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The name of the River Lea was first recorded in the 9th century, although is believed to be much older.Spellings from the Anglo-Saxon period include Lig(e)an in 880 and Lygan in 895, and in the early medieval period it is usually Luye or Leye.It seems to be derived from a Celtic (brythonic) root lug-meaning 'bright or light' which is also the derivation of a name for a deity, so the meaning may be 'bright river' or 'river dedicated to the god Lugus'.A simpler derivation may well be the Brythonic word cognate with the modern Welsh "Li" pronounced "Lea" which means a flow or a current.In the Roman era, Old Ford, as the name suggests, was the ancient, most downstream, crossing point of the River Lea.This was part of a pre-Roman route that followed the modern Oxford Street, Old Street, through Bethnal Green to Old Ford and thence across a causeway through the marshes, known as Wanstead Slip (now in Leyton).Its valley creates a long chain of marshy ground along its lower length, much of which has been used for gravel and mineral extraction, reservoirs and industry.Much of the river has been canalised to provide a navigable route for boats into eastern Hertfordshire, known as the Lee Navigation.

The man-made, concrete-banked watercourse is known as the River Lee Diversion at this point as it passes to the east of a pair of reservoirs: the King George V Reservoir at Ponders End/Chingford and William Girling Reservoir at Edmonton known collectively as the Chingford Reservoirs; and to the west of the Banbury Reservoir at Walthamstow.In 894, a force of Danes sailed up the river to Hertford, and in about 895 they built a fortified camp, in the higher reaches of the Lea, about 20 miles (32.2 km) north of London.Alfred the Great saw an opportunity to defeat the Danes and ordered the lower reaches of the Lea drained, at Leamouth.During the Middle Ages, Temple Mills, Abbey Mills, Old Ford and Bow were the sites of water mills (mainly in ecclesiastic ownership) that supplied flour to the bakers of Stratforde-atte-Bow, and hence bread to the City.It was the channels created for these mills that caused the Bow Back Rivers to be cut through the former Roman stone causeway at Stratford (from which the name is derived).

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