First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Grafham Water lies large and flat in the lowlands of west Cambridgeshire. We found it hard to get a handle on this great reservoir, so low-lying in such a wide landscape, until we were out on the well-surfaced track that circumnavigates the water, peeping between the willows at the private lives of swans and great crested grebes.
The reservoir swallowed 1,500 acres and four whole farms when it was built in the 1960s to bring drinking water to Milton Keynes. The farmers’ loss was the birdwatcher’s gain. The scrub trees beside the path were loud with song this beautiful summer’s afternoon, blackcaps out-singing blackbirds, willow warblers lording it over wrens.
The track led west through clumps of germander speedwell as blue as the bowl of sky stretched over Cambridgeshire. On our left, monoculture wheat-fields of uniform green where tractors dragged sprayers with seventy-foot arms; on our right, birdsong and the rustle of water beyond a screen of shivering poplar leaves.
Fluffy seeds floated in clusters from the poplars, drifting like hanks of fine grey lambs-wool to their settling grounds along the banks. Fishermen sat stem and stern in their little bobbing boats, rods flashing in the sun as they tested skill and luck against the resident trout.
The west side of Grafham Water is managed as nature reserve by the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Northamptonshire Wildlife Trusts. What a beautiful job they have made of the orchid verges, the bird hides with their privileged platforms over reed beds and creeks, and the ancient woodlands carpeted with bluebells in spring.
‘The nightingales are in great voice,’ beamed the young warden we met. ‘I’ll be out in Littless Wood listening to them at dawn.’ Every robin and warbler chirrup we heard for the next half hour became the slow, expressive flutings of a nightingale – for a few anticipatory seconds at least. In our hearts, though, we knew it was wishful thinking.
A Bombilius bee-fly with her needle-like proboscis went hovering across the dried-up stubs of cowslips, no doubt looking for the burrow of a solitary bee to fire her eggs into. The Bombilius progeny, once hatched, eat the host larvae in a ‘live and let die’ manoeuvre.
Along the northern shore of the reservoir the wind blew a strong, refreshing blast. Hawthorn branches dipped and bowed, weighed down with blossoms so dense it looked as though a flour dredger had been shaken over them. A chiffchaff sang its early summer song: chip-chap, cheeky chap, chippy chap, a-chip-chap.
At Hill Farm we stopped to watch a pair of swans sailing downwind, their wings upheld like sails, to hiss menacingly at a dog swimming after a ball. Then we crossed the great concrete curve of the dam with its 1960s space-age valve tower, and strolled back along the south shore.
From Lagoon Hide in evening sunshine we looked out over reed beds full of bunting chatter and warbler burble, as the birds of Grafham Water bedded down for the night.
Start: Mander car park, West Perry, Grafham Water, Cambs PE28 0BX (OS ref TL 144672)
Getting there: Bus 400 from Huntingdon.
Road – A1, St Neots-Huntingdon; at Buckden, follow B661 towards Great Staughton. Drive through Perry; at far side, Grafham Water is signed on right.
Walk (9¼ miles, easy, OS Explorer 225): Walk clockwise round Grafham Water, using cycle track and waterside paths.
Lunch: Cafés at Marlow Park and Mander Park for takeaway food.