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Waterways and rivers of Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 17:14 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:29 20 February 2013

Ware gazebos

Ware gazebos

For a land-locked county, there's an awful lot of water in Hertfordshire, as Michael Massey discovers

FROM the narrow boats on the Grand Union Canal, to the lakes at Aldenham, Stanborough and London Colney and the nature reserve at Rye Meads; from the locks on the Stort and the Lea to the slowly flowing stream of the New River; from the glistening springs at Ashwell to the bottle of Hadham Water on the shelves of your supermarket - you can't travel far in our county without crossing, walking by, fishing in, bathing in, drinking, or just enjoying the waterways of Hertfordshire.
The major waterways of the county have played many different and important roles in the history of the area: the River Lea once defined the boundary between Viking Danelaw and Saxon England during the reign of Alfred the Great; the Grand Union Canal was one of this country's major trade routes, flowing through the western half of the county on its way from the Thames at Brentford to the industrial heart of Birmingham; the Stort was a significant link in the transportation of grain and malt for Hertfordshire's farming and brewing industries; the New River brings fresh water from springs near Ware all the way to London.
The Lea (or Lee) runs from its source near Luton, through much of Hertfordshire, passing through Hatfield, Hertford, Ware, Stanstead Abbots, Broxbourne, Cheshunt, Waltham Cross, and then on to its mouth in the Thames near Bow. Although it was once a natural river, it has been much canalised in order to provide a controlled waterway for the benefit of the local industries along its banks. The converted riverside maltings buildings in Stanstead Abbots, Ware and Hertford are just some of the surviving evidence of the Lea's contribution to Hertfordshire's brewing industry. The river now plays host to fleets of narrow boats owned by recreational mariners who enjoy the ever-growing leisure facilities of the Lea Valley Regional Park. In some quieter parts there is a growing number of permanent narrow boat residents. It is still a haven for anglers, as it has been for centuries. Isaak Walton, the author of 'The Compleat Angler' (1653), often fished its waters.
A major tributary of the Lea is the River Stort, running from Broxbourne to Bishop's Stortford. It passes through parts of West Essex (Roydon and Harlow), before flowing past Pishiobury Park, bisecting Sawbridgeworth and running up to the head of navigation in Bishop's Stortford. It, too, was canalised and provided a useful trade route for the malting and grain industries. For part of its length it marks the boundary between Hertfordshire and Essex. Like the Lea it has been colonised by leisure boat owners, anglers, walkers and cyclists. Its banks have now seen much residential development overtaking the industrial buildings of past centuries, but it still manages to retain a strong rural feel, even within the towns it traverses.
The Grand Union Canal passes through Rickmansworth, Watford, Hunton Bridge, Kings Langley, Apsley, Boxmoor, Bourne End, Berkhamsted and Tring. Apart from transporting all manner of goods between London and Birmingham, it also served the local industries along its banks, including the paper mills in Apsley and Croxley, brewing and silk-making in Tring, brewing in Watford, coal, grain and timber in Berkhamsted, tanning and papermaking in Rickmansworth, to name but a few. Although today the canal is predominantly used for leisure boating, some companies have re-introduced the idea of using it as a means of industrial transport once more.
By contrast, the New River carries no craft at all. Surprisingly, it is neither 'new' nor a 'river'. It was designed in the early 16th century as a conduit to bring fresh water to the developing north London borough of Islington. It slopes gently downhill, sometimes crossing lower land in an aqueduct, sometimes through tunnels and pipework as it passes through higher ground. Unlike the canals of Hertfordshire, which have largely ceased to be used as originally intended, the New River continues to serve its initial purpose.
Apart from rivers, Hertfordshire is also home to a variety of enclosed water. Converted gravel pits have produced the delights of Stanborough Lakes. The original Roman cemeteries of Verulamium (St Albans) underlie the pleasure lakes in Verulam Park. Tring Reservoirs were constructed to provide a controlled water supply for the Grand Union Canal.
Less well-known lakes include the beautiful expanses of water at London Colney and the Broadwater in Hatfield Park. Wildlife in its natural habitat is well catered for at Rye Meads and Great Amwell reserves, among many others.
Water has also provided the motive power for the many flour mills which were once scattered across the county, and are now represented by Mill Green in Hatfield, Kingsbury Mill in St Albans and Redbournbury Mill, near Redbourn.
Obviously such a concise feature can hardly hope to include every stretch of water in the county. Many other smaller and well-hidden waterways are waiting for you to discover them.

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