It’s not often that the remains of a ruined building are given a 4-star rating in a guidebook, but in the case of Waltham Abbey – all that's left of a once-great Augustinian monastery – it's more than justified. As our walking group passed through the heavy west doors, what we saw (above) prompted a collective gasp of wonder.
We gazed in awe at the huge Norman columns, the magnificent stained glass windows by pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, the intricately carved reredos and the elaborate painted ceiling covered with signs of the zodiac – a recreation of Peterborough cathedral's medieval roof.
It was all the more stunning for being so unexpected.
The tower at the entrance (Tudor) is undistinguished, patched and restored, and giving no hint of the treasures within.
Our walk had started at Enfield Lock station, crossing the Turkey Brook, and heading north along the Lea Navigation, where we saw this egret.
Quite a few boats have gathered under the M25 - not the most peaceful of moorings.
From there it was only a few minutes heading east along a busy high street till we reached the Abbey, which still dominates the town centre.
Waltham’s first church was built in the 6th c and became a place of pilgrimage when a stone crucifix was brought there from Somerset. Several centuries later, King Harold went to pray at the shrine and was cured of a serious illness. In gratitude he built a new church and after his defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was brought back for burial. What stands today dates from the Norman conquest. Henry II founded the abbey as a penance for the murder of Thomas Becket and trebled the establishment's size, but with the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII it was reduced again to just the Norman nave, which serves as the parish church.
A useful leaflet guided us round some of the building’s highlights, including the elaborate Denny tomb (above) and a graphic 15th c Doom mural of the Day of Judgement, rediscovered during restoration work in the 19th c.
Harold’s burial-place is unclear, but there’s a memorial stone outside the east end of the church. Lunch was calling, so there was a change of scene as we headed for the White Water Centre in the Lee Valley Country Park (that's their spelling).
This was built to host the canoe slalom events of the 2012 Olympics, and opened by Princess Anne in 2010. Today you can visit it and go white-water rafting, canoeing and paddle-boarding – or just take in the action. We watched while members of a group, clad in wet suits, jumped into the water and were ‘rescued’ – presumably part of a training course.
The food at the centre’s cafe was plentiful and quickly served, but sadly the terrace, which has a view over the park, was closed. Then we started along a path across the southern-most section of the 1000-acre park, which would eventually take us to Cheshunt and a train home.
We passed a strange concrete structure, covered with graffiti, that turned out to be one of the few remaining WWII Bofors anti-aircraft gun platforms and is now a scheduled monument. It was hard to imagine that this area, now so peaceful, was once part of the Outer London Anti-Tank Line, built to protect London from invasion. Today, the revitalisation of the valley - part of the Olympic legacy -has created a wildlife haven and the Regional Park Authority has produced several very informative booklets which detail what can be seen and where.inquisitive swans and geese, while coots were noisily making themselves heard out on the water.
It would be worth coming back in the summer when there are many more birds and we could follow the 2-mile orchid discovery trail. A park map even shows a dragonfly sanctuary – half the UK species are found there. But for now, we'll be continuing our exploration of the Lea Valley.