East London Canals: Lee Navigation, Limehouse Basin, Regent's Canal and Hertford Union Canal

9 April 2007

On a beautiful Easter Monday morning, Ellie joined Stephen for a circular walk around the waterways of East London, an area which will soon begin to be radically reshaped as the site of the London 2012 Olympic Park.

River Lee Navigation junction with Hertford Union Canal
As we join the River Lee Navigation, we can see the junction with the Hertford Union Canal.

Hertford Union Canal and 30 St Mary Axe
Looking along the Hertford Union Canal, from which direction we plan to emerge in about 3 hours. The last of three locks on the canal can be seen,
with 30 St Mary Axe, better known as The Gherkin or Swiss Re Tower, looming behind.

Snake graffiti reflection on the River Lee Navigation at Old Ford
An imaginative piece of graffiti, reflected in the River Lee Navigation

Old Ford Locks, River Lee Navigation
Old Ford Locks

Old Ford Locks, River Lee Navigation, with Old River Lea joining on the right
Below Old Ford Locks, where the River Lea rejoins the navigation. The loop of river cut off by the Navigation was part of the mid-19th century improvements to the Navigation authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1850, which involved a number of new cuts and locks.

Northern Outfall Sewer crossing River Lee Navigation
Looking back at the Northern Outfall Sewer, constructed in 1862-3 with Joseph Bazalgette as engineer. This is one of three major sewers constructed by Bazalgette  after an outbreak of cholera in 1853 and "The Big Stink" of 1858. Previously sewage was dumped directly into the Thames in central London, but these intercepting sewers transferred it parallel to the Thames - this one to Beckton. Originally just dumping it in the river lower down was the objective, but nowadays the waste is treated before it enters the river. The top of the Northern Outfall Sewer now forms the Greenway path and cycleway through east London.

Greenway Turn signpost on Lea Valley Walk and Capital Ring
And the sign at Greenway Turn shows that in continuing down the Lea Valley Walk we are parting company from the Capital Ring which takes the route of the Greenway from here. As we are 34¾ miles from Richmond Bridge, we must be 29¾ miles from where we left the Capital Ring on Saturday.

Previous Capital Ring walk from Springfield Marina Capital Ring walks
Continue along the Capital Ring towards Beckton and North Woolwich

To continue along the Capital Ring, click the walker above, otherwise continue below for more along the River Lee Navigation

After passing the hideous A12/A11 junction, where the towpath walker is thrown without warning around a corner onto the roundabout, and left to negotiate two busy roads which look like ordinary slip roads but have two-way traffic nicely hidden behind huge pillars, we reached Three Mills island.

House Mill, Millers House, Clock Mill on Three Mills Island by the River Lee Navigation
The remaining two mills on Three Mills Island are House Mill, seen with the Millers House on the left, and Clock Mill on the right. The three mills on this island were acquired by Stratford's Langthorne Abbey in the middle ages. Although the site was in use for mills at the time of the Domesday Book, the mills have been rebuilt many times since, the House Mill dating from the late 18th century and the Clock Mill (whose roof almost makes it look as though it belongs in Kent) from the early 19th century. House Mill ceased operating in 1940, and Clock Mill in 1952. Although no longer in operation, House Mill is the largest intact tidal mill in the world. The remainder of the island is home to 3 Mills Studios, a centre for film and television production.

River Lee Navigation and River Lea
As we approach Bow Locks, a look back to the bridge carrying the Central Line over the Lee Navigation on the left and the River Lee on the right.

Bow Locks, River Lee Navigation and Limehouse Cut, Bromley-by-Bow
Bow Locks, where the adventurous boater can descent to the tidal, winding and silted River Lee, better known hereabouts as Bow Creek, while most will turn right and follow our route along the Limehouse Cut.

Limehouse Cut
After passing under the A12 road on its way to the Blackwall Tunnel, we look along the straight Limehouse Cut. Authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1766 (making it the oldest wholly artificial canal in London), it was opened in 1770 and was built to provide a short-cut from the River Thames at Limehouse north-east to the River Lee at Bromley-by-Bow, avoiding the need to use the difficult Bow Creek. After 1968 the exit lock into the Thames was closed when a short length of new canal was constructed to link the Cut with the Regent's Canal Dock, nowadays known as Limehouse Basin.

marina on the Limehouse Cut
A tiny marina with room for four or five boats interrupts the straight towpath walk along the Limehouse Cut.

Reflections in the Limehouse Cut
Reflections in the cut as we approach the last, winding section of Limehouse Cut

Boats in Limehouse Basin
And here we are, at Limehouse Basin

Panoramic view of Limehouse Basin
A panoramic view - almost 180°, with the Limehouse Cut on the right, the lock to the Thames on the left, and the Regent's Canal at the left end of the array of tall buildings.

1989 entrance lock from the River Thames to Limehouse Basin
The 1989 entrance lock from the River Thames

River Thames by the entrance to Limehouse Basin
And the view of the River Thames from the Thames Path next to the lock entrance, looking upriver. Just visible to the right of the tallest building centre-picture are the twin towers of Tower Bridge, and to their right is the northern ventilation shaft of Rotherhithe Tunnel, above which can just be discerned the faint outline of the top of the London Eye.

Boats in Limehouse Basin
Back at Limehouse Basin, we continue our circuit, towards the Regent's Canal. Unfortunately when we got almost there, we found another of those annoyingly glib notices advising that the pedestrian route was closed. In fact, we could see quite clearly that whatever the works in progress which had closed the car park, there were no pedestrian hazards today, but a 900 metre diversion back around the basin while annoying was not too much of a hardship on this lovely day.

Commercial Road Lock, Regent's Canal
So, eventually reaching the start of the Regent's Canal, we find three narrowboats leaving the first lock, Commercial Road Lock. The Regent's Canal formed part of the Grand Union Canal from 1 January 1929, though is rarely described as such. Built between 1812 and 1820, the canal linked the Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal (now also part of the Grand Union Canal, but by contrast it is usually described as the Grand Union Canal) with the Thames here at Limehouse, with Regent's Canal Dock being an important transhipment point between canal boats and Thames barges. The canal continued to be very successful right into the railway age, because of its urban location, its proximity to many railway termini, and the vital importance of the Thames.

Salmon Lane Lock, Regent's Canal
The first lock is quickly followed by Salmon Lane Lock. The locks on the canal were all originally built as pairs, to speed traffic and to allow one to serve as a water-saving side-pond for the other, but many of these have been taken out of use.

Factory chimney by Regent's Canal
A solitary chimney beside the canal hints at a more industrial past for the area

Johnson's Lock, Regent's Canal
Modern flats beside Johnson's Lock. Near here, Ellie suddenly disappeared, which is most unlike her. She had made a quick visit to a canalside café.
The hint was taken and a stop made for a drink and biscuits here.

Regent's Canal above Mile End Lock
Two boats descend the canal towards Mile End Lock

Heron in Mile End Park
A heron in the park above Mile End Lock

Regent's Canal junction with Hertford Union Canal, with Old Ford Lock visible
Approaching Old Ford Lock (not to be confused with the Old Ford Lock we passed earlier on the Lee Navigation), we are about to turn right, the bridge on the right carrying the Regent's Canal towpath over the Hertford Union Canal.

Houses and flats by Hertford Union Canal
Suburban houses with well-tended gardens back onto the Hertford Union Canal, loomed over by tower blocks.

Victoria Park from Hertford Union Canal
On the other side is the attractive Victoria Park.

Metal sculpture by the Hertford Union Canal
A sculpture among flats by the canal

Lock on the Hertford Union Canal
The second of the three locks on the Hertford Union Canal. The canal, also known as Sir George Duckett's Canal, or occasionally as the Lee Union, was opened in 1830 to link the Lee and the Regent's Canal. Sir George Duckett was owner of the Stort Navigation, which links with the Lee further upstream. Traffic was less than expected, and by 1848 it was disused. However, it was bought by the Regent's Canal in 1857, who reopened it. It formed part of the Grand Union Canal from 1929.

Lock on the Hertford Union Canal and junction with River Lee Navigation
Looking from the third and final lock to the junction with the Lee, and we are almost back where we started.

Total distance: 13.0km in 3 hours 25 minutes (2 hours 40 minutes of which was moving, according to the GPS). A fascinating and surprisingly interesting and enjoyable walk, made even better by the excellent weather. Thoroughly recommended.


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Unless otherwise stated, all images copyright (c) Stephen and Lucy Dawson