A walk around the Stort…whilst you can:

Guest Post by Rami B

I GREW up in Harlow in the 1990s. At that time, Sega Park was in the Harvey Centre, and the old swimming pool was on Mandela Avenue. We had school sports classes at the pool, and I often went with friends on weekends. We would swim for hours, then eat chips in the cafe below. Some weekends, we would spend the whole day playing on the arcade machines in Sega Park, transfixed by the flashing lights. Sega Park is gone now; it was replaced by shops, and in October 2010, the pool was demolished to make way for flats and houses.

Once a medieval village, Harlow has completely transformed from farmland and wood to concrete and factories. In 1947, it was designated a “new town” to relieve overcrowding in postwar London. Today, there is ongoing work at M11 Junction 7A to reduce congestion.

Further development projects to ‘level up’ the town and reverse the perception of Harlow as an economically deprived area are set to alter the landscape’s character even more. The most controversial of these plans, known as ‘Central and Eastern River Stort Crossing development’, could see a road bridge pass through the River Stort, an area of pristine natural beauty and historical significance to the north of Harlow.

When I was young, I spent a lot of time at the river. It was my adventure playground. My family still lives close by, just a few miles to the south. I explored the wetlands, woodlands and lakes, and came across wildlife, such as otters and flowering yellow rattle, lady’s smock, and meadowsweet. At night, I could hear the train hurtling down the tracks from my bedroom window, running parallel to the Stort and Hunsdon Mead Nature Reserve. And I could see this beautiful stretch of the Essex countryside spread out — far until where the wheat fields in Gilston Park meet the sky in the summer and covered by a blanket of mist in the winter. We spent most of our school summer holidays cycling along the meandering towpaths or paddling down the river in a dinghy boat, westward, towards Roydon and beyond. Sometimes we spent the whole day fishing for rudd, break, and pike and camped overnight in the common close to Hunsdon Mill Lock.

When I was in Harlow during lock-down, I revisited the Stort on a bright June afternoon, walking all the way from Pye Corner to Parndon Lock Meadows behind Parndon Mill, where I stopped for a break from the sun. I threw my rucksack to the ground and sat in the shade, under a tall tree. I spotted a heron take off and then, nearby in the fields, cattle blissfully unaware of my gaze. In the winter, wildflowers bloom here.

Out here, the air is saturated with a salty smell. Colourful canal boats moor silently along the river; others glide past, their engines hum gently. Trees slant over the riverbanks. People come here because it’s quiet, to walk the dog, or escape. However, much of this rural landscape is under threat. If the proposed plans go ahead (and perhaps it is inevitable), a huge four-lane highway will be built to connect the proposed new housing development in Gilston to Harlow. It would damage much of the wildlife habitat and one of the last remaining countryside oases in the area — not to mention a symbol of my childhood.

Your Harlow caught up with Harlow MP Robert Halfon recently outside Matalan in the Water Gardens as he did the rounds of his constituency. Asked about the river crossing, Mr Halfon quickly pointed out that it is a delicate matter, “It is a difficult tightrope to walk. We want to keep Harlow as green as possible, cherish our beautiful town … but we also need houses.” However, he promised to faithfully represent the views of anyone who contacts him to the planning authorities.

Standing on the edge of Parndon Mill Lock, I look out curiously. To the east, the faint noise of traffic on the A414; to the west, common land and the railway line. Further, beyond what I can see, the landscape begins to open out before the path eventually arrives at the small village of Roydon. The light starts to fade, and cicadas sound. I resist the temptation to go any further and make my way out. I walk for twenty minutes, passing several rusted footbridges on the way, before I am on Edinburgh Way road in the middle of Harlow town, the major road that will connect to the new bridge.

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