Lake & Riverside Walk Cheshunt/Waltham Abbey(4 miles)
Here's a pleasant New Year walk, assuming the weather's decent (which it isn't, but it was when I did it). It's a loop around one of the lake-iest bits of the Lea Valley, about a mile beyond the M25, which might sound distant but if you take the Overground to Cheshunt that's pretty much where it starts. I found the walk on a brilliant leaflet they used to give away for free about ten years ago, complete with a map and points of interest. The Lea Valley Park website now only offers a bald list of directions which wouldn't have inspired me to walk anything, but that's the non-paper future for you. Thankfully the original leaflet is still available here, if you're interested, and I've drawn up a simple Google map here if that's more your thing.
The River Lee Navigation is very straight round here, as befits the border between Herts and Essex, and lined by low wooden pylons. This is where the walk begins, if you come by train, and you're looking for the first footbridge to the north from the station. A track leads through the middle of Hooks Marsh, a flooded gravel pit now a lake hundreds of acres in extent and brimming with tench. Don't follow it all the way across, take the minor path to the right, which follows the most wonderfully convoluted bank between water to either side. A couple of people loved this place, as their memorial benches attest, and the sheer glistening isolation concurs.
On the eastern side the parallel watercourse is the actual River Lea, or a flood relief channel with that name, and less photogenic than the neighbouring lakes. Visible through the fence are the outposts of the Royal Gunpowder Mills, a 300 year old explosives factory, well worth a visit in themselves (Easter to September only). Up next is the car park the official walk assumes you arrived at, because cars rule, a fact confirmed by the increased number of visitors hereabouts. This may also be due to the concentration of wildfowl on the lake, perched and preening on bars and islets in full view of the heavily binoculared. Half a dozen bittern overwinter here, and a smart Watchpoint hide has been constructed inside which the patient may lie in wait.
It's easy to miss the turnoff up the side of the Lea along an incongruous broad grassy track, but this is the other best bit. The first hills of Essex rise beyond the neighbouring farmland, the path increasingly remote, until the vast expanse of Holyfield Lake blocks the way. I'm told it attracts hundreds of swifts in the summer, and in wet weather the horseshoe weir can be a cascade, but it was glassy clear on my visit and a riot of reflective blue. A choice of trails leads back to the original river, passing rare black poplars and (in season) an enclave of orchids. The reason for all the pylons hereabouts also becomes clear - Waltham Forest substation is located in the centre of the marsh. And once circled that's the loop complete, an enchanting waterworld at the end of the ginger line, to pencil in for a better weekend.