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The Bow Back Rivers are part of the River Lee in the London Borough of Newhammarker, East Londonmarker, and form a complex system of waterways. The River Lee was originally tidal as far as Hackney Wickmarker, man-made changes to the river had changed this dramatically in the 9th century, and in 1110 a bridge was put in place at Bowmarker. Over the ensuing centuries, the causeway that led to the bridge was cut by a number of man-made channels made to power water-driven tidal mills, such as those at Abbey Millsmarker, and the still-surviving Three Millsmarker. Further improvements to the channels were carried out in 1930 under the River Lee (Flood Relief) Act.

Bow Creekmarker and the connecting waterways—Prescott Channelmarker, Channelsea Rivermarker, Abbey Creekmarker, Three Mills River, City Mill River and Waterworks Rivermarker—are all tidal below the House Millmarker. Above the mill, the water level is now controlled by the Three Mills Lock. St Thomas Creek and the Old River Leemarker are not tidal (being maintained at the same level as the Limehouse Cutmarker). The Navigation along these latter rivers has been maintained since 1424.


Steps going down to the tow path, used in the past by horses
The Bow Back Rivers cross an area originally known as Stratford Marsh. An area of Lammas land, between Stratford-Langthorne and Stratford-at-Bow. Little remains from pre-history, but the name suggests that the two settlements lay at either end of a stone causeway across the marsh, with a ford crossing the River Lee at Bow that could be crossed at low tide. This was in use by the Roman era, carrying the principal road to Colchestermarker. The upstream ford at Old Fordmarker is of pre-Roman origin, and afforded an easier crossing. A further causeway existed between Homertonmarker and Leytonmarker; known as Wanstead Slip. These crossings passed across a true marsh, either side of the natural Lee. This wide, fast flowing river was then tidal, as far as Hackney Wickmarker, and navigable, as far as Hertfordshiremarker. The first alteration to the natural river was made by Alfred the Great, who drained the river at Leamouthmarker to strand a force of Danes. This lowered the tide head to Old Ford, and prevented large boats sailing the river until the 15th century.

In 1135, Stratford Langthorne Abbeymarker was founded. The Abbey continued the process of draining Stratford marsh begun in the Middle Ages, and creating artificial channels to drive water and tide mills. A small river port developed at Stratford, mentioned in the 15th century, to serve the needs of Stratford Abbeymarker and the mills at Stratford, and there is similar evidence in later centuries. The Abbey took on responsibility to maintain the marsh walls around Bow Creekmarker, to keep the tidal waters out. From 1613, extraction of water for the canals linking with the network, and the artificial New Rivermarker, supplying fresh water to the city from Hertfordshiremarker, has caused water levels to fall in the non-navigable channels, and much of the traditional water milling to cease. This began a process of canalisation of the water course from Hertford to Old Ford, to enable boats to use the river.

The East London Waterworks Company began extraction for drinking water at Old Ford, Lea Bridgemarker and established a waterworks at Stratford in 1743. By 1821, there were specialized wharfs at Stratford for timber, chalk, stone, coal, and wheat, as well as some for general cargoes situated on the Channelsea and the other navigable branches of the Lea as well as on the main stream, with local mills and factories usually having their own wharfs. By 1821, the earliest proper dock named Stratford Dock, later Meggs Dock, had been built. It was about long and wide, lying south of the High Street near Bow Bridgemarker and approached from the Lea by a short channel. The dock may have been constructed by the Middlesex and Essex turnpike trust, which owned and occupied it in 1843 and 1854. By 1920, the whole site had been filled in and was occupied by factories.

The Bow Back Rivers were much modified in the 1930s, as part of a flood control system. The prior arrangement had been to regulate the navigation with the Pond Lane Flood Gates and a tidal lock at Marshgate Lane. The lock and flood gates were made redundant by a new lock in Carpenter's Road – which gave access to Bow Creek and the Waterworks River – providing barge access to Temple Mills. The low headroom of the Northern Outfall Sewermarker aqueduct prevented access to the southern reaches of the system, and to allow access City Mill Lock was constructed – near Blaker Road. In 2006, this lock was restored by the developers of an adjacent housing development. The system had bi-directional gates, as this was within the tidal reach of the river.

Also in the area and crossing the Back Rivers by a series of bridges is the Northern Outfall Sewermarker. It and Abbey Mill Pumping Stationmarker were, both designed by Joseph Bazalgette in the 1860s. Today, the route of the embankment that encloses the sewer from Bowmarker to Becktonmarker is followed by a public footpath, The Greenwaymarker.


As part of the preparations for the 2012 Summer Olympics, a canal lock, Three Mills Lock has been constructed on the Prescott Channelmarker, with the effect that north of the lock – and the Three Mills Wall River Weirmarker – the Bow Back Rivers' water level will become constant. This will allow barges of up to to deliver material, and remove spoil from the site, reducing pressure on the local road network. Following the Olympics, it is hoped the waterways will continue to be used by both commercial and leisure craft.

The Olympics construction works have already closed public access to many of the Bow Back Rivers, which are intended to form a major feature of the Olympic site. The Olympic Stadiummarker is being constructed on former industrial land between the Old River Lee (which rejoins the navigation below Old Ford Lock), the City Mill River, and the Old Pudding Mill River. This stadium will form the centrepiece of the Olympics on an island site; with 200 metres to the east the Waterworks River, and on the eastern bank the Aquatics Centremarker. Pedestrian bridges will cross the waterways to provide the principle access to the stadium, from Stratford International stationmarker.

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