Virtual Beating of the Bounds: 🦉Stop 7

We’re continuing our virtual version of Beating the Bounds on Leyton Marshes, compiled for those that couldn’t take part in person on Rogation Sunday.

We’ve now reached 🦉Stop 7! Thank you for ‘travelling’ this far with us.

Map of Beating the Bounds route 2021

After following the path around the outskirts of the Waterworks, you find yourself at Stop 7, here is the clue:

This was a place where wildlife lived in peace,
But now it features litter, noise and grime.
The birds and vegetation all decrease
When crowds arrive. This is a wildlife crime.

🦉  The Old River Lea, by the Waterworks Meadow

The name of the River Lea was first recorded in the 9th century, although is believed to be much older. Spellings from the Anglo-Saxon period include Ligean in 880 and Lygan in 895, and in the early medieval period it is usually Luye or Leye. It seems to be derived from a Celtic root meaning ‘bright or light’ which is also the derivation of a name for a deity, so the meaning may be ‘bright river’ or ‘river dedicated to the god Lugus’. A simpler derivation may correlate with the modern Welsh “Li” pronounced “Lea” which means a flow or a current.

The Pagan God Lugus carved into oak

Before the 10th century, the estuary of the river came as far as Hackney Wick, crossed at Old Ford. Marsh Road, the continuation of Homerton High Street, led to the marshes, and thence to Temple Mills.

The Romans appear to have built a significant stone causeway across the marshes here; a periodical, the Ambulator of 1774, noted:

there have been discovered within the last few years the remains of a great causeway of stone, which, by the Roman coins found there, would appear to have been one of the famous highways made by the Romans

The river forms a natural boundary, so in AD 527 it formed the boundary between the Saxon kingdoms of Essex and Middlesex. In around AD 880 a treaty was drawn up dividing Anglo-Saxon Wessex from Danelaw (the part of Anglo-Saxon England colonized by invading Danish armies) along the same river boundary. On the Wessex side, people spoke a different language, obeyed different laws and worshipped different gods to those under Danelaw, on what is now Hackney Marshes!

River Lea imagined by Christine Engel

Around AD 894 the Danes tried to invade further into Anglo-Saxon territory, sailing Viking longships up the river Hertford, and in about 895 they built a fortified camp, in the higher reaches of the Lea, about 20 miles (32.2 km) north of London, at Ware, where the Lee Valley Regional Park now comes to an end. King Alfred the Great diverted the River Lea into a newly cut channel. This lowered the depth of the river, leaving the Vikings stranded. They were forced to abandon their ships and flee on horseback.

Painting of a Viking longship by Daniel R Blunt

In the Middle Ages attempts were also made to control the flow of water through the marshes.

Painting of a Medieval Watermill

Mills were established including the Knights Templar Mill at Temple Mills. Much of the marsh was owned by the Templars and used for pasture. The Domesday Book (1086) shows that during the Middle Ages there were at least eight water mills in the local area, producing flour for City bakers. A number of the mills were actually tidal as the tidal estuary stretched as far north as Hackney Wick.

A surviving watermill at Three Mills Island by Gordon Joly

Around 1770, the river was straightened by the construction of the Hackney Cut, now forming the western extent of the marsh. The natural watercourse passes to the east over the Middlesex Filter Beds Weir, just below Lea Bridge Road. The Waterworks Nature Reserve occupies the former Middlesex Filter Beds on the island between the two watercourses.

Magic Fish by Kate Malone at the Waterworks Nature Reserve (millfields blog)

In January 1809 the lower River Lea burst its banks in several places following a deluge that dumped two inches of rain in the space of 24 hours. The rain abruptly ended a snowy cold spell that had begun over a month before in the middle of December. “It is likely that up to half a metre of snow had fallen in the previous weeks in the upper parts of the surrounding countryside with only slight thawing. With the frozen ground unable to absorb any of the rapidly melting snow and rainfall the amount of water flowing downstream must have been immense.” Read more from an eye witness account from factory owner Luke Howard ‘When the River Lea was a mile widehere.

At the end of the 19th century Hackney was beset by increased demand for building land, both for housing and to extend the factories in Homerton. The marshes continued to suffer periodic flooding from the Lea but with the introduction of mains sewerage, a flood relief sewer was constructed beneath the marshes. Most common and Lammas lands were then preserved by an Act of Parliament and passed to the control of the Metropolitan Board of Works, but the marsh remained excluded from the MBW scheme because many of the Lammas rights were still exercised, predominantly grazing. This was a period of increasing arguments between landowners eager to build, and groups seeking to preserve the open spaces for recreation.

In 1890, 337 acres of the marshes were preserved by the London County Council, by a purchase of the rights and landowners’ interests for £75,000. The marshes were opened to the public in 1893 and were formally dedicated in 1894. The LCC undertook further flood prevention, straightening some of the bends in the River by introducing four ‘cuts’, the old channels being retained to form islands.

The river now forms the border between the boroughs of Hackney and Waltham Forest. Although the threat of flooding remains, the main threat to the river now comes from pollution, with raw sewage frequently discharged into the river as well as less common events causing major damage, such as an oil leak in 2018 and the toxic runoff from a warehouse fire in 2019. Water extraction, for drinking water, farming and industry has led to a reduction in river flow impacting wildlife and concentrating the pollutants present in the remaining river water. The water quality is designated as ‘Bad’ along its length.

Fish dead on the River Lea by Loving Dalston

Despite this, encouraged by the fashion for open water swimming, glamourised national media coverage and lack of information about the scale of the pollution, hundreds of people frequented the river banks in 2020.

Female Kingfisher on the River Lea by Alan Revel

The impact from vastly increased human disturbance led to kingfishers deserting their nest and a pair of little owls tragically abandoning their babies. As a result of local intervention, action by Hackney Council and improved education, we hope for a more positive outcome in 2021.

Little Owl on the Waterworks Meadow

Main source: Wikipedia. All other sources linked for reference and further exploration.

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