I consider myself lucky to live and work in the beautiful Lea Valley in Hertfordshire. In spite of urbanisation and some rather questionable architectural choices in the 1960s, we have the nature-rich marshlands on either side of the river, an area apparently prized by bird-watchers (I love seeing birds, but I don’t have the patience to watch them) and lovely woodland further up the slopes on either side.
And not only that. One of my passions is history, and the Lea Valley has that in abundance. Did you know, for instance, that there was an eight-hundred-year border feud between the parishes of Cheshunt and Waltham Abbey? Fortunately, it seems to have left no residual resentment between the towns, but the compromise settlement in the 19th century is the reason why the border (also the county border, of course) makes a very sudden dog-leg.
Many great figures of history have been associated with the area. King Harold was buried at Waltham Abbey, which he had founded, after his death at the Battle of Hastings, while Waltham Cross is named for the Eleanor Cross that stands at its centre. This is one of only three remaining of the twelve crosses erected by Edward I to mark where his queen’s funeral cavalcade rested on its way to London. The most famous of them, Charing Cross in London, was demolished in the 17th century, and what stands there now is a Victorian replica.
Cheshunt in particular was a popular place for powerful figures to have homes in the 16th and 17th centuries. Cardinal Wolsey had a house, as did Lord Howard of Effingham, the High Admiral of the fleet that smashed the Armada. Lord Burleigh (or Burghley, if you prefer) lived at Theobalds Palace and entertained Queen Elizabeth there, while his son, the First Earl of Salisbury, swapped it for Hatfield House with James I, who’d fallen in love with Theobalds.
James spent much of his time at Theobalds and died there, and it was from Theobalds that his son Charles I set out to start the Civil War. And, ironically, it was to Cheshunt that Richard Cromwell, son and heir of Charles’s great enemy, retired to end his life in obscurity. Another branch of the Cromwell family settled later in Cheshunt Park, including one Sir Oliver Cromwell. When the husband of his only child petitioned to take his wife’s name, George III is said to have personally vetoed the request – “No, no: no more Cromwells.”
Rye House, on the Hoddesdon/Stanstead Abbotts border, was in 1683 the centre of a plot to assassinate Charles II and his brother, the future James II. Much later, Rye House became the home of the Great Bed of Ware, now in the V & A. Originally housed in a Ware inn, it was essentially a 16th century gimmick, which became famous enough to be mentioned by Shakespeare.
It wasn’t all politics and feuding. The River Lea has always been a great place for fishing, and it was here that, in the 17th century, Isaac Walton did much of the “research” for his tome The Compleat Angler – hence the various Walton Roads in the area. Later, the great road-maker John Loudon McAdam (of tarmac fame) retired to spend his last years in Hoddesdon, while Alfred Russell Wallace, the naturalist who should share the honours with Darwin for the Theory of Evolution, went to school in Hertford.
The Lea Valley has been home to two great engineering achievements, one well known and the other less so. The New River is neither new nor a river, but a 17th century aqueduct designed to bring clean water into London. Engineered and supervised by Sir Thomas Myddelton, it was opened in 1613 and is a staggering achievement for its time.
Less well known is the Cheshunt Railway, the first passenger railway service in the world. It was a horse-drawn monorail, but it opened three months before the Stockton & Darlington and still counts. Originally intended for hauling bricks down to the barges, it became such a local wonder that the canny owner began charging for passenger journeys.
In the late 19th century, the Lea Valley’s nursery industry started to grow. It was still flourishing (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) when I was a kid, although the nurseries are gone now, mostly housing estates or, in one case, the Cheshunt Tesco. At one time, the area had more acreage under glass than anywhere in the world outside Holland.
It’s very easy to take the area we live in for granted. If you live in the Lea Valley, look around you and you’ll see its rich history. And, if you don’t, the chances are that wherever you live also has a history worth investigating.