The river London forgot: how the Lea is being reborn

For years, it has been the city’s back yard, a place of fridge mountains, distilleries and scrapyards, but now there’s a fresh plan to turn this ancient valley back into a green playground. We walk the newly opened Leaway riverside path

A bright yellow beacon pokes up above a road bridge in east London, festooned with strange nautical markers like the mast of a fishing trawler run aground. This cheery totem signals the presence of a momentous point in the Lea valley, where the river Lea meets Bow Creek and the Limehouse Cut in a knotted tangle of waterways, rail lines and roads, a fertile ground for the gasworks, distilleries and waste recycling plants that have long made this edge-land their home. Not that you would know any of this when you’re hurtling down the A12 dual carriageway nearby.

“I was born and raised here and I didn’t know the river existed for most of my life,” says Paul Brickell, director of regeneration at the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the body charged with fulfilling the 2012 Olympic promises of bringing bounteous social, economic and environmental improvements to the East End. “The Thames might be known as the ‘lifeblood of London’, but we’re keen to get more people to explore the hidden and overlooked Lea, a place that’s home to centuries of invention and production, a bucolic ribbon right on their doorstep.”

The Lea River Park from the air, showing its knot of waterways and mixed use for industry and housing.
The Lea River Park from the air, showing its knot of waterways and mixed use for industry and housing. Photograph: LLDC

The yellow masthead and its runic symbols mark the top of a new pedestrian ramp that leads people down from the street to the river towpath for the first time, signalling the presence of this watery landscape to the road, and allowing people from the nearby Bromley-by-Bow tube station and pupils of Bow School to access the riverside. It is one of several humble but crucial new interventions that go some way to finally achieving a plan to turn this scruffy industrial valley into what postwar planner Patrick Abercrombie described as “a great playground for Londoners” – a project that’s been 74 years in the making.

Map of Lea River Park map, highlighting the Leaway route
Map of Lea River Park map, highlighting the Leaway route. Photograph: LLDC

Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944 might be most famous for setting out the principles of the metropolitan green belt, but along with the girdle he also envisioned a “green wedge” running for 26 miles down the Lea valley, from Hertfordshire to the Thames, with “every piece of land welded into a great regional reservation”. The principle was established by an act of parliament in 1967, which created the Lee Valley Park (known by an earlier spelling), a green lung of 10,000 acres that has long been a place of leisure along its upper reaches, with horse-riding, fishing, golf and boating, and “more open water than the Norfolk Broads” as its website proudly informs.

The Lower Lea, on the other hand, “has always been about keeping people out,” according to Tom Holbrook of 5th Studio, the architects who have been working for the last 10 years to realise the final chunk of Abercrombie’s vision. “It’s a landscape of fences for obvious reasons,” he says, “as a place of sewerage pumping, gasworks, high-voltage cabling, car-crushing and food processing. It’s a problem-solving landscape, a place invented by engineers. Which, by definition, makes it a difficult place to access.”

The 2012 Olympic Games was predicated in a large part on opening up this inaccessible valley, on linking together long-severed neighbourhoods, and “cleaning up” what was framed as a toxic wasteland, abused by decades of industry. But the site was also attractive to the Olympic planners precisely because of its natural severance, standing as a secure island conveniently bounded by infrastructural gullies of road, rail and water, with few points of access.

Stitching the promised legacy-land back into its surroundings has been an uphill struggle. “The Lower Lea has always been a place that things back on to,” says Holbrook. “It’s the back of two boroughs, London’s back yard, the political buffer between Anglo-Saxon England and Danelaw.”

In the summer of 1887, Buffalo Bill set up camp in east London for his Wild West spectacular. It went on to be a huge hit in other British cities
In the summer of 1887, Buffalo Bill set up camp in east London for his Wild West spectacular. It went on to be a huge hit in other British cities. Photograph: PA

Documented in the poetic drifts of Iain Sinclair and his band of psychogeographic wanderers, the Lea has an extraordinary history as a place of invention. It is the cradle of plastic and gunpowder, flight, fridge mountains, India pale ale and Buffalo Bill’s camp, a wild east where subversive things could happen undetected, beyond the fold in the map. Walking the newly joined-up route with Holbrook, we pass car-breaking yards and former distilleries, film studios and waste recyclers, taxi depots and the bleak “fulfilment centres” of Amazon and Sainsbury’s, unlikely fragments still clinging on despite the eastward march of Berkeley Homes.

It is the special qualities of this rugged yet fragile landscape that 5th Studio’s strategy has been focussed on exposing. In a process of strategic surgery – or “landscape homeopathy” as Holbrook half-jokingly calls it – new stretches of previously inaccessible riverside path have been created, with chunky benches made from off-the-peg concrete U-sections and hefty lengths of timber usually used for river wharves.

While the Olympic Park and its associated paraphernalia of furniture and lighting did its best to lay a freshly designed carpet over an area of shagginess, 5th Studio’s work feels more like the kind of hard-working infrastructure that might have always been here. The planting, designed by landscape architect Jonathan Cook, is equally thoughtful, with scented climbers trained on a fence to help mask the aromas of a council bin-washing depot, and edible hedgerows and fruit trees, keeping alive the tradition of foraging along the Lea.

An early Lea River Park design concept included a jungle habitat in old gasholders.
An early Lea River Park design concept included a jungle habitat in old gasholders. Photograph: 5th Studio

Much has been done to join up the route, but it is a fragment of what was originally intended. Holbrook’s plan for the Lea River Park was first commissioned in 2006, with an earmarked budget of £38m, and intended to be completed before the Olympics. The meandering linear route, now known as the Leaway, would connect six new park spaces, from a thrilling jungle inside the redundant Twelvetrees gasholders, to a mound formed by Crossrail tunnelling spoil, inspired by how the summit of Primrose Hill was created by the spoil of digging the Regent’s Canal. But as time went on, the project was sidelined as energies were focused on conjuring the manicured landscape of the Olympic park. When the original client, the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation, was axed in 2010 in the coalition government’s bonfire of the quangos, the money evaporated, along with the political will to make it happen.

“We’ve had to become jiu-jitsu landscape designers since then,” says Holbrook, describing a process of working tactically to keep the project alive, using the strength of what is already there, augmented with light-touch interventions. With a total budget of just £4m so far, the architects have cleverly made use of granite left over from repaving Stratford High Street and excess trees that had been over-ordered for the Olympic park. And the work has been legal and political as much as aesthetic: it took three years of negotiations with one landowner to open up just 20 metres of towpath.

Architects used material salvaged from other nearby projects to furnish the Leaway.
Architects used material salvaged from other nearby projects to furnish the Leaway. Photograph: David Grandorge/5th Studio

With the LLDC’s efforts now focused on fulfilling the promise of 7,000 homes and a new cultural quarter, it is passing the baton to Tower Hamlets and Newham boroughs, and there is a real danger that momentum will once again be lost. Brickell insists that the rest of the Lea Valley Park is now written into the boroughs’ local plans, so that whatever development comes forward on the sites in question (two of which are to be developed by Berkeley) will have to deliver the required chunks of park and infrastructure. But it needs stronger leadership and a real commitment from the mayor of London to ensure that the final pieces in the jigsaw of Abercrombie’s great green playground don’t take another generation to happen.


Oliver Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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