THE GREAT BED of Ware is eleven feet long and ten feet wide. Constructed at the end of the 16th century, this four-poster bed dwarfs the modern king size bed (six and a half feet by five feet). The Great Bed was housed in various inns in the town of Ware in Hertfordshire until the early 1930s when it was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A few days ago, we visited Ware, not expecting to see its Great Bed but for other reasons. One of these was that it is a small town not far from Perry Green where the Henry Moore Foundation is located. Another was to see the upper reaches of the River Lea and the point along it where water enters the New River.
The Gauge House and the New River emerging from underneath it
The 42 mile long River Lea, a tributary of the River Thames, rises near Luton in the Chiltern Hills in Bedfordshire, flows through Hertfordshire, and then makes its way south through parts of northeast then eastern Greater London, reaching the Thames at Bow Creek. The river flows through the centre of Ware. A short walk (1.3 miles) along the bank of the river westwards from Ware, brings one to the start of the New River, which is not actually a river. It a canal built to bring fresh water from the clean upper reaches of the Lea into London.
The history of the New River involves the London district of Islington, where the reservoir that used to collect water from the New River was located. To quote from something I wrote a couple of years ago (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/44/):
“At the triangular Islington Green, Essex Road branches off from Upper Street at an acute angle. At the apex of the triangle, there is a statue of Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631) sculpted by John Thomas (1813–1862). He stands bare-footed, wearing a ruff and breeches, which stop short of his uncovered knees and lower legs. Below his plinth, two carved children sit or kneel with pitchers between their legs. Once, they issued water, but no longer. Myddelton, a Welsh entrepreneur, was the driving force behind the creation of the New River water supply project. The 38-mile-long canal, which he helped to finance, was constructed between 1608 and 1613 …”
Roseberry Avenue in London’s Islington is now best-known for the Saddlers Wells Theatre. However, one of its near neighbours was of great importance in connection with the New River. Quoting from my piece again:
“Across Roseberry Avenue, which flanks Spa Fields, there is a large brick building with white stone trimmings, now a block of flats. Completed in 1920, New River Head House was designed by Herbert Austen Hall (1881-1968) as the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board. Above two of its windows, there are carved inscriptions. One reads “Erected MDCXIII”, and the other “MDCCLXXXII”. These dates are 1623 and 1782 respectively, which are carved in archaic lettering. The inscribed stones must have been saved from an earlier building. The land on which the house stands was formerly the ‘New River Head’.
The New River, a canal constructed to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire into London ended at the reservoir called ‘New River Head’. It was high enough above what was the city of London in the 17th century to allow the flow of water from it to be ‘powered’ by gravity alone (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol47/pp165-184). The brick-lined reservoir was constructed in 1623, when the first building at the reservoir, the ‘Water House’, was also built. The architect Robert Mylne (1733-1811), surveyor to the New River Company, repaired, enlarged, and refaced it in the 18th century. The refacing was done in 1782 … The old building, which had been enlarged many times, was demolished by 1915.”
Having seen the site of the destination of water carried by the New River, I was keen to see the point of its origin. Hence, our visit to Ware.
We parked near the centre of Ware in a car park (Burgage Lane) next to a footbridge that crosses the Lea. Then, we followed the riverside path after traversing the river. At first the path runs sinuously beneath trees that line both banks the stream. Their different coloured leaves are reflected in the water that ripples as waterfowl swim past. We met many other people enjoying their morning walks, but the path was never crowded.
After a short distance, the river flows around and between a network of islands and the path loses its lining of trees. Soon, there is open country on one side and on the other a series of modern industrial buildings partially hidden from view by occasional trees including lovely weeping willows. We reached the impressive weir of Ware. To enable boats to pass this hazardous waterfall, a lock exists. Ware Lock was first built in 1855 but looks as if it has been modernised since then. Continuing west from the weir, we became aware of traffic noise as we approached the concrete bridge that carries the busy A10 dual-carriageway road over the river.
A third of a mile upstream from the road bridge, there is a tall brick house. It is not attractive and can be seen from afar in the flat landscape surrounding it. This building, The Gauge House, was built in 1856 to the design of William Chadwell Mylne (1781-1863), a son of Robert Mylne, who was involved with the terminal reservoir at New River Head in Islington (see above). The building is constructed on an arch, a bridge that straddles the start of the New River at the point where water enters the canal from the River Lea. The ground floor of the building houses a mechanism for regulating the flow of water from the Lea into the New River. This is explained on the historicengland.org.uk website as follows:
“… [The] ground floor contains the gauge which measures the intake of water from the River Lee; it consists of 2 iron boats 5m long floating at Lee level which are joined by a chordal segmental iron beam 9m long, and the rise and fall with the level of the Lee controls the flow of water over the sluice which can be further adjusted by weights hung from the gate, the daily intake from the Lee being 22 1/2 million gallons.”
Another website, engineering-timelines.com, gives details of the predecessors of the Gauge House:
“At first, the flow from the river was monitored by a wooden ‘balance engine’ – a rocking beam-and-float device. It was later replaced with the Marble Gauge, built by Robert Mylne inside a Portland stone chest. Though now empty, this is still visible a little downstream.”
We were able to see the exterior of the Gauge House including the grille through which water leaves the Lea to flow under the building and that from which it flows from the House into the first stretch of the New River. The canal flows about 300 yards south before making a right angle beyond which it begins flowing east. Having visited the London terminus of the New River and walked along attractive stretches of the canal lined by parkland in Canonbury, near Islington, I was very satisfied seeing where this historic waterway commences. We retraced our steps along the riverbank to Ware before driving to visit the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green.
Returning to the subject of beds, which is associated with the town of Ware, my mind leaps a quarter of the way around the world to Ootacamund (‘Ooty’) in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In January 1994, we spent part of our honeymoon at St Margarets in Ooty, a guesthouse belonging to the ITC company. The room we occupied in this typical colonial style bungalow was huge. And it needed to be to accommodate the enormous bed that we occupied. This bed, whose width rivalled that of the Great Bed of Ware was not so long as the latter. Its sheets must have been specially made to fit this enormous bed. Although there were only two of us sleeping in it, I think that that it would have been wide enough for four or five couples to sleep in it without it becoming overcrowded.
Both Ooty and Ware have their charms, but the latter is far more accessible from London especially in these times of restricted travel caused by the wholly unwanted presence of the Covid-19 microbe.