'I had a resigned suspicion that I'd end up on a train to the suburbs,
'to the far end of the Underground,
'to a different tidal zone of struggle between the sprawling city
'and what is left of wild countryside.'
It's the last day of the season.
I've been chasing my tail all over London for a week.
I feel I've been on a ghost hunt.
Lots of people with stories of trout but I haven't seen any.
But there's a river I know of, flows under the M25 to Rickmansworth
and there's some fishing there by the playing fields.
I've got a feeling, well, I really hope,
that I'll find my trout there.
'Of the handful of chalk streams still flowing towards the city,
'the tiny River Chess in northwest London
'was always one of the best.'
Looking for a way in here.
Just yomp on through the bushes, see if we can find the river.
Bit of a fence.
Ah! Looks like Borneo!
No-one's been along here in a long while. Here we go.
This chalk stream is right on the margin
of the countryside that way, the other side of the M25,
and the very edge of London over there.
It feels very rural and very unspoilt.
I know that's deceptive,
because this river relies for its flow on underground springs.
And London is just over there.
I can hear it throbbing away in the background.
It's something of a tick on the landscape,
sucking the life out of it, out of these rivers.
I know this river was a great river 150 years ago.
And my suspicion is that it's just holding on.
Let's see what we can see.
-Oh, wow. It's like a jungle.
There's certainly some fish down there.
I think several of them are chub, my friend the chub.
It looks trouty.
If there isn't trout at the end of this I'll Napalm the river!
Conservationist becomes agent of death in a strop.
It's actually dirtying up.
There's someone walking a dog up-river, I reckon,
which is not helping.
Dog walkers go away!
Don't you realise that I'm on a mission?
Come on, trout. Where are you?
There's a fish right in front of me.
But it's a chub.
The one thing about the cloudy water is I can get closer to them.
There's a bunch of kids. They've been paddling.
Some school exercise.
'The kids have scuppered my chances.
'As long as they're muddying the water, I won't see any trout.
'And THEY won't see my fly.
'I need to find a secret corner,
'somewhere that's been left alone for a while.
'I move upstream to the hard shoulder of the M25.'
I've lost the river.
TRAFFIC RUMBLES, BIRDS SING
but more or less impossible to fish.
'I haven't given up trying,
'but I've given up believing.
'I'm depressed, ankle-deep in an emaciated stream.
'What I've come looking for seems beyond reach.
'This was always a personal journey,
'but I'm surprised how personal it's become.'
What is this? What is this?
It's a trout.
Stay on the line. Stay on the line.
Get in there. We have done it!
We have done it. I've proved it.
They're here. Magic!
Out of the middle of nowhere.
I thought I'd chuck the fly and see what happened. Look at that!
It is such a beautiful fish.
A trout inside the M25.
I'm moderately speechless.
But they're here.
Look at it.
It's the first one we've seen.
Definitely worth it.
-It just shows, you see, they're...
The contrast between this fish and the road.
But they're here.
And they're waiting for us to, um...
..take a bit more care of the environment.
Then they'll come back.
Just on the edge. You've got to reach the edge, reach that hinterland...
..between where we're rapidly buggering up the world
and they can just about hold on.
And if we can learn to throw
a few less motorbikes and mattresses and bedsteads in our rivers,
there's no reason why these guys can't come back into London.
And, I suppose, honour us with their presence.
I'm going to let him go now.
A lot more chub, but one or two trout.
'An emotional moment there for Charles Rangeley-Wilson.
'Hopefully, the continued recovery of the Thames means wild trout
'will soon be in the heart of the city, too.
'My journey has brought me to one of London's truly great green areas,
'Hampstead Heath, in the borough of Camden.'
Five miles from Piccadilly Circus, up the road from Camden,
it feels like open countryside - lovely!
'It could have been a different story.
'In the 1860s, there were plans to build on Hampstead Heath.
'Powerful and passionate opposition kept the developers at bay.
'more than 200 acres were sold to the Metropolitan Board of Works,
'who pledged "to forever keep the Heath open,
'"unenclosed and unbuilt on."
'Today, it's owned, managed and protected by the City of London.'
As capital cities go across the world, London is absolutely superb.
It has loads of green spaces - parks, commons, little squares, even woodlands.
On Hampstead Heath, one of the unique features is its ponds.
Three of them you can swim in.
I'm going to learn more about their history, and take a quick dip.
First, the Country Tracks weather for the week ahead.
'I've been on a journey across London,
'finding the countryside in the capital.
'I started in its very centre, exploring gardens in the City.
'I headed north to investigate an urban farming project in Dalston.
'Finally, I've arrived at Hampstead Heath, a rural escape in the city.
'I'm here to explore its ponds. There are dozens on the Heath.
'Three have a tradition of public bathing, which continues today.
'Someone who knows all about the ponds - she's written a book about them - is Caitlin Davies.'
Caitlin, where do these ponds come from? Have they always been here?
There's 29 ponds on Hampstead Heath.
A lot of them, like this one,
go back about 300 years, and even before that.
Although they look natural, they were built as reservoirs to supply London with water.
This one here was probably created early 1700s
by the Hampstead Waterworks Company.
Some people say it goes back even further.
In Tudor times, they decided that the City of London could tap the springs on the Heath
and take water into London.
-These are naturally spring-fed?
-Yes, but it is a reservoir.
How many can you swim in?
Officially, only three. The mixed pond.
-Also known as fourth pond.
Then there's the Highgate men's pond and Kenwood ladies' pond.
This one's the oldest one.
People have been swimming here since the early 1800s.
Am I right that tradition continues, people swim all year round?
People swim all year round but this mixed pond is only open to the public in the summer.
At the Highgate men's pond, they've still got the Christmas Day race that's been running since 1893.
'In London's far north, intrepid swimmers weakened on Christmas Day,
'and warmed the Hampstead swimming pool before preparing to dive in.
'Everyone pretended they were having a grand time in the sunny south.
'Spectators managed to keep quite warm in the excitement of a race.
'Hardy competitors seemed happy to take part in an annual event
'with the water at 41 degrees.'
What is it about this place?
Was it because it was a clean water source, people could swim safely? You wouldn't swim in the Thames.
People loved swimming here because it was fresh water and free,
but it wasn't safe.
It was really dangerous because people swam in all of these ponds.
Going back to early 1800s,
people couldn't really swim, it was more of an immersion than a swim.
-How deep is it?
-Now, it's about 12 feet deep in the middle.
It's much shallower over there, about six foot.
The depth's varied. At times, it was only four foot,
which is really dangerous for people diving in.
You've done so much research, what stands out for you?
-Some interesting characters must have come here.
-I've been swimming in these ponds for 40 years.
I'd never asked myself, "Where do the ponds come from?" or "Who used to go there?
What struck me most was the men's pond, which opened in 1893,
had the first professional diving stage in the country.
The history of diving, life-saving, swimming clubs,
all of this goes back to these ponds.
'The ponds attract many regular swimmers,
'like Hampstead local Margaret Dickinson.
'As I'm new to this, she's a good person for me to talk to.'
-Mind if I join you?
-What's the temperature like?
-Not too bad, is it?
Ah! A bit parky! Not too bad!
I understand you're a regular swimmer.
About six days out of seven, most of the year.
-Most of the year?
-Come January, would you be in one of the ponds?
-Where do you like to swim out of the three?
Weekdays, I do it mainly here.
Weekends, I do it at the women's.
Morning always, before breakfast.
And how does that set you up for the day?
It's a cliche, it sets us up for the day. That's exactly what we say.
Well, it ensures you get a walk.
And, of course, in winter, it's a token swim.
Don't imagine that we're going round and round in winter.
No! It's kind of in and out.
'I'm impressed by Margaret's tenacity,
'but I don't think you'd catch me stripping off for a dip in January.
'Luckily, today, the water is a scorching...17 degrees Celsius.'
Any tips for me? I'm not used to cold water, so take it a bit slow?
Yes, don't swim too violently when you first get in.
If you're not liking it, get out, don't do it just for the camera.
I make a point of not listening to directors.
I do my own thing, don't you worry about that.
I know from dipping my feet in that it's pretty nippy.
If I try and lower myself in, I'd be here all day.
So, I think it's all or nothing. Here goes.
'This has been a Country Tracks with a difference.
'Even though I'm a London resident, I found so much I didn't know about its green places and wildlife.
'A beautiful garden created in the ruin of a bombed church,
'the marvel of a living wall,
'fish returning to the city's rivers and a farm in a shop
'all speak of our yearning for nature within the city.
'There can be no better example than ending my journey in the cool waters
'of Hampstead Heath.'
When you first get in, it definitely takes your breath away.
But as soon as you swim around, it's not that cold at all.
And look at it! It is just so peaceful, so quiet, so tranquil.
And yet, here we are in London.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Joe Crowley explores London's hidden countryside. His journey begins in the heart of London's city centre at St Dunstan-in-the-East, a bombed-out church that has been preserved as a peaceful park.
At nearby Pepys Street, Joe finds Europe's tallest living wall, an eleven-storey vertical garden on the side of a hotel.
He then heads north to Dalston, to a farm shop that is literally a farm in a shop. Finally, Joe's journey ends with a plunge in Hampstead Heath's historic ponds.