Bird Watching Along London’s Waterlink Way

On the 59th day of my Lewisham lockdown, Boris Johnson announced that restrictions in England were easing slightly.

Realistically, the few minor changes that have been brought in make little difference to my current lifestyle. I’ll continue working from home for the foreseeable and can’t go on day trips outside London as I don’t own a car, so I’m making the most of the one new missive that does impact me: longer walks.

This week, Hugh and I walked the furthest we had been from our front door for nine weeks along the southern stretch of south east London’s Waterlink Way.

The well-maintained path follows a twelve kilometre route from the Cutty Sark in Greenwich along the River Ravensbourne. The way constantly weaves around this historic tributary of the Thames like a braided pastry with the use of bridges and underpasses. Lucky walkers are never far from the trickling sounds of the river’s faster flowing bends or the green swathe of life that follows it.

Starting in Lewisham on the outskirts of Zone 2, we dropped downstairs to hit up Cornmill Gardens: Our very own touching point with the Waterlink’s route just twenty meters from our tower block. The re-wilding of this stretch has been a roaring success. And within five minutes we saw our first brood of ducklings and some raucous, rummaging moorhens.

However, the whole point of our walk was to go beyond the bounds of recent weeks.

So after stopping briefly to coo at the baby birds, we power-walked to the northernmost entrance of Ladywell Fields – the proper starting point of our planned route. Only ten minutes past the playing fields and tennis courts, things got interesting. We managed to startle a little egret feeding in the shallows and almost in the same moment, caught the familiar blue flash of the local kingfisher darting towards breakfast.

When we reached the final point of our normal, pre-lockdown route, we dipped under Catford rail bridge. It was easy to discover the walkway again past a large builders depot where an orderly, distanced queue had formed before 7am on a Saturday morning. Not put off by a carpark full of humans, a grey wagtail frenzied in feeding mode, dipping and diving around the river’s nearest bend.

Another few minutes beyond Catford, things got pretty wild. The path was still slick with tarmac but either side of it, huge trees rose from the banks of the waterway and the river’s pace picked up. Nature was noisy on this stretch, with the familiar chatter of ring-necked parakeets playing as a background track to the more unusual calls of warblers and just perhaps, a cuckoo?

It wasn’t long before we arrived at one of the most picturesque parts of the Waterlink Way: The convergence of the Ravensbourne with the River Pool. The two tributaries flowed relatively slowly given the lack of recent rain we’ve had in London and the still pools were mirrors for the heavy foliage above. Branches hung heavy with freshly unfurled leaves and rustled with the movement of warring wood pigeons.

The birds kept coming. Circumspect song thrushes, vivid, streaked jays and little brown jobs (LBJs) that were presumably wrens, Britain’s most populous bird, although really could have been anything.

Then all of sudden, a squawking magpie swooped low overhead. Chasing it was the unmistakable barred belly of an angry cuckoo. Cuckoo’s are rare and reclusive birds and this was the first one we had ever actually seen in the UK. A brief chat with a binocular-clad local lady at two meters confirmed its shyness. She had only ever heard it on that stretch but had never caught a glimpse.

Two more sets of teenage ducklings and some playful greenfinches later, we reached our most southerly point in Lower Sydenham. Lockdown hadn’t done wonders for our stamina and after a few hours on the hoof, the draw of breakfast broke our motivation to complete the final part of the walk. The Waterlink Way officially ends in Cator Park but instead we turned 180 at a colourful mural of our kingfisher friend and followed the river home.

The return journey was busier with the arrival of morning joggers, cyclists and dog walkers. Although everyone we met was respectful with their distance. In fact, people smiled and wished us good morning. Rare for London and perhaps a sign that we’ve all been changed slightly for the better by recent events. It was odd to see people with branded takeaway coffee cups for the first time and young couples lounging on benches with no fearful looks about being moved on. For the first time in months, Ladywell High Sreet showed signs of life.

Yet this familiar territory felt strangely different and not without its undertone of acknowledgement that something bigger was still going on.

Still, we had experienced the best of the day. Those wonderful post-dawn moments that are left solely for the birds and other wildlife of London’s boroughs. It was also the furthest we had stretched our legs in over two months and that felt really, really good.

3 thoughts on “Bird Watching Along London’s Waterlink Way

      1. Restrictions haven’t been lifted here, there’s just been a gradual easing. It’s different from state to state depending on COVID numbers. State borders aren’t yet open and domestic travel within Queensland is limited to a maximum of 150 km for a day trip for recreational purposes. Many shops have reopened, but cinemas, theatres, gyms and other indoor activities won’t start up again for at least another month. Restaurants and cafes can have a maximum of 10 people at one time, with 2 metres between each person. We’re not expecting our state border to open to interstate travellers for a few months yet and international travel may not happen for at least 12 months. For us, things aren’t much different. We’re just happy to stay home and be safe. There’s been no active virus cases in our area for 40 days, which is great, but it could always flare up again if people aren’t careful.

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