Immerse yourself in the beauty of the English countryside without packing for a weekend away with a trip to the London Wetland Centre. Nestled amid a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Thames, this serene park serves as a sanctuary for waterfowl indigenous to the area, so if you’re looking for a family outing that’s both fun and educational, grab your kids and your binoculars and set off on an urban wilderness adventure.
At first, the park’s modern reception hall and asphalt walkways might seem a bit too civilized for a nature reserve, but just wait until you step out into the 200 acres of wetlands created from four disused Victorian reservoirs. As you walk hand in hand down the trail, the urban landscape retreats, giving way to a jungle of towering reeds, aquamarine ponds, and meandering lagoons embraced by dense vegetation. Looking around at all the greenery that surrounds you, it’s hard to believe you’re in central London.
The kids will be excited by the wildness of it all, but remind them of the park’s most important rule: keep the noise to a minimum. This is not just about proper manners, as they’ll soon discover. The quieter they are, the more birds they’ll see, since they won’t get spooked and fly away. But this pristine park is hardly silent. The sound of friendly squawks and lilting chirps forms an avian symphony around you, albeit one that’s occasionally punctuated by the shrill cry of the bittern, one of Britain’s rarest–and loudest–birds. There’s plenty of room for fun as your young wildlings turn into quiet, nature-loving angels, reading the frequent signs describing the wildlife and giggling as curious geese peck food pellets from their open palms.
Since they’re studying birds, show them a bird’s-eye view of the park from the watchtower. Race to the top floor, throw open one of the tiny windows, and scan the marshes for the majestic grey heron. After a few passes with your binoculars, you spot one. The kids jockey for a good look as the lanky bird wades through the water looking for a fish to snack on before spreading its giant wings and flying away.
The little ones have done a great job staying quiet so far, so let them run wild for a few minutes in the outdoors adventure playground. With a climbing wall, ziplines, and even giant water vole tunnels (the park has a significant number of these semiaquatic rodents), there’s no end the the excitement they’ll find. If they’re still curious about the natural world, pop into the discovery centre, where you’ll learn about wetlands all over the globe, from Scottish peat bogs to Caribbean reefs.
As you take a final stroll through the park, play a little bird-watching game, promising ice cream to the first to spot a white-faced whistling duck or a chestnut teal. The kids are wise to the fact that everybody’s going to get a treat no matter what they spot, but that doesn’t seem to slow down the competition as they scan the water, looking for another flash of wings.