FFS – Five Fantastic Stories about … The River Lea

The River Lea is sometimes called London’s ‘Second River’, which is odd, seeing as it starts in Leagrave, just north of Luton in Bedfordshire. Even that is disputed though. There’s a drain nearby which is often taken for the source, but it isn’t, it’s a rainwater runoff. However, the fact that the trickle that starts from the bog is soon joined by a stream originating in Houghton Regis, two miles away, might give the latter a stronger claim to be the true source.


So Good They Named It Twice


The River Lee near Enfield Lock

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the river though, is its name. It is the Lea or the Lee – or even the Lee Navigation? The answer is, it’s all three, at different times. It’s generally agreed that the natural river is called the Lea, while the manmade channel is the Lee. It becomes the Lee navigation where it is suitable for boats. Generally, this is taken as after it reaches Hertford.

Limehouse Basin, where the Lea finds the Thames

The modern Navigation resulted from a 1766 Act of Parliament which authorised ‘canalisation’ of sections of the river. In other words, adding locks and new sections such as the Limehouse Cut. Further improvements followed with the Lea Conservancy Act of 1868, along with further improvements in the 1920s and ‘30s, often for flood relief. All this said though, the first Parliamentary action to improve the river for navigation stretches back to 1425. On top of that, the Vikings also plied their pillaging along the river, so it has a long history.


Britain’s First Regional Park

The Lea Valley Walk is well signposted

The Lea Valley Regional Park was Britain’s first regional park. It stretches for 26 miles from Ware in Hertfordshire to the East India Dock Basin of the River Thames. It includes a diverse mix of green spaces, heritage, nature reserves and, of course, water. It was established by Act of Parliament as recently as 1967 and was the brainchild of Sir Patrick Abercrombie, who set it out in his Greater London Plan of 1944.


Brocket Hall

Brocket Hall in Herts – now a golf course.

There’s a public footpath alongside the Lea that takes you through the grounds of Brocket Hall. If you think you’ve heard the name before it might be because it’s been the home of two Prime Ministers. These were the Lords Palmerston and Queen Victoria’s favourite, Melbourne. On the other hand it might be because of the antics of the current Lord Brocket. He rose to notoriety when he pretended some of his collection of Ferraris had been stolen (when they hadn’t). After paying his dues to society he went on to do rather well in the ITV series ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’. These days, the hall is a hotel and the grounds are a golf course.


Thirty Billion Litres

Flood Relief Channel near the King George Reservoir

Two huge reservoirs, the King George V and the William Girling, occupy three miles of the Lea Valley Walk. Together, they account for thirty billion litres of water, and are known collectively as the Chingford Reservoirs. That’s a lot of water. They were inaugurated in 1913 and 1951 respectively and are separated by the A110 trunk road and are both Sites of Special Scientific Interest.


And Beyond

The Olympic Stadium – now home to ‘The Hammers’

There was an oft-repeated line in the excellent BBC Comedy 2012 about preparations for London’s Olympics where one of the characters, played by …., would justify an initiative on the grounds that it would benefit the ‘whole of the Upper Lea Valley and beyond’. There can be little doubt that the Olympics did benefit the river, and it flows just beneath the main Olympic Stadium in Queen Elizabeth Park.


There will be more on how I experienced sections of the River Lea (or should that be Lee?) in my book. Register your interest here.

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