Berks Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust.
Tring, Buckinghamshire, HP23 5QG
College Lake near Tring does not open its gates until 9:30 in the morning. Since we aren't so good at early morning starts, that wasn't a problem for us. We arrived in the midday warmth of a beautiful July day. Before we had emerged from the car we caught sight of a large blue dragonfly which was busily patrolling the wild flowers bank that was in front of the car parking space – we knew we were going to enjoy this visit.
The car-park was a dusty grey gravel with which Titania didn't have too much of a problem especially where the cars had flattened it down. There is a parking ticket-machine, the sign on it asks you to donate £3 to get a ticket to display in your car. It is a donation, so it is up to you, but these places have to fund themselves in some way and as you will see when you venture round the lake they are putting that money to good use. The five disabled parking spaces are the closest to the entrance of the visitor centre which you have to go through to enter into the wonderful College Lake nature reserve.
Essentially, the College Lake reserve is an area of some 65 hectares around a lake which has been formed from an old chalk quarry. The land around it includes chalk grasslands and so the area supports a wide range of birdlife including many waterfowl and is alive with insect life including lots of different butterflies and dragonflies and damselflies. To see the greatest range of birds apparently autumn or spring are the best times to go. At these times the migrating birds are using the lake and there is much to see. We had arrived at the height of summer, and although there were still many species of birds around it was the flying insects which were spectacularly in abundance. But I am getting ahead of myself.
There is flat access to the entrance to the eco visitor centre which consists of a reception area where you can get a map of the site and purchase field guides of various types. There are other wildlife related items on sales such as books, birdseed even bird boxes and insect boxes and the like. You won't find much of the tat that you getting other visitor centre shops which can only be a good thing. In the same building there is also a small cafe area with a number of tables inside (the the chairs are easily movable) and three or four outside on a paved patio area -just mind the small lip on the door threshold, it'll slop your cup of tea!
Inside there is also a disabled toilet which is clean and with good access and also has the baby changing facilities in it. The doors into and out of the visitor centre are assisted doors - an interesting description - this means that they initially feel heavy to push open but once you get them moving they have a momentum which in theory means they’ll fully open with no further effort. In theory it is easier to get through them. I didn’t quite get the hang of them, but that was probably just me.
As we came out of the visitor centre into the reserve the first thing we saw was a mobility “tramper vehicle”. This vehicle is available to be borrowed for those who don't feel they will be able to get around the lake under their own steam. The path around the lake is about two miles long. It is comparatively flat, just a few ups and downs to deal with but nothing too steep. So I had no need to use the tramper, besides Di would have had to run round to keep up with me and it was far too warm a day for that. However if you fancy going round the lake in this fashion, the main paths are able to accommodate the scooter as are many of the hides. Just talk to the reserve staff in the visitor centre to organise it.
Across the path from the visitor centre is the first of eleven hides around the lake. The delight for me sitting in Titania was that while there were benches for those ambulant folk to sit on there were spaces for wheelchairs and the viewing windows were at the right height for me. (This is one of my personal bugbears, viewing windows being just too high, that and fences...grr.) In fact this hide is a palace amongst hides because it has huge floor to ceiling windows which you can sit in front of and watch over the lake.
I think it would be possible to sit in this hide all day with a pair of binoculars watching the bird action on the lake and have a thoroughly enjoyable day. We spent some time in here. It was here that a notice board recorded what people had seen over the last 24 hours. Numerous bird and insect species are listed on the board. On the day that we were there on the long list someone had spotted a hobby and we would really have liked to emulate them, so with the path around the lake calling us and another ten hides to investigate we moved on.
Bearing in mind that it was a hot sunny day the path was a dusty hard concrete slightly gravelly surface which didn't cause Titania too many problems.
The sky was blue the sun was warm and around us flitted butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies galore while there was a background chirrup from them all the other insects that weren't making themselves quite so obvious.
The "Wild Trail" around college lake is about 2 miles long mostly made up of these wide concrete paths which are in reasonable state of repair, although grass grows in some parts, and cracks and ruts have developed in some places to catch out the unwary of any level of mobility. In other places it has the potential to get muddy although you'd need some recent rain for that and as I said we were there on a hot sunny day in a dry July. Most of the hides which are dotted along the path are reasonably accessible, usually with a slight ramp to the entrance, the doors need negotiating but are not heavy and if you can get into the hide easily you will find that you will be able to get to viewing window which you can see through from a wheelchair.
There are a few hides which are not accessible, with a step to the entrance, or accessed via narrow or steep paths but there is no need to be disheartened by this as you should see plenty both from the hides you can get into, and simply as you follow the path. Take your time your time and the critters (mainly flying critters) will show themselves. There is much to see in the plant life too. We found orchids, and many chalk grassland plants of interest, the trees were beautiful and virtually asking to be hugged.
We worked our way clockwise around the lake. Although it is comparatively level there are some inclines on the path which will slow progress down, or may require the invoking of extra horsepower (or Di-power in my case). The path forks at one point on to the "Bird Trail" to allow you to go down to a hide (the "June Ives Hide") right by the lake. We started to take this route, but as the path narrowed and started to descend rapidly, I sent Di on to scout ahead. The decision on her return was that discretion was the better part of valour and we returned to the main path. So that hide is really not on the agenda for Titania.
Further on there is an area with old agricultural machinery to be admired and beyond that a wild flower meadow which you can wander around on short mown paths and soak up the pastoral beauty. We were there when it was at its prime, with cornflowers, poppies, daisies and a multitude of other meadow flowers filling the air with the insect hum and showing off the beautiful summer colours against the vibrant blue sky.
Before you get back to the visitor centre (still going clockwise) you find an area containing sheds showing farming through the ages displays, a second hand book shop, a country cottage garden and other things to see which have the potential of exciting younger children you may have with you. There is also a grassy area with picnic benches and you’ll find there are accessible loos here.
About the Time Trail rejoins the main path, as you are just a few hundred yards from rediscovering the visitor centre, there is the path sloping down to the "Octogan Hide" which is strategically positioned between the two parts of the lake. When you get there the hide is accessible and has good views. We spent some time there watching the birds and even caught glimpse of a mink, not a popular critter in a reserve like this. The thing to remember if you do choose to go to this hide is that you have to go back up that slope to get back to the main path and visitor centre. This is a prime example of where Titania needed that extra Di-power to get back.
Finally the path comes back to the visitor centre, and if you've timed it right (the cafe closes at 4:30 pm ) a welcome cup of tea and a scone.
This July visit was the first we made to College Lake. We didn’t see the hobby but spent three enjoyable hours enjoying life! As it location is local to us we have joined BBOWT and been back a few times. There is always something different to see. This trip it was mainly the insects, dragonflies and butterflies primarily, but there are always many birds. In October when we went round the lake, the migration season had started so there were different birds to see and by the way did see a hobby on that occasion. In the autumn the trees were just stunning in their autumn foliage and laden with berries. We'll go again in winter and in spring to see some other faces of this rural friend... can't wait!
Richard & Di
26 November 2014