Woodberry Wetlands reopens to the public on 1 May

An urban oasis for wildlife in Hackney is opening after 200 years

"IF you look that way, you could be on the Norfolk Broads,” says David Mooney, gesturing across a vast and peaceful reed bed of islands, channels and ponds, through which rare birds are gliding. 

He adds: “But if you turn this way...” and swings round to reveal the vast Woodberry Down Estate, including its 30-storey tower and all the cranes and digging equipment needed to construct its new neighbours. “It’s London,” he smiles, saying: “It’s real. I love this space. This is 21st century, urban nature conservation.”

This is the brand new Woodberry Wetlands, a £1.3million project run by London Wildlife Trust that has turned a reservoir, closed to the public for over 200 years, into a modern nature reserve. The site has the conservation community so excited that Sir David Attenborough himself will officially open it on 30 April at an invite-only event.

“It’s the size of 13 football pitches, but hardly anyone knew about it, isn’t that mad?” says David, as he shows us around just days before the official opening. He grew up in Finsbury Park and used to cycle past the reservoir as a child, wondering about the wildlife that lay within. 

For him, and for the 400 odd volunteers who have worked on the project for the last six years, its regeneration has been a labour of love.

David continues: “We’re all local, and from the beginning we knew two things: it had to be completely free for people to visit and we wanted it to be rooted in the community.”

There will be engagement schemes and projects with nearby schools, wild yoga classes for locals, educational workshops, bat walks, nature projects, markets and more.

It is a long way off from the 1950s, when chlorine and sodium phosphate gas were pumped into the reservoir, supposedly to disinfect the water. But rather than clean it, it killed it, preventing almost all wildlife from living there. 

In the 1990s, the two neighbouring East and West reservoirs were nearly sold to developers who planned to fill them in and build houses on the site. Residents campaigned successfully to save them and West Reservoir became a Council-owned watersports centre. 

East Reservoir continued to be a functioning Thames Water reservoir, closed to the public. Then, in 2010, London Wildlife Trust secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Hackney Council and Berkeley Homes (who are developing the fringing estate) to begin work on its grand project.

The reservoir has been sculpted into 27 acres of reed-fringed ponds and dykes connected by channels of different depths that create a rich habitat for birds and other wildlife. 

Some 13,000 square metres of reeds were planted, to ‘coax nature back’, as David puts it, and as we walk along the boardwalks that encircle and connect them, he points to a pair of swans, building a nest from reeds. 

“We’re already seeing rare wading birds here that Hackney has never seen before,” he continues. Reed buntings, song thrushes, and kingfishers are all flocking back.

It is not just the birds who are profiting, however. History is being preserved too. A 19th-century coal store that was subsiding has been rescued and turned into a cafe and visitors centre, with a rooftop herb garden. 

Around the site, signs made by a local designer tell the story of the area: from the deer hunting that took place there in the 1600s; through to building the reservoirs in 1833, to bring clean water from the chalk streams of Hertfordshire to polluted London.

The elegant villas that grew up around them, hosting the wealthy including, some say, famed American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald, who enjoyed boating on the New River; to their demolition to construct 2,500 homes for the capital’s poor in 1962.

A further 550 square metres of new hedgerow, wildflower meadows and fruit trees will attract birds, bees, butterflies, frogs, dragonflies and bats. But David is passionate that the site should also provide a nourishing ecosystem for local children. 

“We get kids coming here who are almost scared by the reeds. They ask what it is and when we say, ‘grass,’ they’re shocked. They think grass should look like it does on football pitches.

“We want to create that awe and wonder in the kids who live here. Everything has been designed to encourage them to explore and get hands on. There’s so much they can learn. This place is for them,” he says.

Woodberry Wetlands reopens on 1 May, with free daily entry, 8am to 5pm.

By Harriet Worsley