Above: A length of the New River beside West Reservoir. Notice the wooden boarding supporting the banks. The new parish church of St Mary, Stoke Newington, can be seen through the trees.
The need for fresh water is something that is understood all around the world. The City of London grew up beside the Thames which, by Elizabethan times, was hardly drinkable. Many people in the City relied on wells in their street for water but, as the population continued to increase, those wells proved to be woefully inadequate.
In 1604, a revolutionary idea was put into practice – to bring a fresh supply of water to London from Ware, in Hertfordshire. It was the beginning of the formation of what became known as the ’New River’ which was not a river at all but a channel dug to convey water 40 miles from Ware to a reservoir at Finsbury (just north of the City of London). Initially, water was taken from springs at Ware but they dried up after about 50 years and the water was taken directly from the River Lea, just a short distance from the springs.
The distance from Ware to Finsbury is about 20 miles but the water had to be brought on a very gentle gradient, which required following the 100 foot contour, a distance of 39 miles. Over its entire length, it fell a distance of 18 feet, a gradient of only 0.00385%. The bottom of the trench was marled, using the local clay, and the sides were boarded which led to it being called the ‘boarded river’, a name which appears on Rocque’s map. The New River was ten feet wide.
Its course followed a route from Ware, at Amwell and Chadwell springs, passing: Rye Common, Hoddesdon, Broxbourne, Wormley, Cheshunt, Enfield, Highfield (near Southgate); Wood Green, Hornsey and Haringey, eventually flowing through today’s gardens called Finsbury Park. In Inner London, the course was: Woodberry Down, Stoke Newington, Clissold Park, Highbury Vale, Holloway, Islington and finally south to New River Head at Finsbury – where a Round Pond was constructed, being 200 feet in diameter.
By 1606 only three miles had been completed. In 1609 the Common Council of the City of London gave the work to Hugh Myddelton, a citizen and goldsmith. He brought water from springs at Ware, in Hertfordshire, to the Round Pond at New River Head. The 39 miles (62.4 km) of ‘river’ took four years to complete. It was opened on 29 September 1613. and is still in use to this day.
Above: A length of the original New River in Clissold Park. It is now in use as a water feature.
The Stoke Newington Section
The New River in North London is shown on Google maps. It is shown running under Seven Sisters Road and then almost doubling back on itself as its course is shown on the western side of two large lakes. They are known as the East Reservoir and the West Reservoir and, at one time, they acted as a storage point for the water conveyed by the New River. They are no longer used for this purpose and they act as a great open-air amenity for the local area.
Below the two reservoirs is Clissold Park which also has a smaller lake at its northern end. That too was once dug as a reservoir for the New River. Part of the original course of the New River can also be seen in Clissold Park on Google maps. It is shown as an ‘L’ shape and is now a water feature.
The New River Path, which has parts of the New River beside it, is shown on the map further south of Clissold Park. This path is in the London Borough of Islington.
The route just described was the original course of the New River. From the 1860s the New River was conveyed in pipes underground and the various pieces of water still visible are no longer fed by the present day ‘river’.
Although the New River at Stoke Newington is now no longer functional, it should be remembered that the New River remains an essential part of London’s water supply, carrying up to 48 million gallons (220 megalitres) of water daily, for treatment. This represents some 8% of London’s daily water consumption. Almost 400 years after its original construction, it remains today the largest water project in Europe. The river continues to flow, in its original ‘boarded’ channel, through the open land around the town of Ware. If you would like to see it ‘in action’ then take a trip to Ware and places just to the south of the town where the fast-flowing water can easily be seen as it passes beside open fields.