WalkHackney‘s Sean Gubbins on Well-Watered Hackney

As this year’s summer may turn out to be the driest ever, perhaps we will take less for granted water, which, after all, gave Hackney its name. At the end of an English place name ‘ey’ denotes a watery connection viz. Ely, Lundy, Sheppey. Hackney’s coat of arms has around it a border of waves representing the borough’s waterways, principally the River Lea, London’s second largest river which forms Hackney’s eastern border.

We have Shaclkewell, Well Street and, in Shoreditch, Holywell Lane, close by what were St Agnes le Clair wells, off Old Street. These wells were tapped for ale brewing, though not, one hopes, at the same time as they were “frequented”, according to John Stow in 1598, by the “youth of the city in summer evenings, when they walk forth to take the air.”  

Stamford Hill is named after a sandy ford used to cross the Hackney Brook, which flowed along the line of today’s Grazebrook Road. Stonebridge Common is where a small stream was crossed which, for some distance, ran east as a boundary between Hackney and Shoredicth parishes. Ponsford Street is a renaming of Bridge Street, which took folk south out of Homerton, across the Hackney Brook. Spring Hill runs beside Springfield Park, where sometimes springs still bubble up.

The Hackney Brook, which flowed from its source in the hills of north London to the Lea at Hackney Wick, had disappeared into London’s underground sewage system by the 1860s. At times it could flood to 70 foot, be two feet deep and was the site of more than one tragic drowning. As it flowed through its valley at the bottom of Clissold Park, it was used to fill ornamental lakes. Following its course downstream can still be seen, at the north-east corner of Abney Park Cemetery, the mound now no longer surrounded by water but once an islet where the divine, Dr Issac Watts, would contemplate.

Also running through Hackney are two man-made waterways. The oldest is the New River, completed in 1613, to bring water from Hertfordshire to the growing City of London. Meandering along the 100 foot contour, it flowed into Clissold Park, on a ridge above the Hackney Brook, and then followed a sharp bend west again to flow out towards the New River Head in Islington. Two hundred years later the Regent’s Canal was dug through the fields of Haggerston. South of London Fields, it is crossed by the Cat and Mutton Bridge. The bridge existed before the canal, spanning one of the many streams that criss-crossed well-watered Hackney. The stream ran down the side of London Fields but was drained with the coming of the canal. Another stream was the Pigwell, which emerged near Dalston Junction and ran along the south side of today’s Graham Road, to join the Hackney Brook.

The New River Company supplied water for homes in the western parts of Hackney and Stoke Newington. Still to be seen on a few roads are the plates bearing the NR stamp.

Today we can enjoy the open waters of Stoke Newington’s East and West Reservoirs because in the 1980s local campaigners successfully fought off plans to develop them for housing. Constructed in the 1830s (some say lined with the stone of old London Bridge), they were to store water before it was pumped by the New River Company to be filtered prior to distribution.

The New River Company supplied water for homes in the western parts of Hackney and Stoke Newington. Still to be seen on a few roads are the plates bearing the NR stamp. The east of the borough was supplied by the East London Waterworks Company. They took over an earlier operation which had constructed a reservoir, now know as Clapton Pond, to hold water pumped from the Lea.  

When the rains come this summer and challenge Thames Water’s drainage system, maybe water will flood once more across the road at the bottom of the Narrow Way. It won’t be the Hackney Brook breaking out from its conduited confinement. But it will be a reminder, as the water congregates in the valley of Hackney’s river, of what once flowed through these parts.

Looking for something to do one weekend?  Intrigued to find out more about Hackney?

Look up walkhackney.co.uk and pick a walk that takes your fancy. The next two are in this edition’s What’s On section. I look forward to welcoming you on one of my walks.