Walking the Lea Valley 12: TIDAL-LEA Three Mills → Trinity Buoy Wharf(2 miles)
Below Three Mills, the Lea rises and falls. Twice a day, to be precise, because the last couple of miles of the river (along Bow Creek) are properly tidal. Sometimes the water's lapping up to the banks, and then six hours later there'll be barely a trickle creeping across the mud at the bottom of a gapingly empty channel. At such times there's no hope of navigating anything deeper than an origami paper boat, which may explain why the promised flood of waterborne Olympic construction traffic through Prescott Lock has yet to materialise. The final lock on the Lea is at Bow Locks, enhanced by a picture-postcard bow-shaped footbridge which is fun for walkers but a bit of a slog on a bike [photo]. And here, after my 40 mile journey down from Luton, the official footpath faded out. I could have walked down to Limehouse along an adjoining canal, or even taken a carbon monoxide slog along the A12 to Blackwall, but the creeky Lea denied me a through route along its industrially-obstructed banks.
The Fatwalk: There are big plans for this barrier to Lea-side progress to be removed. A Lea River Park is being designed, including a linear riverside parkland route that will finally link the Olympic Park to the Thames. For some godforsaken reason they're planning on calling this path the "Fatwalk", because it'll be quite wide, even though this is clearly a ghastly name with negative "Obesewaddle" connotations. And yes, I have told the planners this, but they just smiled and repeated their brandspeak, which assumed that local people would all come to understand and love the name eventually. I think not. Nevertheless it'll be great to have money spent on linking Bow to Canning Town via a series of activity-packed footpaths, cycleways and bridges. And it'll be the bridges that'll cost most of the money. A whopper needs to be constructed at Bow Locks, and then another further down because the most suitable bank for access varies as the river progresses. Hopefully by March 2012, maybe. Ah, aren't these Olympics a fantastic catalyst for actually getting things done around here?
Part of the Fatwalk will be an existing creekside footpath along the edge of the Twelvetrees Crescent Industrial estate. It's so little known that I only discovered it existed last month, and yet it's a full kilometre long and streetlit and everything. And it's adorable, not only because of the waterside isolation but also because of the across-river view. In the reedy foreground Bow Creek, which ought to be mudflatty and waterfowl-rich if the tide's out. On the opposite bank a series of warehouses, skips and scrapyards - perfect for adding some failed industrial melancholy. And in the background an unbeatable sequence of iconic East London buildings, including Canary Wharf, Goldfinger's Balfron Tower and a row of three meridian-based gasometers. I defy you to come here on a sunny morning and fail to take an excellent photograph [photo][photo].
Brief hiatus: This charming riverside path is currently a dead end, blocked at Poplar Reach by an unbreachable dry dock. So from the far end I could see the next bridge 500 metres away, but I couldn't reach it without a tedious 1½ mile inland detour. Please twiddle your thumbs while I relocate to the East India Dock Road viaduct... [photo]
Before entering the Thames, the Lea negotiates the most impressive meander in London. I climbed up to the dual carriageway for an elevated view of this doubled-back wiggle, although it's probably best seen in the opening second of any episode of EastEnders. The western tongue of land is home to the Bow CreekEcology Park[photo], and hence to scores of birds, flowers and insects. Indeed I might have enjoyed some rare peace with the pondlife were it not for the DLR viaduct slicing along the centre, providing a grandstand view of the natural environment (once every three minutes) for any traveller who cared to look out of the window [photo]. I doubt they spotted the two tops-off sunbathers behind a tree near the dipping pool, but I certainly surprised them with my Lea-side explorations. The eastern tongue of land is the Leamouth Peninsula, until recently home to the fat-belching pipework of Pura Foods, more recently completely demolished in readiness for redevelopment. It looked to me like the first foundations of something extensive were being laid, although I can't imagine anybody wanting to live or work here until somebody builds a bridge across to Canning Town station. Not in the foreseeable future, no.
Trinity Buoy Wharf: And finally, really finally, the tidal Lea twists round two final bends to reach the Thames. Tucked in beside the river's mouth I entered TrinityBuoyWharf, a site acquired 200 years ago by Trinity House for the construction and storage of buoys. An experimental lighthouse was also built here, used by Michael Faraday to pioneer a new lamp for the clifftop at Dover, and this stillstands. I climbed to the top partly to listen to a 1000-year-long musical composition, but more particularly for the view. To my right a once-unique 5-storey studio block made of metal containers, and round a bit further those Docklands towers again, rather closer this time. Straight ahead, across the Thames, the 12-spiked millennial white elephant that I can't quite bring myself to name after a mobile phone network [photo]. And down to the left, beyond the bright red lightship [photo], the dividing line where the Lea becomes the Thames [photo]. The departing river looked broad and deep, even maritime, and a whole geography-textbook-chapter distant from the rain-filled trickle I'd started following back in Bedfordshire. I celebrated my achievement with a delicious chocolate milkshake at Fatboy's Diner - the Lea's lowest refreshment outlet. If you ever choose to follow in my footsteps, or even someday walk the Fatwalk, maybe you'll rest your aching feet here too.