River Lea

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from River Lee (England))
Jump to navigation Jump to search

River Lea at Hertford Basin
CountryUnited Kingdom
Physical characteristics
 • locationLeagrave, Luton
 • coordinates51°54′37″N 0°27′40″W / 51.910338°N 0.461233°W / 51.910338; -0.461233
 • elevation115 m (377 ft)
 • location
Bow Creek, River Thames
 • coordinates
51°30′26″N 0°00′33″E / 51.5072°N 0.0092°E / 51.5072; 0.0092Coordinates: 51°30′26″N 0°00′33″E / 51.5072°N 0.0092°E / 51.5072; 0.0092
 • elevation
0 m (0 ft)
Length68 km (42 mi)
 • locationLuton Hoo, Luton
 • average1.8 m3/s (64 cu ft/s)
 • locationFeildes Weir
Nr. Hoddesdon
 • average4.3 m3/s (150 cu ft/s)
Basin features
Official nameLea Valley
Designated9 October 2000
Reference no.1037[1]

The River Lea, also spelled Lee, is a river in South East England. It originates in the Bedfordshire part of the Chiltern Hills, and flows southeast through Hertfordshire and then Greater London, sometimes through several channels, to ultimately meet the River Thames, the last looping section being known as 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, a 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, [2] 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.[3]



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'.[4][5] 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".[6]


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.

Other uses[edit]

The term River Lea is Cockney rhyming slang for tea.[7]


The river viewed from Enfield Island Village

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 six miles, the young river enters Hertfordshire and flows east-sout-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 the Stort see 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 allowed the shallow river to be converted into a deep canal, the River Lee Navigation which begins at Hertford Castle Weir. The Stort is an important tributary of the Lea. It is itself navigable until Bishop's Stortford. It joins the Lea at Feildes Weir, Hoddesdon where boats may access it from the main river via a lock. A railway passes along the west side of the valley from Tottenham to Hertford improving the accessibility of the area, though it led to the character of the west side of the valley being much more developed.

The river then flows on to Ware, Stanstead Abbotts, Hoddesdon, Broxbourne, Cheshunt and Waltham Abbey.It forms the traditional boundary between the counties of Middlesex and Essex, and also part of the boundary between Essex and Hertfordshire. 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.

A pedestrian suspension bridge spans the boating lake created where the widened river flows through Wardown Park in Luton.

Branches of the river are known as the River Lee Flood Relief Channel. and the concrete-banked River Lee Diversion.

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 come to an end on the boundaries of the London Boroughs of Haringay and Hackney and form part of a broad undeveloped green space extending deep into London. South of the reservoirs the broad green corridor continues, passing through 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).

River history[edit]

The River Lea at Amwell, home of the Amwell Magna Fishery, was fished by Izaak Walton – author of The Compleat Angler
The river below Kings Weir
Rowing boat on the River Lea
Bow Creek (tidal) meets the Limehouse Cut (canal) with a view of London's Docklands
The river flows south from Tottenham Lock. The large housing development to the west, Bream Close, is situated on a small island in the river, whilst in the distance the Gospel Oak to Barking Line crosses the river on a high bridge.

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.[8] Evidence of a late Roman settlement at Old Ford, dating from the 4th and 5th centuries, has been found.

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,[9] 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.[10]

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. 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).

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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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.

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).[14]

Environmental issues[edit]

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[edit]

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.


The river contains fish and other wildlife such as the occasional seal[15]. The river is however 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,[16] or the toxic runoff from a warehouse fire in 2019.[17]

Some boat trippers reported observing on 5 August 2005 a Canada goose being pulled underwater very quickly. The London Wildlife Trust suggested that this was most likely caused by a pike.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]


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 and Leyton Orient played their matches as football amateurs on the Marshes and both have their current grounds within a mile of the river. The 2012 Olympics was fosusedin the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on the banks of the Lea, and its main Stadium is now home to West Ham United.

The Lee Valley White Water Centre in Hertfordshire is another sporting legacy of the games.

Narrative accounts[edit]

The poem A Tale of Two Swannes is set along the River Lea. It was written by William Vallans and published in 1590.[21]

The old course of the river is the one featured in the early chapters of the classic fishing book The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton. The author begins at Tottenham and proceeds upriver from there.

A guide to walking along the river valley was written by Leigh Hatts,[22] and an account of a walk along the complete length of the river in 2009 was published as a blog by "Diamond Geezer".[23]

In 2014, German writer Esther Kinsky published a novel, Am Fluß, now available in English as River, translated by Iain Galbraith[24] based around her walks along the River Lea beginning at Horseshoe Point and ending at the river's mouth where it joins the Thames.

Notable events[edit]

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.[25] Even though Ball is known to have drowned, the exact cause of this is unknown.

Notable fisheries[edit]

See also[edit]


  • For a full list of tributaries, please expand the box entitled 'River Lea / Lee, England' at the bottom of this page.


  1. ^ "Lee Valley". Ramsar Sites Information Service. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  2. ^ <https://corporate.thameswater.co.uk/media/News-releases/News-Release---New-River-feature>
  3. ^ "EC1A 7BE — Water quality in your area". Thames Water. Archived from the original on 27 May 2012. Retrieved 3 March 2012.
  4. ^ 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)
  5. ^ Anthony David Mills (2001). Oxford Dictionary of London Place Names. Oxford University Press. p. 133. ISBN 0-19-280106-6.
  6. ^ Mills, A.D. (1991). The Popular Dictionary of English Place-Names. Oxford: Phaidon.
  7. ^ Brewers Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable, Russ Willey, 2009
  8. ^ Stepney, Bethnal Green (1998). "Bethnal Green: Communications". A History of the County of Middlesex. 11: 88–90. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  9. ^ Hadfield, Charles (1968). The Canal Age. Plymouth: Latimer Trend & Company. pp. 15, 19. ISBN 0-7153-8079-6.
  10. ^ Blog by the author of a book about Alfred, quoting the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle https://king-alfred.com/wp/2019/10/16/river-lea/
  11. ^ "William Vallans: A Tale of Two Swannes". spenserians.cath.vt.edu. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  12. ^ a b Enfield.gov.uk River Lee History
  13. ^ "Ware – The Story so Far – 3 of 3". Ware Online. Archived from the original on 25 February 2009. Retrieved 2 March 2010.
  14. ^ Milestone 5 Archived 12 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine demolish, dig, design January 2008 (The Olympic Delivery Authority) accessed 25 April 2008
  15. ^ "Moment playful seal is spotted catching fish in London's River Lea". Evening Standard. 9 April 2019. Retrieved 29 August 2019.
  16. ^ Hackney Gazette article on the oil spill
  17. ^ Gelder, Sam. "Investigation launched after 'hundreds' of dead fish spotted in River Lea by Clapton boaters". Hackney Gazette. Retrieved 29 August 2019.
  18. ^ "Boat trip fuels 'river croc' tale". BBC. 5 August 2005. Retrieved 27 December 2011.
  19. ^ "Goose-killer lurks in River Lea". BBC. 13 December 2011. Retrieved 27 December 2011.
  20. ^ Haddow, Joshua (29 May 2012). "Hunting for the Olympics River Monster". Vice. Retrieved 9 September 2019.
  21. ^ English Poetry 1579–1830, William Vallans:A Tale of Two Swannes.
  22. ^ L. Hatts, The Lea Valley Walk, Cicerone Press, 2nd edition, 2007, ISBN 978-1-85284-522-3.
  23. ^ Diamond Geezer, Walking the Lea Valley, with more photos on flickr.
  24. ^ River, translated by Iain Galbraith and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. ISBN 978-1-91069-529-6
  25. ^ "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.

External links[edit]

Next confluence upstream River Thames Next confluence downstream
River Ravensbourne (south) River Lea River Roding (north)