Walking London’s unsung waterway: the River Lea rises again

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Walking a 26-mile stretch from Hertfordshire, our writer witnesses how a neglected artery of the city has been transformed into a recreational and cultural hub

For centuries the Lea has been a vital artery for London, carrying drinking water and grain into the city and servicing the factories and gunpowder mills that grew up along its banks. Rising in Bedfordshire, it flows for 46 miles through Hertfordshire and north-east London, eventually reaching the Thames. It’s often described as London’s second river, but this unsung tributary gets little of the glory or recognition of the Thames.

Since moving to Leyton (“settlement on the Lea”) several years ago, I’ve become familiar with the stretches alongside Hackney Marshes, but I found myself increasingly curious about what lay upriver. The Lee Valley park runs along a 26-mile stretch of the Lea. This scenic 4,000-hectare (10,000-acre) reinvention of former rubbish dumps, sewage works, gravel pits and factories was constituted nearly 60 years ago as a “green lung” for the city, and extended in 2012 to include the new Olympic Park. I decide to hike its length in an attempt to gain a fresh perspective on my part of outer London.

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