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PETER FROST has been walking beside the river Lea.

At the age of five I fell in a canal, not just any canal but the little known Brent Feeder Canal built in 1811 to bring water from the River Brent near the Welsh Harp Reservoir on the North Circular Road to the main line of the Grand Union Canal at Waxlow Road, Park Royal. Pictured below during a community clean up in 2012.

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I didn’t drown or get Weil’s disease from the many rats but even after more than 60 years I remember my older brother Jack pulling me from the water and then me running home blubbing and dripping to a telling-off from mum.

I certainly caught something from the canal water that day and all my life had had a thing about canals, boats and rivers, and particularly those waterways that sneak into the back doors of towns and cities. Later I would build my first boat. A sixteen foot plywood cabin cruiser – a Percy Blandford designed Nomad – and Ann and I and our young son explored all of London’s myriad fascinating waterways in Red Dicken – named for a hero of the Peasants’ Revolt.

One of our favourite trips was down the Grand Union and Regents’ Canals, in those days they still washed elephants from London Zoo in the canal. Then on through London to Limehouse basin, then a far from fashionable dock surrounded by Cohen’s 600 Group scrap-yards and full of heavy commercial craft, dregers, and the occasional arrested motor yacht with a warrant nailed, or at least selotaped, to its mast.

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We would climb the dock wall ladder and find a hole in the corrugated iron fence to reach the Ratcliffe Highway which led to some of the best Chinese cafes in all of London. Limehouse then was Chinatown, today it is bankers’ town.

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From Limehouse basin we would head north again this time on the River Lea up towards Hertford and perhaps the river Stort. The first time we did the trip was in 1977 and the Lea was still busy with a rich variety of commercial cargoes mostly moving up river in short chains of lighters pulled by small but powerful tugs.

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There was timber for the sawmills along the river and for the furniture factories of Tottenham and Edmonton: Copper ingots for the wire mills and cable factories at Brimsdown; Zinc casting metal for Lesney’s wonderful Matchbox model car factory (below) and of course the barges of coal heading for power stations along the river.

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This year after forty years of canal boating I went back to the Lea but not by boat. Lea Bridge Road is a major through route in North East London. It gets its name from the bridge across London’s second most important river. There has been a bridge here since 1745. Before that, travellers heading out of London took Jeremy’s ferry.

Ann and I hopped off the 56 bus to take another look at our favourite river and a walk along its banks as generations of Londoners have before us.

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Here on a piece of land once called Paradise Fields, then Paradise Dock, then Lea Bridge Dock and today Paradise Park we found a little riverside corner that had some amazing stories to tell of life on the River Lea over the centuries.

The most important building in this little corner of paradise is a pretty Victorian Schoolhouse.

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Today it is cocooned in bright canary yellow plywood shuttering but you can just catch tantalizing glimpses of its Kentish ragstone walls, mullioned windows and spectacular chimneys through the gaps in the shuttering.

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Plywood shuttering hides the schoolhouse from view and the Ship Aground Pub is barely standing behind.

At present the building is occupied by squatters but that proved to be a blessing as not only are they keeping it safe and secure but they also allowed us inside to view the spectacular single large interior space.

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The Old Schoolhouse is owned by the developer of several blocks of flats in the area – Vision Homes – but an on-going  project  is seeking to establish the Old Schoolhouse as a river Lea heritage and arts centre.

The Trust has already received an early ‘pump-priming’ grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the production of a feasibility study and business plan.

Back in 2013 Vision Homes seemed totally supportive of the plan. Indeed Parma Sulh, managing director of The Vision Group, said in his own corporate brochure, “the project will not only preserve a heritage building, but will provide a fun learning environment for the Hackney community. The grand room at the front of the building will be transformed into a living schoolroom complete with actors in period costume and a curriculum of authentic Victorian learning”.

Sadly Mr Sulh seems to have now reneged on the written agreement for ten year’s rent free lease and another fifteen years at a negotiated rent that  he promised if the group got the major Heritage Lottery Money they hoped for.

Perhaps those rocketing London apartment price tags, funded we hear by money laundering foreign criminals, were too much temptation. Now Mr Sulh and Vision Homes have put in for planning permission to convert the schoolhouse to two heritage apartments that he hopes will sell for three quarters of a million each.

Neither Vision Homes or Mr Sulh is saying anything about his change of plan. He won’t speak to journalists or to any of the various groups involved in the original Old Schoolhouse River Lea Heritage and Arts Centre project.

His planning permission application didn’t include work to identify the impact of the development upon protected species of wildlife and plant life, nor had there been a flood risk assessment, despite the close proximity of the Old Schoolhouse to the River Lea.

A petition organised by Clapton Arts Trust project supporting the original plan soon collected over a thousand local signatures. It asks Hackney Council to ensure that the developer’s honour their commitment to provide the former Schoolhouse building for community use.

The conversion of this handsome building into two luxury flats would destroy its historical integrity and would lose the charm of the early one-room Victorian schoolhouse.

However the significance of the building goes far beyond the value of its architectural fabric.  The Schoolhouse was an important part of the everyday lives of the boaters and their families who lived and worked along the River.

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It provided free schooling for their children and also served as an evangelical and temperance outpost of the Anglican Church in an isolated riverside community better served by ale-houses. This was a locality with a reputation for heavy drinking and rough and rowdy behaviour. There are ancient newspaper cutting describing everything from riots to ‘orrible crimes of violence.

The Schoolhouse was designed by the celebrated Victorian architect Arthur Ashpitel and it was built on land acquired by his father William Hurst Ashpitel from Henry Greville, Earl of Warwick at the beginning of the 19th century.

Ashpitel senior designed and built the inland dock – Paradise Dock – around which the original community and industries of Lea Bridge developed and which lay at the heart of what is now the Lea Bridge Conservation Area.

His son, Arthur Ashpitel, built numerous churches and municipal buildings throughout the south east of England. It was in the best traditions of Victorian philanthropy that Arthur Ashpitel gifted to the parish the land on which his Schoolhouse was built.

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Arthur declared that the land and schoolhouse should be held for the benefit of local people in perpetuity and if they no longer needed it it should be returned to the Ashpitel family.  In the 1920’s some legal trickery allowed the parish to sell the Schoolhouse to a commercial concern without reference to the Ashpitel family. It was then used for several businesses including the millwrights pictured above.

That this early 19th-century one-room stone Schoolhouse has survived into the 21st century in an inner city borough such as Hackney is remarkable. It is crucial that it is put to some community based good use.

If the Heritage Lottery Fund Grant bid is successful, the doors could be thrown open to tell the remarkably story of London’s second river through the centuries perhaps as a Victorian classroom experience for schools, colleges and the public and as an arts centre.

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The Schoolhouse is at the centre of a group of historic building. The Princess of Wales pub has been here since the 1920. The Arts and Crafts style pub retains many of its original features. Today in line with the general gentrification the once humble ale house has become a Gastropub. Pictured below are Barges on the Hackney Cut, just south of the Prince of Wales Public House.

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The Prince of Wales visited Clapton Orient Football Ground at Millfields in 30th April 1921. A new pub being built nearby was named in his honour. In 1997 it changed its gender to mark the death of Princess Diana.

An earlier pub on much the same site had been at the end of a terrace of river-side slum houses much troubled by flooding. These were swept away when many building in the area were rebuilt in the 1920’s but remnants the wall of the closest terrace house are still part of today’s pub’s structure.

In the black-out of World War II fear of invasion and the strategic importance of both the River Navigation and the Lea Bridge Road led to the pub becoming a machine gun post.

Another pub close-by has not been as lucky as the Princess. The Ship Aground, is named because it was surrounded by the river and other watercourses and docks. East End brewers Charringtons were running a popular pub here in 1871 but the original building may well have been the impressive gateway to the wharfs and docks built here in around 1830 and converted to a pub sometime later.

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The Ship Aground closed in 2009 and the building is now a sad sight, only its elegant facade stands like a solitary rotten tooth. It is held up by scaffold poles and appears to wave with every breeze from the river. It has been like this since the reconstruction stopped three years ago.

Local Sikhs bought the pub to build a Gurdwara or temple. Now it seems disagreement among the Sikh community means that works has stopped completely and seems unlikely to start again. Concerned locals feel the fragile building may collapse completely.

Other old buildings of interest are a complex of elegant industrial structures with a large brick chimney. These were formerly used as a carbonic acid gas works, and subsequently used as a furniture works. Along with a glass bottle works on adjacent sites this was part of the Victorian fizzy drink industry.

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Dr Joseph Priestley, best known for discovering oxygen also invented carbonated water in 1767 and started Victorian drinking trends like hock and selzer, or the temperance delights of dandelion and burdock or even ginger beer. A plaque marks the house where Priestley lived from 1792-1794 in what is now 113 Lower Clapton Road, Hackney.

Another aspect of this part of the Lea is the rich history of the pleasure boating that was such an important part of local recreation. Britain’s most famous Victorian boatman, no less an expert than Jerome K Jerome described his own pleasure boating early days in his famous book – Three Men in a Boat.

“I devoted some three months to rafting, and, being then as proficient as there was any need to be at that branch of the art, I determined to go in for rowing proper, and joined one of the Lea boating clubs.

“Being out in a boat on the river Lea, especially on Saturday afternoons, soon makes you smart at handling a craft, and spry at escaping being run down by roughs or swamped by barges; and it also affords plenty of opportunity for acquiring the most prompt and graceful method of lying down flat at the bottom of the boat so as to avoid being chucked out into the river by passing tow-lines”.

(c) Lady Lever Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Edward John Gregory’s painting ‘Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon‘catches the spirit of Victorian pleasure boating perfectly either on the Thames or  at Henley on the Lea. pictured below.

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Most of the Lea was lined with rowing clubs, boatyards and boat houses from at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

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They built and repaired boats; hired out boats for leisure and fishing trips; or stored the boats and acted as a base for the many competitive rowing clubs that grew up in the mid to late nineteenth century. Contemporary reports described the area as Henley on the Lea. Ladies rowing seemed particularly popular in this corner of East London.

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Radley were one family that established a boat yard close to Lea Bridge Road in the 1850’s and the business survived for over a 100 years.

The 41 mile long River Lea or Lee has two spellings, both correct, and two distinct characters. It rises at Fivesprings, Leagrave in a council estate near Luton and meanders southeast under the flight-path of Luton airport. Many smaller streams drain into the young river swelling its flow until it is big enough to dammed to form ornamental lakes in fine aristocratic Hertfordshire Gardens.

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At Hertford it becomes a canalised navigation for its 27 mile journey to the Thames at Bow Creek or Limehouse Basin. The Navigation works and locks are on a larger scale than other London canals. Each can take river craft 85ft.4in. long and a little over 16 feet in beam. It was designed to pass boats drawing six feet but today in many places it is a good deal shallower than that.

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It was a river of exotic cargoes. Early cargoes were malted barley for the many London breweries. hay and vegetables from the market gardens and farms of Hertfordshire with return cargoes of horse manure swept from the roads and stables of the Capital’s many cart and cab horses.

Later came Long extinct hardwoods from Africa, some like Greenheart and Purpleheart so heavy they sink in water, but so tough they used it to build river wharfs that are still giving good service today. Mahoganies from Africa and teaks from Burma destined for the furniture factories of Edmonton and Tottenham.

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Metals for the many specialised engineering works along the river arriving in London Docks and towed up the Lea in lighters. Chemicals too came up to riverside works.

All that dirty industry polluted the Lea’s waters but somehow fish survived. The Lea has always been popular with cockney anglers since Izaak Walton wrote his The Compleat Angler in the 1600’s.

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London needed the River Lea’s clean waters but after a great Cholera outbreak in 1613 they built a separate water course with no boats and no industry to bring clean water to the Capital. It was called the New River.

Certainly the most dangerous cargo on the Lea was the gunpowder made in the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey. This once very secret location has been involved in the production and development of explosives and rocket propellants for over 300 years.

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The Mills have their own network of canals linked to the River Lea.

In 1787 the government purchased the mills to ensure a high quality supply. Production proved inadequate during the 1854 Crimean War so steam powered mill were built.

The mills own seven miles of small canals could not cope with the increased production from six thousand munitions workers during the First World War, so the narrow gauge railway was built.

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In the Second World War gunpowder production was moved to Scotland and Wales as enemy bombers could reach and identify the Leaside site too easily. Luftwaffe pilots claimed they used the moonlight glinting on the River Lea’s waters as a signpost to the London Docks.

Large-scale explosives production had ceased by the end of the war and afterwards the site became the Explosives Research and Development Establishment of the Ministry of Defence. The last scientific staff had gone by 1991. Today it is an excellent museum.

There is at least one specially built River Lea gunpowder sailing barge afloat. She is the Lady of the Lea. The barge has an interesting safety feature. Huge fast acting sea-cocks can sink her in seconds if fire is detected on board.

The Lady of the Lea, Thames Barge Match 2010

The story of family life on narrow boats, of course, has already been well told, canal museums at Ellesmere Port, Gloucester Docks and Stoke Bruerne and the London Canal Museum all recreate life in the cramped, but beautifully decorated narrow boat cabins This style of life dress, folk arts and way of life are distinctive but not really part of River Lea History.

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This recreation of a narrowboat cabin at the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne has an fascinating history. It is in fact one built as a film set for Ealing Film Studios in 1945 by Samuel Barlow at their yard at Braunston, Northamptonshire. It was for the drama documentary Painted Boats. The still from the film  below shows how realistic the cabin mock up was in use.

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Although hard working narrowboat crews would seek out cargoes wherever they could find them old pictures of the Lea rarely show any narrowboats. Rather the larger river locks of the Lea were home to small sailing barges, tugs and lighters and specially built barges designed to fit the navigation.

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The Lea wasn’t the natural home of narrowboats at all. Mostly trade was day traffics so where Lea boats had overnight accommodation it was for just a night or two. Most boaters would toss a bicycle or even a small motorbike on top of the cargo and ride home after a day’s travel.

Today there is almost no commercial carrying on the river. Maintenance craft sometimes take building materials or dredged spoil along the river, Some boaters sell books, cheese, canal souvenirs, or smokeless fuel, diesel and chemical toilet fluid to other boaters or the occasional gongoozler – the narrowboater’s wonderful name for those who stand on the towpath and watch the boats go by.

Elaborate plans to carry building materials into, and rubbish out of the Olympic park including a new canal arm and a new lock (below) seem to have come to nought.

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A relatively recent trend on the River Lea is the large number of live aboard boats that have appeared on the river. The proximity to easy commuter routes into the Capital make this a desirable place to live. However the Canals and River Trust (CaRT), an invention of the Tory Government to privatise the waterways by the backdoor is not keen on people using their boats as housing that doesn’t move far.

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Many of these boats have what is called a continuous cruising licence which obliges them to move moorings every two weeks or so. As more and more live-aboards take to the water the CaRT introduce more and more draconian interpretations of their rules and regulations.

The new body unlike the British Waterways Board that used to run the publicly owned waterways is a charity that has to raise its own income. £1.7 million of that income comes from CaRT marinas and moorings, no wonder they are keen that everybody has one of their moorings.  Now they are investigating more sophisticated GPS Big Brother tracking systems to record exactly how far and how often boats without an official mooring are moving.

Before we left the Lea there was one more visit to make, one more tribute to pay to the bounty the River has given to generations of Londoners. We took ourselves off for a plate of eel, pie, mash and green liquor.

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Over the centuries tons of slithery eels have been pulled from the mud of the Lea and the other creeks that run into the Thames. They fed hungry Londoners and became a Cockney favourite, celebrated in song and story.

In 2010 the Environment Agency surveyed eel populations on a 4 mile stretch from Stonebridge south to Lea Bridge Weir. Previously this stretch was written off as an area that would be too difficult to clean up due to its shallow water channel and obstructions. In 2009 it was identified as an area that could and should be cleaned up and a £2million dredging programme was completed. The threatened eels struggle on and populations are increasing but very slowly. Meanwhile we eels lovers have to make do with imported eels from more sustainable stocks in Ireland or Holland.

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This blog is my contribution to the campaign to open a River Lea Historical and Arts Centre in the Old Victorian Schoolhouse at Lea Bridge on the Lea Bridge Road. You can find out much more and join the campaign yourself at http://ma3t.co.uk/claptonartstrust/catweb1.html

My profound thanks to Gilbert Smyth who has sent the following photographs of the Victorian Schoolhouse in use at a number of Community arts events.

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