It's not every day that 500 acres of private land becomes publicly accessible for the first time. In north London, yesterday was such a day.
The Walthamstow Wetlands are a cluster of reservoirs in the Lea Valley, built between 1853 and 1904 to provide drinking water for the metropolis.
Now owned by Thames Water they remain operational, but now fulfil an additional purpose as a nature reserve, especially for birdlife. Until now only those with a permit have been allowed inside, generally anglers and ornithologists, but the entire complex is now open daily, free of charge, and we've a whole new worldto explore.
There are ten reservoirs in total, each with a perimeter path to follow, plus a couple of historic buildings with internal attractions of their own. The overall site lies between Tottenham Hale and Blackhorse Road stations, with the main entrance about ten minutes walk from each. Come on foot, or by bike, or leave your car in the car park and expect to pay for the privilege. Dogs are not permitted, apart from the usual exceptions.
The first place to visit is probably the Thames Water Marine Engine House, now converted to a visitor centre and cafe, complete with lightly-stocked shop. Head upstairs to enjoy the viewing platform, which involves stepping out onto a balcony, providing a broad overview of this rather flat area. Also up here are some touchscreen displays (which refused to react to my touch) and a rather wonderful installation of artistic jars, filled by schoolchildren, dangling down through a hole above the cafe. The cafe serves morning breakfast, afternoon lunch and (expensive) cake, and was particularly well frequented yesterday. The toilets are under the stairs. Be sure to collect a foldable map before you venture off.
The map is essential not only because the wetlands are unsigned, but because some of these reservoirs are really rather large, so if you head off the wrong way it could be 20 minutes before you finally link up with another path. To get your bearings, three of the reservoirs lie north of the main road, accessed via a separate entrance, while the majority are to the south. A single cycle path threads across the site, almost two miles from one end to the other, with local access points for residents in Higham Hill or from Coppermill Lane. Other paths aren't necessarily so solid - but a pair of trainers will see you round, it's not currently walking boot consistency underfoot. Certain paths may be closed at certain times of the year, for example to assist breeding.
There are no hides, this isn't that kind of bird reserve, but the paths track the edges of the reservoirs so sightlines are generally clear. Bring some binoculars, because the majority of the wildlife action is small and distant, although you can expect to meet several geese (and their deposits) on the banks. Cormorants and herons are particularly dominant in their island fiefdoms, while overwintering fowl are expected to be abundant over the coming months. Personally I loved the opportunity to walk and walk and walk, with the landscape of the Lea Valley spread out across diverse watery vistas.
It's a wonderful space to explore, and will merit repeated visits, not just to watch the changing of the seasons but because it's pretty much impossible to trek the whole thing in one go. I'm particularly impressed that entrance is free, thanks to a unique partnership between Waltham Forest Council, the lottery, the London Wildlife Trust and Thames Water. I wonder how long they're going to be able to maintain a volunteer presence at each of the four entrances, and I also wonder how they'll ensure everyone's cleared out at the end of the day before they lock the gates.
The Walthamstow Wetlands open to visitors at 9.30am, and close at 5pm in summer and 4pm in winter (that's October to March). Best of all the Walthamstow Wetlands open daily, not just this weekend but henceforth, for a bracing day out whenever. Come twitch, angle or hike, and enjoy.
Some tips (southeast):
» The five reservoirs clustered closest to the visitor centre aren't named, they're numbered, specifically 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.
» A good short walk is to circulate around reservoirs 2 and 3, along thin banks with water to either side. The path along the western edge, alongside reservoir 1, is the only wooded zone, hence rather pretty.
» A lot of these paths have reedy spaces for fisherfolk to cast their lines. I saw one particularly large carp gleaming in a net on the bank.
» At the point where reservoirs 2, 3, 4 and 5 meet is a small shelter for trout fishers. I hope all the screwed up tinfoil at the back is evidence of eaten lunches rather than anything less legal.
» The island within reservoir 1 is the largest heronry in the UK. One of the two islands within reservoir 5 is known for its cormorants.
» There's a very useful additional bridge, not shown on the map, approximately between points 6 and 7. Elsewhere, if there isn't a link on the map, there isn't a path.
Some tips (southwest):
» The West Warwick and East Warwick reservoirs have high raised banks, each allowing a lengthy stroll around the rim. Narrow steps, infrequently located, provide access from down below to up top.
» These reservoirs are more functional, and less landscaped, and run either side of the main railway line.
» The West Warwick reservoir is only accessible via a single low tunnel beneath the railway, and feels particularly cut off on the far side. I got followed through by a fox (whoa!) which eyed me suspiciously, then thankfully retreated.
» The Coppermill Tower, on the Coppermill Stream near Coppermill Lane, is a former pumphouse, and will one day provide a viewing platform and exhibition space. It looks great, but as yet it's not quite open.
Some tips (north):
» It's much quieter on this side of the wetlands, because most visitors don't think to cross the road.
» The architectural treat on this side is the Lockwood Reservoir, a vast trough with steep sides and a water tower at either end. The path along the western edge is closed until the end of the year so that a stone road can be laid around the perimeter, and the only way up to the eastern edge is currently to climb the grassy banks, which may or may not be permitted. Best views on the entire site from up top, though.
» The other two reservoirs are shallower, and geesier.
» I think the path round the eastern side of High Maynard reservoir is closed for seasonal reasons, because its gate was shut, but if so the signage wasn't authoritative enough and I could easily have walked through.
» Whoever knew all this was sitting on top of the Victoria line?