Lea River Cycle:   Hertford - Canary Wharf - Kings Cross

- The First Encounter -

20th October 2002


The River Lea or Lee from Luton to the Thames

The weather forecast did not favour us and the cycle ride planned for Sunday 20th October seemed doomed at the outset. It was overcast and windy but not raining by the time Diana called me at 08h00. We decided to risk it. If the weather turned foul, we would simply turn around and come back. Andrew Maynard was coming up from London anyway. As I was fitting the bicycle and rack to the car, my Welwyn North flat neighbour Alison set out to cycle the distance to Hertford. Andrew was waiting at the station by the time I arrived shortly after 08h30. He was delighted to be part of this experience. I could tell. We drove through to Hertford and would have there on time at 09h00, had it not been for the fact that I seemed to lose my way along the back streets of Hertford town. "I’ve been this way before", I exclaimed to Andrew. As some of the roads were blocked off by barriers, that was hardly surprising, considering I had in fact only cycled them, not driven them. I finally twigged that this is how I had actually got through, much to Andrew’s amusement. We arrived at Mike and Diana’s and were offered coffee, eventually setting off at 09h30. The rain still held off. We made our way through the streets of Bengeo, a suburb of Hertford, past the sports fields and down to the river canal. It was pretty cold and the autumn air crisp! My hands froze. I carried a hiking rain jacket in my rucksack.

Amwell Quarry Wildlife Reserve - the cycle towpath is on the right of the canal.

Andrew, Alison and I were on mountain bikes, Diana on a road bike with thin tyres and Mike on a hybrid with thicker tyres than Di’s. We stopped at Hertford lock, the first of a number of river locks to be encountered en route. Though our journey began only here, the Lea River valley canal in fact runs from Luton in Bedfordshire through Harpenden to Hertford, before making its way past the historic Waltham Abbey down to Canary Wharf on the Thames. The stretch we were doing covered a total of 32 miles. Mike was keen to have breakfast in Ware, it seemed. We soon killed off this idea. The halfway point (of no return) at the Abbey would be the earliest we would contemplate a stop of such serious proportions. I must say that I am quite envious of Mike and Di’s move to Hertford, as I have always liked the feel of the town, ever since I first laid eyes upon it.


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1 Leisure Pool
Boat Centre
Riverside Chalets
2 LeisureComplex
Leisure Complex-
18 hole Golf Course

Ice Centre
Riding Centre
Pitch & Putt

4 Sports Centre
Cycle Circuit
Cycle Circuit Campsite
5 Watersports Centre
6 Angling 7 Herts Young
Mariners Base

Stanstead Abbots Marina

9 Springfield Marina
10 Dragonfly Sanctuary
11 LVP Farms
12 Sewardstone
13 Dobbs Weir
14 Roydon Mill
Leisure Park
15 Rye-House
16 Waltham Abbey 17 Three Mills Island 18 Myddelton House
19 Capel Manor


Landmarks on the Lea River Valley Canal.


The most beautiful stretch of the river is north of Waltham Abbey. It was only subsequent to the ride that I learnt of the significance of some stretches through largely industrial real estate.  According to the historical data, "during the 9th century the Lea or Lee formed part of the boundary between Saxon England to the west and the invading Vikings to the east, led by King Alfred the Great and Guthrum respectively. It is said that when the Danes sailed up the river in around 895AD and established a base near Ware,  Alfred stranded them there by reducing the level of the river.  He did this by building an embankment and weir near the Thames, and dividing the river just above Waltham Abbey.  Approaching Ware, the river starts to turn south. Unlike the other British Waterways run locks, Ware Lock is controlled by the Environment Agency, due to the close proximity of the New Gauge extraction point for the New River, where over 20 million gallons per day are taken to supply drinking water for London.


Mike, Diana, Andrew and Alison, starting out at Hertford Lock.


The land surrounding the Lee near Stratford was ideally placed for industries that London did not want right on it's doorstep, such as slaughterhouses or gas works, but did want products from. By all accounts it was not hard to see (or smell) where the early bone china produced at Bow in the 1700's got it's bones from! At Enfield Lock, the Royal Small Arms Factory was the major supplier of arms for the British Army for over a century and the "Matchbox" toys of every 60's schoolboy were made in factories on the Lee at Hackney. As well as manufacturing industry, the Lee Valley became one of the largest areas in the country for horticulture.  By the 1930's almost half the glasshouses in England were here, growing a variety of fruit, vegetables and flowers. The towns of Cheshunt and Broxbourne were by this time almost surrounded by glasshouses. Although greatly diminished, there are still many glasshouses around Enfield and north of Waltham Abbey, growing not only fruit and vegetables, but also plants and shrubs for the many garden centres around London. Today nature conservation and leisure are the rivers main attractions."  (Further research later confirmed what I had thought – this was the same company responsible for the manufacture of the Enfield Rifle used in the First World War of 1914-1918).


We passed a stadium hosting go-kart track racing, near Rye House Lock. At Dobbs Weir, after very careful consideration, we realised we had to cross the narrow bridge just past the car park and continue left of the river. Di was chastised for her "poor organisation" in the course of approaching Broxbourne. Why indeed was our dear colleague Valerie not informed that we had every intention of dropping in and imposing ourselves for Sunday breakfast and that she must expect us at any time from 10h00 onwards? Mike's yearning for grub was finally satisfied just outside the town of Waltham Abbey, where we stopped for a bacon and eggs breakfast at the Riverside Café, a dubious looking "dive" operated by three chain-smoking, apron-clad women. The windows were steamed up as folk constantly shuttled in. We had done an about-turn a bit further on at Ramney Marsh, where word had it that the café served the best English breakfast in the neighbourhood. Only the coffee was somewhat diabolical but as for the rest, it was tasty and plentiful. We took at detour into the next town. I needed film for the camera, which I was able to acquire from the newsagent. Naturally, Sunday service was in progress at Waltham Abbey itself. We then increased the pace from here on as the rain set in. Approaching Hackney Marsh in north London, we passed rows of football pitches as far as the eyes could see. On each a game was in full swing, spectators lining the touchline. "You will often hear football commentators fondly refer to this place as the source of the next David Beckham", Andrew informed me.


Peter was overtaken. Not able to resist an obvious challenge, his competitive spirit got the better of him. He reciprocated and charged off into the distance like a bat out of hell, just where the route splits near the Ice Rink, with shouts of "come back, come back, it’s the wrong way" still ringing in his ears. I don’t recall precisely where it was but Diana eventually ran out of luck and acquired a puncture. I was amazed it took this long and the ride could not have been too comfortable. The thinner tyres were taking a pounding! We all assisted and soon we were on our way again. It was here too that Alison came off her bike and took a tumble.


Click on map to open in Google Maps - Hertford to Canary Wharf (Lea Valley Canal), to Kings Cross (via Regents Canal).


Limehouse Basin as viewed from an apartment - photo acknowledgement to Wiki website.


We cautiously checked the map at Limehouse Cut to ensure that the correct route was taken. We had to negotiate pedestrian bridges joining one section of the canal with another, until we finally reached the marina apartments at Limehouse Basin on Canary Wharf, which resembles those at the V&A Marina at the Cape Town Waterfront. Earlier we had waged bets as to the exact distance covered to reach Canary Wharf. Andrew insisted he had won because a signboard had given the distance covered as being 32 miles. Our cycle speedos indicated that we had travelled further than this, though, casting some doubt as to the accuracy of this estimation. The detours at Waltham were then brought into the argument as mitigating factors and the playful banter raged on. Without reaching a consensus, we at least agreed that we had earned a drink at the pub at the Basin and so we ventured indoors to quench our thirst. Di eyed the smooth chocolate cake on offer, salivating in the process.

Prior research had made us aware that only certain underground routes e.g. the Circle Line, permitted cycles other than fold-up cycles on the tube trains themselves. This meant that we had to reach Bank tube stop to allow us to travel to Kings Cross, owing to the fact that the Docklands tube did not permit cycles (which are also not allowed on any escalators, for that matter). I perish the thought if this were indeed the case, knowing what some mountain bike hell raisers can get up to! The decision was therefore taken to cycle down Regents Canal, which would take us ever so close to Kings Cross station itself, though we would probably not be able to enter Islington tunnel. We proceeded along a truly picturesque route past Sunday strollers, ducking as we manoeuvred our way close to the water’s edge, under bridges spanning the canal at regular intervals, in the heart of Central London.

We were so focussed on our destination, having cycled for the best part of 6 to 8 hours, that we soon approached Kings Cross. Further on were such hallowed landmarks as London Zoo and Lords Cricket Ground, with Camden Town and Little Venice beyond. Now on roads in central London, Andrew led us the few blocks down to Kings Cross railway and tube station, where I got off the mountain bike practically at the entrance itself! We must have looked a sight! It was almost dark. Andrew bade us farewell. We purchased train tickets, coffees and chocolate muffins, took our cycles on board and caught the train back to Hertford North railway station. Approximately 40 minutes later at around seven in the evening, I guess, we cycled up the hill to Mike and Di’s home. Alison had gone straight to Welwyn Garden City. Without further ado, with my cycle attached to the rack on the car, I headed home, finally soaking my weary torso in the bathtub until I drifted off into dreamland.

For the tiny group it was a momentous and most pleasurable experience and I was pleasantly surprised not to have suffered any side effects the next day.


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