Sunday, September 29, 2013
NR400: 1613 - 2013
WALKING THE NEW RIVER
1: New Gauge → Great Amwell (2½ miles)
The New River is neither new nor a river. It's an aqueduct built from 1609-1613 from near Ware to Islington to bring freshwater from Hertfordshire springs to the City. The project was completed by Sir Hugh Myddleton, a Welsh MP, who went into partnership with King James and created one of the world's very first companies. To reduce technological complexity it was decided to follow the 100 foot contour, so there were some extreme wiggles in some places to skirt round rivers and streams along the way. Over 200 labourers were paid the equivalent of 4p per day to dig the channel, which was three metres wide and just over a metre deep. The New River opened on 29th September 1613, and 400 years later it still flows. Thames Water uses the New River as a source for almost 10% of London's drinking water, and they've also opened up access to a 25 mile footpath following its banks. So this month I'm going to walk you from one end to the other, as a quatercentenary celebration, in a series of sequential ambulatory posts. From Hertford-ish through Broxbourne and Cheshunt to the M25, then south through Enfield, Hornsey and Stoke Newington to Sadlers Wells in Islington. It's been a lot more scenic than I was expecting.
» Official 28 page guide to the New River Walk
» The entire route; my map of today's walk; map from 1834
» Stephen's walked it; Tim's walked it; Peter's walking it
» History of the New River; and another history
» My New River gallery (25 photos today)
The New River starts on the River Lea, roughly halfway between Hertford and Ware. The easiest way to get there from London is by train to Hertford East, then follow the river a mile downstream to King's Meads. This is an unexpectedly open space, all flat and floodable, which perhaps explains the lack of housing. Expect to meet locals out jogging, or cycling, or perhaps even rescuing a model plane from a particularly cowpat-strewn patch of meadow. Also, make the most of being immediately alongside a proper river because you'll not be seeing natural meanders or reedy banks for the next 25 miles.
To be precise, the New River starts at New Gauge House, a brick building in the middle of nowhere. It was built in 1856 to regulate the flow of water out of the Lea at a steady 2¾mph, that's 100 million litres a day, and still functions today. You can see some of the machinery on the riverbank, and a broad opening on the opposite side where water emerges to enter the New River proper. Immediately the artificialness of the channel is apparent, with straight concrete sides and clear water devoid of surrounding vegetation. Alongside is a list of safety precautions to be observed by anyone thinking of following the New River Path, posted here and at every single entrance to the path downstream. No swimming, no boating, no fishing... which is good, because people are going to be drinking this water later... no cycles, take litter home, no dog fouling. Here too is the first of a series of information boards, to be found all the way to Islington, showing a map of the river and associated local historical notes. On the majority of the boards some incompetent illiterate has named this spot "New Guage", although the board here appears to have been replaced with a correctly-spelt version to prevent embarrassment.
Almost immediately a repeating problem for the New River walker presents itself - which side of the river is the path? A low footbridge allows access to both sides, with the obvious path seemingly to the left, but actually right (which is good, because it avoids some squelchy meadow). Around the first bend is another low iron bridge, of a style you'll be seeing frequently as the journey passes. If this looks odd it's because water channels of this size are usually canals, except there's never been any boating down the New River so no excess headroom is required. That's also why there isn't a towpath, no ready-made public right of way, just a width of grass to tramp down. Ahead is the first long straight, one of the prettier patches along the entire walk... apart from the dip halfway-along beneath the A10's concrete viaduct. Enjoy the swans and ducks - there'll be lots more of those along the way too. And then look both ways before crossing the railway, checking for oncoming commuter trains before striding over the tracks.
Here we are at a proper heritage bit, Chadwell Springs. This is where the New River originally began, fed by underground aquifers rather than the passing Lea. That first source is fenced off and inaccessible, but if you head off course towards the escarpment then turn left you can get quite close. They call it the Banjo, being a straight channel sticking out of a round pond. An old Metropolitan Water Board sign warns against throwing stones, bathing or washing any animal here, while a much older stone monument rises half-legible from the grass. There's some cryptic reference to "43 feet", and another to "Conveyed 40 miles", which might be explainable were it possible to get closer. Close by are two lake-sized ponds, one full, one nigh dried up after the summer we've just had. And back on the New River are two further intriguing structures, the more picturesque being the cottage-like White House Sluice. Much more important was the Marble Gauge, a cuboid of Portland stone dating from 1770. It once contained a wooden 'balance engine' - a rocking beam-and-float device - which was used to regulate the flow from the Lea before the New Gauge took over. But it's entirely superfluous today, merely an ornate block where the New River narrows, and is bypassed by a couple of modern iron pipes.
Don't get the idea that the New River Path is this pleasant all the way along. King's Meads soon end, and the river bumps up against the edge of the main Hertford to Ware Road. Really close to the road yet generally inaccessible, thanks to a fence, which means that locals tend to walk along the pavement rather than the far more pleasant waterside path. Coming up on the left is Broadmead Pumping station, the first of several to be seen on the way to London, built in the 19th century to pump water from a deep well to add to the flow. It could easily be mistaken for a Victorian school, were it not for the telltale signs of a 20m chimney and a hall with tall windows where a steam engine once whirred. In 1980 the water board converted the building to offices, but since 2010 it's been empty, wasting away on the outskirts of Ware.
If you're here on a Saturday afternoon you can deviate a short distance up the hill to Scott's Grotto, a folly with a system of decorated chambers and artificial passageways dug into the rock. Alas I wasn't passing on a Saturday, which is annoying because I've been meaning to look inside for years (admission free, bring a torch). Instead I proceeded between road, river and railway to graze the edge of Ware town centre. Just past the main level crossing the New River passes behind some railings, the first time along the walk you can't walk immediately beside it, and most definitely not the last. A little road walking leads to a more pleasant open stretch, past a row of terraced cottages and eventually some fields of horses. Watch out for two tiny bronze figures in the river, designed by James from a local primary school as part of the Chadwell Way Sculpture Trail. I passed a lady out strolling with a red parasol, and a woman being walked by a dog, as the village of Great Amwell approached.
NR400: 1613 - 2013
WALKING THE NEW RIVER
2: Great Amwell → Broxbourne (4 miles)
I'm continuing my walk along the New River (n.b. not new, not a river). Still very much in Hertfordshire, still more than 20 miles from central London, and still somewhat amazed that drinking water for the capital continues to flow along this 400 year-old aqueduct. Today I'm starting in a village that celebrates the New River's creator.
“Amwell. Perpetual be thy stream.Great Amwell is a lovely village, probably the nicest the New River flows through, or at least that's how it appears from the waterside. The channel opens out to a broad pool, the site of Amwell Springs, in the middle of which are two ornamental islands overseen by towering trees. On one island beneath the willows is a stone urn, a memorial to Sir Hugh Myddleton, creator of the New River. His portrait appears on the other island, temporarily, as a 400th anniversary commemoration from The Amwell Society. And alongside is the poem reproduced above, carved into a block of stone and accessibly only via a private bridge. Take time out to walk briefly up the hill to St John the Baptist, a medieval flint church with Romanesque windows, and hunt down the Mylne family tomb. Robert Mylne was the New River's chief surveyor for 40 years in the late 18th century, and also had responsibility for the maintenance of St Paul's Cathedral and construction of the first Blackfriars Bridge.
Nor ever thy spring be less.
Which thousands drink who never dream
whence flows the streams they bless.” (John Scott, 1818)
Heading out of the village the New River again passes close to the River Lea, which lies just the other side of the Amwell Nature Reserve. That's Amwell Marsh Pumping Station ahead, in yellow stock brick, with water bubbling up from a pipe into the channel outside. And this is where I met Ben and Joe, two very lively golden retrievers who took exception to an interloper on their riverbank. They glowered in my general direction and considered bounding towards me, before their astute owner yelled to call them back, and the trio returned to their home on nearby Meridian Way. Because yes, the Greenwich meridian passes through the village of Stanstead St Margaret's, almost precisely along the towpath for 100 yards or so on either side of Station Road.
It was briefly unexpectedly muddy here, this before the latest autumn deluge, so I was glad I wasn't wearing pristine trainers. The A414 roars overhead ahead, the fast track to Harlow, and yet another pumping station (that's Rye Common, if you're keeping count). Here the path doubles back along the road into St Margaret's Community Woodland, away from the river for the first time, and up and over a steep ridge. When you're used to an utterly flat walk, this is a bit of a jolt. For the next half mile the New River runs again alongside the railway, first at private level crossing level, later on a slight embankment. Visible to the east is the barley-sugar chimney of Rye House Gatehouse, a local treasure alongside the River Lea, and to the south the three tall chimneys of Rye House Power Station. If you fancy breaking the walk here the platforms at Rye House are but a stone's throw away - I watched a workman scrubbing the station sign as I walked by.
The adjacent industrial estate isn't the most attractive, although ideal if you're looking for a bespoke leatherbound corporate diary. We've hit the edge of Hoddesdon here, although the only hint is an increase in the number of residents wandering along the New River to walk their dogs. And now a choice of route, as a low green railing runs along the riverbank and you can select either the left or right hand side. There are a lot of low green railings up the northern end of the New River, low green railings were clearly the infrastructure of choice when the long-distance footpath was created. Those and kissing gates, repeatedly installed at entrances to prevent cyclists from trespassing where two wheels aren't supposed to go.
Hoddesdon Pumping Station follows a particularly hairy road crossing, with awkward bends and no obvious pedestrian assistance. And then, if you had any sense, you'd follow the track down across the meadow past the horses away from the New River. Down there is Dobbs Weir, one of the more picturesque corners of the River Lea, because beauty occurs more often on rivers that change level. Instead this artificial channel runs almost-horizontally south, round the back of some rather expensive properties whose manicured lawns back down to the water's edge. Broxbourne station is coming up, past yet another Victorian pumphouse, with direct access down the embankment from the New River Path to the station entrance. This brick monster marks the outer limit of the Oystercard zone, and is by far the most convenient transport connection for several miles hence. You might well head home here. I'm carrying on.
NR400: 1613 - 2013
WALKING THE NEW RIVER
3: Broxbourne → M25 (5½ miles)
I'm continuing my walk along the New River (which, you'll remember, is neither new nor a river) to celebrate its 400th anniversary. Today I'm walking the remainder of the Hertfordshire stretch, from Broxbourne to the M25, through some lesser known Lea Valley suburbs. A fairly long walk this time, because the best bits are a little further apart.
Shortly after passing Broxbourne station, the New River Path deviates away from the New River. It's only a short break, round a single building, but it is a hint of what's to come. A board on the riverbank suggests you follow the Broxbourne Heritage Trail, starting at St Augustine's Church, which is the late medieval building with the tower across the water. This is one of the New River's more sociable spots, sewn into the edge of Broxbourne Recreation Ground which I'd say better resembles a park. What follows is more a road than a path, between sports club and allotments, past a locked-off bridge to nowhere. And then, oh dear, the New River goes private. You'll get no further than a low stone bridge dated 1926. Beyond are pristine banks with gleaming grass, the sole preserve of select houseowners who own appropriately-located property. No complaints, the New River Path isn't a public right of way, it's down to Thames Water who can and who can't follow alongside. But this particular diversion is briefly annoying.
This is the first point along the walk where I got lost. Two roads later the signs petered out, and what looked like the right route alongside Water Cottages turned into a blunt dead end. I eventually worked out that the correct route was further back, along the edge of a playing field, with a signpost positioned at the far end only. To return to the river it felt strange cutting across a meadow between high grass, but that's because I'd been conditioned to waterside walking all the way from source. The adjacent settlement is Wormley, with several fortunate residents boasting gardens that back directly onto the New River. Some have trellises, tubs of flowers and picnic tables, and a bench for doing the Daily Mail crossword, but they have to put up with the public rambling by on the opposite bank.
Wormley sees the first significant 'loop' on the New River, caused by a natural stream and its associated valley. The 400-year-old aqueduct had to divert to follow the 100 foot contour, creating a lengthy notch, which soon proved uneconomic. This problem was solved in 1855 by the Mylne Aqueduct, a direct diversion of the water channel along an embankment over the Turnford Brook. The sloping drop to either side looks entirely artificial, and the view isn't helped by a bland housing estate built more recently to either side. Also unpleasant is the subway ahead beneath the A10, a very dark tunnel, thankfully brief. Along the subsequent mile of river there's only one public access point, tucked away round the back of a large retail park. Nobody exiting Next or Boots or Argos wants to walk along the New River, they have heavy shopping to carry to their cars instead, so the footpath was unexpectedly serene - just me and the ducks.
Most of today's walk has been along the edge of open space, at least on one side of the river, but at Brookfield the golf course makes way for full-time housing. This used to be Cheshunt South Reservoir, a long thin Victorian creation that never reached its potential and was eventually used for fishing. A few years back Thames Water worked out its development potential and sold it for residential use, and now a bog-standard estate is slowly growing down the site from top to bottom. A harvest of plastic bags hangs from the gated entrance partway down, used as litter bins (and god knows what) by passing dog walkers. And so the New River Path wiggles from one bank to the other through the heart of Cheshunt, ever so close to the noisy A10 and past Broxbourne Council's main offices. I took time out on College Road to visit my grandparents, but you probably won't do that unless they're buried in Cheshunt Cemetery too.
And the things improve dramatically. Beyond Bury Green there are fields on both sides - one a school playing field but the other proper farmland. And that's just a warm-up for the stretch beyond Theobalds Lane. This exclusive cul-de-sac leads to two recreational hideaways, one the Tesco Country Club, the other Theobald's Park. The latter dates back to the 17th century, just after the New River drove through these parts. Local landowners were firmly against the advance of this artificial waterway, and Hugh Myddleton only succeeded in his grand plan by getting the king onside. James I had a royal palace on Theobalds Lane, and was eventually persuaded to go 50/50 on construction costs and profits, creating one of the world's first shareholding companies.
Temple Bar was relocated to Theobalds Park in 1889 when traffic on Fleet Street became too large to fit through, but was returned to the City and rebuilt in 2004. The estate's mansion is now a conference centre and is invisible to passers-by through the trees, but a long lush sweep of foliage marks the boundary. I'd recommend pausing (on a rare bench), where the river widens to an ornamental pool, to enjoy the peaceful scene. A field of maize keeps the A10 at bay, and that long grey shed beyond is the world's largest printworks. It belongs to News International - it's their post-Wapping bolthole - and is extremely conveniently located for M25 Junction 25. Hertfordshire ends here, just west of Waltham Cross, with a final flourish.
NR400: 1613 - 2013
WALKING THE NEW RIVER
4: M25 → Enfield (3½ miles)
I'm continuing my walk along the New River, the artificial aqueduct that's been providing water to London for 400 years. Today my walk crosses into London, heading from the rural M25 to the urban heart of Enfield. Enfield's one of the best bits.
In the Lea Valley, the very edge of London is marked by the M25. In this case you step from Hertfordshire to Middlesex the second you step onto the footbridge close to junction 25. But this is no ordinary footbridge. It's wide enough to carry a road, and a four lane road at that, but traffic is forbidden from passing across. That's because this bridge supports the New River, carrying it across the motorway in twin concrete channels with a walkway slapped over the top. The M25 had to be lowered at this point to ensure the New River continued on its level course. The river here wasn't originally this straight line, but instead an indented curve around the 100ft contour, edging closer to the village of Bull's Cross. Now you can watch the water flowing into elevated darkness, pause on the bridge to watch queues of orbital traffic, then cross to witness the New River entering the capital.
Your first experience of London will be the backs of some houses and a distant McDonalds. Much more pleasant is what you can't see through the row of trees, which is the horticultural playground of Capel Manor. Here 3500 students learn how to create gardens, many of them Chelsea winners, and you're welcome to divert inside and take a look [I've been]. Instead the New River dips beneath Bullsmoor Lane, then straight along a wooden-banked channel with blackberry-picking opportunities alongside. A narrow bridge marks the ancient lane of Turkey Street, here blocked to traffic, with its eponymous railway station somewhere off to the left. More interesting, a short distance to the right, is Myddleton House. Named after the New River's creator, this 200-year-old pile is the HQ of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority and boasts fantastic gardens. Well worth a look if you're in the area [I've been], plus the grounds contain the New River equivalent of an oxbow lake. Let me explain.
Ahead is the Maidens Brook, one of the steeper streams hereabouts, which proved a problem for the New River's architects. They were forced to redirect their channel around the valley to remain level, creating a lengthy diversion called the Whitewebbs Loop. That's now dry, replaced by a shortcut Victorian aqueduct, which leaves an overgrown earthwork snaking through the countryside. You can follow it across a golf course, through some woods, even as far as the Whitewebbs Pumping Station (now transport museum). One short section ran through the gardens of Myddleton House where it's still visible as a curved lawn, having been filled in (in the 1960s) using earth tunnelled from the Victoria line. No really. Meanwhile back at the Maiden's Brook, machinery has been installed to scoop off the waters of the New River through what looks like a comb. Two-thirds of the flow passes via pipeline to reservoirs at Walthamstow, where it tops up London's water supply. The remainder of the flow continues through a grassed-over chamber, with an overflow into the Maidens Brook down concrete steps, if conditions require.
What's left of the New River continues on the other side of this peculiarly artificial dip. From forked source it runs straight down the eastern edge of Enfield, past swans aplenty and another of the river's Victorian pumping stations. There are also increasing signs of urbanity along the way. Tower blocks, families carrying the shopping home, plastic bags of dogmess hanging from fence rails, the first appearance of red double deckers, that sort of thing. And then on Carterhatch Lane the unthinkable happens. The riverbanks ahead are fenced off and walkers have to divert down a parallel residential street. This sort of thing is going to happen a lot from now on, all the way down to Harringay, so best get used to it.
Enfield town centre was the location of another of the New River's more meandering loops. That kicked off further downstream on Southbury Road, the main thoroughfare hereabouts, whose traffic comes as a bit of a culture shock after a lot of quiet walking. Another swift straight diversion was created at the turn of the 20th century, this time via three underground iron pipes, with only the beginning visible today. But Enfield council have done splendid things with their redundant loop, creating an attractive landscape feature which winds through the centre of town in a sinuous wiggle [map]. If you follow the official New River Path you won't pass the first part, the weedy shallows along Southbury Road, but I had to follow the full twist because I'm a completist. Just before Silver Street the New River Loop turns sharp right behind the shops, just missing the market and the location of the world's first cashpoint machine. But it re-emerges as part of the reflective pool outside the Civic Centre, creating an attractive blend of new and very old.
You can't follow the next quarter mile because the New River Loop winds through the grounds of Enfield Grammar School. But there's access beyond off Parsonage Lane, and this looks very nice indeed. Heritage lampposts line the towpath, and green weed waves in the river (tolerated because this section won't be drinking water). I stopped to watch an old man watching a mum watching her daughter throwing bread at some ducks, which made for a pleasant scene. And I was bowled away by the location of the Crown and Horseshoes, set on a bend in the path by a footbridge surrounded by flowers and hanging baskets. If you live in one of the terraced cottages facing the water near Gentleman's Row you're very fortunate, and probably have a house price to match. Throw in several Canada geese in convoy, and a brief area of parkland to follow, and this corner of Enfield is an unexpected treat. Indeed if anyone ever suggests walking half of the New River, always do the first half to Enfield, never the second half from.
NR400: 1613 - 2013
WALKING THE NEW RIVER
5: Enfield → Wood Green (5½ miles)
My walk along the New River Path continues, following the artificial aqueduct that's been providing water to London for 400 years. Today my walk passes from Enfield to Wood Green, through an increasingly built-up suburban hinterland. And blimey, most of the time it's ever such a quiet path, with barely a soul around.
After a characterful wiggle through Enfield town centre, the New River Path heads purposely south. Beyond Chase Side there's a rare dilemma - well-trodden paths track both sides of the channel, so which to choose? It turns out that both lead to the same place, but the true path's on the left bank, running along the edge of Enfield's Town Park. This remains resolutely fenced off until you reach a narrow footbridge, then opens out to share its umpteen green acres. This bit of the path is rather lovely, raised on a leafy embankment beside the water... except it's a dead end. The New River exits the corner of the park without any parallel access, so where to go? It took me a while to realise that the fingerpost at that footbridge had been twisted to point the wrong way, and the correct route was up the hill. What follows is the New River Path's most brazen diversion, abandoning all pretence at following the river while that winds through a housing estate. Instead a shortcut leads along a lane through the heart of a golf course, a very private golf course as signs at regular intervals insist on reminding you. It makes for an elevated change in scenery, but doesn't feel quite proper.
From the golf course you emerge into the well-to-do suburb of Bush Hill, where there's another wrongly pointing fingerpost on the pavement descent. Pick the right route and you'll return to the New River at Bush Hill Sluice, a small white 18th century building still squatting over the watercourse. Do pause shortly afterwards when the path ejects you back onto the roadside. On the opposite side of the road, poorly labelled, is the oldest surviving feature on the New River - the Clarendon Arch. This was built in 1682 to carry the river in aqueduct over Salmons Brook, the local stream, which passed through a short tunnel underneath. A more modern aqueduct later replaced this set-up, but the brick arch survives, complete with carved inscription and a commemorative stone plaque above. When Thames Water restored this feature in 2000 they created a small viewing gallery above, with a flight of steps leading down to a better vista. Marvellous, except the gate was firmly locked and presumably has been for some time, so this New River treat went unseen.
Ahead at Mason's Corner is the start of London's longest street - Green Lanes. This is an old drover's road running seven and a half miles south to Stoke Newington, and the New River tracks it fairly closely all the way down. But not that close. What follows is a lengthy spell spent walking between the backs of houses through several successive suburbs. First up is Winchmore Hill, heralded by a genteel cricket club and a more frenetic backyard car wash. I spotted two lads here breaking the "no fishing" byelaw, but their line was firmly caught in a tree so that was justice enough. Past Highfield Road Pumping Station the banks are especially wide, then us walkers are turfed off so the residents of River Avenue can hog the waterside instead. Watch out for a series of mini pumping stations, squat brick buildings dated 1993 or 1994, of which there must be a half a dozen or so between here and Hornsey. And yes that's Palmers Green Mosque by the recreation ground, where a set of rarely-trodden steps leads back up to a riverside embankment. So quiet.
Back on Green Lanes the New River Path has to divert around three sides of Southgate Town Hall. This used to be the local seat of government and now hosts the library, although certain parties would prefer a free school lodged inside. Across the car park are concealed steps leading to a curving aqueduct. I had a hunch I'd meet nobody here, and I was right. Here the original New River followed a long narrow meander west and east to negotiate the valley of the Pymmes Brook. Look down from the embankment, past hogweed and convolvulus, and you should spot a dribble of stream flowing beneath through a concrete culvert. The next barrier to negotiate is the North Circular. A metal comb scrapes away leaves and detritus before the water disappears beneath the dual carriageway, while walkers must follow a more indirect route (or risk dashing across the traffic).
Our next suburb is Bowes Park. This is a pleasant-looking residential area, although lager cans, pizza boxes and a pair of trousers discarded on the towpath hint at a darker side. Ahead, at the end of a long dewy cutting, is the area's sole listed building. It might look like a bridge, but is actually the entrance to the Wood Green Tunnel, a 1km-long brick-lined conduit. This was dug in 1859 to knock off yet another New River meander, this time burrowing in a straight line beneath a built-up area. Last year it was properly cleaned out for the first time, with workmen removing 1740 tons of silt, two guns, three bicycles and a skateboard (Caroline has a fascinating account of the full operation here). If walking the New River Path, make sure you stop to investigate the Bowes Park Open-Air Gym above the tunnel entrance on Myddleton Road. Not for the exercise bike and ping pong table, you understand, but for the excellent series of information boards arrayed along one wall. These were put up to commemorate the tunnel's 150th anniversary and are particularly rich in maps and photographs. Highly recommended.
Thanks to the tunnel, the next 15 minutes will be spent walking on top of the New River. A series of recreational green spaces follow, essentially a segmented linear park. First up is the Myddleton Road Community Garden, a dead end, but delightful. Next comes Finsbury Gardens, with its bright blue basketball scoop, then the 'Hidden River Path'. Even with such hints, you have to wonder how many of those walking, jogging or dog-walking through here fully realise what's beneath their feet. At Bounds Green Road in 1931 the New River had to be protected in a steel pipe to allow for construction of the Piccadilly line extension underneath. Beyond is the wedge-shaped sweep of Nightingale Gardens, starting with an abandoned rose garden. And finally the paved way leads to Avenue Gardens with, ah, the New River emerging through a less ostentatious arch at the southern end. Alexandra Palace station is to the right, Wood Green a little further to the left, if you want to bail here. Alternatively, there are just seven miles further to walk...
NR400: 1613 - 2013
WALKING THE NEW RIVER
6: Wood Green → Stoke Newington (4 miles)
The New River has been bringing fresh water to London for the last 399 years and 51 weeks, hence I'm celebrating its immininent anniversary by walking the entire New River Path. Today I'm starting off in Wood Green and weaving south to Stoke Newington, at first fairly straight, then indirectly via a proper wiggle. It's fascinating to follow this 17th century thread of blue through the city that's grown up around it.
Very soon after the Wood Green Tunnel it's time to wave goodbye to the New River again. It disappears beneath the East Coast mainline, leaving walkers to divert round Wood Green Common and into an industrial estate. On a Sunday morning the police vans are silent but yelps of pentecostal praise can be heard, pinned down to an old warehouse beside the bakery. Eventually a rising subway allows passage beneath the embankment, which reveals what the New River's been up to in the short time you've been away. It's wandered off into the Hornsey Reservoir, that's what it's done, to feed the greedy appetite of the Hornsey Water Treatment Works. Filtration beds were dug here in the mid 19th century to ensure that the New River's water was purified before reaching London, and it still is, although Thames Water have recently upgraded facilities considerably. Several silver sheds sit beside the river, curved roofs glinting, containing technology unseen. It's a reminder of the continued importance of the New River - 350000 Londoners obtain their drinking water via here.
Stretched along the west bank, overlooked by Alexandra Palace, is a new-ish housing development of colourful apartments called the New River Village. Streets are names after springs near the river's source, and the old Hornsey Pumping Station has been pressed into action alongside as a restaurant and gallery. The estate's residents live their busy lives on one side of the water, while the New River Path crosses a grassy strip on the other. From here I watched a heron swoop in and perch on a pipe for all of fifteen minutes, entirely unseen by the families, shoppers and joggers opposite. Gradually it made its way along the metal, occasionally eyeing up prey in the water and snapping for the kill, then paused in contemplation by an outfall pipe. It's quite my best sighting of a heron since I moved to London, proof that you don't need to hit the countryside to enjoy a spell of wildlife-watching. [15 sec video]
At Hornsey High Street the New River ducks back beneath the railway, and is a much quieter place once walking access is finally regained. I really liked the next quarter-mile, from the gold-roofed mosque near the station and on past the backs of the houses on Wightman Road. Again there wasn't a soul here except me, the New River Path is not well travelled, not even in brief dog-walking bursts. A flotilla of Polish flatbreads floated out from underneath the bridge and proceeded to bob downstream in steady procession. They'll have got caught at the grille beside the graffitied shed further down, where Wightman Road rises up and the New River burrows briefly beneath. Up next is the splendid Harringay Ladder, a mile of runged roads that's middle class residential nirvana. Two dozen parallel streets stretch down the hillside to Green Lanes, and the New River carves between about half of them. There's no access to the towpath, Haringey council had every gate locked off a while back. But you can divert between the terraces along Harringay Passage, a looo-ong narrow alleyway, and perhaps nip out occasionally to spot the sealed-off river snaking through.
The New River slices Lothair Road in two, that's the last in the chain, but again the link is severed and the tiny footbridge inaccessible. But coming up next is a direct hit on a major public space, round the top end of Finsbury Park. The waterway divides the baseball ground in the northern quadrant from the main body of the park, again not that access to the water's edge is permitted. This time a green iron fence provides the barrier, softened at one point by a peeling plaque announcing the river's 400 year heritage. If you're in the area tomorrow afternoon you can enjoy the Hidden River Festival, a one-off event which promises "music, food, stallholders... and local historians". At other times you can't help thinking that not enough is made of this water feature, it slinks off behind some trees and you get the feeling people barely notice.
Yet on the other side of Green Lanes, the New River is entirely unlocked. Few head this way, although it's one of the most open sections in London, clinging to the edge of a contour as the land drops away to reveal the Lea Valley beyond. Here the New River forms the boundary between Haringey and Hackney, passing cranes that have been here for years building who knows what, and a number of swans. Beyond Seven Sisters Road a grille in the bank makes cacophonous sounds as the waters within swirl and smash around in the confined space. And then there's a sudden turn from east to southwest, because we really are following a contour here, no later straightening of the route has taken place. Inside this 400-year-old bend is Woodberry Down, originally dairy pasture, later compulsorily purchased by the London County Council to create an ‘estate of the future’. Fifty-seven blocks of flats marched across this hilltop, initially utopian, later rather less so, so Hackney Council are busy knocking several of them down. In their place are the soaring towers and shiny apartments of Woodberry Park, barely social housing at all, boasting waterside locations thanks to the New River's passage.
This is the final section of the New River proper, as testified by the reservoir coming up on the left. There are two of these, first East, then West, with the former still used for the storage of water. It's also a nature reserve with a Community Garden on its banks, and a pleasant place for a stroll. At the far end of an avenue of trees the New River suddenly turns through a comb-like grating and passes into this terminal reservoir. A peculiar mechanical contraption occasionally whirrs into action above, as a metal claw glides across to scoop out any detritus blocking the way, then dumps it in a pile on the bank. Meanwhile the West Reservoir is now a watersports centre, ideal for yachting and canoeing (and, from what I saw, falling off into the water at regular intervals). The former filter house has become a visitor centre plus café, while the dramatic-looking pumping station on Green Lanes is now the Castle Climbing Centre (open this very weekend for tours up the tower). London's New River water supply no longer gets this far, it's diverted to Walthamstow and maybe your tap. So the scenic stream edging round the kayakers is merely a heritage feature, but a damned pleasant illusion all the same.
NR400: 1613 - 2013
WALKING THE NEW RIVER
7: Stoke Newington → Islington (3 miles)
Today the New River runs no further than the reservoirs in Stoke Newington. But 400 years ago it ran three miles further, all the way to fields on the edge of London near the Angel. This final section became disused and was covered over in the early 20th century. But very little has actually been built over, so it's surprisingly easy to follow the route through Canonbury and Islington. Indeed as lost rivers go, this anniversary-celebrating canal is far less lost than most.
The 'Heritage' section of the New River Walk starts in Clissold Park. Ignore the two lakes to the north of the park, they're merely ornamental ponds on the line of the Hackney Brook. This stream was the last of the natural valleys the New River had to negotiate, thankfully shallow, but still requiring a Highbury-ward diversion. To continue on the New River Path walk halfway down the park to the Pump House kiosk, an original waterside building now serving drinks and sandwiches, and turn left. Hackney council have restored a short section of the New River through the heart of the park, fairly recently in fact, appearing suddenly within a fenced-off rockery. Two new footbridges have been built, each end marked with the seal of the New River Company and its motto "Et plui super unam civitatem" ("And I rained upon one city"). The waterway looks more river than canal on the corner by Clissold House - once the estate's mansion, now a Grade II listed cafe. And then the channel disappears again beyond an iron footbridge, because it isn't really flowing anywhere, in truth it's just another ornamental pond.
Another double-back leads to the New River Cafe, a 'proper' cornershop eaterie serving cappuccinos and salads. Look behind to discover a string of allotments along Aden Passage which precisely follows the original New River. There wasn't room to squeeze houses in here so they replaced the river bed with beds for beans and marrows instead. Indeed "there wasn't room to squeeze houses in here" explains much of what we're about to see. Petherton Road is a case in point. Houses were built down both sides of the New River in the 1880s - aspirational four storey terraces by modern standards - set back one road's width from the water's edge. When the New River was culverted this created a half-mile-long avenue with a space down the centre, once used for car parking, more recently turned over to grass. The local residents association are duly proud, and have thrown down woodchip in the central section to prevent their landscape feature being churned into mud. On Sunday they're holding a 400th anniversary picnic on Petherton Green, as it's now called, and will be making a flight of fishes to hang from the trees. A charming street, this.
The road continues, still wider than normal, past the Snooty Fox pub and Canonbury station. And then comes a rather splendid re-creation, New River Walk, a landscaped half-mile of which Islington council are very proud. A thin strip of green curves round from St Paul's Road to the Essex Road, overshadowed by trees, with what looks like the New River wiggling down the centre. But there are a few clues that it's not. For a start the water's not flowing, it's still, hence ideal for leafy reflection. More blatantly the channel's not straight, it bends and curves in an attractive manner whereas Myddleton's original channel cut direct. Transformation took place in the 1950s, creating a replica of a moorland stream with shrubs and rockeries of Westmoreland stone. Various sections have been upgraded since, adding wooden walkways and willowy pools, which so isn't the state of the open New River upstream. But never mind the authenticity, enjoy the ambience.
The most characterful part of New River Walk occurs near the end close to Canonbury Road. A small stone hut, thought to have belonged to a watchman, survives at a bend in the river. The channel here is the original New River, narrower as was the case in 1613, with its wooden banks (or revetments) restored. It's a favoured spot for waterfowl, and blimey if there wasn't a heron standing there clear as day keeping watch when I passed. This one's a long-standing visitor, it even attended the reopening ceremony (along with Princess Alexandra) when this particular section was restored in 1998. But that's it for water on the surface. The final section along Astey's Row is entirely dry, home to a linear rock garden (and that's Greenpeace HQ in the old boiler house alongside). Watch out for a map of the New River inscribed in the path at the far end - it's a bit faint, but a nice touch.
Essex Road is where civilisation hits. If you carry on walking down to Islington Green there's a statue to Sir Hugh Myddleton in the most prominent position possible where Upper Street divides. Islington really took to the New River's creator and the prosperity he brought to these fields, indeed he was namechecked again at the Myddleton Arms pub a few streets back. Sir Hugh's artificial aqueduct crossed obliquely beneath Essex Road by tunnel, then resurfaced alongside what's now Colebrook Row. When the Regent's Canal arrived 200 years later it therefore had to pass underneath the New River, which it does near the entrance to the Islington Tunnel. I'd previously thought that the linear parkland on top was just another garden square, and never previously twigged it was yet another manifestation of the New River. Again the houses are very pleasant here, that's just round the back of Angel tube. And don't forget to look up by Duncan Terrace to enjoy a cluster of 300 bird and bee boxes hugging the trunk of a tree, entitled 'Spontaneous City in the Tree of Heaven', part of the Secret Garden Project.
That really (really) is almost it. 28 miles down from Hertford and there's only a few hundred yards to go, cutting across City Road and Goswell Road a short distance downhill from the Angel. The New River would then have passed through what's now Owen's Field, a minor parklet alongside City and Islington College, where you could easily sit and eat your lunch or watch your dog perform without ever realising the history of this spot. A few more hints follow. Chadwell Street, named after the New River's springs in Ware, rises up to the glorious expanse of Myddleton Square. Beyond are River Street and Mylne Street, the latter named after the New River Company's Victorian chief engineer. And just off Rosebery Avenue is New River Head, the ultimate terminus of both water and walk.
NR400: 1613 - 2013
WALKING THE NEW RIVER
8: New River Head
Exactly 400 years ago today, on Wednesday 29th September 1613, water from the New River flowed into London's water supply for the first time. It had travelled 40 miles, ever so slowly, all the way from springs in Hertfordshire to fields near Clerkenwell. The difference in height between the start and the end of the New River was contrived to be a mere five metres, that's five inches a mile, hence the shallow gradient and the gentle flow. At New River Head a reservoir called the Round Pond was built, 200 feet in diameter and lined with oak. Water exited as required through a cistern and stopcocks, then via a series of wooden pipes to the company's subscribers in the city. Indeed the entire system worked by gravity, there were no pumping stations in those days, an astonishing technological achievement for the early 17th century.
On the prescribed day, which was Michaelmas 1613, a grand opening ceremony was held at the New River Head. The project's creator, Sir Hugh Myddleton, was present, as was his brother Thomas (who was elected Mayor of London later that afternoon). This happened...A troupe of labourers, to the number of 60, or more, well apparelled and wearing greene Monmouth caps, all alike, carried spades, shovels, pickaxes and such instruments of laborious imployment, marching after drummes twice or thrice about the Cisterne, presented themselves before the Mount, where the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and a worthy Company beside, stood to behold them.At the opening of the Sluice, a speech was given.
"Now for the fruits then: Flow forth precious springAs London grew, New River Head grew too to meet its need for water. The circular basin was extended and a larger outer reservoir constructed. Buildings grew up around the reservoir, including a windmill, a Pump Station and The Water House. The New River Company held its meetings in the latter, paying for an oak panelled boardroom out of their considerable profits. This was preserved when the Company was wound up in 1903 by the creation of the Metropolitan Water Board. They decided to base their HQ at New River Head, building a suite of offices and a laboratory block around the Outer Pond in the 1920s. The rest of the Water House was knocked down but the Oak Room was preserved, transferred very carefully to the first floor of the new building. No water has flowed this far since 1946 when a decision was made to terminate the New River three miles earlier at Stoke Newington reservoirs. The MWB (aka Thames Water) is no longer based here, the entire site has been converted to luxury apartments. But Thames Water are still allowed access into the Oak Room for 28 days a year, and for two of those they extend that invite to Open House visitors. So I went.
So long and dearly sought for, and now bring
Comfort to all that love thee; loudly sing
And with thy crystal murmurs strook together
Bid all thy true well wishers welcome hither."
At which words, the flood gates flew open, the stream ran gallantly into the Cisterne, drums and trumpets sounding in triumphal manner; and a brave peal of chambers gave a full issue to the intended entertainment.
The Oak Room is a marvellous sight. You gain entrance via the seriously grand doors off Rosebery Avenue, which brings you to the concierge desk, then up the stairs into the former admin block. It seems strange passing people's front doors where previously there'd have been telephone receptionists and shorthand typists, but I bet each flat packs a pretty impressive price tag. Head up the stairs and round a landing to first a narrow anteroom and then the Oak Room proper. It's well named. The walls are darkly panelled, with a truly magnificent carving of a royal coat of arms in wood above the fireplace. It's thought to be the work of Grinling Gibbons - nobody's truly sure, although few would have the skill to carve so complex a design (including protruding unicorn horn) in one piece. Alongside are carvings of watery creatures such as lobsters and crabs, plus a few more than might actually have been found in or on the New River. And then there's the ceiling. A central lozenge features a portrait of King William III, who was on the throne in 1697 when the Oak Room was built, surrounded by cherubs and a ring of gilded plasterwork. Bordering that are further moulded designs depicting villages and towns to be found along the New River, plus dolphins and mermaids and swans and that sort of thing. There's big money in water supply, that fact never seems to change, although Thames Water no longer boasts a luxury HQ and now fires out bills from a trading estate in Swindon.
New River Head still covers a sizeable portion of Upper Clerkenwell close to Sadler's Wells Theatre. It takes at least five minutes to walk all the way around, during which time you might spot the remains of the windmill, an 18th century engine house and a John Lewis van delivering monster electricals to a resident. Thames Water still have a borehole here which draws groundwater from the aquifers, and the site has been connected to the enormous subterranean Thames Water Ring Main. Meanwhile slightly further up the hill Claremont Square still houses an underground reservoir for the storage of water, this on the site of the original Upper Pond.
But for the New River aficionado, where you need to go is Myddleton Passage, round the back of the theatre up the alley by the pub. The very last gateway is unlocked during daylight hours and allows entry to a viewing platform over the site. It's hard to make out much of the original structure, now that most of the internal space is ornamental gardens, but a plaque shows an evocative illustration of the ponds and the broader site in 1752. There's a lot of additional information on some boards down the side, with plenty of detail on the history of New River Head, the New River and the New River Path. Throw in a schematic map of the river etched into the concrete, and the whole thing is very nicely done. If you're not up for a long walk you could always come pay tribute here today, plus you might get to watch a recreation of that grand opening ceremony 400 years ago. Hugh Myddleton's Glory is being acted out on the lawns with music, food and fireworks, attended by Thames Water grandees, residents of the current building, and other invited guests.
And that really is it for my month-long journey down the New River. London owes much of its prosperity to Sir Hugh's wooden channel, because without a fresh supply of drinking water there could have been no expansion. Even more impressive, then, that 8% of the capital's water supply still arrives this way, slinking gently through the fields and towns of Herts and Middlesex, 400 years on.
NR400: 1613 - 2013
WALKING THE NEW RIVER
Hertford → Islington (28 miles)
If you've ever fancied walking the New River, there's never been a better time. Indeed I suspect there'll be more people walking it this weekend than ever before, because it's 400 years old today, which is a damned impressive anniversary for a 17th century aqueduct that still works. Some will only walk a short part, some will walk for longer, and a few valiant souls are even planning to walk the lot. I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy walking the New River Path, I wasn't convinced a private canal would hit the spot. But I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the walk, from scenic Herts through built-up Middlesex backwaters to the heart of the city. And I was rewarded by a number of intriguing places I passed through along the way, many that I'd never have found myself in otherwise. You should have a go one day. Here's my advice.
Get a map: If you don't have a map of some sort, you will get lost. The route is well signposted for most of the way, but there are sufficient gremlins in certain spots to ensure you'll miss the path. You'd think following a river would be easy, but the path alongside is sometimes blocked off and you're diverted through residential streets instead. An Ordnance Survey map's no help. The New River Path isn't a public right of way - it's been opened permissively by Thames Water - so no useful dotted line appears on any Landranger or Explorer. But you will find the New River Path marked on the excellent OpenStreetMap, see here, all the way along (I think) the correct route. I've also had a go at mapping the path on a Google map (the management accepts no responsibility for any accident, injury or tantrums that may be caused). But what you really should do is get hold of the official New River Path booklet published by Thames Water. It's full colour, it's 28 pages long, and it shows not just where to go but also the major points of interest on the way. I eventually got hold of a copy last weekend, after I'd finished walking the whole thing, thanks to a useful table of goodies at an Open House event. You can ring (0845 9200 800) or write (PO Box 436 Swindon SN38 1TU) for a copy, so it says on the back. Or you can download it, thanks to a page that appeared on the Thames Water website less than two weeks ago. That full New River Path booklet is here. You'll want it.
Check out an old map: The original New River was 40 miles long, but has been straightened over the years to cut off several contour-hugging detours. It's informative to see where the 400-year old route deviates, indeed some of the larger loops near Enfield are walkable in their own right. A wonderful (zoomable) 1834 map can be found here.
Wear sensible shoes: The New River was never a working canal so never had a proper towpath. This means the banks are often just grass, which can get muddy and squelchy after wet weather. Perfectly fine in the summer, but best be prepared at other times.
Walk south: Obviously, because that's the direction the New River flows.
How many days does it take to walk the New River Path? That depends. It definitely takes more than one, and it probably takes more than two. I did it in three. You might feel more comfortable doing it in four. One way to find out is to start walking at the Hertford end and see how far south you get before you feel tired. Stop at Broxbourne and you're a 4-dayer. Continue to Cheshunt and you're a 3-dayer. Cross the M25 and you can do it in two.
The New River Path in two days: The halfway point is roughly Enfield. To be a little more accurate, it's approximately Turkey Street. You can catch trains fairly easily here, or from either of the two main Enfield stations. You don't need to stay overnight in the area (although that's what one dedicated group is doing this weekend, sleeping over at Theobald's Park).
The New River Path in three days: I ended my first day in Cheshunt, although be warned it's a non-trivial walk from the path (on the New River) to the station (on the Lea). Then I ended my second day at Palmer's Green, to create three roughly equal sections. Did I tell you how enjoyable it was?
The New River Path in four days: This means four sections each approximately seven miles in length. Day one ends at Broxbourne, immediately adjacent to the station, which is ideal. Day two ends in Enfield, probably Enfield Town rather than Enfield Chase. Day three ends at Alexandra Palace, or Wood Green, take your pick. And day four is urban all the way to Islington.
If you don't want to walk it all, which bit? The Hertfordshire half is definitely prettier than the London half... in which case I'd suggest the first seven miles from Ware to Broxbourne. If you want to get the full flavour of the New River, rural and urban, then Cheshunt to Enfield delivers this in only five miles. And if it's an inner London heritage stroll you're after, maybe try Finsbury Park to Angel which again is five miles, mostly (but not entirely) on pavement.
My New River gallery
There are 146 photographs altogether. [slideshow]