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Strolling London’s unsung waterway: the River Lea rises once more | London holidays



For centuries the Lea has been a significant artery for London, carrying consuming water and grain into the town and servicing the factories and gunpowder mills that grew up alongside its banks. Rising in Bedfordshire, it flows for 46 miles via Hertfordshire and north-east London, finally reaching the Thames. It’s typically described as London’s second river, however this unsung tributary will get little of the glory or recognition of the Thames.

Click on to enlarge illustrated map

Since shifting to Leyton (“settlement on the Lea”) a number of years in the past, I’ve turn into accustomed to the stretches alongside Hackney Marshes, however I discovered myself more and more interested by what lay upriver. The Lee Valley park runs alongside a 26-mile stretch of the Lea. This scenic 4,000-hectare (10,000-acre) reinvention of former garbage dumps, sewage works, gravel pits and factories was constituted almost 60 years in the past as a “inexperienced lung” for the town, and prolonged in 2012 to incorporate the brand new Olympic Park. I determine to hike its size in an try to achieve a contemporary perspective on my a part of outer London.


On an unseasonably heat February morning, my boyfriend Colin and I stand outdoors Ware station in Hertfordshire. The plan is to hike alongside its watercourses over two days all the way down to Essex and north-east London, winding up at its endpoint, East India Docks. After a scoot round Ware’s historic streets, we discover ourselves on the grassy financial institution, the place the linear park begins. Our first leg is a straightforward six miles alongside the principle canalised part, referred to as the Lee Navigation. The Lea’s historical past is one in all centuries-long alterations to make it extra navigable, whereas the differing spellings check with the pure (River Lea) and human-made (Lee).

Stephen Emms strolling the Lea Valley Regional Park. {Photograph}: Stephen Emms

As geese honk away, we comply with the towpath lined by canalboats with names together with Widespread Individuals and Even Keel, skeletal timber mirrored within the water. The solar casts spectacular shadows underneath a succession of bridges as we go locks and solo fishers, earlier than reaching atmospheric Amwell nature reserve, residence to wintering wildfowl.

An disagreeable whiff quickly assaults our noses: “We have been within the lungs,” quips Colin, “now we’re within the intestines.” He’s not flawed: a fast have a look at the map suggests a pongy waste administration facility past the railings, so our tempo quickens till we attain the picturesque Dobbs Weir. After negotiating a trickier part of path, we’re up on the raised banks of the New River canal, one other of the Lea’s navigations, on a route all the way down to Broxbourne village, our lunch cease. Right here we pause at a shrine to a younger Arsenal fan, the primary of a number of touching tributes alongside the best way to lives misplaced.


Simply previous Lee Valley Boat Centre is The Crown, common with day trippers, the place we scoff fish finger sarnies earlier than rejoining the Lee Navigation for the seven-mile trek all the way down to our campsite. A light-weight breeze comes off the water at Silvermead, one of many Lee Valley’s few areas of moist grassland; cutely, it’s additionally a stronghold for water voles. Now narrowboats chug alongside us, whereas cormorants, withdrawing, flap their wings noisily. As pylons yawn throughout the abandoned panorama, we spy a canalside navy pillbox, a reminder of the significance of the world in the course of the second world warfare. Extra touristy points of interest – the White Water Centre, Waltham Abbey, Myddelton Home Gardens and Gunpowder Park – are frequently signposted, though time restraints imply a strict give attention to our purpose.

The Peaky Pod. {Photograph}: Stephen Emms

At Waltham City Lock the sound of visitors heightens and we slip underneath the A121 previous a gaggle of youths on scooters and, close by, boat house owners tinkering away as the sunshine drops. A boggy path alongside Stanstead mill stream is our ticket to the rear of Sewardstone campsite. It’s residence to a spread of lodging choices from tents and comfortable tenting pods to indulgent lodges with sizzling tubs, and we’re booked in at a particular, triangular picket “peaky pod” with personal lavatory, residing space and decked terrace. As soon as cosily inside, I verify my GPS; we’re simply seven miles from residence, and but, with its bucolic views over the distant water, this sylvan hideaway might virtually be within the Lake District. We rejoice with purple wine and confit duck leg at close by pub The Bakers Arms.


The subsequent morning, miraculously, our limbs don’t ache – though our heads do – and a boring half-hour stretch of primary street checks our persistence earlier than resuming the Lee Navigation at Ponders Finish Lock. The Camden City Brewery looms reverse and, past, Lee Valley Golf Course, the towpath awash with Sunday morning joggers as we spot a rave boat the place wide-eyed partygoers cluster on deck underneath blankets.

Three Mills Island in Bow Creek consists of Home Mill, the world’s largest surviving tidal mill. {Photograph}: Tony Watson/Alamy

As gulls squawk overhead, the stroll turns into dreamlike: boats nestle underneath graffitied bridges beneath the roar of the A406, whereas half-sunken vessels in varied shades of dilapidation line the far financial institution, their improvised gardens guarded by sad-faced canine. Our reverie is damaged at Tottenham Marshes, the place the boats get smarter, and we sink robust coffees at Stonebridge Lock Waterside Cafe.

The tip is now in sight, as craft breweries slide into buzzy Lee Valley Marina Springfield, with its hectic rowing membership, earlier than a pint at Clapton’s Anchor & Hope, its location at a former ferry crossing surreally coastal. The gravitational pull of our closing vacation spot drags us previous the revamped Lee Valley Ice Centre to the tugboats, cruisers, motorboats – and even spaceship-shaped vessels – lining Hackney Marshes.


After HereEast, the previous Olympics Media Centre now a tech campus and residential to a line of eating places, we cease for burgers after which cross the Olympic Park, Anish Kapoor’s towering ArcelorMittal Orbit paintings our visible information; for these wishing to experience the enormous tunnel slide it reopens this summer time after upkeep. We thrill on the new cultural hubs alongside Stratford Waterfront, from V&A East and UAL’s London School of Trend to Sadler’s Wells East, earlier than gawping on the cracked tidal mud of Bow Creek, with its Grade I-listed, 18th-century Home Mill. The world’s largest surviving tidal mill, its jaw-dropping magnificence is transformative, as if we’re all of the sudden on a minibreak in one other metropolis. Juxtaposed simply downriver is Abigail Fallis’s sculpture of twenty-two procuring trolleys piled on prime of one another within the form of a helix, one of many highlights of The Line, a string of public artworks following the road of the Greenwich meridian.

Stratford Waterfront options V&A East. {Photograph}: Stephen Emms

As we curve alongside the final watery stretch, the rusts of a winter sundown skim Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers. At Cody Dock, initially constructed for barges to unload coal, we traverse an industrial quarter to succeed in Lee Valley park’s most southerly points of interest, the character reserves of Bow Creek ecology park and East India Dock Basin.


Fortunately, the latter’s bird-watching sanctuary makes a tranquil end, full with picket hides, a rus in urbe idyll connecting us proper again to the beginning at Ware. Talking of which, the app informs us that, we’re greater than 30 miles in – 70,000 steps in complete – since leaving residence the earlier morning. As darkness descends, we pause for thought on a bench going through the acquainted spikes of the Dome, the Thames gray and uneven beneath us, cable automobiles illuminated within the distance. Even for a lifelong Londoner like me, it’s a second of marvel, a reminder that, on this metropolis, an journey in your doorstep at all times awaits.

The journey was organized by Lee Valley Park and Go to Essex: for more information see and Lee Valley Sewardstone has quite a lot of lodging from tenting pods to vacation lodges ( Prepare journey was supplied by Better Anglia (

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