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The river that saved London

PUBLISHED: 12:49 24 March 2014 | UPDATED: 12:49 24 March 2014

View north along the New River at Broxbourne in spring

View north along the New River at Broxbourne in spring

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The creation of the New River in the Lea Valley in the 17th century doubled water supply to a parched London. Liz Hamilton of the Campaign to Protect Rural England Hertfordshire branch takes a journey along its banks and into history

In Tudor times London suffered serious water shortages, and in the early 1600s a solution to the problem was found in Hertfordshire. Although initiated by an earlier engineer, the MP and the King’s Jeweller Sir Hugh Myddelton is most closely connected with the scheme to bring fresh water from springs at Great Amwell and Chadwell, in the Lea Valley near Ware, to Islington in the capital. Work started in 1606, stalled due to lack of money, and resumed in 1609 with Myddelton’s financial backing.

The project involved building a shallow channel to carry water 40 miles by gravity, initially following a 100-foot contour and falling only 18 feet along its length. Always known as the New River, it was completed in 1613, doubling London’s supply of fresh water and enabling further substantial building development in the city. Four centuries later, the New River still supplies the capital with water.

By the 18th century the original springs were producing less water, and, with demand from London growing, water was taken from the River Lea to augment the supply. This caused complaints from other river users and the amount diverted from the Lea was limited to 22 million gallons a day, controlled by a gauging station. 
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From gravity to pumps.
During the 19th century, the capacity of the New River was increased and pumping stations were built along its length to lift water from the chalk aquifer.

To reduce costs, the river’s earlier course has been shortened, and some stretches now run through underground pipes. The New River Path follows most of the original course, although today the water supply flows only as far as a reservoir in Stoke Newington.

On islands in the river at Great Amwell Pool, below the little village of Great Amwell which clings to the steep western bank of the Lea Valley, there are memorials to Sir Hugh Myddelton and a stone engraved with an ode to the Amwell Spring. The Mylne Family, several generations of whom worked for the New River Company as architects and engineers, lived in Great Amwell and there is a family tomb in the village church of St John the Baptist. 
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Exploring around the river. 
St John the Baptist is in part an ancient building, one of only three churches in the county which have retained a Norman circular apse (to the east of the nave). In the crowded churchyard, sheltered by gloomy yews, there are some well-preserved stocks, while tucked under the wall of the apse is the grave of the Olympian Harold Abrahams, featured in the film Chariots of Fire.

Great Amwell is a good starting point for exploring a stretch of the New River. There is roadside parking near the George IV pub and from here take the steep footpath or the equally steep Cautherley Lane down to the pool.

Head north west towards Ware along a grassy stretch of the New River Path (which can be muddy after rain). Alternatively, go south-east towards St Margaret’s, perhaps with a detour into Amwell Nature Reserve, managed by the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust and accessed off Lower Road at the foot of the steep embankment (where further roadside parking is possible).

Explore the present start of the New River and its original source at Chadwell from the eastern side of Hertford. The New River crosses the nature reserve at King’s Meads (also managed by the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust), and just to the east of the A10 viaduct it passes the Victorian Broadmeads Pumping Station, now a Grade II listed building which once housed a steam engine to pump water from a well 500 feet deep.

Despite the proximity of the busy towns of Hertford, Ware and Hoddesdon, the New River Path runs in a green corridor, ideal for a walk at any time of the year. You could walk the seven-mile stretch between Broxbourne and Hertford East stations, or stop at one of the intermediate stations. Leg 10B of the Hertfordshire Way takes a 12½-mile route from Broxbourne to Hertford East station, diverting on to the River Lea Navigation towpath in places and into the Ash Valley, returning along part of the disused Buntingford branch railway line.

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