'Wiv a ladder an' some glasses
You could see to 'Ackney Marshes
If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between.'
chorus from The Cockney's Garden words by Edgar Bateman
On a day like this it is easy to understand why the watercourses of our cities hold such timeless appeal. It is a Sunday. London has woken to fog but a weak November sun keeps promising to find an opening. I am on the Hackney Cut of the river Lea in the east of the city. The narrow boats are mostly shuttered tight but steam from their flues betrays the occupants, no doubt cooking up a hearty weekend breakfast. There are plenty of cheery 'good mornings' from runners and cyclists, dog walkers and even the occasional canoeist. The water itself is glass smooth, ruffled only by paddling coots and swans. This is the other side of London, London slow, a respite from the relentless onslaught that is England's capital.
The Lea (or Lee) is one of the few London tributaries of the Thames not to have been buried underground and built over. For once city submits to river and not vice versa. Historically for much of its 40 miles it formed the boundary between the counties of Middlesex, Essex and Hertfordshire and even today its marshy hinterland, with surprisingly few bridges, interrupts the London sprawl creating a distinct rift between Tottenham and Walthamstow, Hackney and Leyton. But its wandering course, from a vague source somewhere near Luton to its union with the Thames at Canning Town, has been a focus for human meddling almost from the time of the first settlers. Ambiguity over the spelling of the river's name, compounded by successive Acts of Parliament, is only one of many knotty controversies to entangle this short stretch of water. But however spelled (and Anglo Saxons would have shrugged at our fussing over it) we can note that both Luton and Leyton derive their names from it.
The Hackney Cut, begun in 1770, straightens a two-mile kink in the natural curve of the river, taking excess water and completing the medieval drainage of Hackney Marsh. It is only one of many projects down the centuries which have sought to impose human 'improvement' on the river, to tame what Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene described as 'the wanton Lee, that oft does loose his way.' Stories go that King Alfred drained the river's lower reaches in 895AD to cut off supplies to Danish invaders encamped upstream. Whatever he did, the Lea remained unnavigable for centuries afterwards. Since then it has been diverted and re-diverted many times to accommodate mills, filter beds, reservoirs and all manner of industry. And the work goes on, as recently a section of the river has been canalised to promote a greener means of transporting heavy construction materials to and from Olympic Park in readiness for London 2012.
If I lived in London I would, by now, have walked the Lea from end to end as Diamond Geezer has done and documented on his fascinating blog. I am grateful to my friends, justifiably proud Eastenders, for taking the time to show me the exciting places on their doorstep. Among the scrub land there is natural and industrial heritage aplenty. Signposts beckon to nature reserves and historic landmarks in all directions but on this occasion there is time only for a short walk south to Hackney Wick where the 'natural' river returns from its meanderings to rejoin the artificial channel. Through the fog the new Olympic Stadium unveils slowly, pristine and ghostly pale behind its high security perimeter fence. There is no seeing to 'Ackney Marshes wiv or wivout glasses but the skeins of mist drifting vapourous over the Cut make me regret not carrying a better camera than that on my mobile phone. With perfect timing the sunlight fingers open a chink, the water is pinpointed with diamonds and the scene takes on an eerie monochrome effect.
On such a day it is easy to forget the Lea's notoriety for pollution (hydrogen peroxide is frequently added to re-oxygenate the water after sewage outspills); it is easy to set aside the blight of social alienation on surrounding housing estates (debate and finger-pointing goes on in the wake of this summer's riots in Hackney); it is easy, too, to ignore deeply divided public opinion about the whole Olympic project. On such a day as this the Lea is restored to simply being a river, a ribbon of water made beautiful not by human effort but by the alchemy of the elements.