I am drawn to the bike’s simple engineering, uncomplicated, it’s silent gears take me from east London along the Lea Navigation and out into the open space of the old flood plains that still line the Navigation. I know the Lea from Broxbourne to its exit into the Thames at Leamouth, it harbours a familiarity that offers me comfort, a place that I have known for thirty years. Certain stretches have been altered, the Bow Back Waters were mainly filled in for the 2012 Olympics but this artery from Hertfordshire flows true to itself since the natural river was made navigable over two hundred and fifty years ago. It is a complex network of old river, navigation, flood relief channels and tributaries, but this is still very much a river that is alive, the constant cruisers have brought a new vibrancy to the place and it has become a playground for modern London, re-vamped pubs, new-builds, joggers, cyclists, canoeists, dog walkers, birdwatchers and young families have contributed to the rivers new found personality. Only twenty years ago I could fish many stretches of the canal for hours and not meet a soul, today things have changed.
When I ride I leave early while the tow path is quiet, as the canal opens up past Ponders End by the King George Reservoirs the wind often intensifies here on Rammey Marsh, the metropolis is on my back as it gets blown to the horizon. At Pike Pool by Enfield Lock I turn right and leave the Cut and take a tributary more akin to a Hampshire chalk stream. It’s late February, the river looks alive, streamer weed still hangs on from last summer in the middle flow, blossom and birdsong is starting to show, despite the cold start spring has come early this year. The river looks very inviting to the angler, today I see two fishermen but they are not the usual aimless lure anglers but float anglers carefully running floats down the inside crease, as I cycle past I hear their conversation, like their fishing it is more focused, their voices clipped, I want to ask how they are getting on, but on this occasion I restrain myself, instead I wish them “good morning” and cycle on. Soon after I leave the river, cross a nature reserve and head to the hills of Epping forest. Lungs burst as I take on Mott Street until I reach the comforting sight of Holy Innocents Church at High Beech and the thickly wooden lanes of heavy oak and beech that meander on a level that leaves the heart a chance to recover.
The temperature is still cold, the sky is cloudless, vapour pours from my lips, I am reminded how important the changing seasons are to me, just seven months ago I was on the Lower Lea, then it was hot, the air was thick with the scent of summer. I was fishing with Tony, we had met at the pub for a quick afternoon pint, I was tempted to have another but Tony was eager to go and fish. I had recently discovered a new swim, it was tricky to get to but once in place we were hidden from any passers by and any annoying questions, the same questions that I refrained from asking the two float anglers. Tucked away in our hide out, the sun battered down all around us but under the tree and next to the flowing water it was cool. I had not fished this swim before I had often seen carp patrolling, moving out from this deep trench into a more familiar swim where I had previously caught carp. I was quietly confident that this was an timeworn route, as familiar to the carp as the trodden paths taken by the old drovers on Hackney Marsh and beyond.
With ours rods out we settled into the swim, as I turned to speak with Tony I saw from the corner of my eye my rod tip bounce down, then again, I struck and felt a heavy weight heading out and into the full flow of the Lea. Ten minutes later I was cradling a carp like a new-born baby, near to twenty pounds in weight. It’s a hard thing to explain, perhaps it’s an feeling only anglers experience, but catching these old creatures somehow warrants a close affiliation to the place, each time I catch one of these carp, my relationship with the Lea becomes more intimate.
From Epping Forest I re-join the canal, it’s still early but people are starting to embrace the day, cat-ice still covers the canal. Once again I think back to that warm July day, I think of the other anglers who have fished the Lea in the past, anglers leaving the east-end and disembarking at Lea Bridge, Ponders End or Enfield, rural outposts from the stink of the city. I picture them lined up along the tow path perched on their creels, puffs of smoke rise as they gaze out and onto the canal and dream. I try to re-capture their thoughts now decades old, buried deep into the silt of the Lea.
As my ride comes to a conclusion I pull off the canal at the scene from a postcard I found in a local market, in the background there is a house now raised to the ground and replaced with a electric power sub station. The rest of the landscape remains familiar, the Lea runs strong, a bloodline from the heart of the city to the wheat fields of Hertfordshire. Written on the postcard it says ‘don’t you think this is a pretty river, it puts me in mind of the Guilford scenery rather than that of a London suburb…’