[Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph: June 7th, 1919]
Once upon a time, before we had time to burn bricks and raise them in unsightly rows, a little spring bored a hole in the hills beyond Luton and then began to run as quickly as it could towards mother sea. It has been running ever since, for when a little thing like that starts you cannot stop it.
It laughed and sang, played skittishly round the long legs of heron, or proudly bore on its gentle ripples the little water fowl, the wild goose and the wild duck.
The folk of the wild came stealthily by night to take supper with and of those fowl, and to slake their hot throats with the clear, sparkling medicine. Probably after a time some fugitive from justice or a wandering huntsman and his family found this a suitable Eden, and settled in a mud hunt near the stream.
As his family grew and the huts increased, the birds began to disappear, and the wild folk grumbled and wandered off to find a place where ejectment orders were unknown. It is human to want to make a bit of a splash, and so the founder of that first town of Luton made his splash in the stream, not styled the River Lea.
They had no soap in those days, and they lived in happy security from ptomaine poisoning, having no cause to fear the bully beef of Chicago or the salmon of Alaska. Even as Councillor Primett has had golden dreams of Luton as the Matlock of the south, so, possibly, those early huntsmen had nightmares of a time when men would cut away oak, elm and brushwood, would burn the wood to a cinder and then use those cinders to raise rows of larger huts alongside and over the pretty stream. He used the stream as a mirror, and so was afraid to wash in it for fear of spoiling his looking glass.
The nightmare evolved, and for some distance the stream was lost to nature, and became of little use to men. There is more historical precedent for rivers swallowing towns than for towns to swallow rivers, and to that extent Luton has gained notoriety.
Like the whale which swallowed Jonah, Luton today has cause to feel ill at ease, and worse when busy. Anyway, she disgorges the lively stream eventually. As soon as the Lea enters the gullet of Luton at Mill Street, she spreads; her bed rises and falls, and we have now cause to regret that it was not properly made before she was covered up.
Away down Mill Street, along portions of Manchester Street, Bridge Street, Guildford Street, Bute Street, Waller Street, Silver Street, she creeps about the town and deserveth the name wherewith she was christened the other day - “Luton-on-the-Leak”.
Sometimes, when the floods come, she gets very obstreperous, and in many places a pumping operation is necessary, and she finds herself in the street. She leaves behind evidence of her presence. Slime and mud are full of life – germ incubators – and in due course these enemies of man may get into his system.
A walk the other day along the course of the Lea, as it comes into the daylight at Pondwicks Path was very instructive. From this point to the boundary of Luton, the Lea is a disgraceful sight. In places she is a brimming pool with long weeds growing out of the bed of the river, and the mud cakes alongside.
Those who have sniffed the smoke of Wigan and the gas of Widnes may get an estimate of the “Eau de Lea”. Old boots, salmon tins, rusty old pales are the usual ornaments; and patches of oil float on the surface or are sucked under by the current. Yet along this course in summer may be found little barefooted boys striving to hook fish.
At the sewerage works the incense swingers are reputed to be the big, hefty fellows but the Corporation is not to be credited with that. Only strong men can stand it. They are inured to the perfumes wafted from the turgid waters with which they deal from infancy with the “Eau de Lea”.
It is rumoured that the favourite sweetmeat in the vicinity of the Lea is the septic throat pastille.
Have the Corporation forgotten the twelve labours of Hercules? His sixth, and by some reported to be the biggest task, was the cleansing of the Augean stables. He diverted a river through the stables and so cleansed them.
Whether he could have cleansed the river is doubtful, but if anyone feels inclined to try he may find excellent practice by tackling the Lea, It may not actually be a tributary of the river which did the dirty work, but it is in fair way of rivalry.
There is a body known as the Lea Conservancy Board, quite an august authority. The stranger in Luton would be inclined to think there was in Luton a Preservancy Board for the preservation of the aroma.
The state of things is summed up: There is certainly need for immediate action, not at “any old time,” as is the usual method of Corporations. Its should be tackled “at once, if not sooner”.