We’re strolling along Songbird Walk, beneath a row of waterside poplars very like ones Monet painted in Normandy. The October sky is grey but the footpath is lined with wildflowers: yellow gorse, purple knapweed, white campion. With a liquid twittering, a flock of goldfinches swoop overhead, then a clear, penetrating song bursts from the bushes to one side. “Ooh, a Cetti’s warbler,” says wetlands director Veronica Chrisp.
The remarkable thing about this peaceful scene, though, is that it’s not some corner of rural England but a former no-go area in the Lee valley, between downtown Walthamstow and gritty Tottenham in north London, a few miles north of the Olympic Park. For decades, this group of reservoirs was out of bounds to everyone except, basically, a bunch of anoraks: fishermen and birders who obtained the necessary permits. Now, after a £10.6m investment by the London Wildlife Trust, Waltham Forest council, Thames Water and the Heritage lottery fund, Walthamstow Wetlands, Europe’s largest urban wetland reserve, is ready to open to the public.
Owned by Thames Water, it is still operational, supplying 3.5m households. But from 20 October, the 211-hectare site, with 13 miles of footpath and cycle track between 10 reservoirs, eight islands, and London’s largest heronry, will open to the public daily from dawn to dusk. London already has a well-regarded wetland reserve, in south-west London but a family ticket to the Barnes centre costs more than £30, while this one is free. (There is a parking charge but it’s walking distance from several tube and overground stations.)
At the main gate, on Ferry Lane, an 1885 building that housed the steam-driven pump engine is now a visitor centre with cafe, shop and exhibition space. From its viewing platform, we look down on swans gliding along the pretty Coppermill stream, then over three 19th-century hand-dug reservoirs, looking like natural lakes with their organic shapes and wooded banks. More modern reservoirs further out are less attractive but, we’re told, their large stretches of water and islands are important to the overall ecology of the site.
Walthamstow Wetlands expects to see 250,000 human visitors in its first year, but other kinds of guest have been coming to this site of special scientific interest (SSSI) for years: waterfowl such as pochard, gadwall and shoveler ducks overwinter here; and it’s a stopover for migrating sandpipers, redshank, lapwings and more. The “common” kingfisher (which is anything but) breeds here, and every year cormorants rebuild a colony of sticks and branches on the larger islands to rear their downy chicks.
The engine house’s Victorian chimney has been rebuilt as bijou accommodation for winged visitors: 50-odd small openings up and down its flanks are perfect nesting sites for swifts, aerobatic whizzes who sleep on the wing and only stop flying to breed, but whose numbers are threatened by urbanisation. Slits on its south side are a des res for the site’s large bat population, for whom lighting levels at night are kept suitably low. The newly-planted reed beds we see as we head south on Heron Walk enhance the look of reservoir one, but also make a great habitat for bitterns and bearded tits.
It was important, says Veronica, to keep it feeling wild – a place primarily for nature: there are no big information boards, and signage is all ground-level and low-key. As we round a bend past a bird hide, an excellent view of the Shard, the Gherkin and other City towers is a sharp reminder that this is not, in fact, deepest Suffolk.
Further down the stream is the rather older Coppermill Tower. There has been a mill on this site since at least 1086 (it’s in the Domesday Book), producing paper and gunpowder as well as copper, but this mid-Victorian building, with its Italianate loggia, wouldn’t look out of place in Siena. Now also open to the public, it offers panoramas south to the Olympic Park and Canary Wharf, and west across Hackney Marshes to central London.
Local Stephen Ayers first saw the site during London Open House 2014. “I was amazed,” he says, “to find that this peaceful lakeland, which reminded me of childhood holidays at Coniston Water and Windermere, had been right here for so long.” Now such a fan that he’s known as Wetlands Steve (on Facebook), he runs guided walks for the London Wildlife Trust.
With 500,000 people living within two miles of the reserve, and millions more under an hour away by public transport, excitement about the opening has been widespread. Photographers will relish the watery sunsets, cyclists welcome a new GLA-funded route across the Lee valley to Tottenham, naturalists look forward to seeing mating damselflies in the spring, and twitchers to spotting everything from little grebes to peregrine falcons (particularly once the first bird hide is renovated – a second is awaiting funding).
But those of us who are none of the above can, as Wetlands Steve says, just enjoy this “beautiful, therapeutic and tranquil place”. Anoraks not compulsory.
• For free family wildlife events all next week (booking essential), on topics from birds and bats to hedgehogs, go to walthamstowwetlands.com
FIVE OF THE UK’S BEST BIRDWATCHING SITES
Puffins on Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland
Rathlin Island, the northernmost point of Northern Ireland, is home to the country’s biggest seabird colony. The star is the puffin, which arrives in April to breed and heads back out to sea in late July. Other birds to see at the West Light Seabird Centre, a refurbished lighthouse, include razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars. The Roonivoolin Reserve in the south of the island attracts choughs, lapwings, corncrakes and snipe, while eider ducks laze around the harbour.
• Admission free, return ferry fare from Ballycastle is £12 adult, £6 child and £32 family, rathlincommunity.org
Swans at Abbotsbury, Dorset
The Abbotsbury Swannery was founded by Benedictine monks in the mid-11th century and today is the only managed colony of nesting mute swans in the world. The 600 free-flying swans live in a 25-acre sanctuary; fluffy cygnets hatch from mid-May to the end of June, and learn to fly in September and October. Visitors can walk among the swans and help at feeding time (midday and 4pm). There are also lots of geese, ducks and other waterfowl.
• From £10 adult, £7.60 child, abbotsbury-tourism.co.uk
Ospreys at Loch Garten, Highlands
In 1954, a pair of breeding ospreys nested in Abernethy Forest next to Loch Garten – the first seen in Scotland since 1916. Since 1959, a pair has nested there every year, and today there is an Osprey Centre with binoculars, telescopes and CCTV views of the nest. The ospreys can be seen from April to August, while the capercaillie, Scotland’s largest grouse, put on courtship displays in April and May. Other inhabitants include crested tits, goldeneyes and Scottish crossbills.
• £5 adult, £2 child, £10 family, rspb.org.uk
Nightingales at Whisby nature park, Lincolnshire
Nightingales are on the Red List of UK birds, which means urgent action is needed to save them from extinction: according to the RSPB, their numbers have dropped by 90% over the past 50 years. As well as the challenge of crossing the Sahara twice a year, and finding food during winter in west Africa, they need a suitable breeding site when they return in spring. One such site is Whisby nature park, reclaimed gravel pits now run by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, which organises guided nightgale walks in late April. Warblers, swallows and terns also flock to the lakes, woodland and meadows.
• Free, small car-parking charge, lincstrust.org.uk
Eagles on the Isle of Rum, Inner Hebrides
The white-tailed eagle is the UK’s biggest bird of prey. It became extinct in Britain in the early 20th century but has since been reintroduced. The Isle of Rum, where the first eagles were released in 1975, now has more than 50 breeding pairs, and is also home to golden eagles. The eagles are outnumbered by the colony of Manx shearwaters, however: more than 60,000 pairs nest in mountain burrows from late March to September.
• Admission free, return ferry fare from Mallaig is £8.30 adult, £4.20 child, isleofrum.com