The Lea Valley Walk is 50 mile route following the River Lea from Luton to the Thames by way of London’ former market garden valley. Prince Charles has described the Lee Valley as “a classic example of what could be done with derelict land if impetus and determination was there”. Now the greening is continuing with the Olympic Games due to be held in the valley’s last derelict stretch.
Lea or Lee
There are at least 25 different spellings for the river’ name. In addition to Lee and Lea past documents record Lay, Ley, Leye, Lyge and even Lyzan. The spelling by 1520 appears to have been Lee but, in the 19th century, Ordnance Survey decided to use both Lee and Lea. The source is at Leagrave. Now the valley is usually known as the Lee Valley, after the Lee Valley Regional Park, whilst the river is the River Lea with the canal sections being called the Lee Navigation.
Lee Valley Regional Park
The Lee Valley Park, established by act of parliament in 1967 and Britain’s first Regional Park, stretches 26 miles (41km) from Ware in Hertfordshire to the River Thames in London. The Park has become a unique blend of countryside, nature reserves, urban green spaces, heritage sites and sports facilities, and embracing more open water than the Norfolk Broads.
River Lea and Lee Navigation
The River Lea, which rises at Leagrave in Bedfordshire, is 58 miles (98km) long, with much of its last 27 miles (43km) from Hertford canalised from 1767 by engineer John Smeaton. Occasionally the navigation leaves the river to follow Smeaton’s new channels, so that there can be meandering stretches of the Old River Lea flowing nearby. Only the first two miles of the navigation falls outside the Lee Valley Regional Park.
Lea Valley Walk
The path alongside the non-navigable river around Harpenden was pioneered by the Upper Lea Valley Group as early as 1972. This was the very first section of the Lea Valley Walk from Leagrave to London which eventually opened in 1993. At the millennium it was extended south to the confluence of the Lea with the Thames.
This is a key route in the Mayor of London’s strategic network of six walking routes which are “up to a standard where they are connected, conspicuous, comfortable, convenient and convivial”.
Wildlife and Farmland
In Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire the way is through fields with cattle and between paddocks. Large populations of the endangered water vole are found between Hertford and Cheshunt. The Park’s water meadows at Waltham Abbey are a dragonfly sanctuary. In the summer kingfishers can be seen at the source,in the Park and even at Bow. Over 200 different bird species can be found within the boundaries of the Park, which is a major wintering area for birds, especially bitterns. Walkers should remember that the swans can fall ill if fed bread and do survive best on the natural foods they find themselves.
The Lea Valley Walk logo is a swan designed by the Upper Lea Group but now used from source to mouth and appearing in various forms from the concrete outline in the Luton pavements to the waymarks on posts.
The Lee Valley, once the boundary between the land ruled by Alfred the Great and Danelaw to the north, has been the setting for many landmark events in England’s history. Christian culture emerged from Hertford when in 672 the first national church synod united the Celtic and new Roman Christian traditions. King Harold came to Waltham Abbey in 1066 prior to the Battle of Hastings, and his subsequent burial there marked the end of the Saxon era and the beginning of the new dynasty and the Norman influence
.Edward VI became King at Hertford and Elizabeth I was downstream at Hatfield when she was informed that she was Queen.
Another dramatic change of dynasty came in 1603 when the Tudor line gave way to the Scottish Stuarts. James VI of Scotland entered London by way of the Lea Valley, pausing near Cheshunt to form his English government. He also brought golf, which now flourishes in the Valley.
Queen Victoria’s influential first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, grew up and worked alongside the River Lea at Brocket Park. Later the Queen’s least favourite premier, Palmerston, inherited the same house. Her very last was Lord Salisbury, who lived at Hatfield. Arthur Balfour, an early 20th-century prime minister, began his education at Hoddesdon and was MP for Hertford.
England’s architectural heritage is well represented in the Valley. Early brick mansions are to be found both near the source in Bedfordshire and in the riverside London village of Homerton. Rye House near Hoddesdon is a fine example of early brickwork. Great stately homes, such as Luton Hoo and Brocket Park, have enhanced the river by creating great lakes as a backdrop to varied styles of building visited by royalty and other famous figures. There are also castles, ancient pubs and at Ware the unique gazebos.
Above all there are the many churches from Saxon foundations to the unusual 19th-century brick building at East Hyde.
In the Lea Valley the great hymn writer William Cowper composed now famous hymns. Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler is a tribute to the River Lea, which his contemporary John Stow described as “a pleasant and useful river”.
Up and Down the Valley
On the Lea Valley Walk one will come across familiar names. A 20th-century descendant of 15th-century Lord Wenlock, associated with Luton Church and Someries Castle, is commemorated at Sutton House in Homerton. Meanwhile, Sir Ralph Sadleir’s daughter moved upstream from Sutton House to live at Stanstead Abbotts where she entertained Queen Elizabeth I. The Cecils, who presided at Theobalds under the Tudors, moved upstream to Hatfield under the Stuarts, leaving their old house for the James I to use as his Lee Valley residence.
The Brocket family of Brocket Hall is associated with Wheathampstead, Lemsford and Hatfield.The valley has long been a green corridor for people on foot, horseback and water. The Romans built parallel Ermine Street and the Danes rowed up the river in 854. Poet William Warner still referred in Elizabethan times to Ware High Street as “Walsingham Way” because once the valley had been the pilgrim route from London to the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham. The last horse-drawn barge passed along the canal in the mid-1950s and now the towpath is a walking route into London linking the ancient Icknield Way with the Thames Path.
The valley south of Waltham Abbey has been used as a place to experiment and mould the future. The first British air flight took off from the river’s marshland. “Plastic was invented here” says film director Paul Kelly. “You had the Bryant and May match strike here which led to the Labour movement. The Lee Valley is where the twentieth century was born”. His 2005 film What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, made with pop band Saint Etienne, captures the look and moods of the area just prior to the Olympic makeover.
The Olympic Future
“Go and see the area now so that you can compare it later,” said Mayor of London Ken Livingstone in Singapore in 2005 on the day when London won its bid to stage the 2012 Olympic Games. When the Lee Valley will hosts the Olympic Games in 2012 there will be canoeing at Hoddesdon whilst the Millennium Dome, opposite the River Lea’s mouth, will become a sports stadium. But the main events will be in the 500 acre Olympic Park which is being slowly developed between Hackney Wick and Bow. British Waterways hopes that construction materials can be moved into the heart of the Olympic zone by water saving around 250 trips a day on London roads. This updated guide includes a section devoted to a walking route around the Olympic Park.
A major change to the Walk since the first edition of this guide is the new route between Hatfield and Hertford. Due to the loss of a permitted path b, near Holwell Bridge, the path is now waymarked away from Hatfield Park and round the edge of Welwyn Garden City before joining the original route along the Cole Green Way.The end of the Lee Valley Walk is now Limehouse Basin instead of West India Dock but the old ending has been included as an alternative for those who wish to see the very end of the river rather than the navigation climax.
The recommended maps, in addition to the OS Landranger maps in this book, are the Ordnance Survey Explorer maps. Also useful is the OS Herts Street Atlas (Philips), which also covers Luton. South of Waltham Abbey many of the London street maps can be helpful.
The Walk has been divided into sections according to the many handy railway stations along the route. Some display the Lea Valley Walk swan symbol signs and waymark the route from the station to the Walk. Rail information is available on 08457 484950. An all zones Travelcard, available from all London stations and allowing travel on buses, national rail trains and underground, is both convenient and best value when walking south of Enfield.
Bed and breakfast suggestions are sometimes listed at the end of each section in addition to the nearest tourist information centre. Five handy Premier Travel Inn locations are included although the one at Hatfield is probably best reached by a short taxi ride. Pubs are a good place to obtain a taxi number. Beyond Ponders End, just inside the Greater London boundary, the website vwww.visitlondon.com can be useful for finding accommodation in the capital near transport.
Enjoying the Walks
This is a walk that can be enjoyed by everybody from the keen long-distance walker to those with young children or those new to taking exercise. Thanks to the many railway stations alongside the Park, between Ware and London this is a walk that can be enjoyed by everybody from the keen long distance walker to those with young children or new to taking exercise.
Refreshment is an important part of any walk, and details of pubs and cafes have been included. However, it is often sensible to carry a drink. Water, frozen overnight (do not fill the bottle to the top), remains cool long into a hot day.
The Countryside Code should always be followed: Be safe – plan ahead and follow any signs; leave gates and property as you find them; protect plants and animals and take your litter home; keep dogs under close control; consider other people.
Walking is not only enjoyable but also a healthy activity that can even extend life. The Lea Valley Walk is the Millennium exercise route full of heritage, wildlife and opportunity.