The waters of the River Lea rise at Marsh farm in Luton and flow for just over 40 miles until finally joining the River Thames at Leamouth. On its journey it passes through Hertford, Broxbourne, Waltham Abbey, Enfield and of course Walthamstow. The Lea has played an important part in history, in 894 Danes sailed up the Lea and built a fortified camp about 20 miles north of London, the waters have been used to power industry including our very own Coppermill, and as early as 1424 improvements were made to make the Lea navigable to larger boats. The river was also once the boundary between Essex and Middlesex, and it wasn’t as easy to cross as it is today. In the past a ferry such as that operated by the owner of the Ferry Boat Inn at Tottenham was required to move people and goods from one bank to the other. Eventually toll bridges, including the Lea Bridge were built and journey times between Essex and London were greatly reduced. Throughout history the river was always seen as an important transport route. It was so vital that an act of parliament was passed allowing it to be canalised and the Lee Navigation was constructed. The creation of the navigation gave rise to the two spellings of the river’s name, Lea refers to the sections following the natural course of the old river and Lee is the name given to those sections that have been constructed or canalised.
Building the navigation isn’t the only impact people have had on the Lea, the industry that sprang up along its banks poured pollution in to its waters, and although much of that industry is gone pollution is still a big problem for the river. This became evident recently when masses of fish died in the space of just a few days. I saw the devastation myself when out for run and it was simply heart breaking to see the river full of dead and dying fish. The mass fish kill was triggered when a major rain storm washed pollution in to the already struggling river, this road run off combined with low oxygen levels proved too much for the Lea and the fish population suffered. Following the incident I began to read more about the state of the Lea and was amazed to find out that the it is one of the most polluted rivers in Britain and is often teetering on the brink of disaster. The river faces lots of problems but this most recent issue also highlighted something else, there are lots of people out there that love the Lea and will fight to save it. One organisation called Thames21 works very hard to not only publicise the problems the river faces, but also helps to address them with schemes such as water testing and the creation of new reed beds. It’s well worth taking a look at the Thames21 website to see how you could get involved and help our river.
I called this post the Mighty Lea, if you have read this far you are probably wondering what’s so mighty about it considering all the pollution and issues it faces. Simply put, the Lea is beautiful, the river has shaped the place we live, it created the marsh lands that make this area of London so unique and most importantly it plays a vital part in the ecology of East London. Despite everything that mankind has thrown at the it the river keeps flowing and giving life to the Lea Valley. Now it just needs help to make sure that the creatures that live in the river are as happy as those of us that live by its banks.