Walking with Jen Harvie on 27 May 2012

Lea Valley Walk

I am walking the Lea Valley Walk with Jen Harvie. Jen was completing her PhD in Glasgow just as I was beginning mine, and then moved to London shortly after. She is a bright spark in a network of connections, someone I enjoy bumping into at conferences and wish I had time to speak to meaningfully. I am delighted Jen has proposed a long walk.

The length of the Lee Valley park – a green, protected lung of London – is an incredible 26 miles. The Lea Valley Walk is 18 in total, though Jen and I will cover about 13 of those. Jen has done sections of this walk before, but it’s wholly new to me. It’s a hot Sunday (from my perspective, at least). I am properly prepared though – sun hat, glasses, long sleeved top, long trousers, 2 litres of water, Factor 50 suntan cream (so thick that after application I look ghostly). I envy Jen who effortlessly emanates a Canadian, outdoorsy comfortableness.

Beginning our walk at Waltham Cross, we search for an entrance to the Lee Navigation towpath. Signs alluding to the impending Olympics locate me firmly in London, serving to also remind me just how far Glasgow is from the 2012 shenanigans (e.g. a large Tesco branded board attached to an innocuous railing announces ‘The Home of GB Canoeing Canoe Slalom’). After a short walk we arrive at a sing: ‘Lea Valley Walk’, which directs us to the canal. Another sign tells me that it’s 4 ½ miles to Pickett’s Lock. The sky is a stunning blue, the towpath abundant with wildflowers in pinks, yellows, whites. Willows cascade like green waterfalls and whole swathes of the land are left untouched, wilding with cow slip. Vibrant birdsong sings to the pleasure of simply letting this place be. Jen and I share an appreciation in this urban pastoral, and nature’s willingness to take root and take over wherever. In the water a pair of moorhens usher a brood of chicks not yet fully feathered.

A row of houses cultivate an unusual garden system – borders or frames filled with reeds and iris floating in the canal. On canal boats, a few sun seekers soak up the rays, potted gardens growing on the rooftops of floating homes. At Enfield Lock (Lock 13), a burnt out shell of a house lies abandoned. The towpath travels through a more industrial landscape, though even here, a field close by is home to a trio of friendly ponies. The seemingly rural and the urban are not so particular about their separation; sheep graze beneath the feet of huge pylons, whilst above, cormorants rest on the metal fretwork and down water, swans build nests from human rubbish. An information board informs us that the Lee Valley is home to otters – and that otters are a sign of a healthy river. Ironically, the water beside this sign is stagnant, with plastic bottles and polystyrene boxes suspended atop a viscous soup of algae. Along most other parts of the canal, though, we pass men fishing quietly, heron standing stock still, and water that is transparent. Perhaps the possibility of otters is not so far fetched.

The canal becomes more populated – a kid’s tent on the opposite bank, a couple of people (bravely?) cooling down by floating in the river, a family picnicking on a short mooring. Raucous caws announce the presence of a rookery opposite too – black birds sitting around a water tower. The occasional canal boat travels up stream, as well as fleeter canoes. At Stonebridge Lock (16) – Tottenham Marshes – we take a brief pause (more water, more Factor 50, a pear and an orange). My shoes are grey with the dust from the towpath. A couple of cheery, committed locals have planted up a herb garden (rosemary, sage, lavender) and in a spirit of generosity invite us to help ourselves.

At Tottenham Lock (17) the area becomes more residential. Acknowledging its canal side location, the balcony of one flat hosts a wind sock made up of 3 fish, their tails swishing in the light breeze. Less happily, a real, dead fish floats on the surface of the water, though the moor hens are entirely nonplussed. A flock of large geese have taken up residence in the river bank gardens of a block of flats on the opposite bank. At the Riverside Café we take another break – bananas and lashings of ginger beer. The red, white and blue bunting nods to the Jubilympics (Jen and I are both fans of the sharp spoof documentary, 2012).

Close by is Springfield Park – Jen’s sister’s local park. We cross the Horse Shoe bridge, and pass the Lee Valley Marina, which in turn becomes Walthamstow Marsh Nature Reserve. A nimble tern seems to be travelling with us, going ahead and then darting back again. Diversion signs signal that we have now properly entered the land of the Olympics Legacy (‘Olympic Walking and Cycling Route Enhancement Programme’). The numerous football pitches of the Hackney Marshes – big open spaces here long before any Olympics planning – are one of Jen’s favourite vistas on this walk. Prime real estate protected for non-commercial purposes.

New build flats along the canal are testimony to the rapid redevelopment of the area, and indeed the towpath leads us to Olympic Media HQ, surrounded by metres of high fences watched over by CCTV. The Olympic Stadium looks like a Meccano skeleton. Jen has chosen a timely walk, allowing me to witness first hand the seismic changes brought to this place. We cross over White Bridge and onto the other side of the canal, passing by some bold sections of colourful graffiti as we join the Hertford Union Canal. An ingeniously constructed wall of soil bags sprouts various herbs, with what resembles the face of a Green Man (made out of clay) embedded into one of them. Spotting – and hearing – a bright yellow ice cream van on the next bridge, we speed up a little and I am mightily relieved that we catch it. We are on the home stretch now, familiar turf for Jen along her daily cycle path to work. Passing under Roman Road, we arrive at Mile End Park, the buildings of Queen Mary’s campus now visible on the opposite shore. It’s been a long and varied walk, one that felt a million miles from London and at the same time nowhere else but London. Two walks in one.

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