Hackney Henge: London’s Stonehenge in miniature

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You don’t just stumble upon Hackney Henge.

Those seeking its lithic embrace must take the canal towpath, plunge into an ancient aqueduct, then venture down the lesser of two tracks through deeper and deeper undergrowth.

And there it holds…

A circle of granite stones in a wooded setting

You are looking at a torus of stones, ten in number, arranged around a centerpiece in the shape of a throne. It’s modestly beautiful. But what is it?

These menhirs of today are neither old nor imposing. They align without equinox or solstice. No connection can be found with any Druidic religion or practice. Still, Hackney Henge is worth seeking out for its unexpectedness alone. And their power is hidden here, as we shall see…

A map of the area showing a play of water and green
Location of Hackney Henge. Map (c) Open Street Map Contributors.

Aquatic origins

The central throne inside a circle of stones

The stone circle can be traced back to the last millennium; 1990 to be precise. The project was designed by artist Paula Haughney who arranged the circle from stones already present on the site.

And it’s a site with a long history of industry and purpose. As early as the 18th century, powerful water wheels were stealing energy from the river to run machinery. Later, a giant aqueduct occupied the peninsula. Middlesex Waterbeds provided drinking water for the Victorian population, as part of a massive investment in sanitation following the cholera and Great Stink epidemics of the mid-19th century.

It was a place where dirty river water was filtered into something vaguely drinkable, thanks to the filtration of gravel and sand. The effect on public health was incalculable and just as significant as the more famous sewers of Joseph Bazalgette.

A green sign indicating the entrance to Middlesex Filter Beds.  It's over an open doorway, with a dirt road leading off into the distance.  You feel compelled to cross

The Middlesex Filter Beds served London for almost a century, finally closing in 1969. Then nature set in. The abandoned water factory has become a secret garden, little visited by humans. The site was eventually turned into a managed nature reserve in the 1980s, under the auspices of Lea Valley Regional Park.

The stone circle was part of this transformation. Its mighty granite blocks were salvaged from the foundations of an engine room, which once pumped water into the beds.

Today, the nature reserve is a calm and contemplative place. It’s uncrowded, thanks to its location on the Capital Ring trail, but otherwise it’s the domain of heron, wren and warbler.

Evolution stones

A block of stone engraved with a fish symbol

Look closely at the stones and you will see patterns in slight relief. The central throne, for example, has a fish theme, in keeping with the river history of the site. Elsewhere the stones include fragments of metal and are pierced with holes and divots. There is a lot to explore in detail.

Artist Paula Haughney specializes in stunning stone sculptures. You may have seen, for example, his monumental Ram and Magpie near Spitalfields Farm. She also carved two blocks of John Rennie’s Old London Bridge, which can now be seen near Waltham Abbey. Hackney Henge, properly called “Nature’s Throne”, is his most important work.

A granite throne, sitting on grass, has ashes on the seat, suggesting a recent fire.  Looks like a ritual sacrifice took place here, but they were probably just naughty children

Although solid and monumental, the henge is also evolving. Stones attract lichen over the seasons. Humans also leave their mark. The seat of the throne is charred, as if sacred rites were performed on the slab.

Another view of the ring of stones.  We see the back of a stone, where a blue glyph has been painted

Later, cruder artists complemented Haughney’s work. Walk around the back of the stones and you’ll probably see the daubs and glyphs of the taggers. A painting, in the shape of an eye, invites you to lean over and look through its pupil – an oculus that points to the central throne.

A painted eye, in yellow, blue and purple, has a hole for a pupil.  Through this hole we see another stone in the distance

These stones are quietly building their own mythologies. The ancient shape of a stone circle seems to buzz with energy and determination. Luckily, the henge sits directly above one of London’s electrical tunnels. High voltage electricity permeates the earth. Hackney Henge is a Marvel origin story waiting to happen.

Granite does not dissolve with age. Perhaps centuries from now the origins of Hackney Henge will be forgotten and this pumping station project turned art will delight our descendants.

All images by author.

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