Round the reservoir
PUBLISHED: 10:44 01 September 2015
David Falk, manager of Suffolk County Council’s Brandon Country Park, strides around Alton Water on a surprisingly undulating journey around Suffolk’s largest body of water
I’m surrounded by the electric humming of early morning grasshoppers. Small waves lap soothingly onto a narrow beach of sand and gravel. On the water three great crested grebes float lazily, and above my head a common tern, jet black head and flame red bill, dive bombs into shallows.
This is Alton Water on a quiet midweek day, a domain of wildlife. Looking onto the water two shelducks bob along and on a far bank a family of Egyptian geese stand still. A bumble bee buzzes around my head as a magpie clicks from a tree. I see a kestrel. It flaps past before hovering delicately over a field. Gulls fly into the scene and laugh at everything.
I’m following a path that wraps around Alton Water. Visitor information is done well here. A series of finger posts and maps direct you to the next point of interest, distance marking each destination, breaking an eight-mile hike into bite-size wanders.
I crunch along a gravel path beside a line of rustling oaks. A heat haze blurs the horizon and in the air a buzzard circles. In the morning light it is beautifully illuminated, and through binoculars I study its markings of light and dark, its fingered wings and wide fanned tail. It flies in front of a daytime crescent moon and then soars across fields into the distance.
I follow a short nature trail that winds along a mown path through a wildflower meadow of pink and yellow, a clogged pond and a huge owl box. The trail braids and I muddle my way back to the main path, which undulates between scots pines of scaly pink bark and larch of cascading needles. It’s cool in the woodland with a fruity smell of damp vegetation.
Trees screen the water until a gap opens like a window to reveal the glistening expanse. I disturb a gaggle of greylag geese that quickly formation-swim in an orderly line. The world is beginning to wake up as a jogger coughs and splutters past me, a woman cycles politely by and a dog walker smiles a cheering ‘morning’.
At Lemons Hill a flat bridge spans the northern end of Alton Water. Common terns jig around the air and more grebes float about with ubiquitous coots hugging the shoreline. Over the bridge the path sinks back into woodland and follows the edge of dark emerald green creeks where bulrushes and horsetails grow. The path climbs steeply before descending rapidly, and then repeats itself. It’s surprisingly hilly and this plays on the mind, giving the impression of hill walking rather than navigating around a flat reservoir. It provides a healthy workout.
A clamour in the sky signals more common terns. They circle above a bird hide which overlooks two square wooden platforms of shingle that act as nesting sites. A newspaper cutting fixed to the hide’s wall tells the success story of breeding terns at Alton Water. Over 100 chicks are born here each year, the result of hard work by a team of dedicated volunteers. Peering through the hide’s slat, past teasels, I look upon the tern islands and see the birds moving around.
Moving on in the warm sun, clouds of sand flies swirl over the path. I can hear them humming as they land on my clothes and get in my hair. They create a moving curtain that I brush away. The path runs between arable fields and a dense shield of oak and larch woodland that blocks my view of the water. I stride onwards beneath a rich-blue sky, under tunnels of sweet chestnut branches, eating up the distance around the shoreline.
I stop at a bench and look across the water to Holbrook. The famous Royal Hospital School with its landmark bell tower forms a silhouette against the horizon. In the water more coots and more great crested grebes swim by and in three ashen dead trees, seven cormorants sit, like black cloaked samurai, menacingly watching the water.
I’m soon at the reservoir’s dam, a gentle slope of grass spreading down towards woodland. To my right the water stretches into the distance. I see the buzzard again, now soaring over trees, and the family of Egyptian geese have nestled on the dam wall.
Near the end of the circuit is a sailing club. A group of children are learning to canoe, watched by greylag geese that occupy the bank. The geese stare, bemused at the sight of a dozen red canoes and the sounds of splashing, shouting and laughter. The water that was the domain of wildlife is now shared with active school children, families enjoying picnics, cyclists and runners. This is Alton Water on a typical midweek summer’s day. n