The Lee Valley Regional Park. London, Hertfordshire and Essex
By Stephen Wilkinson, Head of Planning & Strategic Partnerships
The Lee Valley Regional Park presents a rich tapestry of open spaces, nature reserves and major sporting venues originally designed to serve the leisure and recreation needs of Londoners. It runs for 26 miles broadly aligned with the natural course of the river Lea from its southern tip, the East India Dock Basin on the River Thames, through east London and Essex to Ware in Hertfordshire. The Park extends to 4,010ha of which the Authority owns 2,300ha. In total the whole Park attracts just over 7.1m visits each year of which 4.5m visits are to its open spaces and unique sites of biodiversity interest and a further 2.6m visits are made to its 15 venues.
The Authority, through its leisure contractor, Lee Valley Leisure Trust, trading as Vibrant Partnerships, manages 15 venues which include 3 Olympic Legacy venues, the Lee Valley White Water Centre, VeloPark and the Hockey and Tennis Centre. Other venues include an Ice Centre, Riding Centre, an Athletics Centre, marinas and campsites.
Large areas of the Regional Park are owned by infrastructure and utility companies.
The Regional Park’s defining feature is its landscape which, unusually for such a large park, is largely man made. This provides a varied backcloth and physical context for the kaleidoscope of activities which occur. The use of many sites is multi layered.
The Natural Landscape
The Regional Park is rich in biodiversity. It has sites of international, national and regional importance. The Park is made up of a patchwork of habitats resulting from centuries of changes due to the development of agriculture and industry.
Whilst areas of habitat with some degree of naturalness can still be found, significant areas have been altered over time by the actions of man. The key habitats are rivers and streams, open water, grassland and fen and post-industrial. The landscape includes remnants of historic wetlands and marsh at Cornmill Meadows, Waltham Abbey and Walthamstow Marshes which historically characterised the valley floor but during the last two centuries have been drained and built on.
The main challenges to the landscapes of the Regional Park come from the physical impacts of new development, often from utility companies. For example, although a route for Cross Rail 2 has yet to be formally ‘safeguarded’, the proposed route will follow the West Anglia line which forms part of the Park’s western edge and it is likely to require additional land for new lines. Other pressures arise from developments such as large scale glasshouses.
In the long term whilst the parklands can often be protected from housing because so much of the area is designated as green belt, large scale housing developments right on the edge of parklands are increasingly common. These can create a ‘wall’ of development hiding the parklands but at the same time the increased populations place more recreational pressures on the Park’s delicate landscapes and habitats.
Although the legacy of industrial uses and former sand and gravel workings has left many areas of the parklands contaminated they still contain habitats for a unique biodiversity.
The diversity of habitat is protected through statutory designation including eight Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Together four of these form the Lee Valley Special Protection Area and Ramsar site. They provide habitat for over 300 species of bird, 32 species of mammal and 900 species of flowering plant. The valley is recognised as an important site for the wintering birds gadwall, shoveller and bittern and provides good habitat for wetland mammals such as water vole, Britain’s fastest declining mammal.
Balanced against the need to protect the natural environment is the Authority’s role in creating opportunities for people to gain access to nature. With over 4.5m visits each year to the parklands there are several important nature reserves at Rye Meads, Amwell, and Cornmill Meadows. A further site at Walthamstow Wetlands in London has recently opened and receives over 250,000 visits each year.
The Regional Park as a Community Resource
The Regional Park is a multi-layered venue for a range of activities; some of these can be formal or, given its size, are informal with visitors allowed to wander either on foot or bike along its extensive lattice of paths. Ease of access is particularly important given its proximity to many of London’s deprived communities.
The world class venues balance a mix of sessions for first-timers, schools, people with disabilities, community groups and hard to reach groups with corporate events, birthday parties, clubs and leagues and extensive venue hire, plus major events.
The three London 2012 venues have hosted four World Cups, two World Championships and ten other major international sports events since London 2012. In 2022, Lee Valley VeloPark will make history becoming the only venue in the world to host an Olympics, World Championships and Commonwealth Games in the same sport. The Lee Valley White Water Centre will host the Canoe Slalom World Cup in 2023.
A varied event programme held across the parklands, is designed to address health inequalities and is attended by over 20,000 people each year. A series of programmes are focused on supporting people with disabilities with other schemes targeted at women and girls and for people from ethnically diverse backgrounds who unfortunately can face barriers to accessing opportunities for fitness and well-being. The Authority’s active communities programme attracts 25,000 school children each year.
The Park acts as a large resource bringing communities together through an extensive volunteering programme which has over 450 volunteers. Volunteers can work in a number of roles either as stewards at major sporting events or implementing improvement programmes clearing out rubbish and weeds including invasive species such as Japanese knotweed.
There are a whole series of walking and cycling routes through the Regional Park. These include a number of strategic walking and cycling routes including the Lea Valley Walk which extends from Bow Locks to the river’s source in Leagrave near Luton, the London Outer Orbital route, Capital Ring and the New River Path. The main north-south route follows the towpath along the River Lee Navigation. Linked to each of these is a lattice of short routes, linking the main features of the parklands and the venues.
There are over 100km of cycle pathways throughout the Park.
The waterways of the Park are a defining feature with two marinas and three boating clubs along the Navigation.
There is a broad range of visitor accommodation throughout the Park. This includes a youth hostel at Cheshunt and several caravan and camping sites at Dobbs Weir Hoddesdon, Picketts Lock, Edmonton and Sewardstone. In 2017 the Authority opened an ‘Almost Wild’ site which allows people to experience the delights of the natural environment in clean but basic conditions at a site alongside the Lee Navigation.
Recent announcements for a major surfing and outdoor activity centre proposed for the LV Leisure Centre, Picketts Lock and the Authority’s plans for the redevelopment of the existing Ice Centre as a ‘twin pad’, demonstrate the important contribution the Regional Park will continue to make to the recreation and leisure needs of London and surrounding communities. Of increasing importance, though, will be its role in addressing the resilience of these areas through flood mitigation, reducing air pollution, addressing climate change and the protection of ecology and the natural environment.