Saturday, August 01, 2009

The River Lea Local History Month 2009
Leagrave → Leamouth

London's greatest river is, of course, the Thames. But river number two, the largest of all the tributaries flowing in from suburbia, is undoubtedly the Lea. It's a river of great contrasts, flowing from the cornfields of Bedfordshire to the industrial estates of East London. Much of its upper course is unspoilt Green Belt, while the lower valley will be completely reshaped as part of London's 2012 Olympic bid. The river begins beneath a cricket pavilion and ends beside a lighthouse. On its downhill journey it negotiates motorways, castles, reservoirs and stately homes. And it's more than 40 miles long, which means that walking the Lea is going to take me quite a while. Not a problem - I've got a month to complete the lot.

Before we go any further, let's clear up the controversy surrounding the river's name. Is it the river Lea, or is it the river Lee? Ancient Britons didn't care, because both names sound exactly the same when spoken. Alternative spellings have also included Lygan, Luye, Leye and Lay, so perhaps we're fortunate that only two simple possibilities remain. The confusion can probably be traced back to an act of Parliament in the 1760s, in which the original waterway was decreed to be the River Lea while the man-made channel constructed alongside was named the Lee Navigation. This distinction between natural (Lea) and artificial (Lee) is still adhered to today... most of the time, roughly speaking, pretty much. That's why the Olympics will take place in the Lower Lea Valley, but the linear greenspace between Hertford and the Thames is the Lee Valley Park. Whichever is actually correct, I'm going to stick with the Lea all the way down.

The River Lea rises on the outskirts of Luton, a lot further west than you might expect for East London's biggest river. But it doesn't take the most direct route to the Thames, instead trickling gently southeast-ish towards Ware before plummeting fairly directly south. The source of the river is generally taken to be in Leagrave (which makes sense, given the name), although one particular tributary snakes in an extra two miles from Houghton Regis which is where I'll be beginning my journey tomorrow. The first part of the Lea is surprisingly built-up, before the river escapes from Luton beneath the end of the airport runway and emerges into a green valley beyond. If anyone had suggested building an Olympic Stadium in the Upper Lea Valley, they'd most likely have been javelinned.

The character of the Lea changes somewhat after Hertford, becoming broader and gaining a navigable twin. Here the Lee Valley Park begins, created in the 1960s as Britain's first regional park, and blessed with watery spaces, dragonflies and abandoned supermarket trolleys. The valley spreads out across marshy floodplains, edged first by farms and later by light industry. A ribbon of settlements tracks the river through Hoddesdon and Broxbourne, with the Lea (approximately) forming the boundary between Hertfordshire and Essex. There's often a choice of walking routes - do you stick to the river proper or choose to follow one of the many parallel flood channels?

Beyond the M25 London slowly closes in, with the river (and adjacent reservoirs) forming a little-crossed barrier impeding communication from east to west. The Lea is wider here, and used to be tidal as far north as Hackney Wick (creating havoc for at least one passing medieval monarch). A just-completed lock near Three Mills has further restricted tidal flow, enabling the upstream Olympic Park to plan for an appealing waterside legacy. At the Bow flyover the 40-mile cycle path finally expires, and the Lea retreats behind a curtain of desolation for its final wiggle to the Thames. There are plans to open up this last section before 2012, but for now the river's last hurrah goes almost unnoticed at Leamouth - opposite the Dome.

River Lea - LeagraveRiver Lea - East Hyde
River Lea - Rammey MarshRiver Lea - Bow Creek

I hope to give you a flavour of the entire Lea Valley over the next month, from the trickly top to the tidal mouth. I won't be giving detailed instructions about which footpaths to take, but I will be reporting back on what I've seen and I'll also be stopping off at some of the more interesting attractions nearby. If you want to follow in my footsteps, your essential companion is a £10 book - The Lea Valley Walk by Leigh Hatts. It's full of useful maps and photos and information, and the author even maintains a blog where he updates readers on temporary path closures and snippets of Lea-related news. Or you could get on your bike - almost all of the valley is cyclable, and it's a much quicker way to get from one end to the other. From Leagrave to Leamouth. I'll see you at the source.

The essential Lea
Book: The Lea Valley Walk Leigh Hatts [recently updated] [I haven't got lost yet]
Photographs: London's second river [100s of evocative photos, old and new, from Peter Marshall] [fab]
Walk: The Lea Valley Walk [downloadable info and maps for the London section]
Park: Lee Valley Park [26 miles of open spaces and sporting places]
Geography: The River Lea [a rather nicely-done aimed-at-kids resource]
Other walkers: Stephen Dawson; Bertuchi

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Houghton Regis → Leagrave
(2 miles)

The windscreen wipers are working overtime. I'm aboard a bus meandering around the blander outskirts of Luton, relieved to be safely enclosed as a rainstorm deposits its worst overhead. Through identikit estates, picking up soaking pensioners and dropping off soon-to-be sodden pushchairs. After several unnecessary diversions the driver opens his doors and deposits me beneath a welcoming shelter. All around me the rain is puddling across impenetrable tarmac and snaking off in search of underground drainage. It is a good day to be a river.

Houghton Regis Parish ChurchHoughton Regis isn't somewhere you'd ever go without good reason. Once a backwater Saxon village, it was swallowed up in the 1960s by characterless housing overspill and lives on as a none-too-thrilling outpost of nearby Dunstable. The medieval parish church survived, but the 15th century Tithe Barn was replaced by an especially bleak concrete shopping centre whose only redeeming feature is that it was opened by Hattie Jacques. Across the street is the village green, formerly the site of an ornamental lake in the private grounds of Houghton Hall. The lake's long since been removed, but a watery trace remains beneath the trees beyond the cricket pavilion. For it's here, emerging from a pipe below a grassy bank, that the first dribbles of the River Lea's uppermost tributary can be found [photo]. The official source, go figure, is still two miles downstream.

Houghton BrookHaving arrived after a prolonged downpour, my experience of the Houghton Brook was of a fast and (relatively) deep stream. The channel's deep enough to cope, but I suspect its hourly flow is usually far less impressive. I followed the river by following the main Dunstable to Luton cycleway - along the back of some houses, across a feeder road and out into a larger open space. My map showed the main path continuing through semi-impenetrable undergrowth. I braved the brambles as far as seemed sensible, but the sight of a fox and the unmistakable smell of weed drove me back to seek a diversion. It was at this point, as I entered a completely exposed section of scrubland beneath fizzing electric pylons, that the rainstorm returned for an encore performance. I battled on, past the built-up ends of far flung cul-de-sacs, getting steadily more drenched with every step. To my right the river gurgled and grew.

The cycleway curved across the valley, crossing the empty nomansland between neighbouring estates [photo]. Town planners might once have thought otherwise, but this lonely track was nowhere I'd consider walking after dark. Then, right on cue as the rain eased and the sun came out, the brook headed off into adjacent farmland with a more-than-tempting footpath alongside. And this was gorgeous. The swollen stream skirted the edge of a rolling cornfield, starkly illuminated against the threatening sky [photo]. Its blossoming banks provided a safe haven for passing wildlife, and I was treated to a delightful succession of flowering orchids, some pink, some white [photo]. I'll let you know if I change my mind, but I suspect this half-mile stretch will be my favourite along the entire river. Almost perfect, at least were it not for the roaring motorway careering past atop a screened embankment.

under the M1The M1: Britain's first full-length motorway opened in 1959 between St Albans and Rugby. Traffic was considerably lighter 50 years ago, and drivers enjoyed the unexpected freedom of their futuristic highway. The M1's architecture was cutting-edge, all concrete bridges and curling flyovers, most of which survive until smoothing the flow with widened carriageways becomes more important. The M1 heads through Luton in an elevated canyon, safely hidden from view, with the Lea marking the northern boundary into neighbouring Beds. The river disappears into a nine-sided tunnel beneath the traffic, with pedestrians and cycles diverted through a wide subway to the south. Next time you drive by, remember the intricate infrastructure beneath, linking together what was here before the car carved through.

Another cycleway, another estate [photo]. Painted onto a nearby garage was the scrawled instruction NO PARING, with a K hastily squeezed into the second word as a dyslexic afterthought. Two fur-hooded parka mums pushed their offspring alongside the culverted brook, with an avenue of trees protecting us all from yet more rain. A teenager in a hoodie with a mobile on a bike brought a cliché to life, and his glowering stare encouraged me to move on faster. Eventually the stream disappeared to cross beneath the Midland mainline, with strips of torn paper and plastic bag dangling from the barred grille outflow on the opposite side. Leagrave Park, with its adventure playground and very amateur cricketers, came as a welcome respite. And over there in the trees, the official source of the River Lea. The last two miles had been technically unnecessary, a mere prelude, no part of the official Lea Valley Walk. There's no logic in geography, it seems.

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Leagrave → Luton
(4 miles)

Source of the LeaThe official source of the River Lea is at the foot of a notorious housing estate - Marsh Farm, on the outskirts of Luton [photo]. Rainwater gathers beneath the tower blocks (it used to be a "marsh farm", what do you expect?) and flows out of a pipe beneath a flat-topped concrete portal [photo]. There's not much of a view before the trickle disappears into the trees (it's much better observed in winter), but clamber down the bank and it's possible to peer properly through the grille into the official Lea outfall [photo]. It had been raining heavily prior to my visit but even so the water was barely an inch deep, flowing gently past a broken bollard hurled from the path above. Most rivers undoubtedly start somewhere lovelier than this.

Waulud's Bank: To be fair, the source of the Lea is also located within the boundaries of a D-shaped Neolithic monument, which is far more interesting. Waulud's Bank is a 5000-year-old raised earthwork enclosing nearly 20 acres, with the river forming the western edge, and may once have housed an Iron Age farmstead. These days it's more likely a spot for dog-walking, or for nipping off with your teenage mates for a crafty smoke.

sign at top of LeaIt comes as a bit of a surprise, a couple of minutes walk from the river's source, to discover that the Lea is already ten metres across. That's because it's almost immediately joined by the tributary I described yesterday, the one that runs in from Houghton Regis (and also because the water's very shallow). I spotted my first rat here nipping across the footbridge, and also my first heron taking flight from a watery runway. A most unusual sculpture lurked in the bullrushes [photo] - a selection of hats on stalks as a reminder of Luton's past glories in the manufacture of millinery. Esther Rantzen wasn't completely barking when she wore a straw boater to launch her bid to become a Luton MP, merely tipping the nod to a local tradition.

The fledgling Lea then took a sinuous route away from Leagrave station into the surrounding suburbs. It was narrower again now, but bold enough to repel housing from the surrounding flood plain [photo]. Footbridges led off across the reeds to neighbouring streets, while concrete culverts fed the stream from gushing storm-drains. The occasional road was crossed, and also the occasional long-distance Celtic trackway. It was a relief, even if only briefly, to discover that Luton has some relatively upmarket quarters. Turning south I followed a secluded wooded path to a grassy marsh and fresh-mown park, just me and a whole load of rabbits. But the town was never very far away.

Wardown Park MuseumWardown Park Museum: Luton's main museum is housed in a Victorian mansion in an Edwardian park. And there's plenty of history to see. Bedfordshire's famous for lace-making, so there's a room downstairs full of that, and I also enjoyed the room full of hats [photo] even though there's no way I'd wear a single one of them. Upstairs is a full history of the area (so, more hats, and the Vauxhall car industry, and the big Electrolux factory, and the football club, then right up to date with the airport and Easyjet). I also discovered that I'd arrived on the 90th anniversary of the Luton Peace Riots (and that's not a contradiction in terms). The town's population were so upset by the council's extravagant celebrations at the end of WW1 that they ended up storming the town hall and burning it to the ground. But that's Luton for you - down to earth and brutally honest.

Wardown Park's delightful too, or at least I assume it is when the weather's a little better. There was nobody availing themselves of the Lea-filled boating lake, just a few random strollers on the footbridge and an Eastern European couple allowing their daughter to chuck bread at some ducks. The Lea took an unusual route to the south of the park, flowing in two parallel channels along either side of the New Bedford Road, so each house required a tiny bridge across the stream to link it to the pavement. And then, just before the town centre, both rivulets disappeared beneath the ground - one into twin pipes, and the other down a flight of steps [photo]. To see what happens next requires waders and a torch (or you could check out this web forum used by civilly disobedient adventure seekers).

The Lea reappeared briefly in Mill Street (spot the clue there) then plunges back beneath the Arndale. I know Luton's shopping centre well, having lived several years slightly further up the A6, and very little had changed in the last 10 years. There were a few more closed-down shops, plus a big outdoor space with walk-through fountains to keep the kids quiet. I also noticed that a high proportion of the Arndale's shoppers had taken to writing the name of their next of kin in fancy gothic script on their upper arm, presumably in case they ever get lost. But at least nobody's burnt the Town Hall down recently [photo], and for that Luton can be thankful.

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Luton (Airport) → East Hyde
(4 miles)

The Lea's exit from Luton isn't glamorous. The river re-emerges as a decorative feature in the centre of a roundabout, then runs in a channel along the edge of the Manor Road Recreation Ground [photo]. Some over-optimistic planner had embedded a bank of concrete steps in the riverbank in the hope that local children might come paddling for sticklebacks, but none were evident when I passed by. And that was the last I saw of the river for a while, as it snaked off between some factories and around the Vauxhall Motors Recreation Club. For walkers a unlikely diversion is required, along the hard shoulder of a new dual carriageway and up the edge of a steep chalk embankment [photo]. To the edge of Luton Airport.

Luton Airport

Luton Airport: It was charter passengers on Court Air, Britannia and Monarch who helped to transform an insignificant RAF airfield to London's fourth-busiest airport. Why queue through Heathrow when you can speed out to Luton and be in Alicante in a trice? The airport's well sited on the top of a hill, and the land falls away sharply beyond the end of the runway allowing planes to soar into the sky across the south of the town. It's across this high strip of land that the Lea Valley Walk passes, immediately alongside the perimeter fence beneath the roaring flightpath [photo]. A gathering whine means takeoff is imminent - roughly once every five minutes on a summer weekend - and the plane that emerges above the bushes is usually either Irish or orange [photo]. There's an even closer view as the footpath continues through the thistly undergrowth between the double fence and a row of trees. One minute you're passing Emergency Gate 3 (unstaffed, exit into a cornfield), the next you're watching butterflies dancing round teasels (whee, Easyjet G-EZTK). Maybe one day airport expansion will mean the destruction of this unspoilt boundary zone [photo] and the rolling cornfield below [photo]. But for now it's hard to express the sheer unlikeliness of this interface between rural idyll and international travel-hub. Paradise? Nah, Luton Airport.

Someries CastleSomeries Castle: A short uphill diversion at this point allows Lea Valley Walkers to visit one of the oldest brick buildings in the country. Someries Castle isn't especially well named - it was really a fortified manor house - and dates back to the 14th century. But a fair-sized amount of the original lodge and chapel walls remain, and it's impressive to see such large chunks of medieval brickwork still standing [photo]. Even more impressive, given that there are regular flights taking off and landing less than half a mile away. The remains now stand within the grounds of Someries Farm and are supposed to be fully accessible along a public footpath. I wasn't so lucky. I'd arrived at feeding time, and entered the field facing three cows' backsides nibbling in a nearby trough. Before I'd gone too many steps further I noticed the rest of the herd approaching for a feed, and also spotted that I'd misjudged the animals' gender. My choice was simple. Explore a fascinating medieval ruin close-up, or retreat through the kissing-gate before any of the dozen bulls came too close. When one of the ambling beasts broke off to stare at me intently, his angry eyes burning into mine as I backed slowly away, I knew that I'd made the correct decision. Back to the 21st century, and a plane-spotting descent down the golden hillside.

There's little sign of the river for the next few miles. It's hidden beyond a wall in the grounds of Luton Hoo - a neoclassical stately home recently reopened as "Hotel, Golf & Spa". Or should that be Hoo-tel. The surrounding estate is massive, some of it landscaped by no less than Capability Brown, and that includes two serpentine lakes created from the waters of the Lea. I'm sure they're delightful, but I saw neither. Even the house itself was only visible once, slightly, hidden away behind lush green foliage on the other side of the valley.

Sustrans Cycleway 6Instead the walk hugged a mile of Midland Mainline, with almost as many trains careering by as there had been planes overhead earlier. This section's part of a very-nearly-complete cyclepath between Luton and Harpenden, created by Sustrans as part of National Route 6 but also for the benefit of local leisure pedallers. The freshly laid loose tarmac was great for two-wheelers, but a bit tedious for those of us on two feet.

There were once two railways here, and the cycle path now veered off to follow the defunct Hertford, Luton and Dunstable Railway along the edge of a kilometre-long sewage works. It didn't make for the loveliest walk, especially the clouds of hovering flies which were a frequent reminder that Luton's most unpleasant export was being treated immediately alongside. I spotted a disused station platform at New Mill End, but only because my guide book had pointed out where to look. And eventually I broke out into another cornfield on the county boundary at East Hyde, where the river at last made a welcome reappearance. This time if I'd followed the instructions in the guide book I'd have missed the pastoral view from the bridge altogether. Behind me Bedfordshire [photo], ahead Hertfordshire [photo], and still a very long way down to the Thames.

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
East Hyde → Harpenden → Wheathampstead
(4 miles)

Much of the upper Lea Valley Walk has nothing to do with the Lea and everything to do with the valley. That's because the river is frequently sealed off inside private land, and there's no way the owners are letting hikers and bikers tramp across their beloved property. To the northwest of Harpenden the culprit is farmland, with the wiggling Lea hedged off for the benefit of nibbling horses and grazing cows. On the outskirts of the town it's a none-too characterful industrial estate, then the local allotment society who've captured the river for their multifarious vegetative purposes. But the next stretch, around Batford, has been reclaimed for the enjoyment of all. And it's here that the idea of the Lea Valley Walk began.

Batford WeirBack in 1953 a local conservation group sprang up with the avowed intent to maintain Harpenden's Lea-side open space as a "green lung" for the town. Volunteers cleared derelict land, planted trees and reconstructed a series of weirs, transforming half a mile of riverside in the process. They were the Upper Lea Valley Group, and they also inaugurated the ULV Walk from Luton downwards. If engaging in active manual tasks isn't your thing, you can always enjoy the fruits of the group's labours. A series of stepping stones cross the braided river at various points [photo], but step carefully otherwise you'll slip into the raging torrent and look a bit of an idiot. I teetered perhaps rather too carefully beneath the weir, only to be followed across by a nimble pensioner and his unflustered dog.

Then onward via another section of secluded disused railway. I passed a bunch of friendly bird-watchers, no doubt politely fuming that I'd unintentionally disturbed all the wildlife along the strip they were about to walk down. All was going well until the path suddenly stopped at a fallen tree, with no way past other than to clamber high over a slippery ivy-clad trunk. A minute later I passed a cyclist who offered a cheery "Good morning" as he proceeded unaware towards this unseen obstruction. I never saw him return, but I doubt he appreciated the extra frame-humping required to continue on his way.

At Leasey Bridge a cattery has been built across the old railway line, so the walk is forced to climb to a much higher level via the front garden of an unfortunate bungalow. There were pleasant views from one slope across to the other - nothing particularly unusual for a rural valley, but rather special to a contour-deprived Londoner like myself [photo]. Parallel rows of cosy rooftops peeped above the treeline, while two teams of tiny orange ants could be seen playing slanted football in the distance. Regular notices along the farmland footpath warned ramblers that the surrounding hayfields were "private land keep out". Having heard the farmer's wife barking orders at her horse-riding daughters in the upper paddock, I took special care not to venture off the path.

Wheathampstead High StreetWheathampstead next - a quaint cottagy Hertfordshire town with several acres of more modern housing estates attached. St Helen's church is particularly fine, its 13th century tower topped off with a twin-tapered Victorian spire [photo]. The Lea Valley Walk crossed the churchyard (busy with communion-goers and grave-tenders as I passed), then descended the High Street to the river. A small weir diverted water down a gushing sidestream, while the main flow sped beneath the mill (now home to arty workshops and boutiques) to emerge in a broad pool beside The Bull public house [photo]. Below the bridge was a small concealed quayside, recently added by the town council to allow weary souls (or more likely can-swilling alcoholics) to stop and admire the river's reeds and ripples.

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Wheathampstead → Welwyn
(4 miles)

Water End FarmIt didn't take long to reach the outskirts of Wheathampstead, and then the relentless countryside began again. A fingerpost on the edge of town offered walkers a choice between "Lea Valley Walk, Waterend Ford" and "Meads Dell, Old Sewage Works". The direction of travel was clear. The footpath soon shifted away from the riverbank, now barriered off for the exclusive use of anglers, then nipped beneath a bypass into a silent field. Here was another fence, this time to protect water voles from human and canine attention - although most of the fuss appeared to be coming from a flock of swallows swooping down from overhead wires into the stream. Only a few elusive meanders were visible before the Lea emerged at a ford beside Water End Farm (mmm, Jacobean brick chimneys). A few inches of trickle slid beneath the road before rippling serenely onward into weedy shallows.

Brocket Hall EstateBrocket Hall: The great thing about public footpaths is that they sometimes take you right through the middle of places you wouldn't normally be allowed to go. In this case that's the grounds of a stately home, the 250-year-old Brocket Hall [photo]. Two Victorian Prime Ministers once lived here - Melbourne and Palmerston - and both are now commemorated by having golf courses named after them. The most famous recent resident is I'm a Celebrity celebrity Lord Brocket, who rose to fraudulent notoriety when he pretended some of his collection of Ferraris had been stolen. His financial downfall goes some way to explain why Brocket Hall is now a hotel and conference centre, seemingly packed with foreign golfers on my visit. I followed the Lea Valley Walk across the fairway and past the main house, before deliberately heading off the main route to visit the lake. You have to visit the lake, it's landscaped gorgeousness [photo], and the most majestic the Lea ever gets at any point on its journey to the Thames. A Palladian bridge, a tumbling weir [photo] and lots of waterlilies - proof that the very rich and the very naughty get all the best views.

Several acres later the path emerged at Lemsford village, once described by Queen Elizabeth I as 'the prettiest village in England'. Current evidence suggests that she may have been over-stating the case (but she lived only two miles away for much of her early life, and I guess she didn't get out much). The watermill's sort of pretty [photo], and was reputedly immortalised in the music hall song "There's an old mill by the stream, Nellie Dean". No, I can't say I have it on iTunes either. If you're out walking this stretch you might prefer to stop off at the riverside Sun Inn, not least because it's the first place for miles to sell Old Peculiar and chips. I resisted, and headed on through horsey paddocks over some rare stiles (one with an electric cable threaded under the lower step).

Beneath the A1(M)Next obstacle to cross, the A1(M). I missed the sign diverting me along half a mile of pavement, and instead followed the 'obvious' route through a letterbox-shaped tunnel beneath the motorway. Mistake. The river was high, the path was low, and on the far side the one had over-topped the other. No matter, I thought, it's a proper footpath, the water can't be that deep. It wasn't to start with, then the concrete surface fell away and I found myself treading in ever-deeper shallows. A series of rocky tiles and tottering bricks provided a part-submerged assault course for the final stretch [photo], and I was relieved that nobody was watching my cack-footed attempts to get across. Thankfully I didn't quite fall in, and my socks stayed perfectly dry as my walking boots convincingly proved their waterproofness.

Stanborough Park: Gouged out during construction of the A(1)M in the 1970s, two neighbouring gravel pits were later flooded to create this rather pleasant country park. There are two large lakes, the north for relaxed recreation and the south for sportier activities. Hundreds of Welwyn Garden City's younger residents were paddling around the edge of the north lake, many with those tiny dippy fishing nets you might once have used to trawl for sticklebacks. Others had taken to the water in rowing boats, in contrast to the more serious yachters on the southern lake. Here too were rather a lot of fishermen (and no fisherwomen, we've discussed that already), dangling their maggoty rods into the water attempting to ensnare the odd bream or carp [photo]. Between the two lakes another low underpass, this time safely dry, plus a café-cum-refreshment kiosk that sold me a scarily artificial orange ice lolly. All this plus the River Lea S-bending along the lakeside banks, before heading off south through a reedy nature reserve. I followed through an old brick tunnel beneath the East Coast Mainline, then on through quiet lanes towards Hatfield.

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Hatfield → Hertford
(6 miles)

Mill Green MillMill Green Mill: There's been a mill on the Lea between Welwyn and Hatfield since medieval times. Around it grew a small village called Mill Green, and the the mill's now known (rather circuitously) as Mill Green Mill [photo]. Usual story - fell into disrepair in the early 1900s, restored by a team of volunteers in the 1980s, now run as a museum by the local council. And all rather lovely, apart from one tiny technicality which was that every single person who works there completely ignored me when I visited. The volunteer sitting out the front in a chair by the 'Open' sign, he ignored me. Neither was there anybody at the entrance desk - not that the mill costs anything to visit, but I could easily have walked off with all sorts of local goodies from the shop. Downstairs were a few tiny well-stuffed galleries, including the Miller's Kitchen, some stuff about local railways and a temporary exhibition on Murphy wireless and television sets. Upstairs another volunteer was milling grain - properly with stones and spinning wheels and things [photo] - whilst explaining carefully to a father and young son how it all worked. As visitor number three, I didn't even get a nod. I slunk off to check out the millrace (dark and damp) before exiting to the delightful garden where cream teas were being served. I'm assuming that the scones were made from ultra-locally-sourced flour, but I felt 20 years too young to stop and find out, and nobody at the café entrance paused to entice me in. I suspect you might get rather more attention if you turned up.

Hatfield House: The young Princess Elizabeth (Tudor version) spent much of her childhood at the Royal Palace of Hatfield. The present Jacobean house dates from 498 years ago, and was built by her courtly favourite Lord Cecil. Today Hatfield House is a very popular tourist attraction (rather more so than Mill Green Mill), forever putting on big special events during the summer season to attract paying guests inside. I decided to give the place a miss, partly because of the £10.50 entrance charge, but also because of the three mile detour required to reach the other side of the wall from Mill Green. I missed out on seeing the 16 acre Broadwater, formed by a dam in the river Lea and landscaped with a spectacular oak backdrop. Instead I trudged along the A414 dual carriageway, following the estate boundary, as far as the Cecil family's sawmill [photo]. It still churns out profitable stacks of timber - including at some point (I suspect) the chopped-down remains of the oak tree beneath which Princess Elizabeth discovered she was Queen.

Harvested field near EssendonAt the sawmill I took a risky decision and chose to abandon the official route of the Lea Valley Walk. This has been revised recently due to the closure of a permissive path (somewhere), which requires a detour to the suburbs of Welwyn Garden City followed by a featureless three mile walk along a disused railway. Not a scrap of river in sight, no thanks. Instead I took a delightful bridleway along the banks of the Lea, past secluded angling platforms and a plankless bridge [photo], with not a single other walker in sight. The surrounding cornfields were the first I'd seen harvested, and a reminder that summer's glories won't last forever. A faded sign on a farmyard post revealed that I was on the original LVW, which could only mean trouble ahead.

So then the grim bit. There was no footpath for a mile and a half, nor any sensible off-road detour, so I was forced to walk along a busy B-road avoiding all the traffic for 30 minutes. I strode carefully (swish) round a series of shielded high-hedged bends (swish), and was surprised by how many of the oncoming (swish) vehicles (swish) had personalised numberplates (swish) (swish). After Holwell Bridge the Lea was completely out of sight, either lost within the estate of an exclusive polo club or merely hidden inside a private wood. I was glad to finally escape from the road at Water Hall Farm... until I discovered that I was entering a rubbish tip and had to step carefully to avoid being mown down by huge yellow dumper trucks.

Cole Green WayEventually the rubbly hillocks gave way to grassy fields - the latter reconditioned from the former by the tip owners. I passed one of the Environmental Agency's official gauging stations - a weirside hut where the Lea's flow is constantly checked to alert the authorities of flood or drought. Then on up the valleyside ridge, beside fluffy teaselly hedgerows, for a fine view of distant Hertford nestling amongst the surrounding hills [photo]. Ah, I thought, this route sure beats trudging along a dull old disused railway. And then I reached the dull old disused railway (now the Cole Green Way) and reluctantly trudged along to its shady conclusion.

A railway viaduct (and a lone horse) [photo] heralded the outskirts of Hertford, followed swiftly by the stadium of the town's football team. I say stadium, whereas I really mean a couple of rickety grandstands and a few portakabin huts. Hertford FC aren't having the best start to their league season (played 2, lost 2), and you'll get some idea of their professional standing if I tell you that they've already been knocked out of the 2010 FA Cup. The Lea flows up the eastern side of the ground, where it then joins with its first major tributary - the Mimram. Bolstered by additional supplies, the river flows into the centre of town noticeably wider than before.

Hertford CastleHertford Castle: As many as four different rivers combine at Hertford, so it's been an important settlement for more than a millennium. A castle appeared around 1066, of the motte and bailey type, and its grassy mound is still visible beside the Lea today [photo]. A succession of royal owners took charge, and made regular visits, until Henry VIII finally upgraded the castle to a proper palace. Queen Elizabeth brought Parliament here when London was beset by plague, although King James I was less enamoured by Hertford (poor hunting nearby) and the palace left royal possession. The castellated 16th century building that survives to be called 'Hertford Castle' is really only the gatehouse. Today the building is used as council offices, and opened to the public once a month. The surrounding area is a lovely quiet spot [photo] - a patch of municipal parkland bang in the centre of town surrounded by an (unseen) busy ring road. If you worked nearby, this is surely where you'd bring your packed lunch for a Leaside nibble.

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Hertford → Ware
(2 miles)

The White Hart, HertfordDespite being Hertfordshire born and bred, I'm relatively unacquainted with its county town. So when I strode in along the Lea, I was surprised to get a feeling that the place seemed strangely familiar. And then the Shire Hall clock struck two, and that's when the penny suddenly dropped. Trumpton... Hertford's suspiciously like Trumpton. The town centre is a relatively un-wrecked grid of backstreets lined by quaint-ish buildings - most of them shops, but also including the oldest Quaker meeting house in the world. There are higgledy-houses and meandering alleys, and there are oddly-shaped squares and regimented terraces. There are statues, of the sort beneath which a flower seller might sit, and there are proper greengrocers that sell non-shrink-wrapped fruit and vegetables. It really wouldn't have surprised me to see six lads from the local fire brigade come gliding round a corner at any minute. OK, so the clock didn't perform a merry dance on the hour, and I'm sure Trumpton never had a giant Waitrose tucked away in an ugly brick mall round the back of the bus station. But as generic Betjeman-friendly county towns go, Hertford's survived better than most.

It's in Hertford that the Lea changes, irreversibly, from a tame stream to a deep river. Earlier I'd always thought I might be able to wade across it, but from here on it's proper drownable. The town centre is also the upper limit of the navigable Lea. Set off in a narrowboat from the quayside behind Hertford Museum and you could, if you wanted, chug all the way down to the Thames [photo]. There's a particularly pretty urban section alongside Folly Island, where a row of flower-bedecked cottages face directly onto the river [photo]. Unfortunately the best view is not from the Old Barge pub nextdoor, it's from the tacky terrace of a modern Starbucks on the opposite bank (beside the aforementioned Waitrose).

entering King's MeadI headed downstream across the top of a lengthy weir - a popular place for preening ducks, but also home to a number of speculative riverside developments [photo]. Out here in Hertford, there's a premium for a Lea-view address. Then out of town towards the Navigation's uppermost lock [photo], the first of about 20 between here and Bow Creek. From the lower gates there was a fine view out across King's Mead - the 250 acre water meadow that separates Hertford from Ware. The land's never been ploughed, and is maintained as commonland for grazing and as a nature reserve. It's probably quite bleak in the middle of winter, but in midsummer it made for a delightful panoramic stroll.

New River: When 17th century Londoners needed fresh drinking water, and the Thames obviously wouldn't do, an ingenious entrepreneur called Sir Hugh Myddelton turned instead to the Lea. He funded the construction of a 20 mile artificial channel from just-below-Hertford all the way down to Islington, following the contours of the land to avoid any necessity for pumping. The head of the New River is on King's Mead, inside a remote-looking house-type building, with a sluice inside to divert water away from the natural stream [photo]. From here it runs across the meadows towards the edge of the valley (and some additional springs), before running pretty much parallel to the Lea at least as far as the M25. One day, honest, I'll run a detailed feature on the New River and its lost meanders through North London. For now, however, I continued along the proper Lea (and under the A10 Kingsmead Viaduct) into the town of Ware.

Ware gazebosWare is an old coaching town, ideally located one day's ride from London on the Great Cambridge Road. It's famous for a couple of things. One is for being an 'hilarious' homonym ("Where are you from?" "Yes, Ware"), and the other is for once having an enormous bed. The Great Bed of Ware was a ten-foot-wide four-poster, carved out of oak around 1590, and capable of accommodating more than a dozen heavy sleepers simultaneously. It started out as an overnight attraction in a local tavern, but has since ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The town's museum in the High Street therefore has to make do with showing a scrap of ripped coverlet, which quite frankly isn't as exciting. Nevertheless I rather enjoyed Ware Museum. It's a good example of just how much can be done with an extremely limited space, including a selection of Hertfordshire brickwork, a WW2 bunker and (at the moment) a geological exhibition on 'Chalk'. The nice lady volunteers who run the place are also charming (unless you're a bunch of irreverent 12 year olds, in which case they'll tut a lot after you've left).

The Lea hugs the town from the south, arriving beside the HQ of GlaxoSmithKline beside a strangely modern weir [photo]. Shortly afterwards the river crosses the route of Roman Ermine Street (but invisibly, so you'd never know), then continues round the back of a Franciscan Priory. Next are the picturesque Ware gazebos - a series of white-painted summerhouses perched beside and above the riverbank [photo]. Some are more than 300 years old, while others are more recent additions installed by house owners who fancied a very different style of conservatory at the bottom of the garden. My camera loved them.

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Ware → Broxbourne
(6 miles)

Departing WareOn the way out of Ware, the Lea evolves further. The Lee Valley Regional Park starts at the town bridge, stretching 22 recreational miles down to the Thames, so all the waterside signage is suddenly a lot better. There's a bend a little further along where the river finally turns to head south-ish rather than east, starting the long slog down towards Bow and the Dome. And it's here that the waterway splits - the official River Lea meandering one way, and the far-straighter Lee Navigation another. Walking alongside the latter is a whole new broad-gauge linear experience, and a world away from the narrow rippling channel experienced further up.

The valley's rather wider, and lake-ier, from here on [photo]. Along the next stretch are glimpses of various filled-in gravel pits - now the Amwell Nature Reserve, whose hides are a a great place (if you've brought binoculars) to watch for waterfowl and otters. Hidden behind the trees on the towpath side is the picturesque village of Great Amwell, through which the artificial New River runs - probably worth a brief detour across an unmanned level crossing. There's a greater flirtation with civilisation at St Margaret's/Stanstead Abbotts - two very-neighbouring villages separated only by the Lea. The Greenwich Meridian crosses the river above Stanstead Lock, known for its rare swingbridge (which allows those living in the lockkeeper's cottage to get their car out) [photo].

Rye House gatehouseRye House: The Island of Rye, surrounded by floodable marsh, has been a select spot for settlement since Saxon times. In 1443 a local nobleman built a fine brick manorhouse by the river here, most of which has long since crumbled, but the entire Rye House gatehouse still stands. It's no ruin, but a nigh-perfectly preserved example of high quality 15th century brickwork [photo]. Finest of all, especially to anyone with a camera, is the tall twisting 'Barley Sugar' chimney on the roof [photo]. And yes, it was possible to climb up there to take a closer look. First of all I had to cross the moat to meet with the gatehouse custodian, guarding her till (and the shop) from marauding invaders. I don't know if it's always the same lady, but the East Ender I met added to the experience by being chatty, forthright and fun. She took my £1.80 and then flicked a switch so I could listen to three wax dummies plotting to kill the King. Oh, yes, back in 1683 Rye House almost changed British history. King Charles II was due to ride back from Newmarket through the estate, where conspirators planned to ambush the royal party and restore brother James to the succession. All might have worked perfectly if only Charles hadn't accidentally saved his own life by returning home a week early. The Rye House plot might possibly have been fictitious, but its ringleaders were swiftly dispatched nevertheless. After a dash of 'history' on the vaulted ground floor, I ascended to 'architecture' level where it was possible to admire the rendering close-up and learn a bit more about brickery. And then the roof. I love a good roof, especially when I've got it to myself and there's a decent view. Here I could gaze across nearby Hoddesdon, and another nearby bird reserve, plus a large caravan park where the Showmen's Guild store fairground rides over the Winter. That droning buzz to the south was the sound of speedway at the Rye House Stadium, home to the Rye House Rockets (I'm only related to one of them, apparently). All this (plus a station on the doorstep, a decent riverside pub, and rumours of nearby dogging) makes Rye House a compact yet fascinating spot. Add it to the list of places you now know you haven't been.

The Lea continues southward, past the Speedway circuit [photo] and a pylon-infested power station, to be joined by the largest tributary of all - the Stort. That's the river which flows down from Bishops Stortford, obviously, and its also been canalised to enable navigation by narrowboat. There were a lot of boats on the Lea as I walked down, almost as many as there were bikes on the towpath. At Feildes Weir Lock a 50th birthday party (afloat) was in full swing, with the party girl identifiable by a cheap plastic sash and a rather more expensive glass of bubbly.

Dobbs WeirThe next weir was possibly the most picturesque on the whole river [photo]. Dobbs Weir has three long V-shaped notches, which greatly increase the length over which the water can tumble [photo]. They used to be much loved by daredevil canoeists, but British Waterways have now locked them away in lieu of expensive repairs. The area's long been loved by anglers (Isaak Walton included), not just the flat river above but also the weirpond below. Britain's largest chub was landed here (it's been beaten since), and there were plenty of would-be record breakers lining the banks when I wandered by. A favourite haunt of families who never walk more than 200 yards from the car park, I thought, aided and abetted by the presence of a fine pub plus waterside terrace. But that's Essex for you. For the next five miles or so, one's bank's Hertfordshire and one bank's Essex, and it's here at Dobb's Weir that a bridge carries the towpath from the former to the latter.

A leafy curved stretch followed, with the three extensive lakes of Nazeing Meads screened off behind the trees. I'd not have noticed them, nor their watersports, nor the cucumber-packed glasshouses beyond, if I hadn't stepped off the towpath for an inquisitive scout-round. My detour allowed a merry stag party barge the opportunity to overtake, until I caught up with them again at Carthagena Lock [photo]. The lockkeepers here keep a particularly fine cottage, with hanging baskets across the lower gates and a "ring the bell for service" kiosk hidden round the back. Negotiating the descent slowed the floating revellers just long enough to give me a decent head start into Broxbourne, where their journey terminated. Messing around in boats may be a lot of fun, but it sure isn't fast.

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Broxbourne → Waltham Abbey
(5 miles)

Broxbourne Boat CentreIf you fancy messing about in a boat on the Lea, head to Broxbourne [photo]. You can hire anything from a pedalo (for an hour) to a narrowboat (for the day), or (if you're feeling refined) go for a river cruise on the "Lady of Lea Valley". I resisted, even the special offer of a cream tea afloat, because none of these options would have deposited me any further down the valley. But it's a fine spot for a boating centre because there's a variety of interesting scenery (wooded, meadowy, residential). And, more importantly, there are no nasty annoying locks nearby to get in the way of horizontal watercrafting.

I followed the flotilla downstream, past some vole-filled freshwater marsh and a row of rich Essex houses with boats at the bottom of the garden. At King's Weir the Lea tumbled away to one side, and the towpath continued alongside the Lea Navigation. The artificialness of the waterway soon became clear - broad, arrow-straight and relentlessly featureless. A screen of trees hid the commuter 'burbs of Wormley and Turnford from view, with occasional views of bird-rich filled-in gravel pits inbetween. It was a relief when Aqueduct Lock finally appeared, if only because there'd be something different to stare at. I must say I wasn't expecting that something to be a bare-chested 30 stone man in a Viking helmet [photo]. He had more drooping wobbly bits than my brain could comfortably cope with, none of which were helping his boat party to negotiate to the lock. I moved swiftly on.

near Fisher's GreenThis was a lonely stretch, segregated from reality with only the occasional whizzed-by cyclist for company. A two-mile chain of wooden electricity pylons followed the towpath, their elevated cables prohibiting anglers from dangling any lines beneath [photo]. Another change in elevation broke the monotony, this time at Cheshunt Lock, and I took the opportunity to go and stare briefly at another water-filled gravel pit. Then on, past some very keen young canoeists, and a welcome bend at the turn-off to Cheshunt station. Oh joy, more straight stuff, all the way down to Waltham Common Lock. There were five parallel streams here, and I was stuck on the non-meandering one.

Waterway 1 - Small River Lea: Precious little originality in the naming of rivers round here, eh?
Waterway 2 - Lea Navigation: That's the straight one (here with a lot of geese, ducks and swans)
Waterway 3 - Millhead Stream: This one feeds the canal system of the Royal Gunpowder Mills (a fascinating and historic explosive attraction - do go visit)
Waterway 4 - Old River Lea: The proper river (and wholly unwalkable)
Waterway 5 - Cornmill Stream: On the west bank is the Cornmill Meadows Dragonfly Sanctuary (which is very pretty, but where I didn't see a single dragonfly). And on the east bank is the former GLC Arboretum (which contains my favourite mile-long meridian-following footpath between two granite statues)

London 2012A big surprise after the bend at Cheshunt Marsh was the appearance of a sprawling contoured building site. Hillocks of earth had been piled up across a former overspill car park, with red-and-white striped cylinders dotted here and there like discarded slices of seaside rock [photo]. An information board by the footbridge revealed that this was the site of the London 2012 White Water Canoe Centre. There'll be four days of canoe and kayak action down the artificial course, and those cylinders are for the pumps to keep the white water flowing. Unlike the Olympic Park downstream, these facilities are scheduled to open for public use in 2011, with a separate intermediate course as well as the scary world-class rapids. It's early days yet - more of a mudpile than a lake and torrent - but an impressive watersports attraction awaits.

Waltham AbbeyWaltham Abbey: I have a soft spot for the town of Waltham Abbey, because it's jam-packed with little but lovely things. It's only a short walk from Waltham Town Lock into town (you are now entering Essex), past the entrance to the aforementioned Gunpowder Mills to the doors of the medieval Abbey itself. Church services prevented me from getting inside, but the grounds were lovely, including the reputed grave of King Harold and a Meridian gateway at the entrance to the walled garden. The meridian was also marked on the pavement in Sun Street, not far from the small and almost-interesting Epping Forest Museum. Summer Sunday opening at the museum didn't seem to be drawing in the crowds, and the untouched pots of pens and scissors on the "children's activities" table in the garden told their own forlorn story. If you head for the town yourself, pick a sunny day, and remember there's just as much around the edge of town as in the centre.

And yes, that rumbling viaduct in the distance, that's the M25. London beckons.

The River Lea Walking the Lea Valley
Waltham Abbey → Tottenham Hale
(6 miles)

Enfield LockBeneath the M25, somewhere near where Junction 25½ ought to be, the Lee Navigation trickles into London. It runs through Rammey Marsh, which is the last vaguely natural bit of valley before Walthamstow, and where there's always a string of brightly painted narrowboats tied up [photo]. But it's not far until Enfield Lock, where housing re-intrudes. Enfield Island used to be home to the Royal Small Arms Factory, where the army manufactured a century's worth of firepower including the Lee Enfield rifle (it's named 'Lee' after its designer, not the river). More recently the island site has been redeveloped as an isolated housing estate, with a number of the original buildings left standing uneasily amidst a sea of bland townhouses [photo]. Some of the riverside cottages I thought were delightful, but the Rifles pub had long been boarded up, and the Swan and Pike Pool seemed to attract far more plastic bags than birds and fish.

And then the reservoirs began. Two of these (King George's and the William Girling) filled the broad gap between river and navigation. They're vast - a total of three miles long, and with a combined capacity of nearly thirty billion litres. I didn't see much of them from the towpath, just a high grassy embankment along which trapped sheep circuitously grazed. Horses nibbled the thin strip of marshland closer to the river, best viewed from a rare footbridge at Mossops Creek. On the opposite bank, a few swans excepted, the view was rather less pastoral. The Brimsdown Industrial Estate clung to the river, wafting the smell of something almost bread-like across the water, close to where a chain of pylons erupted from a power station to stalk the valley. It ought to have been very ugly, but this two mile strip was alluringly disjoint [photo].

Ponders EndDiversion: I guess it had to happen eventually. At Ponders End Lock a sign slapped to some iron railings announced "STOP. Towpath Closed. Diversion ←". There were apparently workmen refurbishing the overhead lines somewhere along the next stretch, even at the weekend, and a few hundred yards ahead the towpath was gated shut. Damn you National Grid, damn you. There was absolutely no indication of how long the diversion would be, nor precisely which route I'd be forced to take, just a series of yellow arrows to follow. A bleak walk alongside the roaring A10 ensued, although there was one bonus which was the additional opportunity to photograph the iconic Ponders End tower blocks from yet more photogenic angles [photo]. Eventually the arrows pointed back towards the river, diverting through the grounds of the Lee Valley Leisure Complex. Last time I was here, five years ago, I found a disused local sports centre, some buddleia-covered tennis courts and a locked-away driving range. Now a gleaming blade-shaped sporting facility had been erected on site - the Lee Valley Athletics Centre [photo] - through whose glassy walls I could spot budding young superstars engaged in pre-Olympic warm-ups. The diversion seemed interminable, trudging past the 400m track then back towards the river down Pickett's Lock Lane. Here there should have been access to Pickett's Lock itself, but no, the car park was full of construction vehicles and walkers were kept well away. Every couple of minutes or so a yellow-jacketed worker whizzed down the lane and back in a tiny electric buggy, just for a laugh, scaring off unseen dragonflies. And as the two mile diversion eventually drew to an end, I heard a distinct 'clink' on the opposite side of the river as a gate was unlocked and the direct route along the towpath reopened. Damn. Pylon-tweaking had finished early for the day, and I'd missed out on a lengthy chunk of the Lea unnecessarily. Never mind, I'm sure I'll see Pickett's Lock properly the next time I'm here.


Only a handful of roads cross London's Lea Valley, and the darkest shadow is cast by the North Circular [photo]. This arterial dual carriageway draws a industrial cluster to the floodplain, including one of the capital's three giant blue IKEA sheds. The Stonehill Business Park takes full advantage of the area's accessibility, its workers fed whilst sitting on assorted plastic chairs outside the Leaside Cafe [photo]. The dead-end towpath road looked like it should be virtually unused, but I discovered a surprisingly large bus garage at the end so had to watch out for approaching bendy 29s. Tottenham Marshes were considerably lovelier, with squelchy green walkspace to either side, and parallel channels which reminded me of the narrower river further upstream. That's where I saw yet another heron, swooping towards the focal point of my latest photograph three seconds after I'd put my camera away.

From here onwards the Lea became a linear village [photo]. A succession of floating narrowboaters had made their homes here, temporary or otherwise, and here they were reading on the towpath, blaring out loud music from astern or wandering back from Tesco with a weekend's provisions. There was a lot more food closer to home. The riverbanks hung low with blackberries and blackcurrants, and two enterprising teenage girls were attempting to sell fruit-filled bags for £1.20 from a makeshift stall on a nearby bench. If they'd managed to stop giggling they might have been more successful. A more successful catering option was the Watersedge Cafe at Stonebridge Lock, home to Lee Valley Canoe Cycle and a wide range of tasty fry-ups. Car-driving families like to park up here and pretend they've visited the river. They've barely scratched the surface.

[To read parts 10, 11 & 12, click here]

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