The Lea Valley has been my escape to greenery since moving to London nearly twenty years ago. Back then, living on the Kingsmead estate in Homerton, it was a daily mystery why the vast open spaces and riverside walks of the Hackney Marshes were mostly empty, even on the hottest summer days. Today, Olympic renovation and canalside gentrification mean the main stretches are rarely without a dog walker or a jogger, but it’s still possible to find seclusion with a little pedal power.
Stretching for twenty-six miles from the Thames up past the M25 and into Essex, the Lea river marks out my weekend cycling trail, has provided numerous mooring spots for our little narrowboat, the Silver Lining, and in the last few years has supported a growing love of birdwatching.
Mostly canalised, the Lea has a long history as a trade route, most obviously as part of the busy network of waterways that moved imperial goods from the London docks to provincial Britain. There is still something of a sense of this in places, not least at the ‘Three Mills’ on their eponymous island by the Prescott Channel, their eighteenth century industrial beauty neatly matched by twenty-first century wind turbines turning gracefully behind Victorian gasometers.
Today, however, the park’s primary purpose is to offer a little bit of doorstep nature for east Londoners who know how to find the TV off-switch, as well as providing homes for a range of wildlife from ducks and geese, to otters, newts and a large flock of nesting heron and cormorants.
Mostly I head for the old waterworks just off the Lea Bridge Road where Walthamstow meets Hackney, but occasionally I neglect my friends the Tufted Ducks and a rather nonchalant Green Woodpecker, and head north of Cheshunt to the wonderful Bittern hide at Seventy Acres Lake. Last month I saw my first Water Rail there, ducking and diving in and out of the reeds, and my Dad was the first to spot a Great Crested Grebe strutting his stuff slightly early in the season. At weekends the the lodge is staffed by chatty and knoweledgable volunteers, who will also let you have a go on their telescope and binoculars.
Occasionally we make a trip in the other direction, cycling down from E17 to Greenwich for an afternoon at the National Maritime Museum, passing through the Olympic Park on the way. The area nearby has changed beyond all recognition since 2012, mostly for the good, and we spent a good part of last summer watching the sun go down from the canalside bar of the White Building, supping the wonderfully local golden Crate beer.
One of the strange things about a job which has involved the privilege of visiting many of the world’s most famous cities over the last few years is that, rather than growing restless to experience living elsewhere, I have grown to love my adopted home of London even more. The sheer breadth of the cultural diversity and the scale of the daily entertainment choices (not least Rough Trade East being 10 minutes walk from my office) is what makes it truly the world’s greatest city. But I couldn’t live here without the Lea Valley.