This year being the 400th anniversary of the opening of the New River in 1613 – a pioneering work of civil engineering which created a canal from Hertford to Islington bringing fresh water to the city – a group from the Clissold Park User Group in Hackney recently took a walk out to the source. We did this because the New River once flowed through the Clissold Park and a remnant of it is still to be seen, retained as an ornamental feature, and very lovely it is too. The two new pedestrian bridges in the park bear emblems designed for the New River Company: ET PLUI SUPER UNAM CIVITATION: And I rained over one city (Amos 4.7). To be honest we didn’t walk all the way, but caught a train from Stoke Newington to Hertford East, walked along the River Lea for while, and then took up the New River trail at Ware.
The River Lea and the New River are two great historical lifelines in the landscape of north London and the Essex borders, severing east-west connections in some places and defining county boundaries in others. Both canalised rivers connect the meadows, streams and water-courses of Essex and Hertfordshire to the city and London’s East End. Today the bulk of the water feeding the New River comes through a cut into the River Lea just south of Hertford, where the handsome New Gauge House (1856) still stands and is pictured here.
Some 22 million gallons of water passed each day into the New River from the Lea at peak times, destined as drinking water for the expanding city. The number of lives which were saved as a result of this new source of clean drinking water is incalculable.
The New River is a triumph of construction and engineering detail. The canal was ten foot wide and five feet deep, mostly hand-excavated over a thirty month period, with between 120 and 300 men working at any one time. There are no locks. The flow of water is determined by the tiniest of gradients, a matter of five inches per mile, which was achieved to perfection even without the surveying technology we have today. Hence the mixture of the straight and the winding, covering some 24 miles in length from Hertford to Stoke Newington (though it originally finished at the New River Head next to Sadlers Wells).
Whether flowing through the open fields of Hertfordshire or through the Georgian streets of Enfield and Islington, the New River was – and in some places still is – serenely beautiful. The accompanying gauge-houses, bridges, railings and gates from the Victorian era were elegantly designed, and a reminder of an age when such utilities – especially water, but electricity too – developed a coherent, elegant architectural style of their own. Utility networks have been a crucial feature of the landscape since the industrial revolution, but the discussion about their style and presence in the landscape remains strangely overlooked.