The Bow Back Rivers form a complicated network of waterways up the Lea Valley in East London from Trinity Buoy Wharf, where Bow Creek joins the Thames, to the new Olympic Park. There's a map here (pdf), though, helpfully, it's 90 degrees out. This covers the main area I'm interested in:
The problem is that most of these waterways are - were - tidal. The exception is the River Lea Navigation on the left where it curves round to the Limehouse Cut, heading off in a south-westerly direction to Limehouse Basin. When the tide was out the waterways through what's now the Olympic Park were little better than streams, with houseboats perched precariously on the mud:
Clearly something needed to be done. The answer was...Three Mills Lock.
The thinking behind it was set out in this British Waterways document:
Restoration of the Bow Back Rivers has been a national priority for BW since 2002 and is one of the Mayor of London's policies in the London Plan. After London was chosen to host the 2012 games, the Defra agencies (Environment Agency, Natural England and British Waterways), and a range of other stakeholders (including London Thames Gateway Development Corporation, TfL and PLA), worked with the ODA on a plan to maximise the use of the waterways for wildlife, navigation, people and flood conveyance. The proposals extend beyond the Olympic Park - from Hackney to the Thames - and seek to create the most sustainable waterway restoration possible....
The new lock and water control structure will reinstate an historic water control structure on Prescott Channel, Three Mills Island near Bromley-by-Bow, controlling water levels on the navigations to the north. It will incorporate a new navigable lock, fish pass and footbridge with a twin water control structure on Three Mills Wall River . This sluice will control water levels coming out of the navigable 'pound' and prevent the influx of the tide from under the tidal mill....
The lock was opened to freight traffic in June 2009. The lock site will be open to the public from late summer 2009.
Well, if it was, I wasn't aware of it. The usual route, round the bottom of Three Mills Island by Channelsea River, has been closed for years. You can get through now though, as I discovered last week, by heading across Three Mills Green and approaching the new lock from the north. You then cross over a footbridge...
...with a view back to the lock, and the gleaming spires of Stratford in the distance, and make your way along an overgrown footpath by the lovely Channelsea River...
...finally arriving at Abbey Creek, where you can gaze across the mud flats to Channelsea House...
...and the bridge carrying the Greenway east towards Beckton:
The smell is not altogether pleasant.
Great claims are made by British Waterways for the new lock:
The new Three Mills Lock has restored the Bow Back Rivers to navigation, creating a green gateway for barges entering the Olympic Park and reviving water transport in the area for the first time in 50 years. The lock is part of a wider strategy to maximise the use of the rivers in the area for wildlife, navigation and people, creating a thriving waterway legacy.
There was also talk of moving rubble from the Olympic Site by barge - the greener option. But, according to this report, that just hasn't happened. There's maybe - maybe - one barge a week. I'm a fairly regular visitor to these parts and I've never seen a boat actually using Bow Creek. Nor have I ever seen a boat going through Bow Locks, which is where the non-tidal Lea Navigation meets the tidal Bow Creek. No boat would want to go down that way: to get to the Thames they head down the Limehouse Cut and out through the locks at Limehouse basin.
Then there's the historic House Mill, at the west of Three Mills Island, which in the Middle Ages was a tidal mill for grinding London's flour:
The new lock is an essential enabling work to any future restoration of the wheels under the tidal mill. We are part of the Three Mills Partnership that consists of representatives from: The River Lea Tidal Mill Trust, The Waterways Trust, English Heritage, London Heritage Trust, British Waterways, London Development Agency, London Thames Gateway Development Corporation, London Borough of Newham, Lea Valley Regional Park Authority and Leaside Regeneration. The partnership has submitted an application to English Heritage and other bodies to raise funds for an options appraisal which would help determine a sustainable solution for the House Mill and site. The options appraisal will tell the Partnership what is practically and technically feasible, the Partnership will then launch a fundraising campaign to restore the mill’s wheels and interior. Eventually it is hope that the Grade-1 listed structure will be restored for both education and interpretation and for hydro-electricity production.
That's quite a gathering of worthies there. The mill, we are informed, could generate enough energy to power a small village of 40 homes. Wow. "This would create a highly appropriate and sustainable revenue for the trust to maintain this important building." I think "could" is the important word here.
Call me an old sentimentalist, but I'd rather see the basin below the mill full of houseboats, with a thriving coming and going of canal traffic, rather than the expanse of mud it is for most of the time now...
...even if we're denied the thrill of actually seeing a historic watermill go round.
The new lock, plus the new weir built just above House Mill, affects just a small section of the Bow Back Rivers: the Prescott Channel, Three Mills River, City Mill River and Waterworks River. But if it had been built further down, it could have affected so much more.
So here's my point. We have long stretches of meandering waterways heading down to the Thames along what's pencilled in as a major new development hub, with parks, walkways, and new housing schemes: all part of the post-Olympic vision for this part of East London. Yet it's all tidal, unattractive, and useless for boats:
These high-flying young couples looking for a flat in a prestigious new development near to their workplace in Docklands aren't going to want to head out on their balcony after a hard day's rogue trading, with some chilled Californian Chardonnay and an avocado and sour cream dip for the nibbles, if they're overlooking a mudflat with discarded shopping carts and traffic cones, and the faint whiff of old sewage. What they want is a full river scene with colourful houseboats, some rowers in a skiff, swans and herons, maybe the odd angler (most of them, let's face it, are odd), while mothers with toddlers throw chunks of bread to the ducks.
And they could have had all that if only British Waterways had built their lock, not up in the Prescott Channel, but right by the Thames, by Trinity Buoy Wharf. Then the whole caboodle, all the Bow Back Rivers and Bow Creek, would no longer be tidal, but would be gloriously riverside-ishly Richmond-like; scenic and pleasant and delightful.
Yes, I can see the Iain Sinclair-style objections: gentrification sweeping away the real London, the London of hard men with tattoos out walking their pit-bulls, of gangs of feral youths, of car-breakers yards and buddleia growing out of the derelict warehouses. And I can't be bothered with it. Great cities are constantly renewing themselves. So the Lea Valley gets regenerated. Fine. Good. There'll always be somewhere else in a city the size of London to indulge in romantic walks on the wild side of urban decay, if that's your thing.
How feasible the building of a lock at Trinity Buoy Wharf is I don't know, but locks have been built all along the river before. Bow Creek is wide there at Leamouth so a dam or weir would be required for at least half of the width, making a decent-sized pool for mooring leisure craft. Or there's East India Dock just to the west: disused now, and not doing much of anything. There's a lock already there. Connect the basin to Bow Creek via a channel underneath the Lower Lea Crossing, and just build a dam right across Leamouth at Trinity Buoy Wharf. Easy.
Well, they won't do it of course. Too many vested interests. They've gone down the English Heritage route of keeping it as it was in the name of green sustainability and bird watching, instead of grasping an opportunity to really transform the area.
It's not as though the Lea Valley lacked open spaces. Inside the North Circular there are Tottenham Marshes, Walthamstow Marshes, Hackney Marshes, the Middlesex Filter Beds, plus the Waterworks Nature Reserve, complete with extensive bird-watching facilities which seem to attract maybe, ooh, three visitors a week on average. I'm as keen on birds as the next man (if the next man's not Bill Oddie), and I'm delighted that Black Redstarts, and possibly even Red Blackstarts, now visit East India Dock Basin. But this is right next door to Docklands, near the heart of the city. Don't people come first?
Plus of course they're not going to admit now that the £23 million-odd cost of building Three Mills Lock was largely a waste of money.