I'm continuing my walk along the New River, the artificial aqueduct that's been providing water to London for 400 years. Today my walk crosses into London, heading from the rural M25 to the urban heart of Enfield. Enfield's one of the best bits.
In the Lea Valley, the very edge of London is marked by the M25. In this case you step from Hertfordshire to Middlesex the second you step onto the footbridge close to junction 25. But this is no ordinary footbridge. It's wide enough to carry a road, and a four lane road at that, but traffic is forbidden from passing across. That's because this bridge supports the New River, carrying it across the motorway in twin concrete channels with a walkway slapped over the top. The M25 had to be lowered at this point to ensure the New River continued on its level course. The river here wasn't originally this straight line, but instead an indented curve around the 100ft contour, edging closer to the village of Bull's Cross. Now you can watch the water flowing into elevated darkness, pause on the bridge to watch queues of orbital traffic, then cross to witness the New River entering the capital.
Your first experience of London will be the backs of some houses and a distant McDonalds. Much more pleasant is what you can't see through the row of trees, which is the horticultural playground of Capel Manor. Here 3500 students learn how to create gardens, many of them Chelsea winners, and you're welcome to divert inside and take a look [I've been]. Instead the New River dips beneath Bullsmoor Lane, then straight along a wooden-banked channel with blackberry-picking opportunities alongside. A narrow bridge marks the ancient lane of Turkey Street, here blocked to traffic, with its eponymous railway station somewhere off to the left. More interesting, a short distance to the right, is Myddleton House. Named after the New River's creator, this 200-year-old pile is the HQ of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority and boasts fantastic gardens. Well worth a look if you're in the area [I've been], plus the grounds contain the New River equivalent of an oxbow lake. Let me explain.
Ahead is the Maidens Brook, one of the steeper streams hereabouts, which proved a problem for the New River's architects. They were forced to redirect their channel around the valley to remain level, creating a lengthy diversion called the Whitewebbs Loop. That's now dry, replaced by a shortcut Victorian aqueduct, which leaves an overgrown earthwork snaking through the countryside. You can follow it across a golf course, through some woods, even as far as the Whitewebbs Pumping Station (now transport museum). One short section ran through the gardens of Myddleton House where it's still visible as a curved lawn, having been filled in (in the 1960s) using earth tunnelled from the Victoria line. No really. Meanwhile back at the Maiden's Brook, machinery has been installed to scoop off the waters of the New River through what looks like a comb. Two-thirds of the flow passes via pipeline to reservoirs at Walthamstow, where it tops up London's water supply. The remainder of the flow continues through a grassed-over chamber, with an overflow into the Maidens Brook down concrete steps, if conditions require.
What's left of the New River continues on the other side of this peculiarly artificial dip. From forked source it runs straight down the eastern edge of Enfield, past swans aplenty and another of the river's Victorian pumping stations. There are also increasing signs of urbanity along the way. Tower blocks, families carrying the shopping home, plastic bags of dogmess hanging from fence rails, the first appearance of red double deckers, that sort of thing. And then on Carterhatch Lane the unthinkable happens. The riverbanks ahead are fenced off and walkers have to divert down a parallel residential street. This sort of thing is going to happen a lot from now on, all the way down to Harringay, so best get used to it.
Enfield town centre was the location of another of the New River's more meandering loops. That kicked off further downstream on Southbury Road, the main thoroughfare hereabouts, whose traffic comes as a bit of a culture shock after a lot of quiet walking. Another swift straight diversion was created at the turn of the 20th century, this time via three underground iron pipes, with only the beginning visible today. But Enfield council have done splendid things with their redundant loop, creating an attractive landscape feature which winds through the centre of town in a sinuous wiggle [map]. If you follow the official New River Path you won't pass the first part, the weedy shallows along Southbury Road, but I had to follow the full twist because I'm a completist. Just before Silver Street the New River Loop turns sharp right behind the shops, just missing the market and the location of the world's first cashpoint machine. But it re-emerges as part of the reflective pool outside the Civic Centre, creating an attractive blend of new and very old.
You can't follow the next quarter mile because the New River Loop winds through the grounds of Enfield Grammar School. But there's access beyond off Parsonage Lane, and this looks very nice indeed. Heritage lampposts line the towpath, and green weed waves in the river (tolerated because this section won't be drinking water). I stopped to watch an old man watching a mum watching her daughter throwing bread at some ducks, which made for a pleasant scene. And I was bowled away by the location of the Crown and Horseshoes, set on a bend in the path by a footbridge surrounded by flowers and hanging baskets. If you live in one of the terraced cottages facing the water near Gentleman's Row you're very fortunate, and probably have a house price to match. Throw in several Canada geese in convoy, and a brief area of parkland to follow, and this corner of Enfield is an unexpected treat. Indeed if anyone ever suggests walking half of the New River, always do the first half to Enfield, never the second half from.