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What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog begun in 2012 about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.

I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps.

Around 2018 I tried a new way of writing my family's and my own UK travel adventures. Britain is a brilliant place for a staycation, mini-break and day trips. It's also a fantastic place to explore so I've begun to write up reports of places that are easy to reach by public transport. And when they are not that easy to reach I'll offer some tips on how to get there.

See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Zig-zagging along the River Lea or maybe the Nile

What is it about following a river from its start to end? Here's my first go at completing the  50-mile Lea Valley Walk. In two days I walk five miles and cycle 25. Not quite as impressive as Dr Livingstone of the Nile, but it feels like a huge achievement to have followed a path along a river. Words from Nicola Baird.
The Lea Valley Walk is well signposted. Here's
the entrance close to Tottenham Hale tube in London.
I'm clearly getting deluded by a combination of hot spring sun and heady distances, but on the first two days I've been on the Lea Valley Walk - which runs from Leagrave (the source of the River Lea) to the Thames - someone has stopped me going "Hello Nicola".  And now I think I'm Dr Livingstone charting the River Nile suddenly meeting Stanley...

Message to cyclists on the Lea Valley Walk.
Judith, the first, is with her two primary school aged daughters and husband. They are all on bikes and the plan is to cycle to Hertford. "How far is it?" I ask tentatively. "25 miles..." says Judith and laughs nervously. Turns out the family have done this before - and Judith has done it many times so knows it's a three hour off-road pedal. With the kids and the temptation of riverside pubs it may take longer, but what an adventure for them all. 

The next day I'm cycling the exact same route as Judith's family, having abandoned my dog and trainers in order to eat up the miles with my trusty bike. It's a quiet Monday so the riverside path is much less busy. There are no boat trainers shouting instructions from bikes at their skiffing crews. There are no squads of lycra-clad cyclists. There are only a couple of walkers to avoid. If you're going to enjoy walking this river then it's definitely calmer to do it on a weekday. 

Psychogeography heaven - that strange tension of rural idyll (otters?) and
yuck (pylons, river rubbish, flattened building sites).
I pass Alfie's Lock (once called Pickett's Lock) and immediately it seems like I'm in the countryside. To my right is a reservoir bank with sheep grazing. There's a heron flying across. On the lock side are sign boards explaining that this is otter country. Apparently otters sleep in their holts for most of their day emerging in the evening to play. Clearly they are perpetual teenagers...

And then I reach Enfield Island where the path swaps sides and it happens again. "Hello Nicola". This time it's Nikki, whose child went to the same nursery as my youngest - 14 years ago!

I can imagine how dazed Dr Livingstone felt when he was tracked down. He'd been in the journeying zone for months, perhaps years. I was only one and a bit hours in, but following the River Lea was turning me into the most famous of all colonial explorers.

The Nile is a great deal longer than the modest River Lea.... it's 6,853km long (4.258 miles) and passes through 11 countries on its way to the Mediterranean - Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.  

In contrast the River Lea is easy to follow. But the roads and towns that it runs close by certainly play a game of convergence...(town to town and road to road) just like the two Niles. In Khartoum, Sudan the Blue and White Nile meet - you can see the mix happening, and hear a local talking about this on the video here.

Signs to the narrow boat cafe. Ahead lies the M25
After about two hours from my door I stop at the friendly Narrow Boat cafe. It is a well signposted, family run cafe at Waltham Abeey, just off the River Lea, so I ignore the fact that it is close to the M25, creating a strange traffic hum. It also takes cards, has a toilet and rather sweetly the waitress heats up my brownie so it oozes deliciously across the plate. I wolf it up (along with my homemade sandwiches) while admiring their goats, assortment of dogs and interesting junk shop art. This is quite a find, and perfectly sited.

The pretty Fish & Eels pub at Dobb's Weir (for a moment it's Essex)
Next stop ought to be Hertford but first I've got a long cycle. I like the way my bike's tyres are now coated with a fine white towpath powder. I get confused by discovering Cheshunt is outside the M25 but enjoy cycling past boat centres, leisure centres, wooden chalets and caravan style holiday parks. This place is clearly not just London's lungs it's a lovely spot to recharge. 

Amwell Nature Reserve - so peaceful.
They even make it OK for the birds and beasts. At Amwell, quite near the start of the New River Canal which goes into Islington, the gravel pits have been filled to create the Amwell Nature Reserve. It's a beautiful spot.

Spot the gazebos of Ware
Pedalling on I arrive at Ware, the train station I use often to get to my mum's home in Hertfordshire. It's a real treat to see the famous Ware gazebos, built to offer a bit of quiet R&R by the merchants whose houses front the high street, which used to be the main route between London to Cambridge. Ware had such a reputation as a stop off point that there are many pubs (former B&Bs) and in the museum you can even see the Great Bed of Ware which travellers at the White Hart were obliged to share (four couples). I'm told this bed was moved from hostelry to hostelry but I can't vouch for the truth of this. It belongs to the Victoria & Albert museum but in 2012 it was on loan to the Museum of Ware and I was very happy to see this famous oak fourposter.
The River Lea gets very pretty between Ware and Hertford.
It's only a mile or so to Hertford from Ware and it's the first time the River Lea loses its wooden sides and is allowed to turn into a pretty country river with meadows on either side. I'm tired now so allow myself a break to watch the Canada geese fighting. It's a good decision as almost at once I spot the first swallow of summer fly down to the river surface to skim off insects.  I could watch all day... but somehow I remount, pedal on and take the turning off the path to Hertford East station. This isn't the train station I want (much easier to locate Hertford North) but it means i have to cross the busy county town and all its congested traffic. 

After the luxury of 25 miles off road the traffic seems quite challenging. Perhaps if you do this route with children it might be an idea to wheel the bikes through Hertford town centre - or possibly take the train from Ware back to Tottenham Hale where you can relocate  to the riverside path to pedal back into London and your start point without so much traffic stress.

A few weeks later I walked from Hatfield to Hertford and after the idyllic 30 miles outlined above following the river was truly surprised to be on a section of the walk that is basically River Lea free until you get to Hertford. This is the Lea Valley Walk of course, but much of it is spent by the dismal A414, the outskirts of Welwyn Garden City and the Colne Valley cycle route along a former railway.

  • I used The Lea Valley Walk - a guide book from www.cicerone.co.uk  I'm using the 3rd edition (2015) with a brown and green cover. It's excellent. Bet Livingstone would have liked to write for them.
Over to you
Tell me your river walking stories. Do you enjoy pacing the river bank? Do you prefer to cycle? What's your favourite river route?

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