The 42-mile Lea (or Lee) is the longest of London’s Thames tributaries, and arguably the most significant. The Lea Valley Walk runs by its major channel from Thames to source, but here is a walk that celebrates the variety of the lower Lea, using both its natural course and the late 18th-century ‘navigation’ (canal cut) to explore wetland, marsh and woodland. A Cicerone guide by Peter Aylmer is now available.
WALK 6 River Lea
|Start||Tottenham Hale station (TQ 344 895)|
|Finish||Bromley-by-Bow tube (TQ 380 825)|
|Alternative finish||Victoria Park (TQ 358 834)|
|Distance||7 miles (11km)|
|Maps||OS Explorer 174/162, Landranger 177|
|Refreshments||Ferry Boat Inn and Engine House café near the start; Princess of Wales pub, Lea Bridge; weekend café at Three Mills|
|Parking||Walthamstow Wetlands car park, Forest Road, N17 9NH (TQ 349 893)|
At the station take the underpass to Ferry Lane (south), and on leaving turn right to cross the railway. Opposite the Ferry Boat Inn, turn right to enter Walthamstow Wetlands, taking the boardwalk behind the car park, and continue under a railway bridge to the Engine House.
Diversion avoiding the Wetlands
The Wetlands are closed after 5pm (or dusk in winter), so if you are starting late, shortly after Jarrow Road turn down the slope on the right to join the navigation towpath. Later, you walk beside Markfield Park, which has a café. At the entrance to Springfield Park (another café), cross the footbridge and continue along the metalled lane, which leads you under a railway – beware the five foot headroom! Continue past a small car park and turn right through a kissing gate (1) near an electricity pylon.
To continue on the main route, turn left over a footbridge, and continue on a footpath on a bank between reservoirs. At the end of the reservoirs, turn sharp right over a concrete bridge and then sharp left, passing a footbridge to the Coppermill Tower – well worth a climb to its viewing platform – and then cross another footbridge on your left to come out on to Coppermill Lane. Go through the kissing gate (1) near an electricity pylon.
The Walthamstow Wetlands Nature Reserve, which opened in 2017, has improved access to a previously isolated and almost secret patch of wild London. Its 10 reservoirs are still one of the major storage points for London’s water supply and remain both the largest fishery and the largest heronry in the capital. New reedbeds created for the reserve have broadened the diversity not just of birdlife – look for little egret, shoveler, pochard and gadwall – but of invertebrates and amphibians too.
After the kissing gate, turn left in 25 metres and then left again when you meet a metalled path. This takes you under more rail tracks, this time with wildlife murals to guide you. Continue on a covered aqueduct before turning right at a signboard, first across grass and then on a boardwalk through Walthamstow Marshes, still a grazing marsh on which you might see Belted Galloway cattle. Where the boardwalk ends, turn left on a gravel path by the river.
Cross King’s Head Bridge on to the towpath, now by a new housing development, and go under the busy Lea Bridge Road, with the Princess of Wales pub on the other side. The towpath switches sides again at the next footbridge and here enter the Middlesex Filter Beds (2). Follow a concrete embankment, cross a circular area, and then turn half-right to leave the Beds.
The Middlesex Filter Beds were built in 1852 to clean London’s drinking water and help stem the recurrent cholera epidemics which then blighted the capital. They worked by continually filtering water from the Lea over sand and gravel, and remained in use till 1969. Since then, nature has done a grand job in reclaiming the site: it’s a good place to find mosses and liverworts. Less happily, unpleasant invasive species such as giant hogweed are present too, but from here, kestrel and sparrowhawk hunt over nearby Hackney Marshes.
Outside, turn left on a metalled path which heads over to join the River Lea proper (ignore the bridge). The path soon enters woodland and if you prefer you can take an informal path right by the river instead. Just after the next bridge, go through a car park and past the changing rooms for the pitches of Hackney Marshes to a road. Cross it at the refuge and enter Wick Woodlands. Turn right on a path and later turn left on the woodlands’ superb avenue of London plane trees, planted in 1894 to celebrate Hackney Marshes being taken into public ownership. At the end of the avenue, rejoin the Navigation towpath just before a bridge bearing the very busy A12.
After the bridge you enter the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the former press centre beside you. Walk 5 explores the Park in more detail. A few metres after going under the railway bridge, you pass under the Carpenter’s Road Bridge (3).
This route can be combined with the Regent’s Canal walk (Walk 7) to make a 14-mile tour of London’s waterways. Cross the Lea Navigation at the Carpenter’s Road Bridge (3), so that it is on your left for a short while, until you swing round right on to the Hertford Union Canal. This goes under the busy A12, and a pair of locks soon after. At the second of these enter Victoria Park through Lock House Gate, but in the park stay near the canal until a road cuts through it. Cross the road (Grove Road) and head to the café by the lake in front of you to join Walk 7.
From Carpenter’s Road Bridge, with the Lea Navigation still on your right, you soon come to the Old Ford Lock. To continue to Bromley-by-Bow tube, take the footbridge half-left, signposted for the Capital Ring. After crossing under a low bridge don’t follow the Ring up to the left but stay by the river.
As you approach the Bow flyover (A11), cross the river on the new wooden bridge, which leads you under the busy road. A more industrial area follows briefly, but soon the magnificent Three Mills appear on the left. Cross the bridge to them – there is a pleasant small piece of green here (4).
The House Mill is the largest tide mill in the world. Built in 1776, and rebuilt after a fire in 1802, it continued to operate until 1941. There are tours of the mill on summer Sunday afternoons, and the café is open on weekends.
To finish the walk, re-cross the bridge and turn left after Tesco. Go along the busy road, then under it by a subway, and Bromley-by-Bow tube is just at the top of the steps.
Although the grass snake’s name might imply a preference for dry locations, its Latin name – probably derived from natare, ‘to swim’ – gives a better clue to its preferred habitats. For in fact the grass snake is an accomplished swimmer, and there are many records of it in the River Lea as well as by its banks and in the wetlands adjacent.
Females are typically around one metre long, but males barely half that. In colour they can look olive-green or perhaps grey-brown, with a yellow collar – this helps distinguish them from the venomous adder, which also has a black zigzag on its back. However, the young of the Aesculapian snake, of which there is a colony by the Regent’s Canal, also have a yellow collar.
Although harmless to humans, the grass snake is certainly not harmless to frogs, toads, fish and small rodents. These are swallowed whole, head first and usually alive. A suitably large meal could last the snake many days if not weeks. All reptiles hibernate in the winter months and the grass snake is no exception, choosing anywhere where freezing might be avoided – from tree roots to compost heaps. Humid places such as compost heaps are also favourite spots for egg-laying.
Walking in London
Park, heath and waterside - 25 walks in London's green spaces
A guidebook to 25 walks in London's green spaces and nature reserves, covering both the city centre and Greater London area. Taking in woods and forests, parks and heaths, canals and rivers, the guide includes a wealth of information about some of the species you might encounter as well as the history and conservation of these areas.More information