Otters and lagoons: London Wetland Centre in Barnes
I’ve kayaked mangrove swamps in the US. I’ve squelched through marshy bogs on a Scottish island. But exploring the closest wetlands to me, just south of the river? Not until yesterday.
In fact, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust was founded almost 60 years ago and now looks after 2,600 hectares across the UK, including the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, not far from the Thames.
Created from four redundant reservoirs, it’s seen more than 200 species of birds since opening in 2000, as well as 300,000 plants, 27,000 trees, water voles, dragonflies, frogs, snakes, slow worms, bats, newts and butterflies.
On a grey Monday in January, we had it pretty much to ourselves as well. The only visitors were pensioners and parents with pre-schoolers, including my sister-in-law and three-year-old nephew, Minnie and I.
There are several different routes stretching round the reserve, and plenty of accessible pathways if you’re pushing a buggy. Taking the South Route, I managed only to get stuck in the mud once, during a stroll that lasted the best part of an hour.
It’s incredibly peaceful too, with only the Heathrow traffic overhead intermittently drowning out frogs and birdcalls.
Serious twitchers wandered past carrying cameras, binoculars and tripods, while there’s several hides for those prepared to settle down all day and be quiet.
For those of us with toddlers, we stuck to the outdoors. And they were just as happy watching ducks land on one of the ponds, wandering around the rain garden looking at cleverly constructed bird feeders and splashing in endless muddy puddles.
Fortunately they were also small enough to be distracted when we managed to miss the bat house entirely and discovered that the sand martin nest bank is currently only a video of nesting sand martins.
All along the paths there are signs and information, explaining the various stages of wetlands and the animals you might meet.
And there are some areas aimed specifically at children, including the Pond Zone where you can take a quick close-up look at just how much life there is in a pond, as well as learning quite how much damage we’re all causing to the environment.
I came out of there feeling thoroughly ashamed at the amount of Vanish I use…
There are also activities at weekends and during the school holidays, while the indoor Discovery Centre tracks a journey through the wetlands of the world, from peat bogs to coral reefs, including trivia on ‘walking’ fish and lopsided crabs.
I suspect there’s more to entertain when it’s sunny, including the outdoor adventure playground Explore, with zip wires, a climbing wall and giant water vole tunnels. We opted to thaw out in the café instead.
Even in mid winter, it’s a lovely place to wander. Tall grasses wave by the edge of the sheltered lagoon, bright pops of red berries gleamed against the overcast sky, and the muted browns and greens had a subtle beauty.
And at the end of it, after refortifying with hot chocolate, were the otters. Twice a day, the centre has feedings with a short talk about the two Asian short-clawed otters – time your visit to include one or the other, as the animals tend to sneak back inside to snooze once they’ve finished eating.
I love otters. So sleek, so faintly mischievous, and those fantastic whiskers – watching them munch through fish and seafood, their dexterous paws making short work of the meal, was wonderful.
The kids all stood mesmerised as they splashed under a waterfall and scuttled to the staff member feeding them, occasionally diving down to catch a missed morsel.
As the rain started again, even the animals decided to call it quits and head inside. But if you can’t have the real thing, there’s always the gift shop.
Producing the tiny stuffed otter I’d bought as Minnie napped, I thought she might explode with beaming excitement.
This is trip 5 of my Take12Trips challenge
Need to know
Entrance costs £12.35 for adults (including gift aid) while under fours go free. A family ticket (two adults, two children aged four to 16) costs £34.50. Membership starts from £41 for one adult.
Free activities include the otter feeding at 11am and 2pm, guided tours lasting up to 90 minutes at 11.30 am and 2.30pm, and bird feeding at 3pm.
Children’s activities including pond dipping and arts & crafts run every weekend and during school holidays.
All images copyright MummyTravels/Cathy Winston