The River Lee flows for about 50 miles from Luton, Bedfordshire to Bow in East London, where it joins the Thames. Along the route, for about three miles between Broxbourne and Waltham Abbey, it forms the heart of the Lee Valley Country Park; an almost completely man-made landscape of over 1000 acres of marsh, wetlands and gravel pits.
A legacy left by the last ice age, gravel extraction in the Lea Valley started in the 1920 and some is still carried out north of the park. Some of the pits were back-filled with waste from the local coal-fired power stations, the remainder gradually flooded and have been reclaimed by nature, making a haven for wildlife, in particular certain plants and wetland birds.
Since 1967 the area has been owed and managed by the Lee Valley Park Authority.
The first port of call for any visitor should be the information centre at Waltham Abbey. Some of the special facilities require a permit and an access key, which is available from here. There is also a free leaflet available which opens out into a map showing footpaths, cycle paths, toilets and car parks. This is considerably more useful than the Ordnance Survey map, which is now somewhat out-of-date. The information centre is open daily Easter to late October 10.30am - 4pm.
There are actually five rivers in the area - from west to east;
- The Small River Lea (barely more than a stream)
- The River Lee Navigation
- The Flood Relief Channel or Horsemill Stream
- The Old River Lea
- The Cornmill Stream
The correct spelling of the river's name can be a contentious issue - originally spelled Ley, nowadays either Lee or Lea is acceptable, but locally preference is given to Lea when referring to the valley area, the Old or Small river; Lee being used for the Park Authority and Navigation Channel.
The Lea Valley is quite a built-up area, so there are a few blots on the landscape. A large power transformer station in the middle of the park means there's electricity pylons everywhere. They do, however, at least give the local heron population a convenient perch. The Liverpool Street train line runs parallel to the river, so it's rarely completely quiet. It's the major outdoor recreation area for a very large - and growing - part of suburbia, so do not expect quiet solitude.
Things to Do
The bird population is one of the major conservation success stories of the area. The area has a large local population as well as being a major stop-over point for migratory birds. Some of those most often seen include coots, moorhens, mute swans, great crested grebes, mallard ducks (almost compulsory on any British water), kingfishers, Canada geese and bitterns, but there are supposed to be more than 200 different species in all.
It's a birdwatchers paradise, with over a dozen bird hides in the area, many of which are wheelchair accessible. They are usually left open during the day at weekends, but are locked during the week; to gain access to these you need a key and permit available from the information centre. If you do venture into one of the hides, try to ensure:
- No rustling clothing is worn
- Nothing that opens with velcro is used
- You don't have a tickly cough
- You are not accompanied by bored children
There are many coarse fishing facilities, although angling on some sections of the Lee navigation isn't allowed because of overhead power cables. Many of the fisheries are privately owned, but all are clearly marked if day ticket fishing is permitted. If any of the 'one that got away' stories are to be believed there are some very large carp and pike in the pits. There are wheelchair accessible swims both on the Flood Relief channel and on the North Metropolitan pit.
A couple of things for the angler to beware of:
- Don't leave rods lying on the paths, they'll get run over by cyclists.
- Watch out for the geese and coots, they're incredibly greedy and will happily eat all bait intended for fish.
Walking and Cycling
There is a maze of paths that run around the gravel pits and rivers. Some of these are tarmaced and suitable for wheelchairs and prams/buggies, some are gravelled and a few are plain mud!
Many of the better paths are used by both walkers and cyclists. The river tow path is almost the M1 link to London for the local cyclists. The 50-mile long Lee Valley Walk follows the towpath through this area.
A particularly nice walk in early to mid-June is around the orchid area, between the North Met and the Navigation. Three rare species of native orchids grow here. The area has a boardwalk running through it to avoid disturbing the plants. You do have to look quite hard to spot the flowers though; the native orchids aren't large and flashy like the tropical varieties.
There are three boating centres; Fishers Green Sailing Club is private membership only, the other two are open to public. Broxbourne Boat Centre hires out rowing boats by the hour or day and you can also hire narrow boats here. Herts Young Mariners Base run courses in sailing, canoeing and windsurfing. They also have a climbing wall and potholing 'caves'.
Swimming in any of the rivers or lakes is not to be recommended. Many of the lakes have submerged snags that catch several people out every year. There is also the danger of contracting Weils disease, a bacterial infection caught from rat urine.
The Old English Gentleman, Waltham Abbey and The Crown, Broxbourne are two pubs that both back onto the river. They're both rather pleasant, if sometimes crowded.
Train - from London Liverpool Street to either Waltham Cross, Cheshunt or Broxbourne, with only a short walk from the stations.
Bus - the local bus routes only intersect with the park at Broxbourne and Waltham Abbey, from all other areas be prepared for a fairly long walk.
There are car parks in Waltham Cross, Waltham Abbey, Cheshunt, Wormley and Broxbourne.
Special events are often at the Highbridge Street showground1. Unless you're planning to visit the event itself, the area is best avoided unless you particularly like long traffic jams.