A history of the Woodley waters

4 January 2011 | Peter Gipson


A little searching on the bird news and rarity databases of this website will reveal that Theale Gravel Pits can claim many more sightings of scarce and rare birds than Dinton Pastures, which in turn has produced many more than the lakes located within suburban Woodley. Over the past three decades in particular, South Lake and Ashenbury Park Lake (formerly known as Woodley Gravel Pit) have yielded relatively few records of scarce or rare species, and perhaps as a consequence, they have tended to be under-watched, if not neglected. Although since the 1960s there has been no lack of continually active observers residing in Woodley or adjacent Earley, they have shown a marked preference to make the longer journey to Dinton Pastures or Twyford Gravel Pits or Theale, or going back more than a generation, to the fabulous Manor Farm.

In spite of these factors, the Woodley lakes can boast a surprising catalogue of records, especially of waterfowl, whose congregations are not hinted at by the more recent reports; and the sites themselves have an interesting history.

A 1761 map shows a body of water, having the heritage of an "ancient fish pond," which would later be constructed into South Lake, around 1820. A second water would similarly be transformed into North Lake (see shortly). Both waters were located on the prehistoric Bulmershe Heath and drained by a stream flowing eastwards to the River Loddon; speculatively, they were once possibly ponds formed naturally on the impervious London Clay. Bulmershe Heath came to exist by the clearance of trees over 4,000 years ago and extended across much of Woodley north of the Wokingham Road, with the Manor of Bulmershe being established in the 11th century; over the centuries it has consisted in part of grazing land and thicket and woodland, as well as heathland. Grasshopper Warblers summered near South Lake in the 1930s, a pair of Willow Tits bred in 1948, Nightjars retained a foothold into the 1950s, and Badgers occupied five setts in 1964. A fragment of heather inhabited by Common Lizards on the edge of Highwood provides a contemporary reminder of this ancient heritage. The remainder of what we know today as Woodley was also rural until its development began in earnest after the Second World War.

Disregarding Woodley Airfield, which managed to attract Teal and Shovelers, and a short-lived gravel working near Duffield Road, this article provides a short background for each Woodley water that was visited by birdwatchers, followed by a selection of records intended to cover both notable and typical observations. It should be borne in mind that sixty years ago some species such as Tree Sparrow, Hawfinch and Red-backed Shrike were much commoner in Berkshire than today while others such as Cormorant and Gadwall were much rarer. At present it is more a work in progress than a definitive history (not all the reports have been properly scrutinised), and it may be revised.

Ashenbury Park Lake (formerly Woodley Gravel Pit)

Before Ashenbury Park was reclaimed on the old Woodley rubbish tip, its picturesque lake (grid reference SU776746) was known to birdwatchers as Woodley Gravel Pit, which first appeared in the reports under the name of Ham River Gravel Pit. The initial excavations were made on farmland where the grassland of Ashenbury Park rolls today (grid reference SU776744), probably in the 1930s. A 1951 map (based on earlier surveys) indicates there were only dry pits, which may explain the lack of reports until 1947, when the presence of the Reed Bunting was accompanied by the remark "a new breeding place" - at that time the species normally bred in wetter sites. The first pits were infilled with rubbish as the excavation progressed north of the footpath in the place the lake is today, in the late 1950s and 1960s. The old water was said to cover 5 acres (2 hectares) in 1953 but is presently over twice this area, its irregular shape approximating to a rectangle 350 metres by 150 metres (13 acres or 5 hectares). It was evidently still surrounded by farmland in 1954, as a Corn Bunting was recorded singing there.

Ashenbury Park Lake has been under-watched since the 1980s, despite having produced early Red-crested Pochard, Red-necked Grebe, Garganey, Hooded Crow and scarcer waders such as Spotted Redshank and Wood Sandpiper. Its south side is public and within easy reach of the car park in Tippings Lane.

Chronological list of selected records to 2010

The list that follows probably omits some breeding/summering records of Little Ringed Plovers, whose local breeding sites were not publicly identified.