If you’re looking for an educational family day out that doesn’t involve hanging around indoors, then London’s splendid nature reserves are just the thing. It’s remarkable just how much diversity can be found in these wetland habitats, from water voles to rare migratory birds. Autumn is a great time to visit -- you’re less likely to get sunburned and the diminishing foliage makes wildlife spotting all the easier. Here are five exceptional sites around the capital.
London Wetland Centre
London Wetland Centre celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2020. This former set of reservoirs in Barnes, West London, is now a thriving wildlife habitat. It’s a wonderful 100 acres to explore with children, featuring long boardwalks, hides, educational centres and even an otter enclosure. The wetlands are a particularly good place for bird-spotting, with several nesting species found nowhere else in London. Look out for bitterns, kingfishers and lapwings, among many others. Note, parking is limited and Hammersmith Bridge is currently closed to traffic.
Over in the east, Rainham Marshes spans the Thames-side land where London merges into Essex. This RSPB nature reserve is a former Ministry of Defence firing range, and you can still see some of the concrete infrastructure dotted throughout the wetlands. At well over 1,000 acres, this is one of the largest nature reserves in the south-east -- so be sure to bring scooters. The walking routes contain regular hides, with a chance to see some truly rare birds -- despite the occasional roar of a passing Eurostar train. The site includes parking, a cafe and visitor centre.
London’s newest wetland centre opened in October 2017. A series of nature trails curl around the 10 operational reservoirs that have long dominated the area. Walk or cycle your way around the 500 acre site, which is free to enter. Besides a bevy of wildlife, Walthamstow Wetlands also has a cafe and visitor centre, sites of architectural interest and a small car park. The nearby Walthamstow Marshes are also worth a wander, with a wilder, less-managed landscape, and the site of the first all-British aircraft flight (by AV Roe).
Woodberry is a much smaller site than the others on this list, offering a more intimate brush with nature. The park opened in 2016 on a former chlorinated reservoir that once held little wildlife. Today, the wetlands are overseen by London Wildlife Trust, and can be found between Manor House and Stoke Newington. It’s an unusual space, surrounded by tower blocks -- but the stark contrast of the urban and the natural adds to the character. The site is free to visit, and includes a small cafe in a grade II-listed coal house.
River Lee Country Park
A bit of a cheat, as it’s just outside the Greater London boundary, but the River Lee Country Park is one of our favourite family days out. The sprawling site includes endless waterways, rolling meadows, a huge diversity of plants and mature trees, stuff for kids to clamber over, a disc golf course, curious sculptures and much more besides. While you’re in the area, consider a visit to the White Water Centre (if the family is into that kind of thing), or check out the supposed burial site of King Harold in Waltham Abbey. Sadly, the adjacent Gunpowder mills remain closed until 2021, but are certainly worth putting on your bucket list for when the time comes. Get to the country park either via Cheshunt or Waltham Cross Overground stations, or use one of the car parks.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.