There aren’t many paths that cut so deeply across London in one go. This one along the Lea River Navigation from Cheshunt to Limehouse Basin has stretches of monotony but they are more than made up for by the creative, cultural, and natural discoveries.

I raced across London on a Sunday before many people were even awake. Getting on the entirely empty tube at Brixton was eerie. I changed at Tottenham Hale and took a normal train up to Cheshunt, pronounced ‘chezz’nt’ apparently. The oppressive heat of previous weeks decided to grant me a break today so I got a great chance to walk a long way, relatively quickly, in good nick – apart from painting my shoes entirely grey with path dust.

Starting point: Cheshunt railway station, zone 8, reachable from Tottenham Hale underground station.

Finishing point: Limehouse DLR station, zone 2.

Length: 16.4 miles (26.3 kilometres).

Ordnance Survey Maps app route link here

Download GPX file for this route here Cheshunt to Limehouse

Despite crossing London almost entirely it was still only 9am when I walked a few yards into Lea Valley Country Park. To reach the River Lea you are supposed to walk straight on, eastwards, but that seemed to lead to a large gaggle of Boy Scouts, whereas the path immediately to your right is quiet and green. I took the latter. Moments later I was delighted that I had.

A great theme of my walks has been the discovery of wooden sculptures in unexpected places. Here you find a cornucopia of amazing carvings ranging from small benches to swirling, towering, Earth Mother/Gaia figures. They are just left of the path so you can’t miss them. Take the time to divert among them for a few minutes before returning to where you left off.

Wooden sculptures in Lea Valley Country Park

With this cheery send-off I continued and then watched several bunnies gambolling on the grass. A short curve later you do indeed join the River Lea.

Bunnies in Lea Valley Country Park

Looking south you can see a distant footbridge, with fishermen in the immediate foreground. It does feel astonishingly rural. Astonishing only until you remember that you are in Zone 8. There are only 6 zones in South London but they go up to 9 in the north.

Looking south from Cheshunt Lock on the River Lea

The other ‘approved’ start point for this walk would be Waltham Cross, which is at least a mile south of where I joined the Lea, and also has no bunnies or sculpture. Instead it has A-road walking. I know which I prefer…

Swan on the River LeaAgain I gained some curious insights to narrowboat culture, that nebulous beast ranging from bohemia to poverty. There were people sitting together in silence on the back of a boat, sipping morosely from own-brand lager. It was not a happy tableau. It is something I have noticed before though. I tried to characterise the types I’ve seen and could only jab at ‘10% vibrant and youthful, 20% despairing loneliness/silent company and alcoholism, 30% decrepitude and poverty, 30% older but perfectly ordinary-seeming people, 10% younger people with kids who obviously can’t afford ‘normal’ housing but are having a nice time.’

Like the guesses from any uninformed outsider I may be entirely wrong, but this has been my impression.

Sweet Peas flowering beside the River LeaI walked under the dingy M25 and let it sink in again how far out I was, before really quite enjoying the route towards Enfield Lock. Pleasant cottages, some protected reed-lined habitats, and the odd puttering of a bicycle with a petrol engine. Not a motorbike, more like an eccentric’s wet dream.

I briefly joined and then left the London Outer Orbital Path at the Lock itself. Beyond here you encounter a very different River Lea. On your immediate left you have pylons, beyond them the steep banks of enormous reservoirs. On the far bank you have industry of varying weights and monstrosity. Under the pylons you often get beautiful little meadows of wild flowers and happy bees. The banks of the reservoirs were parched by the weeks of heat and so had a striking and attractive colouration. Birds of all types swooped overhead and signs betray the presence of otters, though I was not fortunate enough to see any.

A sense of the wilderness around the reservoirs beside the River Lea Walk

This landscape rolls on for several miles with only the odd bridge and bus depot to break it up. It does get monotonous after a while and you will find your mind wandering off from the walk onto ephemeral subjects back in ‘real life’. The enormously long stretches of Lea in front of you seem to take an age to conquer but I started trying to improve my chrono-distance estimation – how long it would take from one bend to the next. I soon became extremely accurate.

Dog walkers, narrowboats and joggers along the River Lea

Before I reached Stonebridge Lock I watched a couple devouring cherries from trees over the towpath. Now, I would have joined in because they looked delicious but I had no idea how much these folk knew. But what I did know was that not all cherries are edible. Best left alone unless you really know what you are doing.

Buildings reflected in the River Lea

Those people will be dead by now if those were bad cherries.

Earlier in the day I had noticed how lovely and clear the River Lea is, and now just north of Tottenham Hale I could still see all the way to the bottom in what must have been over six feet of water. I could see mussel shells in complete clarity. After Tottenham Lock the story is entirely different.

You immediately realise you are back in proper London when you see the volume of litter bobbing in areas where the current whirls against itself, trapping everything. It is here that you start to see the river being used in a lot more depth as well. Up at Cheshunt there is a water sports centre but nobody on the Lea itself. Below Tottenham you will be able to enjoy a lot of rowing.

Alongside Springhill Sports Ground I watched a teenager fumble his oars and completely invert his boat. The instructor yelled “Don’t sit on top!” through a wide smile. I walked as fast as the recognition of the capsizing – as I arrived at the Lea Rowing Club other teenagers were hearing the shouts of “There’s someone in the water!” and when the kids worked out who it was they cruelly high-fived each other as though they were in a film. Odd.

Springfield Park seems nice. There is a hippy lady in a narrowboat selling coffee and banana bread through a gap in the railings, and a floating book sale. There’s that 10% again.

The Capital Ring coincides with the Lea Valley Walk for the next few miles. Over a bridge you go and into gorgeous Walthamstow Marshes. The sun started to peep out as I walked up the track. It’s a very soft path so it makes your legs feel very strange after ten miles or so, with new muscles being utilised to push you along through gravel treacle.

All this is along a few hundred metres' stretch of the River Lea Walk beside Walthamstow Marshes

The wild flowers here are well worth photographing but just on the other side of the railway bridge you will discover cows grazing quietly. Some very small children squealed with wonder when they came across them. Clearly they were not expecting that. Neither was I but I squealed on the inside. Like a boring adult.

I had my mind on just one thing by now – lunch. My target the Princess of Wales pub beside Lea Bridge Road. It was 11:55am when I arrived, I was 5 minutes early. When the doors opened at noon I tried not to look like a raging alcoholic and sidled up to the bar slowly, keeping my excited shakes at bay. A lovely pint of Waggledance and a plate of cod & chips sorted me right out. Though I felt that niggle of a headache creeping in again. Do I just overheat?

Just before 1pm I stepped out and walked down the east towpath beside Hackney Marshes. Before I reached Hackney Wick I could hear the bass boom of a music event occurring in the Olympic Park. Whenever I’m in this neck of the woods there is something musical going on.

Strange clothing and joggers on the River Lea towpath, approaching the Olympic Park

After this I started snapping the endless and often very high quality graffiti. Another guy, topless, was also photographing everything and we slipped into conversation. Although it turned out he has lived around here for 15 years, and snaps away every weekend, he doesn’t do anything with the images apart from popping them on Facebook. A huge shame, and I told him so.

A selection of the graffiti along the River Lea between Hackney Wick and Bow

I passed the confluence with the Hertford Union Canal, which links the Lea River Navigation to the Grand Union Canal, via the Regent’s Canal – unbroken paths from here to Birmingham or Leicester!

Number of days graffiti remains, graffiti, near Hackney Wick

Old Ford Lock and the Greenway came and went, along with a huge amount more graffiti, and then I approached the A11. A hideously be-mulletted man was leering at three women paddling a raft downstream, they ignored him admirably.

Three Mills Studios along the River LeaI knew by now that part of the headache issue was the size of my head as compared to the smaller size of my hat. It felt like a balloon restricted by a rubber band. But I had to leave it on as the sun was coming in hard and the heat was rocketing.

After the attractive Three Mills studios area you get more quirkiness at Bow. Here one branch of the Lea heads down the Thames at East India Dock, sadly with almost no footpath beside it, whilst the other branch heads like a laser beam to Limehouse Basin.

'Cabbage Head' beside the Lea, where Limehouse Cut begins

The latter was scruffy and definitely scuzzy around the edges but it was well-used and felt safe. Night might be a different matter though. My friend recently completed the Hadrian’s Wall Path in Newcastle at night and almost got robbed by several yoofs. His picture of the same place in daylight was startlingly similar to many places I’ve walked in London.

Limehouse Cut, the last stretch of the River Lea Walk

A little hook at the end Limehouse Cut flings you out onto the ever-serene Limehouse Marina. It was just before 3pm and I was very tired indeed, with a headache. It took five hours to walk the route, not counting my lunch, so it was not a massive pace by any means. Still, it was definitely worth seeing how London evolves at it gets closer and closer to its centre. I will definitely be putting the rest of the Lea River Navigation on my hit-list, from Cheshunt to Luton. But that is for another distant day.

In the meantime I’ve bought a bigger, extra large hat, to relieve my bulbous head.