Lea river walk: Hertford to Broxbourne

Gazebos at Ware

Gazebos at Ware - Credit: cpre

Liz Hamilton of Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England continues her journey following the river Lea, this time from Hertford to Broxbourne

Narrow boats moored on the Lea. The vast majority on the Navigation are now pleasure craft

Narrow boats moored on the Lea. The vast majority on the Navigation are now pleasure craft - Credit: cpre

On a late autumn day, I resumed my journey down the river Lea in Hertfordshire, following the Lea Valley Walk. In previous walks, I had covered 17 miles to reach Hertford, leaving behind the rushing, youthful river I first encountered at the county boundary. Below Hertford, the river becomes a grown-up waterway, transformed after 1767 by 18 locks and a towpath into the Lea Navigation, built to promote trade with the riverside towns.

My destination for the day was Broxbourne, eight miles downstream: from here I returned to Hertford by train. My route passed close to some of the busiest built-up areas in the county but the towpath felt rural for most of the way. The path’s good surface makes it ideal for a winter walk or cycle.

From the edge of Hertford by the highest lock on the Navigation there is a wide-ranging view over King’s Meads, a marshy meadowland managed by Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust. I paused here to enjoy the autumn colours all around, then continued past the confluence of the Lea and the Beane. Just beyond, water flows from the Lea under the brick-built New Gauge to supply the start of the New River. After a peaceful tree-lined stretch, I admired the famous gazebos before reaching the centre of Ware. Former malt houses lining the river, now converted to other uses, are a reminder of the ale trade that flourished here from the 14th century and brought prosperity to the town and its rural hinterland. The ending of malt production in the town in 1994 also ended most commercial barge traffic on the river.

Downstream from Ware, the river enters the Lee Valley Regional Park. Its 10,000 acres were designated in 1967 and it runs alongside the river for 26 miles into London. Significant features of the park are numerous lakes formed from former gravel workings. The gravel was laid down by melt water flowing out from the ice sheet which reached southern England around 450,000 years ago. At times, ice flowed down to what is now the Lea Valley, reaching as far as modern-day Hoddesdon. Many of the flooded gravel pits and their marshy surroundings have become rich wildlife habitats, renowned for wintering wildfowl and rare birds like bittern and osprey, as well as dragonflies, otters and more than 500 plant species.

Below Ware, the old river Lea separates from the Navigation, one of several places where the two channels divide. The two miles of Navigation towpath between Ware and the twin settlements of St Margarets and Stanstead Abbots are especially peaceful. On the left bank, the river Ash flows from its quiet valley enclosed by wooded hillsides to join the Lea.

In Stanstead Abbotts, a marina provides services for boats using the river, now mainly pleasure craft. Beyond the bridge carrying the busy A414 road overhead, the towpath resumes its tranquillity for a while. At Rye House it’s worth crossing the bridge to explore Rye House gatehouse, the only remains of a 15th-century house that was home to the Parr family, most notably Catherine, Henry VIII’s last queen. Later, Rye House was the centre of a failed plot to assassinate Charles II and his brother James (who became James II). The gatehouse is renowned for its very early brickwork, including an impressive chimney. Opposite, the Rye House inn has striking 17th-century windows.

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Beyond Rye House, the tranquillity of the towpath is affected by busy commercial buildings and a power station. Here, the river Stort, also a ‘navigation’, joins the Lea on the left bank. At Dobb’s Weir, the Fish and Eels pub was frequented by Izaak Walton, who found inspiration from the river Lea for his book The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653. At the end of another peaceful stretch below the weir I reached Broxbourne station, my destination for the day.

For a four-mile circular walk, start at Ware and head downstream on the Lea towpath to the bridge at Stanstead Abbotts. Turn right on to the road and pass St Margarets station, then soon afterwards take the New River path back to Ware. The New River path is not all hard surfaced and can become muddy.

The Lea towpath is popular with cyclists

The Lea towpath is popular with cyclists - Credit: cpre

Book: The Lea Valley Walk by Leigh Hatts (3rd Edition 2015, Cicerone Press), contains historical information, maps and directions.

Map: Ordnance Survey Explorer map 174 covers the walk described.

Visit cpreherts.org.uk to find out how Campaign to Protect Rural England works to protect Hertfordshire’s countryside.