London Open House 2012 has been a funny affair.

In some ways it’s a victim of its own success – website crashes caused by the huge surge of people trying to log in, disgruntled punters, chaotic pre-booking systems; but on the day(s) it came good. Among other visits this year, I won a ballot draw for tickets on a barge trip along the River Lea*. I was particularly interested in this trip, as there have been a lot of ‘before and after’ type blogs due to the Olympicsized works around the area. It’s a complicated river with lots of branches, and both natural and canalised sections. The sections of the Lea that run through the Olympic site looked nice, but very sanitised when I saw them (during the Paralympics), so this trip, which runs along one section outside and just to the west of the Olympic site, may give an idea of what it could all be like once it has had time to develop a real life of its own. The trip was organised and run by the London Legacy Development Corporation and the Institution of Civil Engineers, so a lot of the commentary was about the contribution of engineers to the huge works around the Olympic site and also plugging the ‘Legacy’ angle which we have all heard so much about already. I would have liked a bit more about the Lea itself; its history, role in trade and industry and so on. That said, this was a fascinating trip and hopefully there will be more of them running in the future.

We set off from Three Mills, which is quiet and calm, and comes as a pleasant surprise after the walk along the A12 Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach from Bromley-by-Bow station - all derelict office buildings and discarded tyres. The canalised river is a real mixture of natural-looking reed beds housing wild water fowl, and industrial debris and concrete underpasses carrying roaring traffic above; and. Closer inspection reveals that the reed beds are planted and not natural (still nice though, and full of life) and much of the industrial debris is of the ‘work in progress’ variety, rather than dumped rubbish.

The Lea has a mixed character these days partly as the result of its proximity to the Olympics. So we see house boats, warehouses, flats and established riverside cafes, full of people going about their normal business, but also some strange start-ups that were obviously hoping to cash in on the Olympics. These now look deserted, unloved and a bit desperate. A pleasant meander is broken up by the excitement of a lock! We pull up and wait at Old Ford Lock no. 19 as the trip before our one comes through. There’s something thrilling about locks, don’t ask me why, there just is. As well as lock-watching, our entertainment is also provided by the people on the busy towpath. Three twenty-somethings with a shopping trolley pull long tendrils of ivy off the wall. One falls on her bum. What are they going to do with all that ivy? Small children on tricycles speed down the towpath, racing away from their terrified parents. This amuses me more than it does them. Me and my Mum discuss the rules of waving at strangers, and decide that when aboard a boat, waving at strangers is obligatory; when riding a bike on a towpath, waving at strangers is optional; and when in the street or in a car, waving at strangers is frowned upon. These are the rules to live your life by. The barge-before-ours emerges from the lock and now it’s our turn to go in. This is my first ever inside-lock experience and once those gates shut, it’s like being in a strange green world, all algae and chickweed and people’s feet emerging on the slow ascent into the light. I like locks.

Our turn-around point is only a little way past the lock near The White Building (Hackney Wick) on the Lee Navigation. Opposite our stopping point is the entrance to the Hertford Union Canal (or Duckett's Canal), which connects the Lee Navigation with the Regent’s Canal. Built in the nineteenth century as one of those speculative investments that just never takes off, it proved a financial disaster. Today, the lock having been restored and the channel cleared, it looks well used, and popular with the Hackney hipsters. There are also communities of narrow boat dwellers, artists and others attracted to the canal-side lifestyle. My eagle-eyed Mum spots some tiny Hackney-ites on the towpath. One seems to be sunbathing.

After a short stop off, we turn around and take the same journey back to Three Mills. The river is an interesting place and fun to travel along, although, even though there are still some industrial sites alongside it, it can now be difficult to get any real idea of its earlier more industrial and mercantile incarnations. This is much the same as the Thames itself, which has found a newer life over the last decade or two, that has more to do with leisure than trade, industry and transport. These identities are shifting all the time and, no doubt, will continue to do so. Along with Thames Discovery, perhaps we should try to also think about Thames Tributary Discovery too. *Lea and Lee sometimes seem to be used interchangeably, but our trip host had it that when referring to the river, Lea refers to the sections of natural river, and Lee refers to the man-made canals.