The River Lea: London’s forgotten defensive line

A concrete fort near Cheshunt. Image: Charlie Lawrence Jones.

Stretching from the Thames in London’s Docklands up to Hertfordshire, the Lea Navigation cuts through the East End of the capital. Not quite a canal and not quite a river, for centuries the River Lea has been a lifeline of industry taking goods to and from London’s port.

These days the “canalised” waterway and the surrounding Lea Valley have become more centred on leisure, with long walks, rowers and pubs a plenty. But it is when London has been threatened that the Lea has really stepped up, proving itself an all-important means of defence for nervous Londoners.

The Lea’s role as part of the city’s defences stretches back over a thousand years. Before England was even England, the wiley King Alfred the Great messed with the water levels of the river, causing some invading Danes to be trapped with their ships upstream. Stranded with no beard oil, the invaders had little choice but to leg it before Alfred had them truly surrounded.

In the closing decades of the 19th Century, as the British Empire stretched itself across the world, the powers at be started to get a bit more nervous about the neighbours. The London Defence Positions were envisaged to makeup for the fact London was practically indefensible, and consisted of a string of forts around the city, which would be linked up with trenches should the need arise.

When the First World War kicked off, the old scheme was resurrected and extended to incorporate the River Lea near Broxbourne. By that war’s end, though, trenches had become obsolete in the face of well armoured tanks, which could roll over most things. Deep ditches filled with soldiers were sadly not an exception.

Come 1940, with the fall of France, London faced a very real threat of being overrun by Nazi tanks. As panic ensued, the Lea was incorporated into the Outer London Anti-Tank Line under the direction of the aptly named General Ironside. The length of the Lea would form a physical barrier against any invading tanks.

Heavy WWII fortifications are more associated with Normandy than east London, but remnants of this defensive line can still be found along the navigation. Observant cyclists crossing the Lea on the Greenway to the south of the Stratford Olympic Park will realise they are pedalling right through WWII era defences. Further south in Bow there are still some pillboxes to be found.

The Lea saw further use in the wars, as a way of transporting ammunition safely from the Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills: the smooth movement of barges was seen as a safer bet than the potholed roads for transporting volatile explosives. The defensive structure above was intended as an anti-aircraft position most likely to protect the Mills themselves.

So if you get the chance to take a stroll along the Lea, maybe you can now appreciate it for more than an afternoon activity. Between the hungry geese and the futile fishermen, try to spot the material remnants of Ironside’s defensive ring. And rest easy knowing that, should tanks ever threaten London again, the Lea has got your back. 


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.