Walking the Lea Valley 1: HATTERS-LEA Leagrave → Luton(4 miles)
The official source of the River Lea is at the foot of a notorious housing estate - Marsh Farm, on the outskirts of Luton [photo]. Rainwater gathers beneath the tower blocks (it used to be a "marsh farm", what do you expect?) and flows out of a pipe beneath a flat-topped concrete portal [photo]. There's not much of a view before the trickle disappears into the trees (it's much better observedin winter), but clamber down the bank and it's possible to peer properly through the grille into the official Lea outfall [photo]. It had been raining heavily prior to my visit but even so the water was barely an inch deep, flowing gently past a broken bollard hurled from the path above. Most rivers undoubtedly start somewhere lovelier than this.
Waulud's Bank: To be fair, the source of the Lea is also located within the boundaries of a D-shaped Neolithic monument, which is far more interesting. Waulud'sBank is a 5000-year-old raised earthwork enclosing nearly 20 acres, with the river forming the western edge, and may once have housed an Iron Age farmstead. These days it's more likely a spot for dog-walking, or for nipping off with your teenage mates for a crafty smoke.
It comes as a bit of a surprise, a couple of minutes walk from the river's source, to discover that the Lea is already ten metres across. That's because it's almost immediately joined by the tributary I described yesterday, the one that runs in from Houghton Regis (and also because the water's very shallow). I spotted my first rat here nipping across the footbridge, and also my first heron taking flight from a watery runway. A most unusual sculpture lurked in the bullrushes [photo] - a selection of hats on stalks as a reminder of Luton's past glories in the manufacture of millinery. Esther Rantzen wasn't completely barking when she wore a straw boater to launch her bid to become a Luton MP, merely tipping the nod to a local tradition.
The fledgling Lea then took a sinuous route away from Leagravestation into the surrounding suburbs. It was narrower again now, but bold enough to repel housing from the surrounding flood plain [photo]. Footbridges led off across the reeds to neighbouring streets, while concrete culverts fed the stream from gushing storm-drains. The occasional road was crossed, and also the occasional long-distance Celtic trackway. It was a relief, even if only briefly, to discover that Luton has some relatively upmarket quarters. Turning south I followed a secluded wooded path to a grassy marsh and fresh-mown park, just me and a whole load of rabbits. But the town was never very far away.
Wardown Park Museum: Luton's mainmuseum is housed in a Victorian mansion in an Edwardian park. And there's plenty of history to see. Bedfordshire's famous for lace-making, so there's a room downstairs full of that, and I also enjoyed the room full of hats [photo] even though there's no way I'd wear a single one of them. Upstairs is a full history of the area (so, more hats, and the Vauxhall car industry, and the big Electrolux factory, and the football club, then right up to date with the airport and Easyjet). I also discovered that I'd arrived on the 90th anniversary of the Luton Peace Riots (and that's not a contradiction in terms). The town's population were so upset by the council's extravagant celebrations at the end of WW1 that they ended up storming the town hall and burning it to the ground. But that's Luton for you - down to earth and brutally honest.
Wardown Park's delightful too, or at least I assume it is when the weather's a little better. There was nobody availing themselves of the Lea-filled boating lake, just a few random strollers on the footbridge and an Eastern European couple allowing their daughter to chuck bread at some ducks. The Lea took an unusual route to the south of the park, flowing in two parallel channels along either side of the New Bedford Road, so each house required a tiny bridge across the stream to link it to the pavement. And then, just before the town centre, both rivulets disappeared beneath the ground - one into twin pipes, and the other down a flight of steps [photo]. To see what happens next requires waders and a torch (or you could check out this web forum used by civilly disobedient adventure seekers).
The Lea reappeared briefly in Mill Street (spot the clue there) then plunges back beneath the Arndale. I know Luton's shopping centre well, having lived several years slightly further up the A6, and very little had changed in the last 10 years. There were a few more closed-down shops, plus a big outdoor space with walk-through fountains to keep the kids quiet. I also noticed that a high proportion of the Arndale's shoppers had taken to writing the name of their next of kin in fancy gothic script on their upper arm, presumably in case they ever get lost. But at least nobody's burnt the Town Hall down recently [photo], and for that Luton can be thankful.
Yes, if you missed my earlier announcement, I'm following the entire River Lea during August. Never fear, the journey won't all be about Luton, we'll get to the London end eventually. And don't worry, I'm restricting it to weekends and the odd Monday. Back to 'normal' tomorrow.