Start: Lee Bridge Road (Nearest railway station: Clapton. Buses: 48, 55 and 56)
End: Trinity Buoy Wharf
Distance: 6.15 miles (10 kilometres)
Terrain: Flat and paved
Over the centuries, the final few miles of the River Lea, before it enters the Thames, has witnessed many changes to the landscape and probably none more so than in the last decade or so. From rural pastures to industrial wasteland to Olympic venue, the upheaval has been huge. Since Medieval times the river itself has been rerouted and additional streams created (River Lee Navigation) all for the benefit of trade, powering mills and land drainage. The River Lea once formed the natural boundary between Middlesex and Essex.
1. The walk starts at the bridge on the Lea Bridge Road, Upper Clapton. Between the Princess of Wales pub and the road take the short sloping footpath down to the river. At the junction turn right and follow the path.
2. After about 200m, cross the bridge over the River Lee Navigation onto what is now an island (the River Lea flows around the eastern side of the island). Immediately on the left are the remains of the Middlesex Filter Beds. This was once the site of a Victorian water processing plant. Water, taken from the Lea was cleaned by filtration before being piped as drinking water into north-east London. Since the closure of the filter beds in 1969, the site has become a nature reserve.
3. If you are taking this walk on a weekend, you may notice, as you pass the former filter beds, a hubbub coming from behind the trees adjacent to the towpath. This is the sound of over a thousand men, women and children playing and watching amateur league football on Hackney Marshes. A 136 hectares of land was reclaimed from the marshes, and now contains over 80 football and sports pitches. Many well-known footballers began their careers here, including David Beckham.
4. Back on the towpath and just before the Homerton Road bridge, on the opposite bank is a colourful, modern residential complex. This was, until 1982, the site where Matchbox die-cast model cars were produced. These toys were so-called because they were sold in cartons resembling matchboxes. The factory was demolished in 2010.
5. Once beyond the East Cross Route flyover the whole vista is transformed — this was the site of 2012 Olympic games. The whole of this stretch, for nearly a mile, is dominated by Olympic infrastructures including the Copper Box and the track stadium, now home to West Ham FC.
6. The Hertford Union Canal runs off the Lee Navigation at a tangent. The canal was opened in 1845 to connect the Lee with the Regent's Canal. For horse-drawn barges wishing to get cargoes into and out of London it removed a large detour that included the River Thames.
7. By Old Ford Lock there is a large privet hedge with a gate. Peer in, as this lock-keeper's house was home to Channel 4's Big Breakfast that ran from 1992 until 2002.
8. Not far from the Old Ford Lock is a series of large cast-iron pipes that run over the river. This is the Northern Outfall Sewer and is part of Sir Joseph Bazalgette's massive sewage network constructed in the 1860s and 1870s to improve the health of Londoners by disposing of human waste in an efficient and hygienic manner. A foot and cycle path, known as the Greenway, sits on top of the pipes, creating a link between Old Ford and Beckton. Once beyond the Queen Elizabeth Park, the towpath becomes much less populated and quieter. Follow the route until you reach the Bow Flyover. The path switches to the western bank and goes under the main road.
9. By the large branch of Tesco, cross over the footbridge onto Three Mills Island. This is another man-made island within the River Lea complex and is almost a rural retreat within the sprawl of east London. The building immediately to your left, the House Mill, was constructed by the Huguenots in 1727 and was a tidal mill for grinding flour. Four paddles were powered by the ebb tide and it is believe to be the largest tidal mill in existence in the world. Adjacent is the Clock Mill, with its oast roofs and was used to dry barley and wheat.
10. The path continues along a thin spit of land; to the left is tidal Bow Creek (River Lea) and the right is the River Lee Navigation. At certain times during the tide cycle, the difference in levels between the two water-courses can be as much as four metres.
11. Pass under railway bridge towards Bow Locks and take the steps up onto Twelvetrees Crescent bridge and follow the signs marked 'Leeway'. This will bring you on to eastern side of Bow Creek with a series of modern warehouses to your left.
12. One bright spot in this forgotten corner of east London is Cody Dock (Olympic gentrification never reached this far). This is a community space complete with a café, studios, workshops and a small exhibition space. Despite promises by Newham Council, the riverside route has not yet been completed, so follow the path marked on the map.
13. On Stephenson Street, just before Newham Way flyover, turn sharp right into Bidder Street and then left under the carriageway. Follow the path along Wharfside Road into Bow Creek Ecology Park. This park, created on a narrow peninsula, surrounded by the Creek, was once a yard of a large shipbuilding company. The ecology park open in 1994 and contains rare plants grown from seeds blown in off visiting cargo ships. Follow the path as it loops anti-clockwise through the park, following the river's edge.
14. Head towards the red bridge by Canning Town station and cross over Bow Creek into City Island. Follow the path through the new residential apartments and onto Orchard Way.
15. Walk under the flyover and continue down Orchard Place towards journey's end at Trinity Buoy Wharf. From the 16th century until 1988 this wharf was home to the Trinity House engineering workshops. Buoys and lighthouse mechanisms were constructed here and shipped out to seas surrounding the British Isles. The short octagonal lighthouse was used to train lighthouse keepers. Today it is home to the Longplayer project (open weekends only) — a 1,000-year-long musical composition that will run, without repetition until 31 December, 2999.
All maps and illustrations ©David Fathers 2017. David Fathers is author and illustrator of London's Hidden Rivers (Frances Lincoln), out 1 June 2017, and can be followed @TheTilbury
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