A substantial ride that can be done solo or with a group of friends. Stop and explore as much as you like, or extend the ride into a longer challenge.
Route summary: linear route heading northwards from east London, going through Tottenham, Enfield, Waltham Abbey, Cheshunt and Broxbourne. Options to extend to Hertford / Bishops Stortford or Cambridge. Return via train or bike.
Distance: 16 miles one way
Difficulty rating: easy terrain, challenging distance
Start: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, or anywhere along the route.
Tips: read these tips for riding along canals before you start
Why chose this ride?
The River Lea is a beautifully green corridor stretching from east London all the way to Hertfordshire. It is a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of London with a glut of wildlife and the ever-calming water of the canal. It has plenty of historic interest: though a natural river valley, it was canalised in the 1500s to allow the passage of boats which would bring goods to London. It is a popular area for boaters and for visitors either by bike or on foot, and allows an easily-navigable route into the countryside from the heart of London. There are many points of interest along the way, from the remnants of the industries that once existed on the river, to nature reserves and countryside villages which offer plenty of opportunity for refreshment.
Simply following the water is the most straightforward method of navigation. The many cycle routes that run parallel or nearby to the River Lea are also worth exploring. Frequent noticeboards provided by the Lee Valley Authority give information about the surrounding area and these various routes through the Lee Valley regional park. National Cycle Network route 1 often follows the towpath but sometimes diverts to a parallel route.
Head north along the river from the Hackney Wick / the Olympic Park. The towpath follows the eastern side of the river beneath the A12, Homerton Road, and up past Hackney marshes. A bridge takes you across the water next to a weir and the Princess of Wales public house, before passing beneath Lea Bridge Road. Just round the corner there is the option to cross the river again and ride through Walthamstow marshes, or continue on the paved but narrow towpath. The river now passes Springfield marina and the Lea Rowing Club House before curving up towards Tottenham. This is an unpaved section and can be very muddy in wet weather. There are two sections of rutted cobbles here, adjacent to Markfield Park and just below Tottenham Lock: take care here, or get off and walk.
Pass Tottenham Lock where you’ll see three huge Thames Barges moored (these house office space) and ride up to Stonebridge lock. Cross the lock to follow the eastern bank once more, up past Tottenham marshes. The towpath is rarely paved north of Stonebridge. The chimney of Edmonton waste disposal facility soon comes into view, followed by Pickett’s Lock and Ponders End lock. The view is fairly limited here, with industry to one side and high-sided reservoirs on the other, though sheep and horses often graze at the reservoirs’ flanks. Pylons line the towpath. At Enfield Lock the towpath switches sides once more and the view opens up, with less industry and more greenery, and soon you’ll pass beneath the M25 and leave London behind. Waltham Town lock, Waltham Common lock and Cheshunt lock come in fairly quick succession, then it’s a long stretch of countryside until you reach the outer reaches of Broxbourne. Pass over the river again by the Crown pub and enjoy a well-earned pint.
Places of interest along the way
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Built for the 2012 Olympics on previous industrial wasteland, the QEII Olympic Park is a popular destination for walkers, cyclists and tourists. There’s an option to take a boat cruise on the river, visit the viewing platform inside the Orbit, go swimming at the Aquatics Centre or ride the tracks at the Velo Park. There are cycleways throughout the park and plenty of pubs and cafes nearby.
Middlesex Filter Beds (adjacent to Hackney marshes)
The filter beds are the remnants of the Victorian system of purifying sewage, now used as a nature reserve. The huge brick and concrete beds and some of the mechanism are still in evidence, and information boards explain how it all used to work. Really fascinating and worth pausing for.
Markfield Beam Engine (Markfield Park)
Another remnant of the Victorian era, the Markfield Beam Engine and Museum was once part of the Tottenham sewage treatment works and pumping station. The restored beam engine still operates under steam on designated days. It’s a great example of Victorian engineering and the attention to detail that was so typical of this era. The concrete remains of the sewage works now house the garden and a skate park.
Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield (Government Row, Enfield Island Village, access from Enfield Lock)
Now converted as part of Enfield Island Village, the original frontage of the Royal Small Arms Factory overlooks part of the old dock, now cut off from the main river. The factory operated for over a century from 1816, starting life as a small water-powered mill, and growing into a complex modern factory that produced hundreds of thousands of rifles and machine guns for both world wars.
Royal Gunpowder Mills (Beaulieu Drive, Waltham Abbey)
This requires a detour from the towpath but is worth a visit. The Gunpowder Mills produced explosives for 300 years and played a critical role in both world wars. Plenty of activities for kids and a really lovely setting within 175 acres of parkland. Entry is around £10.
A ruined abbey in a small village with a few friendly pubs, a tudor high street and a bustling market at weekends.
The meridian line, where the eastern and western hemispheres meet, runs fairly close to much of the Lea Valley. Markers range from specially-planted trees, obelisks, pavement plaques and bollards to street names and meridian-inspired pubs. Find here the location of all markers.
Eleanor Cross (Waltham Cross)
In 1290 Eleanor of Castile, the beloved wife of Edward 1, died in Nottinghamshire while travelling to Scotland to meet her husband. In his grief, Edward ordered a lavish cross to be erected in each of the places her body rested overnight as she was brought back to London. Few crosses survive but only those at Waltham Cross and Charing Cross still stand.
Pubs and refreshments
The following are directly on the river unless otherwise marked, and most have riverside seating.
Crate microbrewery, Hackney Wick
Princess of Wales, Lea Bridge Road
Anchor and Hope, Walthamstow Marshes
Pistachios in the Park, Markfield Park
The Ferry Boat Inn, Tottenham Hale (short distance from the river)
Stonebridge Lock cafe
The Navigation Harvester, Ponders End
The Narrowboat cafe, Waltham Abbey
The Crown, Broxbourne
Options further north
A few miles north of Broxbourne, the river reaches Fieldes Weir lock and forks: the Lea continues northwards and the Stort branches off to the east. The River Stort is a beautiful narrow, winding river which is navigable for a further 17 miles to Bishops Stortford. The towpath is sometimes unsurfaced and there are occasional gates through fields. The river winds through Roydon, Harlow and Sawbridgeworth, and riverside pubs are plentiful.
The Lea flows for a further ten miles before it is no longer navigable and the towpath ends. In this time it passes through Rye House, Stanstead Abbotts, Amwell, Ware and Hertford. There are shops and amenities in Stanstead Abbotts, Ware and Hertford, and plenty of green countryside to admire in between.
For a much more significant ride, Cambridge lies approximately 40 miles to the north of Broxbourne. The old London-Cambridge Road, which is now by-passed by the A10 and M11, takes you most of the way, or National Cycle Network route 11 takes a winding route to the east. The countryside here is gently undulating, with a few hills but nothing too challenging.
Abellio Greater Anglia trains run all the way down the Lea and Stort valleys, and from Cambridge. Stations are frequent and usually close to the canal.
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