Nature lover Stephen Ayers, also known as ‘Wetlands Steve’, looks ahead to the opening of Walthamstow Wetlands
As a local resident I confidently predict that when Walthamstow Wetlands opens this autumn it is going to be by far the biggest, best, and most popular visitor attraction that has ever been opened in Waltham Forest.
Entrance to this unique site – one of the largest urban wetland nature reserves in the world – will be free, seven days a week. Walthamstow Wetlands, formerly known as Walthamstow Reservoirs, will have a new visitor centre in the renovated Marine Engine House. OrigInally been built in 1894 to pump water into homes, the building will house a permanent exhibition on the area’s wildlife and heritage. Interactive touch screens will display stunning photos and all the facts about the wildlife that lives there. The visitor centre will also provide temporary art exhibitions, a classroom, café, outside eating area, and viewing platform.
Another viewing platform at the top of the Grade 2-listed Coppermill Tower, the other side of the reserve, will be accessible by lift and will offer visitors another amazing vantage point with spectacular panoramic views across the Lea Valley. A cycle path with new gates in Blackhorse Lane and Coppermill Lane will connect Walthamstow Wetlands with Tottenham Marshes to the north, and Walthamstow Marshes to the south.
Like many residents of Walthamstow, I always used to visit the marshes and Springfield Park rather than Walthamstow Reservoirs because the marshes were so much more convenient to get to from my neighbourhood. I regularly used to cycle down Coppermill Lane and glimpse the cormorants’ desert island on Reservoir No.5, occasionally stopping to gaze over the fence and wonder where the entrance was and whether I was allowed to explore the site.
As I cycled towards the Coppermill, I would admire the Italianate silhouette of its arcaded tower. But it was a mysterious building, seemingly fenced off from the outside world. I spent a lot of time around Springfield Marina, but because of the high-grass banks of the Warwick Reservoirs, I had no idea that I was passing right next to huge bodies of water with reedbeds, flocks of birds, and spectacular views.
So I’m especially excited about the opening of the new Coppermill Lane entrance in the autumn because I know it will make Walthamstow Wetlands so much more accessible for my local community, by connecting the reserve with the St James Street and High Street neighbourhoods. The Coppermill Lane gate will also reconnect Walthamstow Wetlands with the adjacent Walthamstow Marshes, after these two Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) have been separated for visitors over so many years.
Although the reservoirs are adjacent to Walthamstow, because the only public entrance has been in Forest Road opposite the Ferry Boat Inn, close to Tottenham Hale, the distance had been enough to deter me from exploring the reservoirs. Regrettably, 14 years passed before I finally investigated what was beyond the fencing in Coppermill Lane. I was enticed by the announcement three years ago that a £4.5million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund would be made to the Walthamstow Wetlands regeneration project.
So I first visited during the Open House weekend in 2014, and was absolutely astonished and delighted to discover the stunning landscape, wildlife and buildings hidden inside. The picturesque and peaceful lakeland views of the trees on the islands and the vegetated banks of Reservoirs 1, 2, and 3, reminded me of childhood holidays at Coniston Water and Lake Windermere in the Lake District. I was absolutely amazed to find that this beauty spot had been right here for so long.
Once I had seen the site, I felt very glad that it was going to be regenerated and fully opened up by the Walthamstow Wetlands project, to welcome in the general public of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. It was obvious what a huge social, educational, and health benefit Walthamstow Wetlands would provide for local communities. Such a beautiful, therapeutic, and tranquil place, being opened for free, where people can easily take refuge from the pressures of inner-city life and learn about the wildlife that they see around them, is going to benefit Waltham Forest hugely.
When I began to visit the reservoirs I found that every time I visited, I experienced something new and fascinating. Whether it was discovering different parts of the 211-hectare site, which is two miles long and one mile wide, or seeing the changing wildlife and plants, I enjoyed seeing the wetlands through the seasons and in different weathers. I also enjoyed seeing and photographing the birds and the spectacular sunsets over East Warwick Reservoir and hearing the myriad bird calls changing throughout the year.
Walthamstow Wetlands is part of the Lea Valley migratory route and is protected as being an internationally important site for wetland birds. It is also an important place for fishing, especially carp fishing for which it is a nationally important site.
I felt much more in touch with the changing seasons as a result of seeing the herons and cormorants and other birds nesting in February and March; the goslings, chicks, and swifts arriving in April and May. The pathways are a riot of wildflowers in summer and I enjoyed seeing many birds than I had never seen before, with regular sightings of kingfishers, common terns, grey herons, little egrets, great crested grebes, little grebes, cormorants, kestrels, peregrine falcons. No two visits are the same.
My visits to the reservoirs raised so many questions that I began to research its history, as well as the wildlife of the reservoirs and surrounding Lea Valley. But I’ve learned most of what I know from the Thames Water staff, bailiffs, fishermen, bird watchers, and London Wildlife Trust volunteers and staff that I’ve met, some of whom have been visiting for 60 years. It has been fascinating to discover the architectural heritage of impressive and historic listed buildings and the vestiges of handsome Victorian civil engineering at Walthamstow Wetlands.
With my growing interest I soon began volunteering with London Wildlife Trust, giving guided tours of the site. It is a privilege to be involved with and to get to share the wetlands with visitors, and especially satisfying if it is their first visit to the site. It is also an easy and fun job to do because it is such an amazing place, so beautiful and fascinating, that visitors always greatly enjoy the tours.
There are lots of conservation volunteering opportunities at the wetlands. So far we’ve planted reedbeds and sown seeds, improving the biodiversity and structural diversity of the vegetated banks of the reservoirs and improving the grasslands. Volunteers also survey the site, collecting data on birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and flora. I am looking forward to seeing the wildlife habitats being improved further by conservation volunteers who will be inspired to help manage the site after it opens.
Walthamstow Wetlands opens on Friday 20th October. It is a joint project between Waltham Forest Council, Thames Water, and London Wildlife Trust. To find out more, including how to become a volunteer:
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