The Luton Lea is the section of the River Lea from Houghton Regis, Lewsey and Leagrave Park to Luton Hoo Lakes.
The River Lea was once a pure chalk stream that was the centre of town life. It provided clean drinking water to Luton and London and was the focal point for everything from the local straw hat making industry to major engineering firms. However, over time it has become degraded, hidden from view, and in need of some care and attention.
The River Lea rises at three points, all in public parks: Houghton Hall Brook in Houghton Hall Park, Houghton Regis; Lewsey Brook in Lewsey Park, Luton; and Five Springs in Leagrave Park, Luton.
Tradition suggests that there are five springs at this location, where the water seeps up from below the ground. It is not easy to count five springs today, but there are a number of interlocking pools filled by the rising waters which then trickle into a little channel – the start of the River Lea. The area is known as Wellhead, another name for the source of a river.
A secondary source to the north-west of the park feeds the Sundon Brook, which joins the Lea just downstream at Rotten Corner.
As the River Lea starts its journey to the Thames, it is joined by other tributary streams. Before leaving Leagrave Park it is met by the Lewsey Brook, which rises in Lewsey Park and is itself first joined by the Houghton Brook from Houghton Regis. At Limbury the Lea is joined by the Cats Brook or Catch Brook, which rises in a garden in Icknield Way. Finally it is met by the Riddy Brook from Cowslip Meadow which joins the Lea under the A6 at Austin Road.
The river's course
In Leagrave Park, the river rises in the fragile wetland habitat of Leagrave Marsh, then passes through the wooded area of Rotten Corner and then on through an area once known as Blockers’ seaside, popular with hat industry workers (around the Marsh House area of the park).
From there, the river flows alongside part of the Icknield Way Path, the oldest roadway in Britain running for some 105 miles from Buckinghamshire to Norfolk. The river runs along the back of Moat Lane allotments and along the edge of Fallowfield, a County Wildlife Site, with urban Luton on one side and Riddy Lane Community Garden on the other. Fallowfield is noted for providing a habitat for nesting birds such as the song thrush.
The river then runs parallel with the A6 along New Bedford Road and behind Bide-a-While ornamental garden and its neighbouring community orchard, then into Wardown Park where it feeds Wardown Lake. The Park here is also home to Wardown Museum exhibiting permanent and rotating displays about the history of the town and the industry surrounding the river. During the early twentieth century, the Lake welcomed boating but, due to problems of siltation and its resulting shallower depth, this is now no longer possible. Other features in the Park include a children’s play area, recreation facilities such as tennis courts and a bowls green, and two footbridges over the Lake.
In the town centre, the majority of the River is hidden from view, running in culverts underneath the main town library and The Thistle Hotel. It rises again briefly at St John Street and then is hidden once more in a culvert at Power Court. From St Mary’s Road roundabout it flows unculverted and can next be seen along the edge of Manor Road Park before then running alongside the Vauxhall Recreation Club and into Luton Hoo Lakes. From here it runs through Hertfordshire and down through the Olympic Park at Stratford to join the Thames at Bow Creek.
You can explore the Luton Lea along the Upper Lea Valley Walk.