Any river is a compound of its own narratives, and none more so than the River Lee. Unlike the River Thames for which it is one of the major tributaries, the Lee or Lea has consistently eluded stereotype due to the multiplicity of its channel systems and the huge range of functions it has been required to perform between its source and where it debouches at the Thames Estuary.
When is the Lea not the Lea?
Historically spelled as Lea, it remains so from its source to where it is subsumed as the River Lee Navigation at Hertford, beyond which it reverts to its original spelling only where the course of the old river has been retained as an overflow or flood relief channel. Although the long distance path that follows the river from its source through London to the Thames is known as the Lea Valley Walk, the Lee Valley Park Authority, after its inauguration in 1967, gave preference to the spelling more familiar in the lower reaches and in London. But, consistently inconsistent to the end, the site of its confluence with the Thames is Leamouth.
This is a particularly utilitarian watercourse, which as a consequence does not possess sufficient genius loci to divert it from whatever purpose it might be called upon to serve and whichever zone it passes through: for example, it enjoys a little flourish as the picturesque lakes set in the Capability Brown designed parkland of Luton Hoo, after which, with immediate insouciance, it slips downstream and into a waste-water treatment plant on an industrial scale. Along the entire length of the Lee Valley the river weaves itself into a complex labyrinth of flood-mitigation measures, navigable waterways,
freshwater supply, habitat and drain.
My approach to the Hydrocitizenship Lee Valley case study has been to identify what is unique about the River Lee – the common characteristics and the recurrent themes as I follow its curiously fractured journey to London’s River Thames.
What have I discovered? For a great many urban dwellers the Lee Valley is a vital but informal open space. Although historically it has been a Cinderella of a river, both created by and enabling the working industrial landscapes of East London and beyond, now it is undergoing comprehensive transformation into a wetland landscape of such a high level of biodiversity that it has become a model for other major metropolitan environments in the UK and Western Europe. Perhaps this is because it has always been such a busy, marshy and inhospitable place that, since 1965, its post-industrial landscape has by increments been reborn as a luminous green thread that now runs through densely built Stratford, Hackney, Tottenham, Walthamstow and Edmonton