London Wetland Centre review
Common sense says that you should get the train to Barnes and walk from there, but if you don't mind a leisurely 30-40 minute stroll then I reckon it's better to get the train to Putney, and then head up Putney High Street to the bridge. Then you've got a nice walk down the river, past half-a-mile of boat yards and boat clubs. It's quite a pleasant stretch, with racks and stacks of rowing boats all piled up outside, and the sound of hammers and saws coming out of the wooden double doors.
The river is quite wide around here, all dirty brown and slow, with grey stony beaches and slimy mud flats, and a floating row of pleasure craft all chained up in the water. The second half of the walk is quite dark and woody, and if you keep your peepers peeled then you can spot the white arch of Wembley Stadium curving above the treetops.
The London Wetland Centre is a bit of a strange place. It's not quite a park, and it's not quite a zoo. It's a bit like a bird sanctuary, I suppose. I think the aim of the place is to return the land to nature, and let it grow wild (which is handy, because that means they don't have to do any weeding). Normally you would pull all these plants up and chuck them on the compost, but in here the weeds are flourishing. This is their stronghold, and Mother Nature is the boss. She has penned herself in behind a camouflage of ferns and grasses and dyks and marshes, criss-crossed with wooden walkways and lookout posts -- I am serious! It is like a no-mans land for nature.
Parts of it are quite nicely done, I suppose. They've got some pretty little ponds and waterfalls, and some log-built fences and forest lodges. There are lots of rockeries as well. As for the animals, it's pretty much all ducks and geese (and flies and midges). They've got a few otters to spice things up a bit, but it's mostly about the ducks.
The layout is supposed to take you on a trip around the world, through Iraqi marshes and a Siberian tundra. They have little information boards up saying: "This is what the Siberian tundra looks like", but of course it doesn't. It's just a different colour grass. And the birds don't stick to the correct zones either; so you've got the same old coots and ducks and pigeons in the Orient as you've got in the American forest. What they need to do is chop their wings off so they can't escape, or staple their feet to the floor; so they stick to where they are supposed to be. Or put some electric fences up to stop them wandering off -- that is what I would do, if I was in charge. No zoo would allow a lion to walk around the petting zoo, would they? And it should be the same rule here: if a duck walks into the wrong zone then they should shoot it.
I like the way they've got a load of Jurassic Park-style gateways dotted around the trails. They are ten-feet high and protected by chains and chicken wire, with big signs up saying: "Shut the gate! Don't let the animals out!" But it's all birds. It's like the world's worst prison -- they can just fly over the top.
The best bit about the place is the hides. As you walk around the lake you will come across five or six birdwatching hides, where you can grab a pair of binoculars and a book about birds and see how many you can spot. I had a little go but I didn't have a clue what I was looking at. It was all just ducks and geese to me. I might have seen a heron as well, or it might have just been a duck with long legs. Most of the hides were busy with birdwatchers. They looked like proper pros as well, with massive cameras and binoculars and a pair of waterproof waders. It was all very quiet and serious, with lots of jottings into their notebook -- no one daring to say a word in case the birds heard and scarpered.
A lot of the land is incredibly wild, with stony paths walled in with nettles and berries. Some of the grasses are six-feet high, and a lot of the water seems to be solid, topped off with a layer of bright green algae. I saw a duck just sitting in it fast asleep. He must have been in there for ages, because the algae had settled around his waist like a duvet.
It's quite a big place, and if the weather is grey like it was today, it can even seem desolate -- especially when you get out amongst the marshes and grasses. You can be walking around for five minutes and not see a soul. It's just you and the noises that nature makes: wind and water, and strange squawks and screams coming out from the trees. The birds don't shut up for a second. You might think that it's quiet, but if you actually stop and have a listen for a while then it's a never ending stream of whistles and trills and cheeps.
This is how I would sum this place up: If you're into birds and birdwatching then you will undoubtedly love the hides (they've got a decent shop as well), but for everyone else it's just a nice walk. If you're after some flowers then you'd be better off going to Wisley or Kew, because there's nothing pretty here.
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