New Gauge House
The weather for the first day of our New River trip could not have been better: 22 degrees and bright sunshine. It was quite unusual for mid-April but very welcome nonetheless.
We got up early and travelled out to Hertford by train. After arriving at Hertford East, we walked for about 20 minutes until we reached the banks of the River Lee. There, sitting at a right angle to the river in front of us, was a building that could have easily been mistaken for a large Victorian house. We watched as water gushed sideways from the river, disappeared underneath the building and then reappeared in its own canal-like channel on the other side. This was the New Gauge House: starting point of the New River.
The New River starts here at this kind of “T” junction and it is supplied by the Lee. The exact amount of water that flows into the artificial waterway is regulated. The role of the Gauge House, opened in 1856 and still in operation today, is to make sure the supply is limited to around 100 mega litres a day.
Next to the Gauge House were sign boards that introduced the New River and its path. One of them told us that 8% of London’s drinking water still comes from the New River and gave us warnings about not fishing, diving or littering. Another sign featured a handy and quite detailed map of the first stage of the walk.
It also explained that the New River Path was not a right of way; rather the owner, Thames Water, allowed the public to use it at their own risk for the time being. “For the time being” sounded a little worrying, so we decided to set off quickly.
We started out walking on the grassy bank to the left of the New River. We walked for the first few minutes at right angles to the River Lee and then turned left onto a long straight section to walk parallel with the old river.
We were passing through attractive marshland countryside and, apart from one or two joggers and a dog walker, the place was totally deserted and quite tranquil.
The New River was quite obviously an artificial waterway. It seemed to resemble an 18th century canal in width but, as we could see the bottom clearly, it was certainly not as deep. Nor was it navigable like a canal. As we began to encounter the first few ultra-low bridges across the channel, we realised that it would be impossible even to row a canoe along it without getting decapitated.
The other difference from a canal was the lack of a towpath for much of the way. The trail featured a mixture of surfaces, but for a lot of the route we found ourselves walking on grass. On a dry day we found training shoes sufficient for the task, but I can imagine that parts of the path could get muddy in wetter weather and more substantial footwear might be needed.
Thames Water had done a largely excellent job with the signage: there were numerous finger posts pointing the way, as well as plenty of explanation boards and maps at key locations.
At the end of the long straight we turned right. The New River headed under a railway bridge but the path took us over a level crossing. On the other side of the crossing was a sluice gate, next to that was an old white building and next to that was another sign.
The sign explained that this was Chadwell Spring and that the original 1613 New River had actually started out here. This made sense: we already knew that the purpose of the whole thing was to supply London with clean fresh spring water. We learnt that Chadwell Spring is still producing about 4 mega litres of water a day and that the pond that the spring creates is known as the “Banjo” because its shape resembles that musical instrument.
As we walked on from Chadwell we started to realise how much the New River must have changed over the course of its 400 year history. We now knew that the first section (about a mile or so) from the River Lee had been added much later. We also assumed that if the original spring yielded only about a tenth of the water the River Lee now supplied, the channel must have changed its dimensions a lot too.
Fed by Gravity
A little further along we came to the Broadmead Pumping Station. It was to be the first of several such buildings we would encounter along the path. The pumping stations were a later addition in the 19th Century. They pumped up extra water from nearby wells and assisted with the flow of the New River.
Looking at the water now, we realised that it was actually flowing quite strongly in the direction of London. Remarkably, the New River was built on the 100 foot contour line and drops just 5 inches per mile along its entire length. It relied on gravity to keep the water flowing.
We continued on past Ware, walking alongside rows of terraced houses on the opposite bank, and then through some really pretty countryside to Great Amwell: site of another spring that supplies the New River.
As we reached Amwell, we noticed that the New River had opened out into a larger pool and that in the middle were two small islands. One of them contained a memorial to the man who can be considered to be the father of the whole project: Sir Hugh Myddelton (c 1560-1631).
We paused to read the signs that explained the history. Before the 17th century, the water supply in London was pretty limited to the Thames and to local streams. Not only was water in short supply but it was usually contaminated too. The idea to bring fresh water from the springs in Hertfordshire is attributed to engineer Edmund Colthurst. In 1604, at his own expense, he cut the first channel from Chadwell Spring, but only managed to complete about 3 miles before running out of money.
Sir Hugh Myddelton, a Welsh-born London goldsmith and entrepreneur, took over responsibility for the project in 1609 re-employing Colthust as engineer in the process. Myddelton eventually steered the project to a successful completion in 1613. He was made a baronet for his services to London and he also became a Member of Parliament.
Sir Hugh is remembered throughout London: there are streets, schools and other buildings named after him. There is also a statue of him in a very prominent position on Islington Green. It has a QR code at the bottom with an invitation to scan it and “hear Sir Hugh talk”.
After a short break we set off again. We passed Amwell Pumping Station and walking quite briskly we soon got to the next pumping station at Rye Common.
Hertford East Branch Line
After Rye Common the path took us briefly away from the New River and through a little forest known as St Margaret’s Community Woodland. Then, for the next half mile or so, we followed the waterway again as it ran alongside the railway.
This is the Hertford East branch line: it leaves the main West Anglia (Liverpool St. to Cambridge) Main Line after Broxbourne and then follows the Lea Valley for 5 miles before terminating at a very attractive little station at Hertford. The line was opened in 1843 and electrified in the 1960s.
For much of its length the branch runs in between the River Lee (to the north) and the New River (to the south). By now, we had almost walked the length of it; we had alighted at Hertford, already passed two of the intermediate stations at Ware and St Margaret’s and were just approaching the third one at Rye House.
The scenery here felt quite industrial: the 3 chimneys of Rye House power station were in view ahead and beside us was a long concrete wall covered in graffiti. The wall eventually gave way to reveal a trading estate where various businesses were advertising their services – boiler quotes, food truck, slimming class etc. – by placing laminated signs on the fence.
After passing Rye House station we turned a corner and the scenery changed again. As we continued down the path towards Hoddedson, we were treated to much more pleasant views of meadows stretching out towards the River Lee in the distance.
We decided to pause for lunch and found a nice spot on the bank to sit down. As we ate we noticed that we had attracted a large group of swans who seemed to be taking quite a keen interest in our picnic.
There is plenty of bird life on the New River: at Hertford the walk starts off in the Meads Nature Reserve, a typical flooded wetland, and we had already seen plenty of these magnificent swans back there, including quite a few that were nesting.
We were also seeing lots of mallards too, including one female who had just given birth to several chicks.
Soon after lunch we passed Broxbourne Railway Station and then found ourselves, diverted temporarily from the waterway, walking across a very pretty village green facing the attractive St Augustine’s Church. We looped around the church and rejoined the New River.
After walking past a large sports ground, we reached Broxbourne High Road where we found that the path was diverted from the waterway once again. Here it seemed as if that the houses on the next section ahead had won a battle to keep their part of the towpath private. It was fair enough I suppose.
We followed the signs on a route that took us, via Cozens Lane, around a playing field and finally, after about 15 minutes, back to the waterway.
Straightening things out
Now we were on the edge of the village of Wormley walking past a series of large houses on the opposite bank. Many of them had picnic tables and benches in their gardens overlooking the water. It all looked quite idyllic.
Soon we came to Turnford and we found ourselves crossing a brook on a long straight section of the New River perched on top of a high embankment. This was the Mylne Aqueduct and it was constructed in 1855 as a way of straightening the route out.
A sign explained why it had been needed. The New River flows broadly north to south and is parallel with the River Lee which is situated a few miles to the east. Inevitably, this means that the New River encounters several small tributary streams that are flowing west to east into the Lee. As we already knew, the New River was constructed to follow the 100 foot contour line, so whenever it encountered the dips in terrain created by these streams it had to either cross them or go around them.
Although some of the shallower dips were bridged by simple wooden aqueducts lined with lead, in 1613 the there was no effective means to cross the deeper ones. The chosen option was to follow the contour around (usually to the west) until it met the stream at the 100 feet level. In some cases this added several miles to the course of the waterway.
These “diversions”, and there were several of them, caused the original distance travelled by the New River to be around 40 miles. Over time, a series of aqueducts, tunnels and pipes reduced the length to just 28 miles. Most of the redundant loop sections were filled in and lost but a few remain.
A Coffee Break
Compared with the idyllic scenery we had encountered earlier, the section around Turnford was a little more brutal. We continued on under an ugly concrete bridge that carried a feeder road for the A10 and then through a long dark subway under the A10 itself.
After the A10, we walked along a much nicer section in the trees. Despite the shade we were getting quite hot and we were also running a little short of water. We were therefore actually quite glad to see that the path ahead skirted the back of a large retail park. We took a break from the tranquillity of the New River to re-enter civilisation as we joined afternoon shoppers in a branch of Costa Coffee to enjoy an Americano and a bottle of mineral water.
Suitably refreshed, we resumed our walk and continued south as the path threaded directly through a new housing estate and then went past the main Broxbourne Council offices.
A King’s Ransom
Eventually we came to a more open section and, for the first time in more than 5 miles, there were now fields on both sides. We sat down for a while on the bank to take it all in.
We were looking across towards Theobald’s Park here. At the time of the construction of the New River, King James 1st (of gunpowder plot fame) had a palace here and both the palace and the King himself ended up playing a very significant role in the construction of the whole waterway.
Having taken over the project in 1609, Sir Hugh Myddelton soon began to realise that he would not have enough money to complete the works. Money was not the only issue that Myddleton faced: many of the landowners had also voiced opposition to the project over fears that it could flood their land. Construction stopped again in 1610.
The project was eventually rescued in 1611 by King James himself who not only allowed the New River to pass the palace but also agreed to fund 50% of the construction costs in exchange for 50% of the profits. Now, with extra financing and a royal seal of approval to help silence the landowners, the project moved on towards London.
After our relaxing break, so did we.
M25 – Under and Over
Just before we got to the M25 we watched as the waterway entered a concrete tunnel and was then carried over the motorway on a bridge. We crossed using the wide track on top of the bridge with the water hidden beneath us. I realised that I must have driven under the New River countless times and never realised it was there. Looking up from the road it would be impossible to imagine that the bridge actually contained water. I smiled when I read that apparently the motorway had to be lowered at this point just so the New River could be kept level.
As soon as we were over the motorway the New River emerged from its concrete box and we carried on following it for another half mile. We had now left Hertfordshire behind and passed into Middlesex.
After 15 minutes or so we saw a sign that told us we had reached the Thames Water Maidens Brook Depot. Around two thirds of the water is siphoned off around here and then fed in pipes across to Walthamstow Reservoir.
This marked the end of the first part of our walk. We left the New River and went off in search of nearby Turkey Street Station and a train home.
We would return to complete our trip a week later.