The River Lea runs directly through the Park, forking into the waterways that once upon a time served the Victorian industries of Stratford and Hackney.

For over two hundred years, these waterways and the docks they served drove London’s economy, but economic change neglected the waterways, leaving them derelict and ultimately a barrier, rather than a connection, for local communities.

After falling out of use in the second half of the 20th century, the waterways were given a new lease of life following the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

Following a joint venture between London Legacy Development Corporation and the Canal & River Trust, the Park’s waterways have been cleaned, repaired and restored and will become a vibrant focal point for events, sport and leisure. The Bow Back Rivers are a 16km system of waterways which feed into the River Lee Navigation and the Thames in east London. The waterways, 6km of which are located in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, include:

• City Mill River
• Old River Lea
• Bow Back River
• Prescott Channel
• Bow Creek
• Channelsea River
• Waterworks River

You can read about our strategy for regenerating the Park's waterways by downloading our Olympic Legacy Waterways Framework.

  • The recorded history of the rivers dates back to Alfred the Great and the invasion of the Danes when the River Lea was the border between England and Danelaw. It is recorded that Alfred the Great trapped the Danes’ ships in 896AD by draining the lower Lee, forcing the invaders to flee on horseback.

  • The waterways played a major role during the Industrial Revolution in providing water to local industry, particularly in powering mills at Three Mills and City Mills.

    In the early 1930s, major investment was injected into the Bow Back Rivers to improve their ability to accommodate both floodwaters and navigation, however by the mid-20th century the waterways had largely fallen into disuse with the decline in both canal freight carrying and waterside industries.

    By the 1990s, the Bow Back Rivers were heavily silted and largely unnavigable with derelict and unusable structures. It wasn’t until the decision was made in 2005 to award London the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games that the area’s fortunes began to turn around.

  • Between 2005 and 2012, more than £50m of investment was made by various Government agencies to transform the waterways of the Lower Lea Valley. Work included:

    • Refurbishing an abandoned lock on City Mill River
    • Rebuilding waterway walls and towpaths
    • Dredging deeper channels for commercial and leisure traffic
    • Creating new wildlife habitats for birds and insects
    • Installing infrastructure for trip boats and establishing better, safer connections for walking and cycling

    On 27 July 2012, the revitalised waterways were given their moment on the global stage as David Beckham raced down Waterworks River on board a speed boat to hand over the Olympic Torch as part of the Games Opening Ceremony. The scene marked the culmination of a remarkable journey undertaken by the Bow Back Rivers over the past 100 years, one which is set to continue to develop alongside Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park itself.

  • London Legacy Development Corporation and Canal & River Trust are working together to secure a lasting legacy for the waterways of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

    The long-term aim of the regeneration project is to ensure the waterways can host boating and leisure activities and once again form a living legacy for London’s people and wildlife, forming the backbone for a world class water city. 

  • The parklands reflect the River Lea’s place at the heart of the area, with acres of wetlands and riverside meadows that are home to hundreds of different birds, waterfowl and amphibians.

    In the north of the Park, a large wetland bowl, carved out of the river’s path, not only provides beautiful, sloping lawns and meadows for visitors, but also acting as a natural flood defence: when water levels rise, the bowl floods by design, protecting new housing and venues and 5,000 existing properties from a one in a hundred year storm.  

    Around the river and its ponds feature 300,000 wetland plants grown in Norfolk and Wales, including thirty different species of native rushes, reeds, grasses, sedges, wet wildflower and irises - some of which came from the Lower Lea Valley as source stock.

    Carefully designed channels called 'bioswales' are embedded into the meadows across the Park to capture rainwater as it runs off into the Lea, nurturing habitats and diverse plant species as it does.


  • One of the key pieces of the waterways regeneration programme is the restoration of Carpenters Road Lock in the south of the Park. Construction work began on the Lock this summer and is expected to be completed by March 2017. When restored, the Lock will provide the opportunity for boaters to navigate a full route around the Park, taking in the stunning route from the Old River LEa to the Waterworks River.

    You can follow live progress of the restoration of Carpenters Road Lock by viewing timelapse footage from two cameras installed on site, giving you a close up view of the works. A full time lapse video will also be uploaded here by early next year.

    Click here to view the footage.

  • The Leaway will be a new continuous walking and cycling route connecting Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to the River Thames and Royal Docks.

    A two and a half mile route from the Park to the River Thames, the Leaway will ultimately open up 45 acres of new open space and will create 432m of new walkways and cycle paths.

    Find out more about the project here.