The New River has been bringing fresh water to London for the last 399 years and 51 weeks, hence I'm celebrating its immininent anniversary by walking the entire New River Path. Today I'm starting off in Wood Green and weaving south to Stoke Newington, at first fairly straight, then indirectly via a proper wiggle. It's fascinating to follow this 17th century thread of blue through the city that's grown up around it.
Very soon after the Wood Green Tunnel it's time to wave goodbye to the New River again. It disappears beneath the East Coast mainline, leaving walkers to divert round Wood Green Common and into an industrial estate. On a Sunday morning the police vans are silent but yelps of pentecostal praise can be heard, pinned down to an old warehouse beside the bakery. Eventually a rising subway allows passage beneath the embankment, which reveals what the New River's been up to in the short time you've been away. It's wandered off into the Hornsey Reservoir, that's what it's done, to feed the greedy appetite of the Hornsey Water Treatment Works. Filtration beds were dug here in the mid 19th century to ensure that the New River's water was purified before reaching London, and it still is, although Thames Water have recently upgraded facilities considerably. Several silver shedssit beside the river, curved roofs glinting, containing technology unseen. It's a reminder of the continued importance of the New River - 350000 Londoners obtain their drinking water via here.
Stretched along the west bank, overlooked by Alexandra Palace, is a new-ish housing development of colourful apartments called the New River Village. Streets are names after springs near the river's source, and the old Hornsey Pumping Station has been pressed into action alongside as a restaurant and gallery. The estate's residents live their busy lives on one side of the water, while the New River Path crosses a grassy strip on the other. From here I watched a heron swoop in and perch on a pipe for all of fifteen minutes, entirely unseen by the families, shoppers and joggers opposite. Gradually it made its way along the metal, occasionally eyeing up prey in the water and snapping for the kill, then paused in contemplation by an outfall pipe. It's quite my best sighting of a heron since I moved to London, proof that you don't need to hit the countryside to enjoy a spell of wildlife-watching. [15 sec video]
At Hornsey High Street the New River ducks back beneath the railway, and is a much quieter place once walking access is finally regained. I really liked the next quarter-mile, from the gold-roofed mosque near the station and on past the backs of the houses on Wightman Road. Again there wasn't a soul here except me, the New River Path is not well travelled, not even in brief dog-walking bursts. A flotilla of Polish flatbreads floated out from underneath the bridge and proceeded to bob downstream in steady procession. They'll have got caught at the grille beside the graffitied shed further down, where Wightman Road rises up and the New River burrows briefly beneath. Up next is the splendid Harringay Ladder, a mile of runged roads that's middle class residentialnirvana. Two dozen parallel streets stretch down the hillside to Green Lanes, and the New River carves between about half of them. There's no access to the towpath, Haringey council had every gate locked off a while back. But you can divert between the terraces along HarringayPassage, a looo-ong narrow alleyway, and perhaps nip out occasionally to spot the sealed-off river snaking through.
The New River slices Lothair Road in two, that's the last in the chain, but again the link is severed and the tiny footbridge inaccessible. But coming up next is a direct hit on a major public space, round the top end of Finsbury Park. The waterway divides the baseball ground in the northern quadrant from the main body of the park, again not that access to the water's edge is permitted. This time a green iron fence provides the barrier, softened at one point by a peeling plaque announcing the river's 400 year heritage. If you're in the area tomorrow afternoon you can enjoy the Hidden River Festival, a one-off event which promises "music, food, stallholders... and local historians". At other times you can't help thinking that not enough is made of this water feature, it slinks off behind some trees and you get the feeling people barely notice.
Yet on the other side of Green Lanes, the New River is entirely unlocked. Few head this way, although it's one of the most open sections in London, clinging to the edge of a contour as the land drops away to reveal the Lea Valley beyond. Here the New River forms the boundary between Haringey and Hackney, passing cranes that have been here for years building who knows what, and a number of swans. Beyond Seven Sisters Road a grille in the bank makes cacophonous sounds as the waters within swirl and smash around in the confined space. And then there's a sudden turn from east to southwest, because we really are following a contour here, no later straightening of the route has taken place. Inside this 400-year-old bend is Woodberry Down, originally dairy pasture, later compulsorily purchased by the London County Council to create an ‘estate of the future’. Fifty-seven blocks of flats marched across this hilltop, initially utopian, later rather less so, so Hackney Council are busy knocking several of them down. In their place are the soaring towers and shiny apartments of Woodberry Park, barely social housing at all, boasting waterside locations thanks to the New River's passage.