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The River Lea or River Lee in Englandmarker originates in Leagrave Park , Leagravemarker, Lutonmarker in the Chiltern Hillsmarker and flows generally southeast, east, and then south to Londonmarker where it meets the River Thames , the last section being known as Bow Creekmarker.
The river viewed from Enfield Island Village


The River Lea was first recorded in the 9th century, although its name is believed to be much older. Spellings from the Anglo-Saxon period include Lig(e)an 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 lug-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'.

The spelling Lea predominates west (upstream) of Hertfordmarker, but both spellings are used from Hertfordmarker to the River Thames; the Lee Navigationmarker was established by Acts of Parliament and should be so spelt. However, the variant spelling is used for several locations and infrastructure in the capital, such as in Leamouthmarker, Lea Bridgemarker and the Lea Valley Railway Lines. The divergent spellings of the river are also reflected in the place-names of Lutonmarker and Leytonmarker: both mean "farmstead on the River Lea". A strong argument exists to suggest that where the river, as in a flowing body of water, is referred to, Lea should be preferred & to avoid confusion with the man's name Lee. By this definition of river, the Lea is also preferred by the Environment Agency. The importance of using one name for a body of water, is that data management regarding flood risk is (marginally) less prone to error, and therefore might facilitate better flood risk management.

Course of the river

The source is usually said to be at Well Head inside Waulud's Bankmarker at Leagravemarker Common, but there the River Lea is also fed by a stream that starts further west in Houghton Regismarker. The river flows through (or by) Lutonmarker, Harpendenmarker, Welwyn Garden Citymarker, to Hertfordmarker where it changes from a small shallow river to a deep canal at Hertford Castle Weir, which then flows on to Waremarker, Stanstead Abbottsmarker, Hoddesdonmarker, Broxbournemarker, Cheshuntmarker, Waltham Abbeymarker, Enfield Lockmarker, Ponders Endmarker, Edmontonmarker, Tottenhammarker, Upper Claptonmarker, Hackney Wickmarker, Stratfordmarker, Bromley-by-Bowmarker (past Fish Islandmarker), Canning Townmarker and finally Leamouthmarker where it meets the River Thames (as Bow Creekmarker). It forms the traditional boundary between the counties of Middlesexmarker and Essex, and was used for part of the Danelaw boundary. It also forms part of the boundary between Essex and Hertfordshiremarker.

Rowing boats on the River Lea
For much of its distance the river runs within or as a boundary to the Lee Valley Parkmarker. Between Tottenham and Hackney the Lee feeds Tottenham Marshesmarker, Walthamstow Marshesmarker and Hackney Marshesmarker (the latter now drained). In their early days, Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient played their matches as football amateurs on the Marshes. South of Hackney Wick the river's course is split, running almost completely in man made channels (originally created to power water mills, the Bow Back Riversmarker) flowing through an area that was once a thriving industrial zone.

Inside Greater Londonmarker below Enfield Lockmarker the river forms the boundary with the former Royal Small Arms Factorymarker, now known as Enfield Island Villagemarker, a housing development. Just downstream the river is joined by the River Lee Flood Relief Channelmarker. The man-made,concrete banked water is known as the River Lee Diversionmarker at this point as it passes to the east of a series of reservoirs: King George V Reservoirmarker at Ponders Endmarker/Chingfordmarker, William Girling Reservoirmarker at Edmontonmarker and the Banbury Reservoirmarker at Walthamstowmarker. At Tottenham Halemarker there is a connected set of reservoirs; Lockwood Reservoirmarker, High Maynard Reservoirmarker, Low Maynard Reservoirmarker, Walthamstow Reservoirsmarker, East Warwick Reservoirmarker and West Warwick Reservoirmarker. It also passes the Three Millsmarker, a restored tidal mill near Bowmarker.

River history

In the Roman era, Old Ford, as the name suggests, was the ancient, most downstream, crossing point of the River Lee. This was part of a pre-Roman route that followed the modern Oxford Streetmarker, Old Streetmarker, through Bethnal Greenmarker to Old Fordmarker and thence across a causeway through the marshes, known as Wanstead Slipmarker (now in Leytonmarker). The route then continued through Essex to Colchestermarker. At this time, the Lee was a wide, fast flowing river, and the tidal estuary stretched as far as Hackney Wickmarker. 'Bethnal Green: Communications', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11: Stepney, Bethnal Green (1998), pp. 88-90 accessed: 15 November 2006 Evidence of a late Roman settlement at Old Ford, dating from the 4th and 5th centuries, has been found.

In 894, a force of Danes sailed up the river to Hertford, and in about 895 they built a fortified camp, in the higher reaches of the Lee, about north of London. Alfred the Great saw an opportunity to defeat the Danes and ordered the lower reaches of the Lee drained, at Leamouthmarker. This left the Danes' boats stranded, but also increased the flow of the river and caused the tidal head to move downriver to Old Ford.

In 1110, Matilda, wife of Henry I, reputedly took a tumble at the ford, on her way to Barking Abbeymarker and ordered a distinctively bow-shaped, three-arched, bridge to be built over the River Lee (The like of which had not been seen before), at Bow. During the middle ages, Temple Mills, Abbey Mills, Old Ford and Bow were the sites of water mills (mainly in ecclesiastic ownership) that supplied flour to the bakers of Stratforde-atte-Bow, and hence bread to the City. It was the channels created for these mills that caused the Bow Back Rivers to be cut through the former Roman stone causeway at Stratford (from which the name is derived).

Improvements were made to the river from 1424, with tolls being levied to compensate the landowners, and in 1571, there were riots after the extension of the River was promoted in a private bill presented to the House of Commonsmarker. By 1577, the first lock was established at Waltham Abbey and the river began to be actively managed for navigation.

The New Rivermarker was constructed in 1613 to take clean water to London, from the Lee and its catchment areas in Hertfordshire and bypass the polluting industries that had developed in the Lee's downstream reaches. The artificial channel further reduced the flow to the natural river and by 1767 locks were installed below Hertford Castle Weir on the canalised part of the Lee, now the River Lee Navigationmarker with further locks and canalisation taking place during the succeeding centuries. In 1766, work also began on the Limehouse Cutmarker to connect the river, at Bromley-by-Bowmarker, with the Thames at Limehouse Basinmarker.

The Waterworks Rivermarker, a part of the tidal Bow Back Riversmarker, have been widened by and canalised to assist with construction of the Olympic Parkmarker for the 2012 Summer Olympics. A new lock, Three Mills Lock, has being installed on the Prescott Channelmarker to maintain water levels on the Lee, within the park at a depth of . This will allow access by 350–tonnes barges to ensure that at least 50% of the material required for construction to be delivered, or removed by water.

In popular culture

On 16 August, 2009, BBC1 broadcast a documentary about the river as part of its Rivers series presented by Griff Rhys Jones.

The river features in the early chapters of The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton.

Notable fisheries

See also


  • For a full list of tributaries, please expand the box entitled 'River Lee / Lea, England' at the bottom of this page.


  1. Historically, the river has been called the "Lea", "Lee" or "Ley". The "Ley" spelling is seen in mediaeval documents but subsequently passed from common usage. Currently, "Lea" and "Lee" are the generally accepted spellings, with "Lea" used in reference to the original natural river and "Lee" referring to the canalised parts, such as the Lee Navigation. See River Lee #Etymology.
  2. Mills. A.D. Oxford Dictionary of London Place Names (2001) p133 ISBN 0198609574 Retrieved 28 October 2008
  3. River Lee History
  4. Milestone 5 demolish, dig, design January 2008 (The Olympic Delivery Authority) accessed 25 April 2008
  5. BBC programme Rivers Retrieved 17 August, 2009

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