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Walthamstow Wetlands: Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Walthamstow Wetlands is one of many green oases in London pulling people in throughout lockdown  

Green spaces have become a respite for many across the UK. When only one form of exercise was allowed outside per day as part of the country’s lockdown restrictions, many laced up their trainers and veered towards their local park. A stroll through these spaces often meant encountering zen mid-afternoon yoga sessions, novice runners testing the waters, and the encouraging words of Joe Wicks as 40 seconds of jump squats were being endured.

Unfortunately for those who were out of breath after these exertions, sitting down was not an option. Those perched on benches were hastily hustled along.

And then the news came – from 13 May, spending time outdoors without building up a sweat was legal again. You could throw down the picnic mat (with members of your household or one other person from another household, providing they stayed two metres away – convenient if, like me, you hate the idea of sharing food), which is why I ended up at the Walthamstow Wetlands one Saturday, picnic mat in hand.

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Amidst blocks of skyscrapers and towering cranes, and at the centre of a wobbly circle of tube and overground stations – the closest of which is Tottenham Hale – lies this 211ha nature reserve. It’s been nearly three years since Walthamstow Wetlands opened its doors to the public, becoming a haven for not just the wildlife which inhabit the area but also for Londoners and those from further afield.

Social distancing is fairly easy in a place that’s also Europe’s largest urban wetland nature reserve. Walthamstow Wetlands offers a chance for those with little or no garden of their own who are itching to get out of their homes to escape to nature and explore the outdoors. This has always been one of the aims of the wetlands, long before COVID-19 was hitting headlines.

A partnership between the London Wildlife Trust, Thames Water and the London Borough of Waltham Forest – plus a particularly helpful cash boost from the Heritage Lottery Fund of £4.47m – enabled the nature reserve to become a tourist hotspot after ten years of careful planning. When it first opened in October 2017, Waltham Forest Council leader Clare Coghill called it a “fantastic oasis on our doorstep” and was convinced it would become “London’s worst kept secret”. With more than 700,000 visitors pre-pandemic, Clare was arguably spot on.

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Along with being a beauty spot, the nature reserve’s 10 reservoirs also provide 3.5 million people with drinking water, delivering 30% of the city’s total supply. They also provide refuge for water birds and migratory birds, amongst other wildlife, and Walthamstow Wetlands is currently one of only 37 Sites of Special Scientific Interest in Greater London.

It’s hard to believe when walking around the expanse site that you’re only a 20-minute drive from the Olympic Park, and only another ten minutes to the City of London on a good day. Opposite the entrance to the wetlands, you can join the popular 50-mile Lea Valley Walk, trekking along the canal either towards Waltham Abbey or a lengthier walk towards to Limehouse. Or you can wonder out of the wetlands towards the Tottenham Marshes, where nature also sits at the heart of the site.

For many Londoners, green spaces can be surprisingly easy to come by, particularly with the push for the capital to become the world’s first National Park City (a goal it can now tick off its list). If you’re struggling, though, Walthamstow Wetlands is worth a Google – and a visit.

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