A walk along the shores of beautiful Alton Water

Alton Water is the county's largest purpose-built reservoir

Alton Water is the county's largest purpose-built reservoir with eight miles of walking and cycling tracks around the perimeter. - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Alton Water on the Shotley Peninsula in Suffolk is a great destination for a winter walk, where you can choose to make it an all-day, eight-mile hike, or a shorter family stroll.

Alton Water, on the Shotley Peninsula, between the rivers Orwell and Stour, is such a familiar feature of the Suffolk landscape that it's startling to remind oneself that this huge reservoir was commissioned as recently as 1986. 

With a perimeter of more than eight miles, it's Suffolk's largest purpose-built reservoir and is a thing of great beauty. Apart from its practical purpose as a much-needed source of water for an area of the county from Stowmarket to Felixstowe - including Ipswich - it's a popular spot for all sorts of outdoor pursuits. Managed by Anglian Water, Alton Water Park comprises 400 acres of beautiful countryside - woodland and open fields - making it an location for walking, cycling, wildlife watching, photography and family picnics all year round. Here you can try water sports and fishing - the park hosts competitive events throughout the year - and there's also a café, plenty of parking (for a small fee) and a visitors’ centre.

The origins of Alton Water date from the 1960s when it became clear that Ipswich’s underwater supply would be insufficient to meet the needs of the growing population after 1971. Three days into 1968, Ipswich Corporation unveiled plans for a massive reservoir, with a dam 65 feet high and 650 yards long across the valley of Tattingstone Brook. The valley would then be flooded to a depth of over 60 feet in places by pumping water through a pipeline from the River Gipping at Sproughton a few miles away.

READ: Explore Suffolk's fascinating literary connections

The reservoir would stretch for about three miles from near the Tattingstone White Horse pub, through Tattingstone Park, and along the valley to Holbrook Mill, covering about 586 acres, including 219 of arable land, 44 acres of pasture, 104 of scrub or woodland, and 177 of rough grazing. About three-dozen houses, and other properties, would either be engulfed or be so close to the water’s edge as to be uninhabitable. About 75 people who would lose their homes were forewarned and compensation for the full market value of their properties was pledged. It must have been a bewildering experience for those affected. 

A selection of views around Alton Water near Tattingstone.

Along the track surrounding Alton Water near Tattingstone. - Credit: Simon Page

Before construction started, Alton Water Mill, built at the turn of the 19th century but no longer operating commercially, was dismantled and rebuilt at the Museum of  East Anglian Life at Stowmarket in 1973. But according to a report in the East Anglian Daily Times at the time, the owner of 17th century Alton Hall, Mr Bateman, said he’d probably have to abandon his property because the water would come to within a foot of the hall. In the end it was submerged. Mr Bateman’s land was said to be one of three or four Suffolk manors listed in Domesday Book. He also owned nearby Tattingstone Hall Farm, built in the 16th and 17th centuries and thought that would disappear under 50 or 60 feet of water.

Alton Water Picture: GEORGE SAYER

Alton Water was created to supply water to an area from Stowmarket to Felixstowe, including Ipswich. - Credit: George Sayer

Five Acres, at Holbrook, a row of 24 dwellings built about 40 years earlier and home to about 50 people, would also be lost, and a number of minor roads, bridleways and footpaths would have to be closed. The main A137 road between Ipswich and Manningtree would cross the northern part of the reservoir on a raised embankment.​The village of Tattingstone would be divided by the reservoir into two segments, linked by Lemons Hill bridge.

Most Read

The dam was started in 1974, constructed from local London clay and the entire project took 13 years to complete. Following extensive trials, the treatment process was commissioned and water was finally pumped into supply in October 1986. Alton Water was officially opened by The Princess Royal on July 10, 1987.

Windsurfing demo day at Alton Water Picture: PETER CUTTS

As well as walking, Alton Water is a great spot for water sports. - Credit: PETER CUTTS

If you lived in Suffolk in the 1960s and 1970s, it was all too clear the effect a hot, dry summer could have on the water supply. A brick in the toilet cistern and five inches of bath water were the norm. Wasting water on lawns was frowned upon and hosepipes were regularly banned. Looking at Alton water, brim full after autumn rain and glinting in the winter sun it's hard to imagine there would never be enough H2O to go round. 

SUBSCRIBE: get Suffolk magazine every month and discover more of our great county

This is a fantastic place for walking whatever the season. In autumn the trees turn spectacularly golden, russet and copper, while in summer they provide welcome shade. There are sections of wild flower meadow and plenty of bird life to watch. The eight mile perimeter divides neatly into sections so you can do as much or as little of it as you like, and there are trails that take you away from the water's edge so you can create circular walks of your own, or simply retrace your steps. The terrain is suitable for all the family and you can take your dog (you're asked to keep dogs out of the water and on leads). Short winter days make this my pick for a New Year walk in January 2022. 

Compass points

Distance: entire perimeter 8 miles/13 km

Time: it's up to you!

Getting there: A14, A137, follow directions for Stutton.

Parking: £6 all day, £3.70 for 1-3 hours. Park at main entrance at Stutton, Lemons Hill Bridge, Tattingstone, The Wonder. 

Maps: download at anglianwaterparks.co.uk/alton-water or OS Explorer 197 (Ipswich, Felixstowe & Harwich)

Accessibility: woodland trails, footpaths (some sealed sections) 

Ts & Ps: Cafe and visitors' centre