We’re on a train heading towards Stansted looking to spot long-haul flyers who use this part of London to refuel. Not Easy Jet customers but sandpipers, redshank and lapwings. We’re visiting Walthamstow Wetlands which is a ten minute walk from Tottenham Hale tube and home to an amazing array of migratory birds.
One of these seasonal visitors is the swift. This sooty brown bird flies up to 12,000 miles every year from sub-saharan Africa to reach these insect-rich wetlands. After flying constantly for around ten days – eating, sleeping and drinking on the wing – they touch down in north east London in the last week of April ravenous for flying insects. After raising their young, they head back home over the Sahara in July or August when the availability of nutritious bugs falls.
For 150 years these wetlands — which is made up of ten Victorian reservoirs and is the size of Hyde Park— was off-limits to the public. Unfortunately the London Wildtrust volunteer tells us that the swifts have just left on their journey but a grass snake seems to be causing great excitement. Texts and walkie-talkie messages have been sent between interested parties but only a handful of volunteers have actually seen the greenish brown snake swimming up Coppermill Stream which runs through the reserve.
I only realise the significance of the grass snake when I get my scavanger hunt sheet. One point if you spot a coot (a small water bird), five for a long tailed tit or a chiff chaff, ten for a great crested grebe and twenty for a grass snake. Presumably the reptile is stocking up on fish and small mammals before slipping into hibernation next month, which lasts until April next year.
The site is also home to more than 100 moth species, including the rare Lunar Hornet Moth and six species of bat. It’s also home to Europe’s largest heronry (the herons are not at home as they only come to roost at dusk). It is the start of September and red berries are starting to ripen and swell. Weeping willows tumble into the water on the banks of the reservoirs. I try to teach Alex his trees— he looks at one of our many information sheets, points to a thorny bramble and asks me if it’s a beech tree. He doesn’t deserve to see the grass snake.
As part of the £10.6m investment from London Wildlife Trust, Waltham Forest council, Thames Water and the Heritage lottery fund, an old copper mill has also been refurbished at the wetlands. A building has been in this spot since 1066 and throughout the centuries it has been used as various things, including as a paper mill and a copper mill. An information boards suggests that it drove each of its owners into destitution and the place now seems to have happily entered retirement. It provides a wonderful look-out over the wetlands.
How to get there – the reserve is a ten minute walk from Tottenham Hale tube
When – the wetlands and cafe are open seven days a week between 9.30am to 5pm
How much – it is free to visit