Distance: 13½ miles
Terrain: Mostly flat and on hard surfaces, with some ramps by the lock gates. Towpaths can be muddy depending on recent weather
Start: East India DLR station
Finish: Waltham Cross
Species of bird seen: 35
The River Lea has played a big role in English history. A major tributary of the Thames, it formed the boundary between Anglo-Saxon lands and the Danelaw in Alfred the Great’s time and it was the first river to be granted an Act of Parliament for navigational improvement (in 1425).
By the early 20th century, Britain’s armaments manufacturing centred around the Lea, and the first all-British powered flight was made by its banks. It’s a major source of London’s drinking water and was a key location for the 2012 Olympics.
If you’re concerned about how it should be spelled, keep in mind that in the past there have been at least 25 different variations. We’re following the Lea Valley Walk, which runs through the Lee Valley Regional Park. As for the river itself, the natural bits are the Lea, while the canalised part is the Lee Navigation.
In its entirety, the Lea Valley Walk follows the river for 50 miles, from its source in Luton to the Thames. The London section of the walk is 13½ miles and takes us from the Thames to Waltham Cross which, although in Hertfordshire, does have a station where Oyster cards are accepted (it’s in zone 7).
As there are plenty of stations along the route, it can be done over several days. There are signs — they depict a swan — but there aren’t many on the walk’s southernmost parts.
We begin by the Thames. The nearest station to the mouth of the Lea is East India on the DLR. After walking to the Thames for a view across to The O2 (note the Meridian Line marked on the pavement), turn left and follow the Thames Path past the Virginia Settlers Memorial which commemorates the 105 "adventurers" who set out for the New World from near here in 1606 (at the time of writing, part of this was fenced off, resulting in a diversion through a nearby car park). Cross the lock gates at the East India Dock Basin — what’s left of this dock is now a small nature reserve — and on reaching the road on the other side bear left.
Cross the road with care just before the roundabout — we’re now looking at Bow Creek, on the other side of which is another nature reserve, the Bow Creek Ecology Park.
Bear left, following the path to a footbridge over the river and then under the A13. It’s all rather industrial at this point; work is currently being done on a path called the Leaway (“London’s new riverside walk in the making”) which will run alongside the river but for now we need to take a diversion, following Stephenson Street up to Star Lane station and then turning left along Cody Road. We’re now walking through an industrial estate, but take a left along South Crescent to rejoin the Lea at Cody Dock — a community garden that has a café and toilets in an old boat. After this, we can follow the path alongside the river, passing a trolley sculpture (artist: Abigail Fallis).
When we get to Bow Lock, we meet up with another branch of the Lea Valley Walk. This one begins at Limehouse Basin (where we finished the Regent’s Canal walk) and follows the Limehouse Cut before crossing a white footbridge to get onto the towpath, but we can’t access that without a diversion via Bromley-by-Bow station and Three Mills Lane. There are plans for better access between the paths — the Twelvetrees Ramp, part of the Leaway project, is set to open in the autumn of 2016.
After joining the towpath at Three Mills, we make our way towards the Olympic Park, passing alongside building-sites before encountering another diversion as the towpath is suspended north of Bow Roundabout for maintenance work. This is due to finish in September 2016; a floating walkway has been promised but at the time of writing we had to divert via Pudding Mill station and the Greenway — although this did allow for a quick pit-stop at the Moka East Café before rejoining the river at the Old Ford Lock which is where we’re joined by walkers on the Capital Ring.
We now follow the Lee Navigation in a northerly direction, and we’ll be doing so all the way to Waltham Cross. It’s a canalside walk that takes in the industrial, the urban and the almost-rural, providing a real contrast as we make our way through Inner London, towards the suburbs and beyond.
Stations abound on the route so there are numerous points at which we can call it a day, to return another time. There are also various canalside bars, like the Crate Brewery in Hackney Wick and the Princess of Wales pub by Lea Bridge Road, and you may come across a narrowboat café (we spotted the Milk Float — "London’s freshest floating café" — by the Olympic Park).
Pass alongside Wick Woodland and Hackney Marshes (which has the largest collection of full-sized football pitches — 88 — in the world), and encounter another nature reserve in the form of the Middlesex Filter Beds and, after crossing over the canal, walk by the Walthamstow Marshes, one of the last surviving marshlands in the London area. They contain a wide variety of plant and insect life, and are a grazing area for cattle. These marshes also witnessed the first flight of AV Roe’s triplane in 1909 (he built it in one of the railway arches).
Cross the canal by Springfield Park (opposite the marina) and pass Markfield Park which has a café and toilets. On the opposite bank are the first of the 13 reservoirs that supply London with 10% of its water.
Those south of the North Circular are the Walthamstow Reservoirs which were built in the 19th century, while the bigger ones to the north are the Chingford Reservoirs which date back to the early 20th century. These are popular with anglers and birdwatchers (they’re a major wintering-ground and moult refuge for wildfowl and wetland birds) although you need a permit from Thames Water to visit them. You can’t see them from the Lea Valley Walk as their banks are inaccessible, which feels a bit odd as they’re such a big presence on the maps.
Our path crosses over the canal again at Stonebridge Lock which has a nearby café. After this, we pass Tottenham Marshes which, like Walthamstow Marshes earlier, offers some great birdwatching potential. Ducks, geese and swans can be seen for the whole length of our walk, as can herons, gulls and cormorants. On the banks, do watch out for blackbirds, robins and various tits and finches — the air can be full with birdsong.
In the summer there are warblers too, and we even saw some sand martins — a sign that summer’s not far away. We also saw some squirrels and a couple of foxes (one at the Olympic Park, the other crossing over the canal at Pickett’s Lock) and it is said that otters are an increasing presence in the Lee Valley (not that we saw any of these very shy creatures). There are plenty of people too, narrowboat-dwellers, joggers, dog-walkers, cyclists and anglers can all be seen along the Lee Navigation.
After the almost-rural splendour of Tottenham Marshes, we hit industry again as we approach and pass under the North Circular. The large chimney belongs to the Edmonton Incinerator, the largest in Britain — it burns rubbish from seven London boroughs to generate electricity for the National Grid.
After Ponders End it’s rural-looking on one side and old factories on the other until we reach Enfield Lock which is close to the site of the Royal Small Arms Factory. This closed in the 1980s, and the area is now a residential area called Enfield Island Village. For those who don’t want to go beyond zone 6, now’s the time to call it a day — just follow the London Loop to Enfield Lock station.
Further north, suburbia peters out after the Greyhound pub as we pass Ramney Marsh, approaching the M25. Just before that is Ramney Marsh Lock, where the friendly Narrowboat Café can be found on the other side. After that, it’s under the motorway and alongside an industrial estate until we get to the bridge under the A121 – which is where our walk ends. Places of interest nearby include Waltham Abbey, the Lee Valley White Water Centre (as used for the 2012 Olympics) and the Royal Gunpowder Mills. To go home, turn left — it’s a ¾-mile walk to Waltham Cross station.
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