Ely to London

The River Lea

The Heart of Darkness Ride

  • Journey to the Heart of Darkness. “Imagine him (the Roman Legionnaire) here—the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina—and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages,—precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay—cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death—death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here”

This is a psycho-geographic journey through one of the oldest inhabited parts of England. It draws from myths of medieval times, starting with the Holy Grail. This is a cup that Jesus is alleged to have drunk from at the Last Supper, and the myth has it that it was brought to England in Arthurian times, to be held in the keeping of the Fisher King. This individual appears to have suffered some sort of groin injury which has rendered him infertile, so he cannot bear a child to continue the protection of the Grail, but worse, his infertility has rendered his kingdom into a Wasteland. He sits in a small boat, fishing, until someone arrives to kill him and set the land free again. The Grail itself has never been found.

This story is used as the basis for Joseph Conrad’s novel , Heart of Darkness in which the Fisher King becomes Mister Kurtz, a colonial trader in West Africa who appears to have gone mad and committed wholesale slaughter of indigenous Africans. The narrator, Marlow, journeys upriver to bring him out, but he dies on the journey. The novella can be viewed as a critique of European colonialism. 

It then appears again as Apocalypse Now, the Francis Ford Coppola film which is a devastating denouncement of the Vietnam War. In this version Kurtz is a US colonel who has set up camp in the jungle and appears to be fighting his own war. Captain Willard is sent to “terminate” Kurtz “with extreme prejudice”, which following several incidents which highlight the horror of war, he does. 

TS Eliot’s poem the Wasteland also draws from the Arthurian legends and Conrad’s novella. The Fisher King presides over a corrupt and decaying land and only his death can bring regeneration. We can perhaps see parallels with the recent premiership of Boris Johnson although it seems the cure may be worse than the disease. 

The mythology is examined further in Frazer’s The Golden Bough and poses many questions. Might the Fisher King have been lurking in the upper reaches of the River Lea or its Tributary the Stort? You can research this further at your leisure, in Wikipedia and elsewhere.

The Ride

View the Route on OS Maps:-

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

The journey starts in the watery landscape of Ely with its Cathedral looking over the Fens (direct trains from Sheffield as the time of writing)  and takes us via Wicken Fen, The National Trust’s oldest nature reserve, and England’s most famous fen, to Cambridge, a very cycle-friendly city, before we climb onto the Glacial Morass that distinguishes Hertfordshire. We descend into the Stort valley, that links to the Lea, or Lee, that northern waterway that rises in Luton – or Lea-Town  – and empties into the Thames. Harlow offers an example of the New Towns that were built to offer escape from the slums of the East End of London after the war.

The landscape constitutes the Essex marshes described in the section from Conrad quoted above. However, most of it (with the exception of Basildon) has now been tamed and drained and the Lea Valley Country Park has excellent bird sanctuaries and cycleways. You can also study how extensive remedial flood protection works, along with gravel extraction lakes have saved the area from major events such as the North Sea floods of 1953.

The tour also takes in the site of the Royal  Enfield works famous for rifles, explosives and motorbikes, the huge reservoirs that provide most of London’s drinking water, Hackney Marshes where William Blake and, later, Jah Wobble used to roam, then down to Mile End and the Limehouse Cut. If you follow NCN Route 1 you will terminate your ride in Wapping.


Should you wish to visit Canvey Island this can be done by way of the North London Sewage Outfall – it has a bike route on top but it’s a bit smelly! 

If you have completed this tour, please send me date-stamped photos of your start and end points and I will send you a certificate.

Rotherhithe Youth Hostel  and St Katherine’s Retreat are possible stops. 

Songs about the Thames 

“Sometimes I find myself down by the dockside 

Thinking about the old days of Liverpool and Rotherhithe

Transparent people who live on the other side

Living a life that is almost like suicide” – Elvis Costello


“ I’ve been searching all through the city

See you in the morning down by the jetty”  – Dr Feelgood. 


The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in

Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin

Engines stop running, but I have no fear

‘Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river” – The Clash

Read about the River Lea Way here.

  • The His Dark Materials Tour. This could continue from the Heart of Darkness tour, taking us inland along the Thames from the Essex marshes, completing our Darkness theme and perhaps branded the Varsity ride.(The Varsity railway line, now being rebuilt, was a direct line between Oxford & Cambridge. Nowadays to travel between the two premier University cities in England by rail you have to go via London, in much the same way as you would have chosen to ride). 

 – Or it could start at London St Pancras. 

If you’ve read the Pullman books, seen the film or watched the TV series you will know that the action alternates between Oxford and London (& The North) but in an alternative world where people have Daemons, the magisterium runs everything and airships are a favoured method of getting around. Perhaps you will stumble across the portal between the two worlds – who knows? Bring Lights! 

The River Thames at Wapping