Roughly once a week I pull on my trainers, loosen my calves and run several miles along the towpath of the River Lee Navigation Canal. Sometimes I head south, past Hackney Marshes and the border of the still evolving Olympic Park to what is now called the London Stadium.
More often, I go north, past Springfield Marina and a succession of locks: Tottenham, Stonebridge then, after passing beneath the roaring North Circular, sometimes on to Alfie’s Lock (until recently Pickett’s Lock, at Edmonton), Ponders End, Enfield and even further. Once, I ran all the way to Broxbourne.
As well as a form of masochistic exertion, it is a journey through a back route of London history, albeit containing pockets of ongoing change, with bankside demolitions and house building here and there as well as narrowboats and greenery and water fowl. That journey, already rewarding, is now enhanced for me by publication of Tony Travers’s book From Wasteland To Playground, which tells the 50-year story of the Lee Valley Regional Park.
Professor Travers, a friend of this website, has woven together the many threads of the park’s creation and progression under the management of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA) into a story that captures and reflects both the great mainstream currents of London’s fortunes since the mid-1960s and the particularities of a 26-mile linear park assembled around a river that links London to Luton and whose importance to the city goes under-recognised, such is dominance and legend of the Thames.
The creation of the Authority owes something to the efforts of Sir Patrick Abercrombie and Herbert Morrison, but it was Lou Sherman, a former tailor’s cutter and cabbie turned Hackney alderman and London County Council member, who led the push to reclaim some 10,000 acres of mostly derelict land and turn it into a riparian corridor of rest and recreation.
The LVRPA, created by an Act of Parliament in 1966 and established on 1 January of the following year, included members from councils as varied as Hertfordshire, Hoddesdon, Tower Hamlets and Newham. By the late 1970s, its facilities were just as diverse, ranging from horse-riding, to sailing facilities, to public farms to nature reserves to the original Pickett’s Lock Leisure Centre. The river, fouled by neglect and dying industries, was cleaned up. It was a major early feat of regeneration (a word Sherman used with pride and which seemed to have none of the negative connotations it has acquired in recent times).
Travers documents how the LVRPA continued to make progress throughout the 1980s despite its funding being hit by Margaret Thatcher’s spending cuts and dwarfed by investment in London’s Docklands. It then flourished in its role as a custodian of green space. In 1992, Prince Philip, who had helped with its birth, celebrated the 25th anniversary of the LVRPA by witnessing “the wholesale transformation of redundant greenhouses, rubbish dumps and gravel pits into an attractive green space criss-crossed by pathways and also home to a rich variety of wildlife, particularly water birds”.
Living close to the Hackney stretch of the Regional Park, I take the paths and locks and marshes for granted. I shouldn’t. The vast patchwork of facilities that lies along the Valley has been assembled with relatively few resources through good times and bad by a complex joint planning amalgam of councils, which depends for finances on London boroughs on the other side of town that don’t always see why they should cough up. The LVRPA has survived remarkably well, and a new body it set up to run its sport and leisure operations includes in its portfolio three 2012 Olympic venues.
Travers contrasts the stewardship of the Lee with that of the Thames, which comes under no single authority and has had far less attention paid to its natural resources and been “heavily developed along its banks without apparent consistency or design”. This might foreshadow further challenges for the Lee Valley. As London grows to the east and its development continues towards Stansted, “there will be both threats and opportunities,” Travers writes.
I leave till last the burning question: is it “Lee” or is it “Lea”? There will always be confusion. The canal section is definitely the Lee Navigation, but near my home it flows through and beneath Leabridge and, as Diamond Geezer has pointed out, the Olympics took place in the Lower Lea Valley. Travers records that the original spelling for the river, “Lea”, is generally still used north of Hertford but that in London, “Lee” predominates. Relax and enjoy the confusion. Travers’s handsome book brings clarity to everything else.
Buy From Wasteland to Playground here.