A stroll from historic Waltham Abbey along the River Lea to industrial Ponders End reveals many interesting surprises.
Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290), first wife of King Edward I, died near the city of Lincoln. Her body was transported to London. The journey took twelve days and nights. Each night, her body rested somewhere along the route. These resting places were later remembered by a series of carved ‘Eleanor Crosses’, one placed in each stopping place. On the tenth night, Eleanor’s remains rested in the church of Waltham Abbey in Essex. This is now west of the present-day Epping Forest, but was once within it, when the woodland was then known as ‘Waltham Forest’. This stopover was later commemorated by the placing of an Eleanor Cross at the place now known as Waltham Cross.
The station at Waltham Cross makes a good starting point for an exploration of an area that once contained the largest Augustinian monastery in Britain.
If those who were accompanying Eleanor’s corpse were to revisit the Waltham (the name means ‘weald’ [or ‘forest’] ‘home’) area today, they might still recognise a few things, but would be surprised to discover that what was a rural parish in their time is now a suburb of London.
A busy road lined with occasional recently-built edifices runs east from Waltham Cross Station to the ‘town’ of Waltham Abbey. After a while it crosses a bridge with balustrades (rebuilt 1924), under which flows the Little River Lea (or ‘Lee’), a tributary of branch of the larger River Lea (or ‘Lee’). Beyond this, a little further east, the road leaves Hertfordshire and enters Essex. The boundary between the counties is the River Lea and its various channels including The River Lea Navigation (see below).
Waltham Abbey is the settlement in Essex immediately to the east of Waltham Cross. In the 7th century AD, its locals were converted to Christianity, probably by Mellitus (died 624), bishop of the East Saxons and first bishop of Saxon London. In about 1030 AD, Tovi the Proud, King Canute’s standard bearer, built Waltham Cross’s first parish church. Tovi had lands in Somerset. It is said that when a ‘wondrous’ cross was found there, Tovi had it placed in a cart to be taken to Glastonbury. However, the beasts drawing it, refused to move. When they were next asked to transport the religious object to Canterbury, they still refused to budge. When Tovi thought of Waltham, where he had built himself a hunting lodge, the creatures eagerly moved the cross to that place, and that is why he built a church there, The Church of the Holy Cross.
The town’s history is detailed in “Waltham Abbey Chronology” by R & B Sears (publ. 2000). In 1059, after Earl Harold (later King Harold II) was cured of paralysis at Waltham, he erected a Norman church on the site of Tovi’s. This became the nucleus for an abbey. When King Harold died at Hastings in 1066, he was buried in front of the high altar of his Waltham Abbey Church. After the assassination of Thomas à Becket in 1170, the repentant King Henry II enlarged Harold’s church and founded an Augustinian priory, Waltham Abbey, beside it as partial penance for Becket’s death. A small town grew up around it.
Waltham Abbey was the last of the monasteries to be ‘dissolved’ by King Henry VIII. This happened in 1544. Just over sixty years later, in 1604, Guy Fawkes bought gunpowder (for treasonable purposes) from the Waltham Abbey gunpowder factory. For many centuries, Waltham (for example The Waltham Abbey Mills, founded 17th century) and various other places (see below) along the River Lea have been associated with the manufacture of explosives.
Highbridge Street retains the appearance of a typical old-fashioned, small country town. Number 31 bears the date 1704. It is named The Old Courthouse. It faces the site of a newer courthouse, which was destroyed by a V2 missile in 1945. The town was hit by many enemy weapons, probably because of its proximity to the explosives factories in the Lea Valley. The Town Hall is further east along the street, almost opposite the west front of Waltham Abbey Church. The brick municipal building trimmed with white stone was erected in1904. It was designed by WT Streather, who had been surveyor for a suburb of Bournemouth before joining Waltham’s council. The tower above the main entrance and the roof of the meeting hall behind sport attractive ‘fin-de-siècle’ mansard windows.
Almost opposite the Town Hall, there is a small tourist information office, where its friendly staff plied me with free information leaflets, and sold me a couple of interesting local history booklets. A small building next to the northwest corner of the Abbey Church is The Rectory. Part of it, the western section, was already built by the 15th century. The part nearest the church was added in the 17th century.
A path runs north (of the west side of The Rectory) along Cornmill Stream to a bridge that crosses it. The path it carries leads to the ruins of the main entrance of the former monastery grounds. The smaller of its two stone gothic arches was for pedestrians. The larger one was for vehicular traffic. The weathered remains of two stone heraldic crests can be seen on either side of the larger arch.
Passing through the arches, one enters a large park containing some remnants of the abbey. In addition, there is a fine view of the north side of the church with its mixture of Romanesque and gothic windows. Standing in the middle of a lawn, there is tall wooden sculpture, carved from a single oak trunk in 1992 by Helena Stylianides. It depicts a hooded monastic figure.
Northeast of the sculpture, another small bridge traverses the Cornmill. Cross this, and follow the stream a few yards eastwards to reach a metal fence which encloses the remains of a 14th century stone bridge (restored in 1902), the Stoney Bridge. It was built to carry carts coming to and from the monastic farm of Waltham Abbey without having to pass through the walled precinct of the monastery.
Returning from the bridge back towards the church, we reach the long wall, part of what was once Abbey House, and before that the north wall of the Chapter House of the abbey. Following the dissolution of the abbey in 1540, Anthony Denny (1501-1549), one of Henry VIII’s favourites and a member of his Privy Chamber, leased (and later purchased) the lands of the abbey. Denny not only built Abbey House (demolished 1770), but also set up a mill (on a tributary of the Lea), which used to supply Henry VIII with gunpowder.
A 12th century archway in the north wall leads through a short passage into what used to be the abbey’s cloisters. I could see no remaining evidence of the cloisters. Standing where the cloisters used to be, one gets a good view of the east end of the abbey church, or, at least, what remains of it. The church that stands today, the parish Church of the Holy Cross and St Lawrence, is about one third of the length of the original abbey church (see below). The external features of the east wall of the parish church include elements that were once part of the interior of the larger church before it was truncated. For example, the rose window is surmounted by an almost semi-circular stone arch, now part of the external wall, which must have been a Romanesque arch supporting part of the long nave of the earlier longer church.
A few feet east of the parish church, there is a small upright stone, the so-called Harold Stone, which stands behind a larger horizontal stone bearing a carved inscription. This tells that the Harold Stone marks the site where King Harold is said to have been buried in 1066. It stands behind the place where the high altar stood in the 11th century. Now outside the body of the existing parish church, this simple monument still attracts wreaths with personal messages to King Harold written on labels attached to them.
The parish church is well-worth entering. Its nave and aisles are survivors of the once longer nave of the much larger Norman church that was built between 1090 and 1150 AD. The circular pillars, some of which are carved with zig-zag chevrons or spiral helices, support Romanesque arches on either side of the nave. There is a fine Tudor funerary monument to the Denny family at the south-east corner of the church, and close to this some other old funerary sculptures.
In 1860, the church was extensively restored under the direction of William Burges (1827-1881), who reconstructed Cardiff Castle and built one of Kensington’s most curious buildings, the Tower House in Melbury Road. The spectacular painted ceiling above the nave was created by the artist and one-time President of the Royal Academy Edward Poynter (1836-1919). Its diamond-shaped panels contain various symbolic images as well as the signs of the zodiac.
Poynter’s contemporary, the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) designed the stained glass in the rose window above the high altar. Each of the seven smaller circular windows depicts one of the Seven Days of The Creation. The central, larger window, depicts a seated crowned regal figure with a halo. He holds an orb and behind him there is a group of figures, some with musical instruments.
I visited Waltham Abbey on a Tuesday, which has been market day since time immemorial. Several market stalls (selling clothes, shoes, food, stationery, and tools) were crowded into the small market square at the western end of Sun Street. On one side of the square stands the half-timbered Welsh Harp Inn whose structure dates from the 16th century. The Green Dragon pub, whose windows were boarded up on my visit, was built in the 19th century on the site of the Market Hall (and an earlier Moot Hall, where the Abbot held courts of justice in mediaeval times).
The Sun Inn on Sun Street is a timber-framed building that was already standing in 1633; it has been enlarged considerably since then. Its next-door neighbour, now an estate agent, has a clapboard façade. The drainpipe of number 33 Sun Street, now Kalik Coffee House, has a picturesque feature decorated by a fleur-de-lys and two thistles. The short South Place leading off Sun Street, has some pretty cottages dating back to the 17th century. The double cottage (it has two adjoining roofs) at the south end of the Place was occupied by a farmer in the 17th century. He farmed the open land, which was, in his time, immediately south of his home.
Number 35 was built as a police station in 1874. It is now no longer used for that purpose. Its neighbour is the town’s library. This is adjoined to a half-timbered building, which houses the small but excellent Epping Forest District Museum. Much of the half-timbered house, first built in about 1520, has been restored, but the rooms of the museum, which are part of that house display parts of its original wooden structural elements: doorways, fireplaces, and timber beams. The building has been beautifully restored and conserved, skilfully blending original elements with new features including a lift for handicapped visitors.
Amongst the numerous exhibits, several caught my attention. On the top floor, there is a painting by the impressionist Lucien Pisarro (1863-1944), who first visited the UK during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and then returned to settle permanently in London in 1890. Just after he married (in 1892), he lived in Epping between 1893 and ’97. The painting depicts the garden of his house in Epping, where his daughter the artist Orovida Camille Pissarro (1893-1968) was born.
There is a carved stone head on the floor below. This was carved in the 14th century, and was originally in the Abbey’s Chapter House. It is believed to be a portrait of King Edward III, who was a patron of the Abbey, which he visited often. According to the museum label the beard and hair of this sculpture bears traces of the gold that used to cover the whole piece.
The ground floor contains some elaborately decorated wooden panelling (dated about 1526) that has survived since the demolition of Waltham Abbey. It is owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has lent it to the Epping Museum.
The oldest exhibit in the museum is in a cabinet on the wall of the main staircase. Dated roughly 12,000 BC, it is the curved tusk of a woolly mammoth, which was discovered near Waltham Abbey. It is believed that these beasts roamed around today’s Lea Valley during the ice ages.
The museum has a pleasant little garden decorated with a large mosaic. From the garden, there is a good view of the east end of the museum, which, although restored, looks like it must have done several centuries ago.
Facing the eastern end of Sun Street, there is a brick building trimmed with white stone and topped with a tiled steeple supported by slender columns. This was built in 1902 for the Methodists (Wesleyan). In 1974, it became a Roman Catholic church, and then later it became the Lea Valley Church (see: https://www.leavalleychurch.org.uk/), which is neither Methodist nor Roman Catholic (nor Church of England).
Returning westwards along Sun Street, we reach a mosaic that stretches almost the width of the pedestrianised roadway. A red line runs in the middle of it from north to south. This marks the path taken by the Greenwich Meridian, which separated the east from the west. Along with Greenwich, the town of Waltham Abbey has at least one thing – the Meridian – in common with Accra in Ghana. According to recent measurements, the line of the Meridian may, really, be some 334 feet east of its present accepted position (based on observations made in 1884) at Greenwich (see: The Daily Telegraph, 20th October 2017). The Waltham mosaic was constructed before this discovery.
Leaving Waltham Abbey along Highbridge Street, we pass an undistinguished looking modern (yellow and red) brick building facing the large traffic roundabout. This is the current ‘avatar’ of the Francis Greene Alms-house. The original alms-house on this spot was built by Francis Greene in 1626. It was rebuilt in 1818, and survived until 1945 when it was destroyed by a German V2 missile. The present building replaces the post-war building, which was constructed in 1953.
The alms-house stands on a corner plot separated from its neighbour by a small street, Grove Court. The brick wall on the western corner of Grove Court and Highbridge Street is of recent construction, but it includes a much older corner stone (not brick), which bears the letters ‘WD’ separated by an upside down ‘V’. This resembles, but is not identical to, the letters carved on stones by the War Department (after 1954, the Ministry of Defence). On old large-scale Ordnance Survey maps, a surveying benchmark is marked close to the position of the stone that I spotted.
The western end of Highbridge Road is the bridge crossing the River Lea Navigation. The River Lea, which rises in the Chiltern Hills near Luton, flows mainly through north-east and east London, and joins the River Thames at Trinity Buoy Wharf (described elsewhere) near Canning Town. Along much of its course, the Lea divides into various separate channels, some of them narrow clogged-up streams and others much bigger.
During the 16th century, efforts began to create a navigable channel along the course of the Lea. The civil engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792) was largely responsible for designing what is now called the River Lea Navigation, work on which was completed by 1771. Smeaton’s work, effectively a canalised part of the river, ensured that there was a wide enough channel that always contained sufficient water to keep it deep enough for vessels to navigate its length. Modifications and improvements on his canal have been made subsequently. A good footpath runs alongside it.
The Waltham Town Lock is just north of the bridge to which Highbridge Road leads. It is surrounded by the greenery of the southern end of the Lea Valley Regional Park. I explored the part of the Lea Navigation (‘Lea’) that flows from this lock southwards towards that at Ponders End.
Just south of the bridge on the western shore of the Lea, there is a currently disused brick building (whiteish bricks with occasional rows of red bricks). This was the lock house built in 1878 beside the old Waltham Town Lock (see: http://www.leeandstort.co.uk/Waltham_Town.htm). The latter was removed in 1922, when the present lock was built further north on the other side of Highbridge Road. A short footbridge crosses the watery inlet to a small dock next to the disused lock house. Before WW2, this dock had its own travelling crane for loading and unloading goods. Now, it is being converted into a water feature for a new housing development.
We next pass a Water Board water treatment plant whose grounds contain an elegant yellow brick building with stone trimmings. It has tall circular arched windows and a porch supported by pillars with Doric capitals. This was built as a pumping station, constructed in the late 19th century (between 1884 and 1898, according to detailed maps).
A little further south, the canal and its footpath pass beneath a large bridge that carries the busy traffic on the M25 London Orbital motorway. There was a pitched tent and a vandalised car as well as various bits of junk under the bridge. Although I saw no one, this encampment had the look of still being in use. South of the bridge, the Lea flows through open countryside. To the west, there is the vast expanse of Ramney Marsh. To the west, there is a wide swathe of uninhabited land separating the Lea from a housing estate.
Ramney Marsh Lock was first built in 1768, and rebuilt several times since then, the last time being 1902. Parts of the supports of the footbridge across the lock consist of blocks of Portland stone recovered from the old Westminster Bridge, which was demolished in about 1862. The footbridge leads east to the Narrow Boat Café, at which I did not stop. A map surveyed in 1895 shows that there was a nitro-glycerine factory on the land east of the lock. For years, this area was used for testing munitions, but now it has been rendered safe for all. Its presence is remembered today by naming the open land, now a public open space, ‘Gunpowder Park’.
South of the lock, the canal was lined with moored barges, electricity pylons, and occasional small canal-side gardens, often quirkily decorated. After passing the stone supports of a demolished bridge that once carried pedestrians and a large-bore pipe over the river, a stream branched off from the Lea at the northern point of a slender island.
On its west shore there are rows of identical terraced two-storied houses built of brick along a road named Government Row. These were once homes for workers at the Royal Small Arms Factory, which was behind them to the east. The factory was opened in 1816. It produced rifles and other small arms for the British Army throughout the 19th century. Its products included the famous Martini Henry and Lee Enfield rifles, as well as the Sten (Shepherd, Turpin, and Enfield) Gun. The factory and its site closed in 1988. Since then, a housing development has been built on the land behind Government Row.
Enfield Lock is situated at the southern end of Government Row. This was first built by 1722. The present structure was built in 1922. It is located next to the Lee Conservancy headquarters. This organisation was founded in 1868 to look after (maintain) the Lea Navigation, to keep it clean and navigable. The lock house at Enfield Lock bears a sign that states it was built in 1889 by the Conservancy. The headquarters of the organisation is immediately south of the lock on the Lea’s west bank. It is housed in a low brick building (cruciform in plan, built 1907) with a reddish tiled roof with a small centrally-located clock-tower surmounted by a weather-vane.
The charmingly rustic Swan and Pike Pool, an old dock surrounded by trees and joined to the Lea by a short channel, is opposite the Conservancy, across the water. The Pool was “…once a bathing pool and a turning point for barges that serviced the nearby Gunpowder Mills” (see: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/). It is named after a pub, the ‘Swan and Pike’, which existed close-by until the early decades of the 20th century. This hostelry existed as an isolated structure in the marshes lining the Lea Navigation before the 19th century and the construction of the small-arms factory (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol5/pp212-218).
Out of curiosity I decided to explore south along the Lea to Ponders End Lock, a distance of just over two miles. Take it from me that unless you are fascinated by electricity pylons there is not much point walking along this stretch of water. Immediately south of the Conservancy, there are several modern factories. For most of the distance, the Lea is bordered to the east by the high grassy bank of King George’s Reservoir. Constructed between 1908 and 1912, it was opened by King George V. It is the largest of London’s reservoirs. The steep bank of the huge reservoir is grazed by sheep. I also saw horses wandering amongst the pylons in the muddy fields between the water-storage area and the Lea. The west side of the Lea is bordered by vegetation which conceals various industrial concerns.
Apart from a group of Geese that landed in the water with balletic precision, and one barge travelling slowly, there was little of interest to see. At one point, I came across four small metal sculptures by the footpath. Why they were there is not clear to me. As with the path north of Enfield Lock, I met with several other walkers and some cyclists, but far less than I had encountered above that lock. Eventually, I reached Ponders End Lock, a double lock with two parallel lock chambers. The lock was first built there in the early 18th century. The second chamber was included as part of a rebuild done in the 1950s. Canal users now have the choice of using the newer mechanised lock or the older manually operated one.
Between the lock and Ponders End railway station, I passed a small square bungalow with neo-gothic windows. This building on Wharf Road was once part, an entrance lodge, of the former Wright’s Flour Mill. It was built in the early 19th century. There had been mills on this site since the 16th century, maybe since the Domesday Book’s era. George Wright took over the mill in 1870. Originally water-powered (by the River Lea), it was later run by electricity when the waters of the Lea were diverted to fill the nearby reservoir.
When I was about ten years old, I managed to persuade my grandmother, then in her seventies and visiting from South africa, to join me on a series of bus journeys using a Red Rover. This ticket, costing six shillings (30 pence) in those days, allowed its holder a whole day’s unlimited usage of London Transport’s red buses. Granny and I set off from Golders Green, and after a few hours ended up in Ponders End, which looks no more attractive today than it did then. Having reached this place, which neither of us had ever heard of, we decided that enough was enough, and then returned to Golders Green. This is how I felt many decades later having reached there from the far more attractive Waltham Abbey.
Waltham Abbey, which still resembles a small country town far from London, is now a part of the city. Its well-preserved historic centre is surrounded by modern housing. The River Lea and its various channels supply London with water, now via the reservoir, and earlier via the New River. It has been one of London’s important transportation arteries, which has served industry in the past (before motorised road transport and the railways), and is now a valued leisure facility. Exploring the area described above brings one into contact with many aspects of history from prehistoric times until today: from wandering mammoths to mammoth motorways.