|• location||Leagrave, Luton|
|• elevation||115 m (377 ft)|
|Bow Creek, River Thames|
|0 m (0 ft)|
|Length||68 km (42 mi)|
|• location||Luton Hoo, Luton|
|• average||1.8 m3/s (64 cu ft/s)|
|• location||Feildes Weir|
|• average||4.3 m3/s (150 cu ft/s)|
|Official name||Lea Valley|
|Designated||9 October 2000|
The River Lea is in South East England. It originates in Bedfordshire, in the Chiltern Hills, and flows southeast through Hertfordshire, along the Essex border and into Greater London, to meet the River Thames at Bow Creek. It is one of the largest rivers in London and the easternmost major tributary of the Thames.
The river's significance as a major east-west barrier and boundary has tended to obscure its importance as north-south trade route. Below Hertford the river has since medieval times had alterations made to make it more navigable for boats between the Thames and eastern Hertfordshire and Essex, known as the Lee Navigation. This stimulated much industry along its banks. The navigable River Stort, the main tributary, joins it at Hoddesdon.
While the lower Lea remains somewhat polluted, its upper stretch and tributaries, classified as chalk streams, are a major source of drinking water for London. An artificial waterway known as the New River, opened in 1613, abstracts clean water away from the upper stretch of the river near Hertford for drinking, and lower parts of the river are also abstracted from. The Lea's origin in the Chilterns contributes to the extreme hardness (high mineral content) of London tap water.
The name of the River Lea was first recorded in the 9th century, although is believed to be much older. Spellings from the Anglo-Saxon period include Lig(e)an in 880 and Lygan in 895, and in the early medieval period it is usually Luye or Leye. It seems to be derived from a Celtic (brythonic) root lug-meaning 'bright or light' which is also the derivation of a name for a deity, so the meaning may be 'bright river' or 'river dedicated to the god Lugus'. A simpler derivation may well be the Brythonic word cognate with the modern Welsh "Li" pronounced "Lea" which means a flow or a current.
The river is the major component in a number of place-names, including Leagrave, the suburb of Luton where the source of the river is located, and of Luton and Leyton: both mean "farmstead on the River Lea".
The spelling Lea predominates west (upstream) of Hertford, but both spellings (Lea and Lee) are used from Hertford to the River Thames. The Lee Navigation was established by Acts of Parliament and only that spelling is used in this context. The Lee Valley Regional Park Authority also uses this spelling for leisure facilities. However, the spelling Lea is used for road names, locations and other infrastructure in the capital, such as Leamouth, Lea Bridge, the Lea Valley Walk and the Lea Valley Railway Lines. This spelling is also used in geology, archaeology, etc. to refer to the Lea Valley.
The term River Lea is Cockney rhyming slang for tea.
The line of the Lea, and its major tributary, the Stort, has long been used as a political boundary. In the Iron Age the Lea and Stort valleys formed a hotly contested frontier zone between the Catuvellauni to the west and the eastern Trinovantes. The two rivers are assumed to have been the boundary between the core territory of the Kingdom of the East Saxons and its Middle Saxon Province. The whole of the Lea was subsequently used as the boundary between English-ruled territory to the west and the Danelaw, established in the late 9th century, to the east.
From around the ninth or tenth century, and the establishment of counties in this part of England, the Lea-Stort line has formed the historic boundary between Essex to the east and Hertfordshire and Middlesex to the west. Within London the river is always used as a boundary between London Boroughs - which in turn inherit more ancient county and parish boundaries which also used the Lea as a boundary.
|Upper River Lea/Lee|
The source is usually said to be at Well Head inside Waulud's Bank, a neolithic henge at Leagrave Common in Luton, Bedfordshire; though very close to that spot the river is fed by Houghton Brook, a stream that starts 2 miles (3.2 km) further west in Houghton Regis.
After passing through the Luton, the young river passes through the Luton Hoo estate and six miles from its source, enters Hertfordshire. The river then flows east-south-east by way of Harpenden, Wheathampstead - once capital of the Catuvellauni tribe, through the narrow green gap between the new towns of Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City, onto the county town of Hertford.
At Hertford the shallow river turns briefly north before turning to head due south, the few miles between Hertford and the confluence with its largest tributary - the Stort - sees the river and its surrounding areas undergo a number of fundamental changes. The river receives a number of major tributaries; the Mimram, Beane, Rib, Ash and Stort. The extra volume of water has created a broad flood plain from this point with sometimes steep hills on each side. The increased flow and broad floodplain has allowed the growing river to run in multiple channels, with the River Lee Navigation, a deep canal, beginning at Hertford Castle Weir. The Stort, the most important tributary of the Lea, joins a short distance from Hertford at Feildes Weir, and is itself navigable as far upstream as Bishops Stortford. A railway passes along the west side of the flood plain, from Hertford to Tottenham, improving the accessibility of the area, though it led to the character of the west side of the valley being much more developed than the east.
For many miles below Hertford the river is lined by lakes; to the north these are primarily flooded former gravel pits but in London these are reservoirs: the 13 reservoirs of the Lee Valley Reservoir Chain, fed by the branches of the river known as the River Lee Flood Relief Channel and the River Lee Diversion. These reservoirs come to an end on the boundaries of the London Boroughs of Haringay and Hackney and form part of a broad undeveloped green space, a mile wide in places, which extends deep into London.
South of the reservoirs the broad green corridor continues, passing through Tottenham Marshes, Walthamstow Marshes, Leyton Marshes, Hackney Marshes and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. In that park, and just to the south of it, the river's course is split, running almost completely in man made channels (originally created to power water mills, the Bow Back Rivers) flowing through an area that was once a thriving industrial zone. It also passes the Three Mills, a restored tidal mill near Bromley-by-Bow. The last few miles of the river is known as Bow Creek and the river meets the Thames at Blackwall (on the west side) and Canning Town (on the east).
In the Roman era, Old Ford, as the name suggests, was the ancient, most downstream, crossing point of the River Lea. This was part of a pre-Roman route that followed the modern Oxford Street, Old Street, through Bethnal Green to Old Ford and thence across a causeway through the marshes, known as Wanstead Slip (now in Leyton). The route then continued through Essex to Colchester. At this time, the Lea was a wider river, and the tidal estuary stretched as far as Hackney Wick. Evidence of a late Roman settlement at Old Ford, dating from the 4th and 5th centuries, has been found.
In 1110, Matilda, wife of Henry I, reputedly took a tumble at the ford, on her way to Barking Abbey and ordered a distinctively bow-shaped, three-arched, bridge to be built over the River Lea (The like of which had not been seen before), at Bow, the first bridge over the lower Lea. The lower Lea was at that time a wide, tidal and unchannelised river, so the construction of the bridge allowed a far greater degree of social and economic integration between Essex on one side, and Middlesex (including the City of London) on the other, than had been possible before.
Lea Bridge, the second bridge over the lower Lea was built after 1757, to replace the pre-existing ferry. It connected Clapton to the west, and Leyton and Walthamstow to the east. The Iron Bridge carrying the Barking Road over the river to Canning Town was built in 1810. There are significantly more crossings over the more central Lower Lea, than there are over the Middle Lea.
Trade and industry
During the Middle Ages, Temple Mills, Abbey Mills, Old Ford and Bow were the sites of water mills (mainly in ecclesiastic ownership) that supplied flour to the bakers of Stratforde-atte-Bow, and hence bread to the City. It was the channels created for these mills that caused the Bow Back Rivers to be cut through the former Roman stone causeway at Stratford (from which the name is derived).
The River Lea flows through the old brewing and malting centre of Ware, and consequently transport by water was for many years a significant industry based there. Barley was transported into Ware, and malt out via the river, in particular to London. Bargemen born in Ware were given the "freedom of the River Thames" — avoiding the requirement of paying lock dues — as a result of their transport of fresh water and food to London during The Great Plague of 1665–66. A local legend says that dead bodies were brought out of London at that time via the river for burying in Ware, but there is no evidence for this.
The riverside has hosted a number of major armaments manufacturers, such as the Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills, the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock (which is now a housing development known as Enfield Island Village) and the Congreve Rocket Factory on the site of Stratford Langthorne Abbey.
Management of the river
Improvements were made to the river from 1424, with tolls being levied to compensate the landowners, and in 1571, there were riots after the extension of the River was promoted in a private bill presented to the House of Commons. By 1577, the first lock was established at Waltham Abbey and the river began to be actively managed for navigation.
The New River was constructed in 1613 to take clean water to London, from the Lea and its catchment areas in Hertfordshire and bypass the polluting industries that had developed in the Lea's downstream reaches. The artificial channel further reduced the flow to the natural river and by 1767 locks were installed below Hertford Castle Weir on the canalised part of the Lea, now the Lee Navigation with further locks and canalisation taking place during the succeeding centuries. In 1766, work also began on the Limehouse Cut to connect the river, at Bromley-by-Bow, with the Thames at Limehouse Basin.
The Waterworks River, a part of the tidal Bow Back Rivers, has been widened by 8 metres (26 ft) and canalised to assist with construction of the Olympic Park for the 2012 Summer Olympics. In 2009, Three Mills Lock was installed on the Prescott Channel to maintain water levels on the Lea, within the park at a depth of 2 metres (7 ft). This allowed access by 350–tonnes barges to ensure that at least 50% of the material required for construction could be delivered, or removed, by water. (These figures are under review. It is stipulated that the governing body has re appraised these figures).
War and conflict
Millfields Park on the Lea at Hackney, is the reputed site of a victory of Aescwine of Essex over Octa of Kent in 527, which allowed Aescwine to become the first King of Essex. However the historicity of these events and the very existence of Aescwine is disputed.
Somewhere between 878 and 890 the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum was drawn up that amongst other things used the course of the Lea to define the border between the Danes and the English. In 894, a force of Danes sailed up the river to Hertford, and in about 895 they built a fortified camp, in the higher reaches of the Lea, about 20 miles (32.2 km) north of London. Alfred the Great saw an opportunity to defeat the Danes and dug a new channel to lower the level of the river, leaving the Danes stranded.
In 1648 during the second English Civil War a Royalist force crossed the Thames from Greenwich and hoped to cross Bow Bridge, over the Lea and into Essex. After inconclusive clashes with the Tower Hamlets Militia and other Parliamentarian forces, an engagements known as the Battle of Bow Bridge, the Royalists headed for Colchester and were besieged there.
During WWI, parts of London on either side of the Lea were badly hit by Germany Army and Navy airship raids. It is believed the crews mistook the extensive reservoir chain for the Thames and released their bombs on what they took to be central London.
The ecological, landscape and recreational importance of the river and its surrounding land has been recognised through inclusion in a number of parks and by several planning policy designations.
Management and designations
Much of the river lies within the Lee Valley Park. Some of the land surrounding the river has been designated as Metropolitan Green Belt or Metropolitan Open Land in order to prevent further urbanisation.
In 2011, Mike Wells claimed that he saw a "goose go vertically down" in the river. Again a pike or mink was suggested as most likely. Vice Magazine suggested that Wells' story may have been invented to publicise authorities' attempts to evict houseboats from the area that year, in advance of the 2012 Olympic Games.
The river is threatened by pollution, with sewage frequently discharged into the river as well as less common events causing major damage, such as an oil leak in 2018, or the toxic runoff from a warehouse fire in 2019. The sewage pollution, as well as that of fertiliser washed in from agricultural fields causes eutrophication, an excess of nutrients, which not only unbalances the ecosystem, but also leads to de-oxygenation of the water.
Water extraction, for drinking water, farming and industry, has led to a reduction in river flow impacting wildlife and concentrating the pollutants present in the remaining river water.
Luton Town's Kenilworth Road stadium lies within half a mile of the river and just two miles from the source. In their early days, Tottenham Hotspur played their games at Tottenham Marshes on the Middle Lea while Leyton Orient have had a number of home grounds in the Lower Lea Valley, with both having their current grounds within a mile of the river. West Ham United was established as the works team of the Thames Ironworks, a shipyard which straddled either side of the Lea at its confluence with the Thames.
The 2012 Olympics was focused in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on the banks of the Lea, and its main Stadium, on an island between two branches of the river, is now home to West Ham United. The Lee Valley White Water Centre in Hertfordshire is another sporting legacy of the games.
In 2014, German writer Esther Kinsky published a novel, Am Fluß, now available in English as River, translated by Iain Galbraith based around her walks along the lower Lea from the marina at Horseshoe Point to the river's mouth where it joins the Thames.
Death of Ambrose Ball
Ambrose "Jay" Ball, after he was involved in a serious car accident, disappeared on 24 January 2015. He was a 30 year old father from London. Even though the police conducted an extensive search, no trace of him was found. A body was found in the River Lea in Tottenham, London, later identified as being his. Even though Ball is known to have drowned, the exact cause of this is unknown.
- Bow Back Rivers
- Lea Valley
- Lea Valley Walk
- List of rivers of England
- List of reservoirs and dams in the United Kingdom
- Locks and Weirs on the River Lea
- Lower Lea Valley
- Lee Navigation
- Tributaries of the River Thames
- Lea Valley Lines
- Walthamstow Pump House Museum
- For a full list of tributaries, please expand the box entitled 'River Lea / Lee, England' at the bottom of this page.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to River Lea.|
- "Lee Valley". Ramsar Sites Information Service. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
- "EC1A 7BE — Water quality in your area". Thames Water. Archived from the original on 27 May 2012. Retrieved 3 March 2012.
- J.E.B. Glover, Allen Mawer, F.M.Stenton (1938). The Place-Names of Hertfordshire. English Place-Name Society, vol. XV. Cambridge University Press.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Anthony David Mills (2001). Oxford Dictionary of London Place Names. Oxford University Press. p. 133. ISBN 0-19-280106-6.
- Mills, A.D. (1991). The Popular Dictionary of English Place-Names. Oxford: Phaidon.
- Brewers Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable, Russ Willey, 2009
- The Trinovantes, by Rosalind Dunnett, Chapter 1, 1975, Gerald Duckworth and Co Ltd
- The boundary is unknown and discussed in "Kingdom, Civitas and County" by Stephen Rippon, Oxford University Press
- Stepney, Bethnal Green (1998). "Bethnal Green: Communications". A History of the County of Middlesex. 11: 88–90. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
- 'Leyton: Introduction', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6, ed. W R Powell (London, 1973), pp. 174-184. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol6/pp174-184 [accessed 27 July 2021].
- 'West Ham: Rivers, bridges, wharfs and docks', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6, ed. W R Powell (London, 1973), pp. 57-61. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol6/pp57-61 [accessed 24 July 2021].
- "Ware – The Story so Far – 3 of 3". Ware Online. Archived from the original on 25 February 2009. Retrieved 2 March 2010.
- "William Vallans: A Tale of Two Swannes". spenserians.cath.vt.edu. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
- Enfield.gov.uk River Lee History
- Milestone 5 Archived 12 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine demolish, dig, design January 2008 (The Olympic Delivery Authority) accessed 25 April 2008
- Hadfield, Charles (1968). The Canal Age. Plymouth: Latimer Trend & Company. pp. 15, 19. ISBN 0-7153-8079-6.
- Blog by the author of a book about Alfred, quoting the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle https://king-alfred.com/wp/2019/10/16/river-lea/
- Covered briefly in The English Civil War, A Peoples History. Diane Purkiss. p534-6
- London 1914-17 The Zeppelin Menace, Ian Castle. Osprey Publishing 2008
- "Moment playful seal is spotted catching fish in London's River Lea". Evening Standard. 9 April 2019. Retrieved 29 August 2019.
- "Boat trip fuels 'river croc' tale". BBC. 5 August 2005. Retrieved 27 December 2011.
- "Goose-killer lurks in River Lea". BBC. 13 December 2011. Retrieved 27 December 2011.
- Haddow, Joshua (29 May 2012). "Hunting for the Olympics River Monster". Vice. Retrieved 9 September 2019.
- Hackney Gazette article on the oil spill
- Gelder, Sam. "Investigation launched after 'hundreds' of dead fish spotted in River Lea by Clapton boaters". Hackney Gazette. Retrieved 29 August 2019.
- https://www.hackneygazette.co.uk/news/plastic-pollution-on-river-lea-at-hackney-marshes-7836460[bare URL]
- English Poetry 1579–1830, William Vallans:A Tale of Two Swannes.
- L. Hatts, The Lea Valley Walk, Cicerone Press, 2nd edition, 2007, ISBN 978-1-85284-522-3.
- Diamond Geezer, Walking the Lea Valley, with more photos on flickr.
- River, translated by Iain Galbraith and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. ISBN 978-1-91069-529-6
- "Body found in river could be missing Ambrose Ball". The Voice. 23 April 2015. Archived from the original on 8 July 2015. Retrieved 18 August 2015.
- Peter Marshall, The Lea Valley, photographs from 1980 to 2008
- UK Urban Exploration Forums, River Lea through Luton, photographs of the underground culvert in March 2009
- "Wikipaddle: River Lea (Hertford Loop)". Archived from the original on 28 July 2011. Retrieved 12 December 2015.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link), an article from a kayaking and canoeing perspective
- Trolling for Pike in the River Lee, 1831, by James Pollard at Tate Britain
- Fly Fishing in the River Lee near the Ferry Boat Inn, 1831, by James Pollard at Tate Britain
- Love the Lea project