I grew up in Harpenden, a small town off the M1 about half an hour north of London, with St Albans just a few miles to the south, and Luton to the north. I was back there at the weekend and took a walk along the River Lea, where I used to play as a kid. It was a place for swimming, fighting, fishing, general splashing around, and finding hidden treasure. Now and then it was a place of danger and nasty accidents – usually caused by the broken bottles on the river bed, or some unseen stretch of barbed wire.
Harpenden is only a few miles from the source in Leagrave, on the edge of Luton, so the river is only about 12 feet wide – not much more than a stream. But the walk got me thinking about its huge historical significance. I was oblivious to this as a child.
In the late ninth century the River Lea formed one part of the boundary between the Danelaw, the eastern area occupied by the Vikings, and Saxon England to the west. West of the Lea was the territory that King Alfred managed to hold, and to the east the Vikings had the run of the place. This was all codified in a treaty between Alfred and Gurthrum. So Harpenden (or the few hamlets in the area in the late ninth century) was right at the ‘national’ boundary between England and Scandinavia, between Saxon and Viking.
The Lea, with its course much altered over the centuries, runs through the Olympic Park at Stratford, and into the Thames near the Millennium Dome. You could never guess at its historical significance today, but there are a few remaining boundaries that betray its larger meaning. Part of the border between Essex and Hertfordshire, for example, follows the river’s course. And it’s interesting that when they were cutting off the Diocese of Brentwood from Westminster, the dividing line through east London is marked by the River Lea. So the ecclesiastical boundaries of the twentieth century reflect over a thousand years of territorial dispute, compromise, and eventual agreement.
Just for the record, I was born on the right side of the River Lea (Alfred’s/Westminster’s) at Tottenham Court Road, and lived on the Saxon side of the small valley that cuts through the eastern edge of Harpenden!