The New River is neither new nor a river. It's an aqueduct built from 1609-1613 from near Ware to Islington to bring freshwater from Hertfordshire springs to the City. The project was completed by Sir Hugh Myddleton, a Welsh MP, who went into partnership with King James and created one of the world's very first companies. To reduce technological complexity it was decided to follow the 100 foot contour, so there were some extreme wiggles in some places to skirt round rivers and streams along the way. Over 200 labourers were paid the equivalent of 4p per day to dig the channel, which was three metres wide and just over a metre deep. The New River opened on 29th September 1613, and 400 years later it still flows. Thames Water uses the New River as a source for almost 10% of London's drinking water, and they've also opened up access to a 25 mile footpath following its banks. So this month I'm going to walk you from one end to the other, as a quatercentenary celebration, in a series of sequential ambulatory posts. From Hertford-ish through Broxbourne and Cheshunt to the M25, then south through Enfield, Hornsey and Stoke Newington to Sadlers Wells in Islington. And the good news is that, so far, it's been a lot more scenic than I was expecting.
The New River starts on the River Lea, roughly halfway between Hertford and Ware. The easiest way to get there from London is by train to Hertford East, then follow the river a mile downstream to King's Meads. This is an unexpectedly open space, all flat and floodable, which perhaps explains the lack of housing. Expect to meet locals out jogging, or cycling, or perhaps even rescuing a model plane from a particularly cowpat-strewn patch of meadow. Also, make the most of being immediately alongsidea proper river because you'll not be seeing natural meanders or reedy banks for the next 25 miles.
To be precise, the New River starts at New Gauge House, a brick building in the middle of nowhere. It was built in 1856 to regulate the flow of water out of the Lea at a steady 2¾mph, that's 100 million litres a day, and still functions today. You can see some of the machinery on the riverbank, and a broad opening on the opposite side where water emerges to enter the New River proper. Immediately the artificialness of the channel is apparent, with straight concrete sides and clear water devoid of surrounding vegetation. Alongside is a list of safety precautions to be observed by anyone thinking of following the New River Path, posted here and at every single entrance to the path downstream. No swimming, no boating, no fishing... which is good, because people are going to be drinking this water later... no cycles, take litter home, no dog fouling. Here too is the first of a series of information boards, to be found all the way to Islington, showing a map of the river and associated local historical notes. On the majority of the boards some incompetent illiterate has named this spot "New Guage", although the board here appears to have been replaced with a correctly-spelt version to prevent embarrassment.
Almost immediately a repeating problem for the New River walker presents itself - which side of the river is the path? A low footbridge allows access to both sides, with the obvious path seemingly to the left, but actually right (which is good, because it avoids some squelchy meadow). Around the first bend is another low iron bridge, of a style you'll be seeing frequently as the journey passes. If this looks odd it's because water channels of this size are usually canals, except there's never been any boating down the New River so no excess headroom is required. That's also why there isn't a towpath, no ready-made public right of way, just a width of grass to tramp down. Ahead is the first long straight, one of the prettier patches along the entire walk... apart from the dip halfway-along beneath the A10's concrete viaduct. Enjoy the swans and ducks - there'll be lots more of those along the way too. And then look both ways before crossing the railway, checking for oncoming commuter trains before striding over the tracks.
Here we are at a proper heritage bit, Chadwell Springs. This is where the New River originally began, fed by underground aquifers rather than the passing Lea. That first source is fenced off and inaccessible, but if you head off course towards the escarpment then turn left you can get quite close. They call it the Banjo, being a straight channel sticking out of a round pond. An old Metropolitan Water Board sign warns against throwing stones, bathing or washing any animal here, while a much older stone monument rises half-legible from the grass. There's some cryptic reference to "43 feet", and another to "Conveyed 40 miles", which might be explainable were it possible to get closer. Close by are two lake-sized ponds, one full, one nigh dried up after the summer we've just had. And back on the New River are two further intriguing structures, the more picturesque being the cottage-like White House Sluice. Much more important was the Marble Gauge, a cuboid of Portland stone dating from 1770. It once contained a wooden 'balance engine' - a rocking beam-and-float device - which was used to regulate the flow from the Lea before the New Gauge took over. But it's entirely superfluous today, merely an ornate block where the New River narrows, and is bypassed by a couple of modern iron pipes.
Don't get the idea that the New River Path is this pleasant all the way along. King's Meads soon end, and the river bumps up against the edge of the main Hertford to Ware Road. Really close to the road yet generally inaccessible, thanks to a fence, which means that locals tend to walk along the pavement rather than the far more pleasant waterside path. Coming up on the left is Broadmead Pumping station, the first of several to be seen on the way to London, built in the 19th century to pump water from a deep well to add to the flow. It could easily be mistaken for a Victorian school, were it not for the telltale signs of a 20m chimney and a hall with tall windows where a steam engine once whirred. In 1980 the water board converted the building to offices, but since 2010 it's been empty, wasting away on the outskirts of Ware.
If you're here on a Saturday afternoon you can deviate a short distance up the hill to Scott's Grotto, a folly with a system of decorated chambers and artificial passageways dug into the rock. Alas I wasn't passing on a Saturday, which is annoying because I've been meaning to look inside for years (admission free, bring a torch). Instead I proceeded between road, river and railway to graze the edge of Ware town centre. Just past the main level crossing the New River passes behind some railings, the first time along the walk you can't walk immediately beside it, and most definitely not the last. A little road walking leads to a more pleasant open stretch, past a row of terraced cottages and eventually some fields of horses. Watch out for two tiny bronze figures in the river, designed by James from a local primary school as part of the Chadwell Way Sculpture Trail. I passed a lady out strolling with a red parasol, and a woman being walked by a dog, as the village of Great Amwell approached. Enough for now, back shortly.