As the River Lea travels down through suburbia to the city it forms a kind of green corridor and provides some breathing space, a pause for thought, in the dense urban sprawl of North East London. Looking at the map one can see very clearly how the river forms a kind of clearing in the city, a ribbon of relatively undeveloped land, which is either protected as open space or is reserved for industrial use. This has created areas of ‘unofficial countryside’, sheep graze on the grassy banks of the reservoirs in Enfield, marshes and meadows flourish as do patches of rough grassland, scrubland and woodland. The Lea valley Park, as this long stretch of land is called, connects the rural to the urban.
This river has always acted as a boundary, in the distant past between pre-Roman tribal territories and then later its valley formed the frontier between Alfred the Greats land and the Danelaw and it still performs its ancient role as a boundary between Essex and Hertfordshire. As the river travels down into London this length of water with its green borders marks a boundary between North and East London, between Enfield and Epping, Edmonton and Chingford, Tottenham and Walthamstow.
It is here that the actual River Lea (as opposed to the canalised version) meets the Thames, downstream of the Limehouse Cut and Canary Wharf. Along the road leading up to the wharf there are numerous information signs telling the history of the area, which was one of extreme poverty and one uniquely cut off from other parts of London. In the 19th century there were three main families that populated the area, one which was the Lammins, at one point in the local school out of something like 150 children 100 of them shared the surname Lammin. All this is fascinating and the way in which this little pocket of Docklands has been regenerated is intriguing, old shipping containers has been transformed into work spaces, there are sculptures dotted around, there is a sound installation in the old lighthouse, there is a hut dedicated to Michael Faraday and the ENO seem to have a base here.
I start fantasising about having my studio here but it is miles from where I live and probably much too expensive, but I am momentarily caught up in the romance of being by the river. A working boat of some kind puffs its smoke into the air, untidy odd chairs sit outside an old red brick workshop, weeds grow in crevasses, seagulls strut and squark. A pocket of London that has changed its purpose but not in the same way as the monolithic office blocks and sanitised shopping malls of the adjacent Canary Wharf.
The last leg of my walk. I realise that I’ve been putting it off, not wanting my journey to end. The tide is high and House Mill is reflected in the murky waters. Just beyond the mill the river itself and what is now the Limehouse Cut briefly converge and then immediately separate. The river meandering off to meet the Thames upstream at Leamouth, the cut, like a ruled line on the map, goes straight to Limehouse, as does the footpath and me.
The path is narrow on this stretch and the buildings butt up close to the water, warehouses and apartment blocks, some new, some in converted warehouses. This is my shortest walk and as I get closer to the Thames my anticipation builds, gangs of noisy seagulls swoop and circle and conjure up a childish excitement of days at the seaside.
The cut opens out into Limehouse Basin which is surrounded by a rather ugly 80’s development of apartments which is a bit disappointing I had expected to find remnants of it’s industrial past. At the far end a lock holds back the great waters of the Thames, it hardly seems possible the lock gates look so insubstantial. The river is vast and terrifying, like a great brown sea. It feels like a suitably dramatic end to my walk with swooping views looking down towards the city and then up towards Canary wharf and beyond.