Take a gentle stroll around Hanningfield Reservoir, stopping first for a tasty breakfast at Café on the Water

Distance: Approx. one mile Time: 45 minutes

Water lapping at the shore; sudden honks of Canada geese; peace and quiet. These are the overwhelming sounds of Hanningfield Reservoir. Our walk this month begins at Café on the Water (calm.firebird.rewarded), on the southern shore of the reservoir, looking out onto the sailing dinghies and vast bird-filled horizon beyond. You simply order up at the counter and the kind staff will hand you a numbered wooden spoon. Then sit inside or out and await one of the best breakfasts around. I always sit outside in the refreshing breeze if weather permits.

After breakfast, walk west through a wooded area and you will pass a welcome sign from Essex Wildlife Trust. The woods are magical in any season, from the swelled greenery of spring, the golds and burnt umbers of autumn to the frosty, skeletal winter when branches are bare. Through the trees of Peninsula Wood, white light can be seen dancing off the water’s surface like golden coins, and multiple bird hides are signed with arrows left and right. Some look over the water, others over grazing meadows – all teeming with life so don’t forget your binoculars!

Great British Life: Cafe on the Water is the perfect breakfast spot. (c) Andrew MillhamCafe on the Water is the perfect breakfast spot. (c) Andrew Millham

It is not long before you reach ‘the second tea stop of the day’, as I call it. Essex Wildlife Trust has their own visitor centre on the banks of the reservoir, with a lovely shop and café (paper.squaring.social). The wide view from the café is like an IMAX window, and through the large panes of glass are overflowing bird feeders – seeds, fat balls, the lot! Whilst you drink your tea, the great tits, woodpeckers and pigeons eat their lunch too. Cheeky squirrels regularly perform circus acrobatics trying to get in on the feast, hanging and swinging from the feeders.

For the last few years, I have been a volunteer with Essex Wildlife Trust and recently had the pleasure of attending a free ‘Winter Tree Identification’ course with the ranger at the Hanningfield Reservoir site, Bill Godsafe. He is hard to miss, usually seen with his impressive moustache and wide-brimmed hat.

The course was harder than I imagined! As we know, in the winter most trees only offer the bark and buds, with no leaves to give away what species we’re looking at. Bill is incredibly knowledgeable. As we walked along, he picked what looked like a cedar needle and squeezed it between thumb and finger, asking us to smell it. To our surprise, it smelt exactly like pineapple! It was surreal, like something from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. So, if you ever see Bill around the visitor centre, do stop to chat as he loves talking with visitors.

After the course I returned to the visitor centre with a cuppa and started researching the history of the reservoir. I was amazed to learn that in 1951, the Sandon Valley – the site of the reservoir today – was flooded to provide water for the growing population of Essex and Suffolk. Farms and houses had to be destroyed, farmers relocated, and locals were devastated to see their village razed to the ground. Even an imposing 16th century stone gabled manor house, known as Fremnells Manor, was destroyed which was especially controversial. Still, what is done is done, and the flooding has made way for one of the most picturesque nature-friendly sights in Essex.

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