Border feuds are normally associated with far-off countries, or with the wilder areas of Britain, such as the English/Scottish borderlands in the middle ages. It’s less well known, however, that a border feud raged between Cheshunt and Waltham Abbey for at least six hundred years.
The River Lea (I resist the recent fashion to spell it Lee) has played a major part in history, forming as it does not only part of the border between Hertfordshire and Essex but, at one time, part of the border between England and the Danelaw.
King Alfred’s strategy
In the year 894, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates, a Danish fleet sailed from the Thames up the River Lea, at that time considerably broader than now, reaching Ware. King Alfred had huge ditches dug near Cheshunt to draw off the waters, creating in place of the large river a marshland through which various streams wandered.
Which River Lea?
As a military strategy, this was a triumphal success, but Alfred left a more local problem. The boundary between the parishes of Cheshunt and Waltham Abbey, as well as the country border, was defined as the River Lea; however, as late as 1655, Dr Fuller’s History of Waltham Abbey describes how
The River Ley seven times parteth from itself, whose tempestuous stream in coming to the town is crossed again with so many bridges.
So which stream was the border? The reason this was important was that the gradually drying marshland provided extraordinarily rich pasture: it’s said that young cattle were restricted to half an hour’s grazing a day, for fear of them overeating. Both parishes wanted as much of this land as possible, so Cheshunt claimed that the boundary was the easternmost stream, now the Old River Lea, whereas Waltham Abbey claimed it was the westernmost, the Small River Lea.
The first law-suit was brought in 1248, in which Peter, Duke of Savoy, Lord of the Manor of Cheshunt, made a claim against Simon, the Abbot of Waltham, for the disputed land, which eventually found in favour of Waltham Abbey.
This was not the end of the matter, though, and many disputes and fights erupted over the following centuries between the parishioners over this land. In 1601, for example, the parish records of Waltham Abbey record a dispute during the “beating the bounds” ceremony of Cheshunt:
The Curate of Cheshunt and some of the Churchwardens coming in their perambulation to our hye-bridge; and for so doing and coming out of their own libertye they were for their paynes thrust into a dych called Hook’s Dich.
Even as late as 1870, a dispute arose when a piece of marshland near Cheshunt Lock, traditionally shared by the parishes, was fenced off by Cheshunt, and the Waltham Marshwardens forcibly opened it. Eventually, however, a compromise was reached, by which the southern part of the border follows the Small River Lea and the northern part the Old River Lea. With the decline of farming in the area, the issue has ceased to matter, and marshland on both sides of the border now forms the Nature Park, free to be enjoyed by all.