The Country Comes to Town

I walked the length of the Elmes, and with great pleasure saw some gallant ladies and people come with their bottles, and basket, and chairs, and form,to sup under the trees, by the water-side, which was mighty pleasant. Saumel Pepys, 26 May 1667

Kim & I took the train to London a month ago, for a long delayed catch up with family. So wrapped up have I been since returning home, mainly due to getting the latest project together and out on the road, that I’ve only got round to recording these notes now.

London Wetlands Centre in Summer: Photo Credit Sam Stafford

I remember seeing a BBC Springwatch programme a few years ago, strands of which were set at the London Wetlands Centre, where foxes were filmed swimming across to raid the nests of wading birds on islands. What a fascinating place I thought, a preserve of nature rich countryside at the heart of the capital. Really must go there sometime. With a daughter and family living in Richmond and a brown & white heritage sign at the end of the street pointing towards the LWC…What were we waiting for? The suggestion to visit with the grandchildren (aged 6 and 4) was excitedly taken up by them and our adventure started when we boarded the little red bus to speed away eastwards down river to Barnes.

A medieval manor and estate occupied the Barnes peninsula, formed by a tight turn of the Thames, which belonged for centuries to St Paul’s Cathedral. Post reformation, Barn Elms was gifted to spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham by Elizabeth I for services rendered to her royal security. In the 17th & 18th centuries the peninsula drew increasing numbers of wealthy leisure seekers looking to escape the capital on boat outings. In the 1820’s one of my historical heroes William Cobbett farmed experimentally on the site and wrote much of Rural Rides, his celebrated polemical essays, there. The whole nature of the place changed when the Victorians expanded housing and drowned more land to provide the reserves of water that a rapidly expanding metropolis and its soaring population demanded.

Location of the original reservoirs at Barn Elms

The resulting rectangle of waterworks, subdivided in four, was designated a Site of Scientific or Special Interest (SSSI) due to its importance as a feeding ground, sustaining overwintering flocks of ducks and geese. The four interconnected reservoirs were eventually made redundant in the 1990’s when a new ringway main was built, bypassing them. In a bold and controversial move Sir Peter Scott, founder of Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, struck a multi-million pound deal with Thames Water and Berkeley Homes that saw some of the site become luxury housing and the rest  designated a national nature reserve. The resulting intensive rewilding process – part structural, part natural – has proved spectacular and has been the model for projects elsewhere in urban areas.

Birch & willow carr

The LWC’s 105 acres is still managed by the WWT, with a half a dozen public hides, interpretation, education and reception HUBS. It is home to hundreds of species of birds and animals, both residents and seasonal visitors. It was pretty nippy and overcast the day of our visit and their takeaway café dispensing hot drinks was particularly appreciated. The children loved it and their running around and exploration of the myriad of paths, copses, banks, bridges and hedges on site kept them warm enough. A highlight was the lunchtime feeding by one of the staff of the reserve’s resident pair of Asian otters in their large enclosure. Everyone suitably entranced by the lithe movements and playful antics of the pair when seen at close range.

We’d no binoculars unfortunately but still managed to see lots of birds. Many ducks and divers, geese and swans, cormorants, cranes and herons inhabiting shallows, shingle banks or the various kinds of artificial islands created in the former reservoir basins. Much of the concrete was broken up and used as hard core for car parks, paths and reefs. The exposed clay was then molded and planted to form thirty various habitats for animals and birds. Some sections, fitted with sluice gates, are seasonally flooded to simulate wild conditions for some bird species. More than 20 years after opening the remaining man made structures are softened almost beyond recognition with all manner of vegetation, while repurposed banks and bunds were starting to bloom as spring advanced.

Blackthorn blossom

Hawthorn, birch, alder and elm much in evidence in the marshy carr section, with fingers of shallow creeks meandering through. The reserve is accessed by flat gravelled paths cleverly make the best of the topography to give an enhanced feeling of space. I particularly liked the contrast of pretty blackthorn blossom and dried stands of reed beds. The reserve is particularly proud to be home to rare and endangered birds like bitterns and water rails – shy species more likely to be heard than seen – but for us the white heads of coots or the red caps of moorhens were the commonest sights in this part of the site.  

Blacktorn, reed and passing coot

The children loved the flurries of mandarin ducks on one of the ponds we encountered while the ring necked parakeets flitting through the trees were more fascinating to me with their flashes of colour and squaking cries.

Ring necked parakeets; image by Tom Tams for Wild Intrigue

The latter as an alien species are now a common sight in Greater London and beyond but not one have we come across in the Scottish Borderlands. (At least, not yet) The most acceptable theory is that these tenacious and highly adaptable marauders came through UK ports as mariners’ pets, which then escaped, bred and spread outwards across the interconnected green spaces of suburbia.

Breeding & feeding islets

We had our picnic lunches in the warmth and comfort of the reserve’s  lofty observation tower whose plate glass windows gave great views over bird world on the water. Its green high banked boundaries give way to blocks of flats, lines of houses, retail and office towers, aerials and chimneys and – somewhere the unseen Thames, fulfilling its curving course – all framing the sweeping vista. We slipped back into the hustle and bustle of the traffic clogged high street as the light faded. What a refreshing and insightful way to experience the joys of nature in the city. Tomorrow’s world today for even more people to discover if we have the will to make such places an integral part of our larger urban landscapes.

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