A reservoir in Stoke Newington became London's newest natural resource when it was openedat the weekend by none other than Sir David Attenborough. He was at Woodberry Wetlands to give his seal of approval to a community project that's helped transform a surplus expanse of water into a reedy habitat for birdlife with full public access. It'll probably help boost house prices locally too.
The New River first wound through northeast London 400 years ago, tracing a particularly sinuous course following the contours around Woodberry Down. Two reservoirs were dug alongside in 1833 to help supply water to local homes, and an area of luxury mansions grew up on the higher ground overlooking this reflective panorama. The aftermath of World War Two tipped the area's fortunes around, as the London County Council used the land to rehouse East End slum-dwellers, creating one of the largest estates in Europe at the time. Today Woodberry Down's council homes are being comprehensively replaced as part of a long term large scale public-private partnership, greatly increasing the density of development whilst simultaneously reducing the number of homes for social rent.
The West Reservoir has long been used as a leisure facility, notably for sailing and other water sports, but the East has always been sealed off. A public footpath runs along the side of the New River, but on the wrong side for the reservoir which has remained mostly out of sight. Now at last all that has changed, following the opening-up of the remainder of the perimeter by a group of local volunteers, backed by £1.5m of funding from the National Lottery and other interested parties. A once sterile space is now surrounded by reedbanks and walkways, creating an increasingly important habitat for waterfowl and other species. And there's a new cafe, fitted out inside a restored coal house, for visitors who daren't go anywhere so natural without caffeine and a cake.
The main entrance to Woodberry Wetlands is just off Lordship Road at the heart of the new Woodberry Down development. A brushed metal gate leads across the New River, providing useful means of locking the place up at night, beyond which a boardwalk runs along the western edge of the reservoir. Yesterday morning a London Wildlife Trust volunteer was stationed just inside, dispensing knowledge and information, which might be a permanent thing but was more likely an opening week special. Quite a few people had turned up for a look, the more prepared with binoculars, hoping to catch sight of any interesting post-migratory species. Many had also brought their young children, because who wouldn't want a facility like this on their doorstep?
A twenty minute stroll will take you once around the reservoir, though you'll no doubt linger longer. A few benches provide the inquisitive with somewhere to sit and watch, while in a dip round the back is a sheltered woodland trail beneath a canopy of fresh green oak leaves. Look out for Sir David's unveiled plaque beside an ornate gate sculpted with metal wildlife. The best reedy views are probably from the boardwalk, gazing across the expanse of water towards three identical tower blocks on the far side. From the opposite banks the new housing development becomes the skyline focus, complete with thirty storey tower and numerous subsidiary flats, shattering the illusion of natural beauty somewhat.
I wanted a map, but seemingly this isn't something that Woodberry Wetlands provides. A board near the entrance has an aerial shot, but the website provides nothing better than a Google map, the generic abdication of cartographic responsibility. This may be because the reserve is essentially a lake with a path round the edge, but it would have been nice to have confirmation of the two entrances, and of the additional facilities dotted around. Near the old pumphouse at the eastern end was what looked like an area for pond-dipping, although it was too brimming with mothers and offspring to get close. Here too are a timber roundhouse and some beehives, plus a dull but worthy outhouse for education purposes because this wetland isn't just for show.
Spring isn't the best time of year to see rare birds - I saw some geese, and the ornithologists spotted a coal tit. It also wasn't the best time to visit the cafe, which was closed. A chalked-up message apologised that Lizzy's at the Coal House had been "eaten out of house and home" and staff were spending the day re-stocking. This suggests either overwhelming patronage over the bank holiday weekend or an inability to plan ahead, and perhaps an over-emphasis on flogging food rather than a nice hot drink. Whatever, I can't tell you whether the cafe is any good or not, just that they've promised to reopen at eight this morning.
The opening of Woodberry Woodlands won't do any harm to sales of properties on the adjacent Woodberry Down estate. Berkeley Homes are marketing their latest homes as "set on the banks of an abundant nature reserve and animated by urban wildlife year-round", and "overlooking more than 42 acres of tranquil open water". Indeed one of the first things they did on site a few years back was create a landscaped strip of garden between their first homes and the water's edge, because greenery sells when you have a "luxury development" to shift. They also contributed £250,000 towards the bridge and boardwalk, which might sound generous, but is barely half the price of the cheapest (tiny) one bedroom flat currently available for sale.
Although the reservoir side of the new development looks almost attractive, step back a block and the densely-packed nature of modern urban housing becomes apparent. Towers of glass and steel rise into the sky, above those bland retail units they poke under blocks of flats these days, as workmen usher another truckload of materials towards the latest fitting-out. Hoardings announce that an Italian delicatessen is coming soon, while the family depicted on another empty unit look nothing like the community that built up here at Woodberry Down over several decades. At present the wider estate is a patchwork of older ill-maintained blocks and shinier upstart infill, the need to replace the lot ultimately pressing, but not necessarily in the interests of long-term residents.
But I agree with Sir David, Woodberry Wetlands are a great facility and will be a great benefit to the people living around it. Few capital cities can boast a significant inner city wetland, and the transformation of the reservoir into a visitor-friendly wildfowl-magnet is a great credit to its army of volunteers. Pick a nice day and come along, it's only a ten minute walk from Manor House tube. The gates are unlocked daily at 8am (9am at weekends) and close at five.