Visual artist Simon Read introduces his new book about the history of the River Lea
Any river is the compound of its own narratives, and none more so than the River Lea. Unlike the River Thames, for which it is one of the major tributaries, the Lea or Lee (both spellings are valid) has consistently eluded stereotype. This is because of the multiplicity of its channel systems and the huge range of functions it has been required to perform between its source and where it debouches at the Thames Estuary.
Cinderella River follows my peregrinations along the Lea Valley over the course of the last three years in the context of an academic research project called ‘Hydrocitizenship’. This is an overarching study taking as its theme the contemporary need to reconsider cultural understandings of water through its superfluity in flood and scarcity in drought, as a resource and a threat, and it was applied to four national case study locations of which, through the involvement of Middlesex University, the Lea Valley became one.
Having prior understanding of water and fluvial systems is a good start, but with little knowledge of a river that occupies so many watercourses and shifts from Lea to Lee and back again according to some mysterious convention, I needed a point of access and the best and simplest way in was to walk it, to give it time, follow hunches, and reflect.
As time passed and the river miles were trodden, vagrant narratives arose unbidden as a part of the warp and weft of what makes a place, providing clues for how a precarious balance is achieved in a water landscape that is pressed to satisfy so many demands, without utterly losing its identity.
Although historically the Lea has been a ‘Cinderella’ of a river, both created by and enabling the working industrial landscapes of East London and beyond, it is now undergoing comprehensive transformation into a wetland landscape of such a high level of biodiversity that it has become a model for other major metropolitan environments in the UK and western Europe.
Perhaps it is because it has always been such a busy, marshy and inhospitable place that, since 1965, its post-industrial landscape has by increments been reborn as a luminous green thread that runs through densely built Stratford, Hackney, Tottenham, Walthamstow and Edmonton, and out into the open waterlands of the Lee Valley Regional Park.
The Lea is bounded to the west by the mainline railway from Liverpool Street Station, further north by the mainline from King’s Cross, and to the east by the Chiltern Hills. It is fringed by the substantial ribbon developments of Enfield, Waltham Forest, Cheshunt, Broxbourne, Ware and Hertford, that just dip their toes in the water.
The subsequent explosion of dormitory settlements for London has subsumed the distinctive memories of all of these unglamorous places, finishing where it starts at Luton. Here, according to the pamphlet published by the Civic Trust in 1964, the river rises unceremoniously in Luton Sewage Works at Leagrave some 90km away from Leamouth, its entry into the Thames. Although the veracity of this claim might be contested, it chimes well with the place it holds in the public imagination as the most prosaic and workaday of rivers.
This outlines the challenge of drawing together discontinuities and inconsistencies into a study of a river valley distinguished not so much for the homogeneity of its landscape but by the sheer amount that has happened within it. Through exploring the range of locations along the length of the river, I have identified recurrent themes predicated upon access, amenity, conserved habitat, water quality, and flood risk management; all intertwining in a nuanced relationship between people and a water landscape – which somehow manages to work in harmony.
This rather instrumental view does not reflect how people resonate with landscapes and how vital access to contemplative space is to communities, both urban and rural alike. There are no rules for how landscape should be experienced, which, since it can never satisfy the real stuff of the wandering mind and its associations, is why so much signage seems out of place. Taking the example of a typical East End diaspora community, these associations could be of another home altogether, but nevertheless bring meaning. The web of associations that we all bring to landscapes is what differentiates your place from my place, but still locates us.
Throughout Cinderlla River I have aimed to position intangible experience at an equal level with determinate principles of landscape management in the firm belief that without one the other will be meaningless. This is what makes places special and what makes decision-making essentially conservative, moulded as it is by habits of looking and experiencing landscape that have failed to outgrow expectations of leisure and entertainment as its sole purpose.
By my own negotiation of the Lea Valley, I hope to give reassurance that my experience is, as much as for anyone else, a compound of not only a specific experience of place under particular conditions, but also what I bring to it. This is what makes each impression so unique and what reassuringly ensures that what we take away with us is so indelibly our own.
Cinderella River, the evolving narrative of the River Lee is written by and includes photography from Simon Read, Associate Professor of Fine Art, Middlesex University London. It is for sale at Walthamstow Wetlands Centre, Three Mills, Brick Lane Bookshop, and via the website simonread.info