A night in Hackney Marshes turned out to be unbelievably quiet considering the long, long lines of people going about life along the towpath. It wasn’t much of a journey before turning off onto the Hertford Union Canal – also known as ‘Duckett’s’ after Sir George Duckett who tirelessly lobbied for construction of the 1.5 kms of water designed to bypass the torturous, tidal Bow Back Rivers of the Lea. The canal was a commercial failure and in less than 20 years after its opening in 1830, it was unnavigable. All restored and working well today, the canal began with Old Ford Locks and soon had a feeling of time gone by which lasted to the join up with the Regent’s Canal.
Having chopped out Limehouse and Mile End we emerged in Bethnal Green. The Victoria Park moorings were heaving with boats, up through Haggerston, Hoxton and Islington where we disappeared into the gloom of Islington tunnel. Oblivious to the changes that have gone on all around, the tunnel stands just as it did when it was opened in 1818.
The various wharfs and basins and docks tucked in and around London are a constant source of intrigue to us so it seemed a great opportunity to take advantage of the London Canal Museum moorings at only £8 with water and electric. Tucked down in a far corner where Ice Wharf Marina and Battlebridge Moorings meet, the visitor gap has proper old warehouse views. The Canal Museum is situated in Carlo Gatti’s old ice warehouses – a Swiss entrepreneur who made his fortune importing ice from Norway in the 1860’s. The ice was shipped from Norway, travelled up the Thames, was offloaded onto barges in Regent’s Dock (Limehouse) and finally up the canal and into the warehouse. He soon became the largest ice importer in London, making ice-cream affordable for the not quite so rich, plus the option of domestic ice boxes thanks to his fleet of delivery carts..
A few minutes walk from the peace of Battlebridge Basin is the bustle of Kings Cross and beautiful St Pancreas Station that only just avoided demolition in the 1960’s architectural smash up.
Quite mad to think we could be in Paris in less time than it would take us to travel back to Hackney Marshes.
The Lee Valley Country Park at Cheshunt provided a great place to stop on many levels, there was even entertainment for The Murkster. But 3G was flaky. The moorings are popular and were pretty filled by the time we pulled our pins.
A short drop down a couple of locks landed us at a very handy spot for Home Bargains, Pets at Home, maggots via vending machine (?) and King Harold’s tomb. As with most kings who died in battle there are a certain amount of conspiracy theories surrounding the arrow and the eye: any man who guarded his coast with such determination would have been buried by the sea shore; the tomb was a red herring… King Harold actually survive and lived out his days a hermit up in Chester…and many more. Anyhow, there were film crews filming what looked something like Time Team and so far as Waltham Abbey is concerned King Harold’s resting place is right there, under the high altar, with them.
After a water fill and rubbish dump, we were back on the move, down through one final lock before parking up for a night on one of the last stretches of rural Lea before London begins to open up all around. Perhaps not as pretty as the Stort but then the Lea has had a hard life – in the first half of the 20th century it was the UK’s ‘silicon valley’, site of an electronics revolution with the invention of the diode in 1904. Thorn MK, Ferguson, Belling and Amstrad all set up factories along the brilliantly functional stretch of water.
Mild tonight and the ceiling has finally stopped dingle dangling with rain.
A stark contrast from the River Lea, the Stort twists and turns, is peppered with old water mills and heads towards Essex at a fairly rapid rate. London feels (and is) quite a way away: the water is clear, bridges aren’t splashed in paint and a whole world of wildlife appears to be thriving. Ploughed fields ran alongside the river for most of the day.
Arriving at Roydon Lock it was brilliant to discover you can get just about anything you might need from an ice cream to your laundry done. The owners are unbelievably helpful and we left stocked with all boaty essentials… a word of warning followed our exit from the lock ‘Don’t stay up there for too long or you’ll never get back under the bridge, the levels are already up.’ Oooh okay, it’s nice up here but I’m not sure a whole winter at the top of the River Stort might be such a good idea. The rain can stay away please. Peculiarly Nicholson seems to have given up providing a map for our current section, so we’ll be reading the footnotes and imaginging what lies ahead.
Far from busy, but there are a few boats moving about and a good few windows casting orange glows across the water tonight.
It was a soggy day, hats and gloves came out for the first time and the continual shower of leaves really felt like autumn. Murk loved being rural and kept his head down without the slightest look to get back onboard. The locks are slow to fill and heavy on the gates but the paddles wind easily enough. Just a couple of boats about plus one canoeist who bravely shared a lock with us – he seemed oblivious to the crushing potential, whilst we hung onto the ropes, acutely aware of the slightest 20 tonne tug in his direction. Crazy guy.
By early afternoon the rain had set in so we pulled over to the bank opposite the rowing club in Broxbourne and moored alongside a handful of other boats with smoking chimneys. Depsite a fair bit of washing, cooking and drying waterproofs, nasty condensation hasn’t taken hold yet.
By far the most exciting photo of the day was taken by a lovely guy we met on our ascent from the Thames, a great reminder of an exciting day – thank you Paul!
Leaving Limehouse Basin we turned right and out onto the Lee Navigation. Soon into the land of the Pearly Kings and Queens, through Bow Locks and nearishly past the Bow Bells. The ‘to be true Cockney’ rule that you have to be born within earshot of Bow Bells means it was technically impossible to be a Cockney throughout certain times in history: in 1666, St Mary-le-bow was destroyed by the great fire; in 1941 the bells were destroyed by blitz bombing and today causes a bit of a problem as the surrounding area is no longer residential although a few hospitals within ear shot of the bells do their bit to keep the Cockneys coming.
The Olympic Stadium remains barricaded off to casual passers-by although a strict in/out trip through the park is do-able by prior arrangement. Judging by the stacks of boats bobbing about nearby, the heavily guarded loop of water would fill up in no time if the barricades came down.
Hackney was busy with lively, colourful conversions – galleries, cafes, bars, theatres, studios all packed with Sunday morning crowds. Life drained away as we headed out towards Tottenham, where the water feels side-lined compared to what went before. The banks continue to be chock full of boats and it’s pretty safe to consider any space is probably there due to shallow water rather than being up for grabs in terms of mooring. We ploughed on…
Interesting stuff dwindled to the point of nothing other than long, straight stretches, flanked by pylons – swerving the islands of weeds grappling for the prop was something to get excited about. Never one to give up, Nick kept flicking the Nicholson pages, convinced there was better to come, and there was, just above Rammey Marsh Lock, before the M25. A pretty stretch with trees and grass and STICKS which meant kindling and an easy fire.