The Thames cuts a lonely swathe through maps of contemporary London. Looked at from above, sheâ€™s one of the last visible reminders of a landscape lost beneath sediments of concrete and steel. She trails sadly through the megalopolis like a party ribbon hanging from the back of a crashed wedding limousine.
It wasnâ€™t always this way. In the past the Thames enjoyed the company of many tributaries including the Fleet, the Effra, the Tyburn, the Westbourne, Walkbroook, Falconbrook, Stamford Brook and Counterâ€™s Creek. These rivers have since been bricked up, turned into sewers, forced underground. Some occasionally struggle to the surface, reduced to the role of park streams, sluicing through concrete channels bearing a navy of crisp packets and fag butts, humiliated and subjugated by the city.
The 40 mile long Lee is one of the few waterways to stand firm against the insatiable city as it spreads east, consuming and regurgitating all in its path. She begins life in the Chiltern Hills at Leagrave, and flows South through Ware, Cheshunt, Waltham Abbey, Enfield Lock, Tottenham, Upper Clapton, past Walthamstow marsh, through Hackney marsh, Hackney Wick, Stratford, Bromley-by-Bow, Canning Town and finally Leamouth where she pours into the Thames.
But the Lee has always been more than a river. Sheâ€™s a historical border between Middlesex, Essex and Hertfordshire. Even further back in time she was the frontier between Saxon England and Danish Viking territory.
Lee & The Vikings
The Danish Vikings had established a foothold in East and North England in 865AD. They made regular raids on the Saxons, looting villages and stealing livestock. To keep the peace, King Alfred signed a treaty with King Guthrum agreeing a border â€śup on the Thames, and then up on the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then straight to Bedford, then up on the Ouse to Watling Street.â€ť
This border became known as the Danelaw. The Saxons would stay to the South and West of the Lea. The Danes would keep to their path to the East.
But the Vikings were a notoriously restless bunch.
In 894AD theÂ Lee was wide and fast-flowing enough for a fleet to sail as far as Ware in Hertfordshire, their ships adorned with images of dragons and banners bearing ravens, their crew hungry for pillage. Saxon legend has it that Alfred responded by draining lower reaches of the river, cutting off the water channel at Waltham and stranding the enemy. The Vikings scattered on foot and had to fight their way home.
This was the beginning of human meddling with the Lee. Over the centuries many more artificial channels have sapped the riverâ€™s strength and width. Sheâ€™s been diverted through mills, forced through filter beds, hemmed into reservoirs and siphoned off by the heavy industry which came to dominate the valley.
In the 18th Century a process of canalisation began, creating a series of cuts and locks to aid the transportation of grain. Like a great whale at the mercy of hunters, harpooned with pick axes and shovels, the Lee has grown slower with every blow. Each new drainage channel is a slashed artery draining her lifeblood. Her wounds fill with silt and petroleum spilled from overloaded barges. Slower, slower she moves, her vision dimming until sheâ€™s flanked on both sides by concrete and can only dream of her tidal past while jubilant men in flat caps whistle and beckon over the loading hooks.
The Irrepressible River
In 1590 Edmund Spenser wrote in his poem The Faerie Queene of ‘the wanton Lee, that oft does loose his wayâ€ť. By the end of the industrial revolution, the Lee had been forced into the servitude of London, her curvy lines straightened, her naturally wayward character repressed and conditioned by the demands of the metropolis.
But the Lee is an irrepressible river. Sheâ€™s not like the others. She isnâ€™t broken so easily.
The lower lea valley may have been industrialised and then gentrified, but the marshlands obey different laws. Theyâ€™re conditioned by a slower, preternatural chronology. And itâ€™s at the entrance to the marshlands, by the Lea Bridge Road, she begins a breathtaking comeback. At the tumultuous weir sheÂ splits away fromÂ the canal and cascadesÂ through Hackney Marshes.
From this point she is no longer the Lee. Sheâ€™s the Lea. And sheâ€™s remembered herself.