Where to go when you want to escape the mud of this English winter but still want to get out on a walk and see some wildlife? I know the very place.
The Lea Valley on the edge of North London may not seem to most obvious place for a country walk, but at least it has many miles of gravel and tarmac footpaths, though you'll have to put up with the occasional eyesore.
It also has a modern "wildlife discovery centre", with a viewing tower and a bird hide (it all looks a lot more comfortable from inside than from without). And, believe it or not, most winters that rarest and most elusive of birds, the Bittern, takes up residence in the scruffy patch of reeds right outside the windows. Knowing it is there however is an entirely different thing to actually seeing it!
No matter. We can still enjoy this rather attractive piece of art as we make our way along beside the Horsemill Stream. Over the years the Lea Valley has been used for all kinds of human endeavour. The watercourses provided power for early mills and factories, the soil is suitable for market gardening and it once had the largest expanse of glasshouses to be found anywhere in the world.
The valley has always provided a transport corridor with railways, a major road and the River Lee Navigation running through it. There were many large pits dug to extract sand and gravel. A whole host of industries came here and several are still active, mostly electronics and consumer goods. Then there came warehouses and what used to be known as transport but now has to be called "logistics". And of course there's an electricity sub-station and its army of unsightly pylons.
Nowadays large parts of it are given over to nature and recreation of all kinds. Apart from walkers, cyclists, anglers, boaters and those who just like to get outside, there are also facilities for many kinds of sports - even an Olympic Park at the southern end of the river!
...while Mallards can be found paddling around throughout the year. I know they may be common, but you'd have to go a long way to find two handsomer fellows.
The whole area is threaded with a confusing tangle of water channels, large and small, all with their own particular beauty. We saw surprisingly few people as we made our circuit of the park, considering how many tens of thousands live within just a few miles - I suspect it's an entirely different story during summer.
A wealth of golden catkins (for one of my regular readers who always enjoys seeing them). The low winter sun illuminating them from behind gave them an added glow.
A Cormorant watched us as we came near to the end of our morning's stroll - a pleasant mix of natural history, human history, winter sun, conversation and of course hot chocolate. (We never did see that Bittern though).