MIDDLESEX FILTER BEDS NATURE RESERVE is an area of semi-natural habitats on the River Lea at Clapton in East London. The site is owned by Thames Water but leased to the Lee Valley Regional Park. It is part of the Lea Valley Sites of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation (SMI).
Address: Lea Bridge Road, London E5 (Map:; OS grid reference TQ359864; nearest postcode E5 9RB)
In 1852, three years after London’s worst cholera outbreak and the consequent demand for cleaner, safer water, the East London Waterworks Company constructed the six Middlesex Filter Beds to remove impurities from the River Lea and provide the surrounding areas with water of improved quality. In later years the filter beds were augmented by another 19, seven of which are now the WaterWorks Nature Reserve (formerly the Essex Filter Beds). In total, the site produced an average daily supply of 42.5 million gallons of water. In 1969, after over 100 years in operation, the Middlesex Filter Beds had become outdated and were replaced by the new Coppermills Water Treatment Works in Walthamstow. Thames Water became responsible for the beds in 1974, by which time nature had already taken over and wildlife had begun to colonise the abandoned site. Since 1988 the site has been leased to the Regional Park, which has since managed it as a wildlife reserve.
The Middlesex Filter Beds lie between the River Lea to the north, the Hackney Cut (or Lee Navigation) canal to the south and the Hackney Marshes to the east. The value of this site is enhanced by the proximity of the WaterWorks NR on the other side of the River Lea, and the Walthamstow Marshes NR across the Lea Bridge Road.
There are six former filter beds which are numbered clockwise, with Beds 1 - 3 on the river side, and Beds 4 - 6 adjacent to the canal, as shown here: File:MFB beds.pdf
These beds form a variety of habitats graduating from open rough ground, scrub and woodland at the western end to reed beds in the east; Beds 3 and 4 formerly held reasonable areas of open water throughout the year, but have recently dried out significantly despite water being pumped on an irregular basis from the Lea; it now appears to be something of a challenge to maintain surface water in the beds at any time of year.
Other than the beds themselves and the concrete paths that surround them, the site contains a small pond at the eastern end, areas of short grass, and some reasonably mature scrub around the perimeter. There are a number of evergreen oaks on the site which provide useful habitat in the winter.
There are two entrances, near the west end from the canal towpath opposite Millfields Park, and at the east end from the Hackney Marshes.
The reserve is popular with local walkers, cyclists and dog-walkers, and the area around “the stones” at the west end frequently hosts children’s parties and barbecues. Disturbance can therefore be significant especially in the summer, but the filter beds themselves are generally left alone, and the whole reserve can be very quiet in the winter and early in the morning.
BIRDS More than 60 different species have been recorded at the site including Firecrest, Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, Nightjar and Snipe. Sadly the former Tree Sparrow colony – one of the last in inner London – has been gone for many years, but the site still holds valuable breeding warblers as well as the more typical local residents.
Including the adjacent stretches of river and canal, the following can be considered year-round regulars, or at least frequent visitors: Cormorant, Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Mallard, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Moorhen, Coot, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Herring Gull, Feral Pigeon, Wood Pigeon, Stock Dove, Ring-Necked Parakeet, Kingfisher, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, Pied Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Wren, Dunnock, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Chiffchaff, Robin, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long-Tailed Tit, Magpie, Jay, Carrion Crow, Goldfinch, Chaffinch. These are augmented in summer by Common Tern, Collared Dove, Swift, Swallow, House Martin, Sand Martin, Blackcap, Whitethroat, Reed Warbler, Greenfinch and in winter by Little Grebe, Gadwall, Teal, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Black-Headed Gull, Common Gull, Goldcrest, and Siskin.
OTHER VERTEBRATES The wetland areas were formerly ideal for amphibians such as toads, frogs and newts, all of which have bred here – however the amount of suitable habitat is now much diminished as the site has dried out. Grass snakes have also been observed, and foxes are frequent visitors.
INVERTEBRATES A variety of damselflies and dragonflies are also common throughout the summer months.
DIRECTIONS There is access on foot from the River Lee Navigation Towpath and the site is on Section 13 of the Capital Ring. The nearest railway stations (both ~ 1 km) are Clapton on the Liverpool St to Chingford line, and Lea Bridge (Liverpool St - Bishops Stortford). Bus routes 48 (London Bridge to Walthamstow Central), 55 (Oxford Circus to Leyton) and 56 (St Bartholomew's Hospital to Whipps Cross) pass close to the site along Lea Bridge Road.
Park (free) at the Lee Valley Ice Centre in Lea Bridge Road. Cross the busy road safely at the pedestrian crossing and turn right. Walk past the waterworks depot, over the bridge then immediately take the cobbled slope next to the Princess of Wales pub down to the towpath. After a short distance, close to the entrance to Millfields Park, a bridge crosses the canal to the entrance of the reserve on the east bank.
Alternatively it may be possible to park at the main changing rooms for the football pitches on Hackney Marshes, walking to the reserve entrance at the north end of the marshes. There is also a small amount of seven day free parking on Chatsworth Road close to Millfields Park, and on other nearby Clapton streets at the weekends when residents' parking schemes are not in operation.
The reserve is locked up at night, opening hours vary through the year but dawn to dusk access is virtually always possible.
FACILITIES None, but the Princess of Wales pub (see above) does pretty good food and drink. There are also plenty of cafes etc. on Chatsworth Road.
This information has been updated (March 2018) by Alastair Dent, please feel free to edit or add content