Kingsteignton’s Hackney Marshes
Hackney Marshes near Kingsteignton were once used for archery practice in the Middle Ages. This one-time haunt of clay bargemen is now a controlled wetland teeming with wildlife
The dog-walker stops, smiles and says, "I love it here. I come regularly. It's wild, great for dogs, lovely tidal water and lots of wildlife. And look, there's even a rainbow this morning!" He's talking about the Hackney Marshes Local Nature Reserve, a County Wildlife Site in Kingsteignton, with its small but fascinating wetlands. Christine Shinner (now Bowyer), Teignbridge District Council Ranger, is taking me around and the dog-walker is the first of many walkers we meet on our way.
Meadows, pools, trees, wide sky and flowing streams fill this green space tucked away between the urban sprawl of busy Greenhill Way in Kingsteignton, a nearby housing estate and the River Teign. Surfaced level paths and occasional picnic tables make the reserve a popular venue and wheelchair access is possible in dry weather. No wonder people come regularly to enjoy the beauty and interest of the surroundings.
The marshes have a long history, which includes being used as butts for the archers who practised with their bows every Sunday in the Middle Ages. Then, before the housing development in Kingsteignton sprang up, it provided summer grazing for local farmers, and was a popular shooting area in winter.
Wildlife has always been attracted to the place, and now, because of the maintenance carried out by the rangers, which echoes traditional farming practices as far as possible, a wide range of birds and insects are breeding here. What is essentially a flood plain, its defences cared for by the Environment Agency, is now a controlled wetland with many habitats for wildlife.
"There's a rich mosaic of habitats here supporting all sorts of wildlife," says Christine. "Part of my job is to undertake management to maintain the mix, timing mowing to keep dominant plants in check, mowing reeds a patch at a time to keep them thick, clearing ditches so that they don't clog up. It's an ongoing job, a bit like painting the Forth Bridge, but very rewarding. Whilst management is essential, it's also important to keep the site's special wild and natural feel so appreciated by its visitors."
We're walking along easily accessible paths and through damp grass. There is a mix of shrubby species like hazel, willow and alder along the banks of the streams crossing the meadows. Many kinds of wildflowers grow here, while a variety of birds, including warblers, kestrels, kingfishers, herons, moorhen and mallard, as well as dragonflies and the rare emerald damselfly can also be seen. In particular this is a breeding site for the Cetti's warbler, a rare and skulking species, unusual among warblers for being resident all year round. In spring its strident call is often the first thing you hear as you leave the car park and follow the path down into the marshes.
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Leaving the North Meadow we enter drier South Meadow with its ponds and expanding reed beds. These are developed to attract reed buntings and warblers, whose churring songs fill the marshes in summer. There are several willow-woven bird-watching screens where visitors can conceal themselves.
It is a popular site for school visits, especially when rivers are a National Curriculum topic. Children can learn about the different stages of a river and look at the top of the estuary, go pond-dipping to find mini-beasts, and play games to learn about food chains, all of which inform as well as amuse.
Other local residents are often involved, too. "There are many Friends of Hackney Marshes - local people and volunteers - who help by keeping an eye on the reserve, picking up litter, telling us if a tree blows down or advising us if any vandalism occurs," says Christine. "For the last few years we have held a summer event in Nature Reserve Week with games and a barbecue or picnic. We also hold guided walks as part of our programme. Look out for the adverts!"
Following the path beneath the railway bridge, a footpath leaves the marsh behind and follows the Teign along the canal path to the Passage House Inn at Hackney. Ruins of clay cellars and stone cottages line the path. Here a community of bargemen lived until the 1920s, taking 30-ton loads of clay from neighbouring pits to the harbour at Teignmouth, where it was offloaded into waiting ships for onward transmission. Egrets frequent these waters and sometimes you can spot an otter.
Back in the reserve, I see the latest exciting new project - an artificial sand martins' nesting colony. Supported by tall pillars, two six-foot barrels have been erected, covered with sand and cement, and bored to provide nesting spaces. "They are out of the way to give the birds peace and quiet, but they can be seen from the bird-watching screen nearby," Christine says. "Have the sand martins come, I ask?" She smiles. "Fingers crossed for this month or next. Hopefully, if we've provided the right habitat, nature will do the rest."
To end our walk, we leave the open marsh and take a wooded path following the line of houses bordering the north side of the reserve. Here huge oaks, old yews and apple trees provide different, shady habitats, all part of the original garden of the Regency house, still standing in its private grounds among the housing estate on the far side of Greenhill Way. "We found some stone-lined ponds," says Christine, "which means all this was probably part of its formal private garden. It's very atmospheric, and this old oak forms part of the children's enjoyment when they visit. I take my tape measure and they go round the tree, measuring it. It must be all of 300 years old."
Soon the path ends, and there, marked by a plane tree, is the car park entrance. We're back to the familiar roar of the traffic but the feel and memory of the peace in the reserve lingers on.