Think of London’s great green spaces and, chances are, the manicured central parks (St. James’, Green, Regent’s,) or the largest of the old royal hunting grounds in Richmond, will spring to mind. This sprawling city has far more to offer than just the royal parks though. Speak it quietly in these days after the royal birth, but in the east there’s a republic of green space, mandated by Parliament for the people.
Head to the fringes of the Borough of Hackney and you’ll discover one of London’s ‘green lungs’, dwarfing all the ‘Royal Parks’. The less well known Lee Valley is a fabulous 26 mile long, 10,000 acre park; four times larger than Richmond Park and encompassing two historic waterways: the River Lee and the Lee Navigation. The former provided fresh drinking water to London, the latter a vital transport link connecting the River Thames, the Regent’s Canal, the Hertfordshire Canal and the Grand Union Canal.
From Finsbury Park it is a short walk to reach Springfield Park and the Lee Navigation at the northern tip of Walthamstow Marshes. From here it’s possible to follow the course of the waterway south all the way to the River Thames at Limehouse Basin. Another hour’s walk west brings you to Tower Bridge and the heart of the city. This network of waterways provides access to large parts of London, you could spend days exploring the city using only its historic waterways.
What is perhaps most surprising when you wander down these waterways today, is how many boats use them and just how many people are living on the canals of London. This is either a lifestyle issue or an indication that London’s housing crisis has reached breaking point. Either way, the canals are probably busier now than they have been since the start of the twentieth century.
The Lee Valley comprises areas of urban green space, wildlife reserves, industrial heritage sites and riverside walks. It is a lovely and, until recently, under-utilised green space, much of which was located in less-than-salubrious districts of London. All that changed when London won the bid for the 2012 Olympics. The sprawling Olympic site is located in the southern part of the Lee Valley, and has pumped much needed regeneration money into this neglected region.
One area worth a visit is the old Middlesex filter beds. There’s not much to see today, but this amazing piece of technology purified water for London right up until the 1960s. The water was taken from the River Lee further to the north (where it was cleaner) and stored in reservoirs, before being piped to the filter beds by aqueduct. Here it was filtered through sand and gravel, purifying the water by killing diseases like cholera. It was then pumped to supply homes in north-east London. Brilliantly simple. Today it is a nature reserve.
Following the Lee Navigation south takes you alongside the Olympic Park, and you can come off the river close to Victoria Park to get a better view of the stadium and the Orbit sculpture designed by Turner Prize winner, Anish Kapoor. They make for dramatic additions to the skyline.
Further south, you’ll pass the lovely old building of Three Mills. This ancient industrial site was recorded in the Doomsday Book, and the mills are probably the oldest known ‘tidal mills’ in the world. In the sixteenth century they ground flour to provide bread to London; by the seventeenth century they were grinding grain for use in the distilling of gin to supply the city’s notorious ‘Gin Palaces’. The gin business was successful: they were still producing it in 1941, when production had to stop due to grain shortages during the Second World War.
Plodding along the Lee Navigation, you’ll soon reach Bow Locks and eventually arrive in Limehouse Basin. It is here that the River Thames is connected to the canal system in east London by a set of giant locks. Occasionally, you’ll see small canal boats motoring along the River Thames between Limehouse Basin and the Grand Union Canal, which intersects with the Thames in west London.
Walk the few yards beyond the locks and you reach the Thames with magnificent views of Canary Wharf. Then it’s off towards London proper, but that’s for next time…