WALK LONDON The Lea Valley Walk Ponders End to Waltham Abbey (3 miles)
For starters, let's clear up the name of the river. The river is the River Lea, but the man-made channel that runs close by is the Lee Navigation. The valley is the Lea Valley, but the recreational area is the Lee Valley Park. If it's natural it's "Lea", and if it's artificial it's "Lee". Honest. Simple. OK, let's go for a walk.
I could have gone for a Lea Valley walk a few metres from my front door, because the official route ends close by at Bow Locks. Instead I headed rather further north, to Enfield's industrial quarter, and strolled along a less familiar stretch. First stop Ponders End station, in the shadow of four landmark tower blocks, as I attempted to follow woefully inadequate signage down to the riverside. After a tour of various local dual carriageways I eventually found the pedestrian entrance to Ponders End Lock, and was welcomed to the waterway by two swans and their seven overgrown cygnets. It was a winning start.
It soon became apparent that this stretch of the Lea Valley forms a narrow north-south netherworld sliced off from reality. The western bank is hemmed in by warehouses and long thin industrial estates, while the view to the east is blocked by the grassy slopes of a giant reservoir. Everything runs parallel to the river, not across it - the roads, the railways, the cycle tracks and even the electricity. It was possible to trace by eye the route of the river for several miles, just by following the army of pylons stalking towards the horizon. These pylons make fishing difficult - there were signs everywhere barring anglers from casting any line that might cause accidental electrocution. But horses nibbling grass around pylons' feet in the riverside meadows didn't seem to mind, and elderberries grew perfectly ripe beneath the silent hum.
The isolation ended, briefly, at Enfield Lock. This is murderous country, with the surrounding housing estates built on land previously given over to the manufacture of armaments, gunpowder and munitions. The brick-built Royal Small Arms Factory, which once produced Enfield rifles, now forms part of the shopping centre at the heart of a modern development of Courts, Mews and Closes. Elite residents enjoy a waterside location, parking up their 4x4s outside fake cottages behind secure electronic barriers. The two main attractions beside the lock appeared to be a boarded-up fun-pub, ripe for demolition, and a wildlife-free "Swan and Pike Pool". The London Loop walk crosses the river here. It is perhaps unfortunate that long-distance strollers should be forced to visit this washed-out spot twice.
My view of Leaside improved somewhat further north along the river. Housing faded away as the towpath doglegged around the Green Belt haven of Rammey Marsh. Scores of immobile narrow boats were tied up here, providing a home from home for smiling couples sat at picnic tables on their own patch of riverside lawn. A bit further ahead, crossing the valley on concrete stilts, six lanes of rumbling M25 severed the landscape. Somewhere in the gloom beneath the motorway bridge is the spot where London meets Hertfordshire meets Essex. It's not a charming spot, that's for sure. I stopped off at the Hazelmere Marina cafe for a well-deserved ice cream (being, alas, too late to enjoy a proper cooked breakfast). And a few steps later, past one final swan, I reached my destination at Waltham Abbey Lock. I could have carried on along the Lea for another 35 miles, to Luton, but I'm not that much of a masochist. The Abbey and its gardens were a much more pleasant target, and considerably close at hand. Time to Lea-ve.