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Three Mills and the Canals

Discover the history of the East End waterways on this tow path walk.

Distance 4.2 miles (6.8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Gravel, tarmac and tow paths

Landscape Mainly canalside industry and housing

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorers 162 Greenwich & Gravesend; 173 London North

Start/finish TQ 383828; near Bromley-by-Bow tube (on Explorer 173)

Dog friendliness No particular problems

Parking Tesco car park, Three Mill Lane; Bromley-by-Bow tube ¼ mile (400m)

Public toilets At car park

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1 From the Tesco supermarket car park in Three Mills Lane take the footpath to the left of an iron bridge marked 'Lee Navigation Tow Path' and 'Bow Flyover'. Continue walking ahead with the river to your right-hand side and you will shortly see the formidable volume of traffic coming into view, going across the Bow Flyover.

2 Where the path ends walk up the ramp on your left, leading to the A12. Turn right, cross the A11 ahead of you and turn right at the railings. Now walk down the slope and across a bridge to rejoin the tow path, with the river now to your left. Notice the brickwork of the old Bryant & May match factory ahead to your left. The path swings right, away from the traffic. Ignore the Greenway sign on the right and pass under two pipes that are part of the old Victorian sewer. Cross a bridge and continue along the River Lea, past the Old Ford Lock.

3 Just before the next bridge ahead, the Hertford Union Canal emerges and joins at a right angle on the left. Cross the bridge and turn left down a slope to join this canal along a gravel path. Pass Bottom Lock, Middle Lock and, further on, Top Lock. Once past the cottages of Top Lock, Victoria Park is visible on the right. Continue along this long, straight, paved path until you pass under Three Colts Bridge, a metal gate, two further bridges and another metal gate.

4 Cross a footbridge at this T-junction of the waterways to pick up the southern section of the Regent's Canal, which was opened in 1820 and used by horse-drawn barges to haul coal through London. Continue along the canal, towards the blinking light of Canary Wharf. Pass under a railway bridge, Mile End Lock, two more bridges and Jonson Lock. Pass a red brick chimney, which is a sewer ventilation shaft, and walk under a railway bridge. Continue past Salmon Lock and notice the viaduct ahead. After walking under Commercial Road Bridge, turn left and follow the steps to the road.

5 Turn right along Commercial Road and pass Limehouse Library and a small park on the right. Ignore the first gate on the right and instead pass over a bridge and take the steps on the right-hand side that lead down to the canal. Turn right and follow the tow path of the canal, the Limehouse Cut, with the water on your left. A few paces further on pass under the A13. Follow the tarmac path under three more bridges until it leads on to the A102. Walk along the pavement for 50yds (46m) and cross the road using the underpass ahead of you.

6 Turn right, walking with the flow of traffic, and take the first road on the left to pick up the canal path at Bow Locks. Walk over the concrete footbridge and under two bridges. Continue ahead towards the Mill House. Turn left over the bridge back to the start.

In the mid 19th century the banks of the River Lea were lined with flourishing industries. At that time, because it was deemed to be outside the City of London with its stringent pollution regulations, the water and surrounding air quality were dangerously poor. Since the demise of canal transport, this area, which is just a few steps away from hectic everyday life, has been transformed into a clean, peaceful haven for both walkers and wildlife.

In the 14th century Edward III instigated a policy to encourage commercial expansion, which led to the manufacture of gunpowder, paper, soap, flour and porcelain along the Lea. These were vibrant times, but it wasn't until the 1700s that work was carried out on the meandering river to construct straight channels and build locks so that freight could be transported more easily. Some parts of east London were more significant than others in the development of the chemical industry. West Ham, for example, was just outside the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Buildings Act of 1844 that protected the City from anti-social trades such as oil-burning and varnish making. Industry developed in Bromley-by-Bow because there was lots of cheap land and no building restrictions.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed in the 19th century, the River Lea became an enormous health hazard. The factories along its banks produced a great deal of waste - the river was, in effect, used as a dumping ground for chemical and pharmaceutical waste. Looking at the scene before you today, it's not easy to picture a skyline of mass industrialism. Warehouses, cranes and gas works were here, against a backdrop of smoggy, smelly air. But, together with the noise of the powerful machinery, this would have been a way of life for many workers. For more than half of the 20th century barges still brought raw materials to the factories from London Docks, taking away the finished goods. Today, however, you're more likely to see a heron than a vessel on this stretch of the river.

Where to eat and drink

At the footbridge joining the Regent's Canal is Bow Wharf where you'll find the Fat Cat Café and Bar. A converted builders' yard, it has outside, daytime seating and a wooden interior with Chesterfield sofas. A good selection of wines, and beers include IPA and Spitfire.

What to look for

A Swedish manufacturer of matchsticks sold the British patent to Mr Bryant and Mr May who, in 1855, leased the factory, Bryant & May. A medical condition called 'phossy jaw' was common among workers and was often fatal. The fumes from the yellow phosphorous in the head of the match caused the jawbone to rot away - the smell from the diseased bone was apparently horrendous. In 1911 a new factory was built on the site; the remains have been converted into luxury flats.

While you're there

The Ragged School Museum in Copperfield Road was one of 148 schools set up by Dr Barnardo to educate poor children in London. The museum highlights the history of the East End, with a Victorian schoolroom taster session for children.

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