The Lee and Stort Navigation and the Thames Connection

(Connects with the River Thames at Limehouse)

Researched and written  by Jeannette Briggs 

The Rivers Lee (sometimes spelled as Lea)  and Stort link the towns of Hertford and Bishop’s Stortford along the Lee Valley past the 2012 Olympics Site at Stratford and on finally to the River Thames . Viking longships are known to have sailed up the old River Lea over 1000 years ago, and the remains of boats which have been carbon-dated  to an even earlier period have been found on the Walthamstow marshes.

In the 17th century locks were constructed and “cuts” dug in the bed of the River Lea to avoid shallow stretches and to improve navigation.  This means that the River Lea is not a “canal” in the conventional sense, but a “canalized” river. Both the Lee and the Stort became navigable for a wide variety of vessels, and trade grew as industry expanded in Victorian times and commodities such as timber, copper and coal were transported up and down the canal.

Above: The River Lee near Broxbourne - photo courtesy D Burgess Above: Photo from the Broxbourne boat hire operator Lee Valley Boats.

However, by 1960 trade was declining because more and more cargoes were transported by road.  The decline was even more evident on the Stort because this canalized river had relied on agricultural cargos,mainly barley and other grains.  Again, these became easier and cheaper to transport by road.


Above: Cheshunt - Herts Young Mariners Base Outdoor Center - photo courtesy SW 

Today the River Stort and the Upper Lee wind their way through beautiful stretches of quiet meadows, small woods, pretty villages and restored mills and maltings.  They are incredibly close to London, and yet offer a complete contrast of environments.

They are now used almost exclusively for leisure purposes, with hire cruisers and other boats passing up and down, fisherment lining the banks, and walkers and cyclists enjoying the countryside.

 Above:The Gazebos at Ware - photo by J Briggs           Above: Pretty cottages at the River Lea in Hertford - photo by J Briggs      

The Lea Navigation starts in the town of Hertford, itself a fascinating place and well worth a visit. The canal runs past a row of pretty little bow windowed cottages before leaving the town and striking out across the open countryside. Past here the canalized river reaches the town of Ware, where it flows past some picturesque gazebos, which are a feature of the river hereabouts. They date from the 18th century. The river is right in the centre of Ware and you can easily reach the shops for essential supplies.

Above: The canal at Ware - photo by J Briggs

Above:The River Lee at Stansted Abbotts - photo by J Briggs

Beyond Ware the Lea passes south east through somew water meadows and the Amwell Quarry Nature Reserve, before reaching Stansted Abbotts, where several large old former mills and maltings buildings have been imaginatively converted into new apartments.

The canalised part of the River Stort starts at Bishop's Stortford and is much narrower than the River Lea. By the time the Stort reaches Sawbridgeworth you begin to see numerous boats making their way upriver. From Sawbridgeworth the Stort continues on a rural parth north of the town of Harlow, until it joins with the River Lee at Feilds Weir lock just south of Rye Meads. From here the Lee is wider and has many pleasure boats and mooring places alongside the river. At Broxbourne the river flows through Carthagena Lock with its adjacent fisheries, and past the moorings for many day hire boats. 


Above: The lock on the Stort at Sawbridgeworth - photo by J Briggs

Above: Carthagena Lock at Broxbourne - photo by J Briggs  

Above: Carthagena Lock at Broxbourne - photo by J Briggs

Above: The River Lee from near Fishers Green- photo  D Burgess

  The rare and elusive bird the bittern visits Fishers Green near Broxbourne between October and February every year.. Amazingly 7 of the 50 varieties of wild orchids found in the UK can be found in the Lee Valley during June. 21 different varieties of dragonfly have been seen in Cornmill Meadows. There are lots of interesting places to visit next to the Lee and Stort.  You can see Rye House gatehouse with its heritage centre and visit the wetlands which are an important habitat for kingfisher, woodpeckers and common ternsThe Royal Gunpowder Mills are at Waltham Abbey.  They are 300 years old, and the exhibition allows visitors to discover the evolution of gunpowder and other explosives.  During WWI over 5000 local people were employed by the Gunpowder Mills.


Above: Waltham Abbey next to the River Lee - photo courtesy D Burgess

Also at Waltham Abbey is the famous church where King Harold II was buried,  after his death at the hands of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  The church was originally built by the Saxons and they hated the Norman conquerors and William their new king.  They carefully hid the body of King Harold until it was safe to bury him before the high altar.
Lower down the Lee valley the scene is not so beautiful. Industry lines the banks from Edmonton downstream, and you pass paper mills,  factories making furniture and kitchen units, huge waste disposal facilities and other freight being carried on the canalized sections.   

Below Stratford the River Lee winds a course in the heart of the Olympic village and the sports facilities. It was extensively “beautified” to enable it to be part of the new Olympic scene.

South of Stratford the Lee eventually makes its way through some run-down areas to the delightful Limehouse Basin .  Limehouse also is where the Regents Canal leaves the Thames . 

The basin – once the sordid smelly powerhouse of the docks before the boats reached the River Thames -  is now an oasis of calm and quiet, with lots of boats lined up in their marina moorings, and visiting narrowboats moored up on the sides of the basin.

 Above: The Lee north of Limehouse basin photo by J Briggs

Above: Limehouse Marina- Boats, apartments and Canary Wharf in Background - photo by J Briggs

New housing in the form of select and very expensive apartments line the basin, replacing the terrible slums and grotty warehouses most badly damaged during the Blitz in WW II.   British Waterways is to be praised for its part in the regeneration of the Basin:  it has worked with the designers and architects and the property developers to clean up and enhance the whole area, whilst still retaining the flavour of the original purpose for which Limehouse was built.  Pleasure boats and new houses  and apartments sit side by side next to the River Thames.

Above: Limehouse - The Cut and new apartments-photo by J Briggs Above: Limehouse Marina - The great lock gates out to the River Thames - photo by J Briggs.

All in all, Limehouse Basin is a world away from its former existence, and is a delightful conclusion to the Lee and Stort canal. I do hope that this brief introduction to the Lee and Stort Canalwill encourage you to try it for yourself!