There are few finer things in life than a walk along the River Lea, the mantra of gravel under foot, gazing into the reflections in the water letting your mind drift. I hadn’t previously walked this section of the River, taking various other routes to cover the Lea Valley from Rye House into Hertford – usually the New River Path, or through Wormley Woods and along Ermine Street, or even over the hills from Roydon and Stanstead Abbotts dropping down into Ware (and there must have been others too).
It was glorious the entire way – especially that last stretch between Ware and Hertford, where the geese gather in a field and the Bronze Age burial mound at Pinehurst looks over the bend in the river. More walks suggest themselves in the marshes that run nearby and over the hills heading deeper into Hertfordshire. We’re blessed in East London to be part of the Lea Valley ecosystem, such a rich and storied landscape.
Three months ago today I set out under a murky sky with the temperature hovering around zero, bound for a section of the old Roman Ermine Street that passes through the woods between Broxbourne and Hertford. There was light snow as I departed from Cheshunt Station over the level crossing at 10am and make my way to the Lea Navigation towpath.
Turning inland at the Turnford/Wormley border there is a curious collection of rare features side-by-side. At the Slipe Lane Level Crossing stands a 19th Century Coal Tax Post (a large stone obelisk) next to a Second World War Pillbox. The two structures are indicators of being on the outer limits of ‘London’ despite being clearly in Hertfordshire. The Coal Tax Post a notification of entry into the tax jurisdiction of the Corporation of London, and the Pillbox forming part of the Outer London Defence Ring.
11.30am I shelter from the snow in the lychgate of St. Laurence Wormley while trying to find the Twix that’s hiding somewhere in the bottom of my bag. It would’ve been nice to have a look at the early 12th Century nave in the church but of course it’s locked so I have to satisfy myself with trying to identify the window in the south wall that dates from the same period.
Onwards through Wormleybury, across a field and up a lane and there I pick up the marked section of Ermine Street on the edge of Paradise Wildlife Park. Into afternoon now and the February snow continues to drift down as I tread the ancient track perhaps taken by the Syrian divisions of the Roman Army that spent time garrisoned in the Upper Lea Valley before moving North.
The ‘road’ continues its straight course through Danemead Wood and over the Spital Brook – this muddy woodland path leading you through the phases of English history. Ermine Street becomes Elbow Lane and takes you past Hobbyhorse Wood.
At Hertford Heath I turn away from the Roman Road and schlepp through Balls Wood Nature Reserve where the Vegan Vandals have been at work. From here I pass over the last winter fields guided into Hertford by the sound of playing fields on the edge of town.
Following the screening of London Overground at the Genesis Cinema last October I was approached by a couple who told me about a section of Roman Road running through Hobbs Cross near Theydon Bois. So one Sunday I set off on the Central Line then over fields in search of this preserved section of the Roman Road that once ran through Leytonstone after crossing the Lea at Leyton running out to Great Dunmow joining a junction that linked in roads to Braughing, Braintree and Chelmsford.
7.30am and the dog has pissed in my boot. I discover this as I slide my foot into my great new walking boots to head out on a slightly crazed quest to walk from Leytonstone to Hertford or at least as far up the Lea Valley as my legs will carry me in a day.
It’s a cold and misty pre-Christmas dawn as I slope past Leyton Midland Road Station – the Barking to Gospel Oak line on hiatus while its platforms are lengthened and the line electrified.
An hour later at the end of Chingford Road, Walthamstow my legs are getting sore which doesn’t bode well for the long walk ahead. I need to pace myself, let the natural rhythm of the plod take over. Clear my mind.
The road into Sewardstone is cloaked in thick mist. I pass an abandoned row of breeze block sheds apparently used for selling fireworks. I cross the border out of London into Essex – an uncanny quarter of the Borough of Waltham Forest, London in the country.
Turning off Sewardstone Road down misty Mill Lane I get my second wind. I figure I’ll need to have a third and fourth wind to reach Ware or Hertford. Crossing the rough ground beside the reservoirs I am stalked by horses – three friendly creatures who follow me for around 200 yards before returning to their grazing spot in the bushes.
Reaching Waltham Abbey at midday I can’t face the extra mile round trip into town for lunch so pop into MaccyD’s for a Big Mac Meal and recuperation although I keep my stop to a strict 30 minutes before returning to the Lea footpath.
2.15pm and stop for tea and Kit Kat by the river at Broxbourne. 2.30pm back on the move.
St. Margaret’s Wood
Onto the New River Path at Broxbourne up to Great Amwell past pumping stations and through St. Margaret’s wood and into the dark of winter evening. The plan the night before had been to walk the entire 28-miles of the New River Path from Islington to Hertford. But answering the alarm call at 6.30am on 5 hours sleep the thought of an hours travel to start a walk I probably wouldn’t finish wasn’t enough to shift me from under the duvet. However starting the walk from home was far more appealing.
Finish at 5.30pm at the Great Eastern Tavern near Hertford East Station – a lovely cosy old pub with friendly staff and a good pint of McMullen’s ale. The feet are humming but that’s to be expected of a walk of around 23-miles. Christmas Carols are playing on the jukebox ‘Simply having a wonderful Christmas time’. A second pint to make sure the ale reaches all ten toes before hopping the train into Stratford.
‘Where are we going?’, I asked as we headed north on the A10/Ermine Street
‘Ware’, replied Dave Binns
‘Yes, WHERE are we going?’
‘WARE’, he said again.
This went on for a while.
Turns out the Iron Age burial mound I was taken to look at was more in Hertford than Ware but that wouldn’t have been as much fun.
Gary from the Bermondsey Joyriders was at the wheel and had set up this excursion. I thought we were heading back into Epping Forest for some reason so it came as a surprise to find myself at the upper reaches of the River Lea. It’s a trip that has stayed with me since that July day and has somehow worked itself into the book that I’m currently working on.