An ode to the Hackney Downs Puddle — east London’s most unlikely celebrity

The Hackney Downs puddle has become iconic  (Evening Standard)
The Hackney Downs puddle has become iconic (Evening Standard)

This autumn, get excited for the fully-fledged return of one of London’s most beloved landmarks – a humble puddle in Hackney Downs Park which has steadily developed a cult following in the capital.

Located in a tricky-to-navigate spot – right in the middle of the footpath as pedestrians emerge, blinking in the sunlight from the park’s West Side Tunnel by Hackney Down Studios – the Hackney Puddle is more persistent than knotweed. A trip to East London now is frankly not complete without getting wet toes in its muddy climes; forget about wild-swimming in the River Lea, this is where the action is really at.

Despite living in south London, I am gripped. Each time I’m lucky enough to catch a glimpse on my travels through the area, it feels like spotting a minor celebrity out in the wild. And as I’ve begun speaking out about my irrational fondness for this niche landmark, I’ve also discovered that I’m not alone.

One colleague who used to commute through the puddle every day to a fashion job admitted that she misses the added thrill of attempting to cross it with an armful of precious designer samples. Now, “it adds an element of obstacle course excitement to my Sunday stomps around Hackney,” she told me. “The Lara Croft-style make-do stepping stones are my favourite part.”

Though they’re yet to pin down a date that works for their entire polycule, a friend of mine plans on heading down to the nature spot on an outdoorsy date next time we see some significant rainfall. Another person I spoke to was unaware of the Hackney puddle’s extensive reputation, but spoke with similar fondness about another, even more treacherous pool that she says has claimed multiple BMWs in Battersea. “During average rainfall there is almost always a puddle under the bridge,” she told me, adding that as a child, she took great sadistic joy in pulling up a chair and watching cyclists get soaked as they passed through it.

The question is, why on earth are we all so captivated by something so mundane? “I’ve always thought it’s hilarious that it’s just this big obstacle, and nobody seems to take responsibility,” the anonymous person behind beloved east London meme account Real Housewives of Clapton tells me.

The puddle is a regular fixture on the account, which even has its own puddle fashion guide for intrepid travellers hoping to make it to the other side unscathed, complete with pricey titanium climbing carabiner, and some £160 bouldering shoes. In one post, a sleepless bloke in bed frets that his girlfriend is having an emotional affair: “I wonder how the tunnel puddle is doing today,” reads her thought bubble. Countless commenters reminisce about heady days spent tottering across its rotting pallet bridge, and share their recent tales of soggy Birkenstocks and ingenious workarounds.

“It’s a big joke that we can all be in on,” says Real Housewives of Clapton. “It’s the most hyper-niche, hyper-local thing – it’s literally just a puddle, which is absurd, but I think that’s why people find it funny and latch onto it.”

At first, the puddle was merely a minor annoyance: something to shuffle clumsily around with a belly full of ‘nduja lasagne from nearby Tom’s Pasta, or a final boss level to overcome en route to the crumbly baked goods of Brunswick East.

And yet, as word of this body of water has spread, it has come to symbolise something far more significant about the fierce resilience of Londoners. Each time news of the puddle’s return surfaces, hordes of fans promise to flock down to the park immediately to construct bridges to help their fellow travellers pass safely. It’s a truly beautiful thing to witness.

As word of this body of water has spread, it has come to symbolise something far more significant about the fierce resilience of Londoners

”There was a lady who took a pallet or two down on her bike, and tagged me in her story,” says Real Housewives of Clapton. “I thought that was lovely, and a really nice show of community spirit. It’s about helping each other out, which can be quite rare.”

Intrigued, I simply needed to learn more about the provenance of this iconic local landmark; so I reached out to Hackney Council. Unfortunately there are no plans underway to erect a blue plaque in the puddle’s honour, but a spokesperson was able to shed some vital light on the unique circumstances which allow this watery phenomenon to prevail again and again, despite repeated attempts to clear guttering around the area.

"It is great to see the creativity of the Hackney community on display in these posts and we are glad that some have found the lighter side, although it’s a matter we are taking seriously,” the council told me. “We are aware of the issue of flooding in the tunnel and have been in contact with Network Rail, who are responsible for the viaduct and tunnel, to discuss the drainage issue, although there are clearly challenges when dealing with historic infrastructure and drainage systems.” It seems its days causing a nuisance in Hackney Downs may well be numbered.

But Real Housewives of Clapton fears the day when the puddle gargles its final gasp. “There would be nothing to talk about anymore,” they point out. Instead, “what I would prefer is that we construct a bridge over it, that’s wheelchair accessible, and highly decorative, and sort of very out-of-keeping with the rest of the architecture around there. Maybe the kind of bridge you might see in a beautiful private garden in Kyoto?”

Given that they’re a leading scholar on the puddle, does Real Housewives of Clapton have any wisdom to share when it comes to a successful crossing, while the puddle still remains? Should I be buying myself a pair of Salomon XT-6 trainers? Taking up the hurdles in order to get better at dodging any anxious sighthounds I may encounter along my way? Downing cans of Perello olive brine for extra agility? Apparently, the key is rather more simple.

“It’s a mindset, more than anything,” they conclude. “You’ve got to be prepared to run the gauntlet, and if you’re not feeling brave, or you’re not willing to come a-cropper, just go a different way. You might learn something about yourself, if you do try. So I would say it’s a worthwhile pursuit. It’ll make your day a little bit more interesting.”