Although we tend to assume that the East End of London is a primarily industrial and urban area, it actually started life as a rural area, mainly composed of agricultural land or marshland.
It also has some interesting waterways running though it that date back for centuries, such as the Bow Back Rivers, also sometimes called the Stratford Back Rivers or the Stratford Back Streams. These rivers even played a role in the 2012 Olympics.
Areas to Visit in the East End of London – Bow Back Rivers
The Bow Back Rivers is a set of waterways that meander through the heart of the East of London from Stratford to Bow across an area once known as the Stratford Marsh. They essentially connect the River Thames to the River Lea. Each of the rivers has its own name, often showing the commercial activities that went on in its area, such as the City Mill River, Bow Creek and the Waterworks River.
The early history of the Bow Back Rivers
In its early days, the local area that is now home to the Bow Back Rivers was mainly unusable marshland. Locals who wanted to reclaim the land to work it started to drain the marshes, pushing the water into specially built waterways or river channels to clear the land for farming use.
It is thought that the Bow Back Rivers started to take shape in the 9th century. At this point in time, King Alfred the Great diverted an original river in the area to create a second waterway. It is thought that he did this to cut off a group of marauding Viking ships who were trying to invade the area. Work continued in the 12th century when Queen Matilda made bridges over both of the river channels. The monks at Stratford Langthorne Abbey also continued to drain marshland, creating more artificial waterways and channels that were used for transport and trade. The waterways have also been used to create tidal mills over the years.
The Bow Back Rivers and canals
In the 17th century, there was a need to produce more drinking water for London, which had a fast growing population and an inadequate water supply. The Bow Back Rivers helped supply water to the capital, helping to run the businesses that made Britain great during the Industrial Revolution.
Over time, this also led to the creation of what was then called the New River. This increased use of the water in the waterways by the city lowered its levels significantly and a series of canals were created. Parts of the canal system in the area bypassed the Bow Back Rivers at this stage and they became less commercially useful over the centuries and fell into disrepair. Despite reconstruction efforts in the 1930s, by the 1960s the waterways were little more than small creeks, deemed unsuitable even for canal leisure cruising.
The Bow Back Rivers today
In 2002, British Waterways decided not to give up on the Bow Back Rivers. Redevelopment work had a significant boost, however, when Stratford was chosen as the site for the London Olympics of 2012. The Olympic Park essentially stands on an island surrounded by these rivers and visitors to the games became used to crossing one of the specially constructed Bow Back River bridges to access the site. The land used for the park was originally divided by the Pudding Mill River channel, but this part was filled in so that the park could be built.
The Olympic Delivery Authority had to change the layout of one of the rivers, the Channelsea, which would have led to the loss of the natural habitat of the waterway in this area. It committed to recreating this habitat elsewhere to compensate, creating two wetlands areas around the park area. These contain a wide variety of water plants, fish and other wildlife. They are also a useful source of flood water storage. It is thought that creating these wetlands was the largest aquatic planting scheme in the country, using over 350,000 plants.
It had been hoped that the Rivers could be used to transport goods into the Olympic Park during its construction, however, despite a lot of investment in the waterway’s infrastructure to make it safe for navigation again, this did not really work out. The improvements made during this period, however, may well open up the waterways for leisure and commercial purposes once again.
Over time, local authorities also hope to restore the historic tidal mill on the City Mill River – this is the largest example of this kind of tidal mill in the world. It is hoped that visitors to Stratford and those taking a look around the Olympic Park will also enjoy walking and cycling along these historic waterways, spotting the area’s plants and wildlife, or even seeing what the view is like from a boat!