A history of Theale Old Gravel Pit and Englefield Park

1 March 2011 | Peter Gipson


Over half a century ago, some keen members of the Leighton Park School Bird Group would regularly, and no doubt eagerly, make the trip, in all likelihood by bicycle, from south Reading to two appreciated sites that lay just beyond Theale, only a kilometre apart, but two sites which have declined so much that most birders do not bother visiting them today. Their destinations were Theale Old Gravel Pit and Cranemoor Lake in Englefield Park, the landscaped park about half a kilometre to the west of Theale. Along with Burghfield Gravel Pits, these sites were popular with Reading-based observers throughout the 1950s, in fact more so than the celebrated Manor Farm sewage works. How times change! Although both sites still exist, neither gets a mention under the sites on the Theale Area Bird Conservation Group website, and the old Theale pit has never appeared on this one in a decade.

This article provides a short background for each site, followed by a selection of records intended to cover both notable and typical observations (particular species can be searched by using the Ctrl + F keys together). It is not a definitive history, not all the reports having been properly scrutinised, and may be revised.

Theale Old Gravel Pit

Now a secluded private fishing lake that is overlooked by birders, Theale Old Gravel Pit once had the appeal that the newer Theale Gravel Pits have today, being large enough in 1948 to attract a great rarity, Berkshire's first White-winged Black Tern. It is tucked away at the south west end of Theale village between the bypass and old Bath Road, not far from the Wigmore Lane lakes (grid reference SU637708). Access, which may be restricted, is via St Ives Close.

The pit had gained the interest of birdwatchers by 1935, having likely been recently excavated in an area of flat fields. If not already at that time, it would soon be fringed by willows and reeds. In 1937 the water was about 500 metres in length and 400 metres at its widest, and stated to cover 19 20 acres (8 hectares), with a depth of 1.9-4.5 metres. By 1953 it was reckoned to be 25 acres (10 hectares) and was being slowly filled in, as it was being used as a dump; this process was accelerating by 1957, displacing some of the breeding Reed Warblers and reducing the area of water. The site had the mischance to lie in the way of the Theale bypass, whose construction in 1970 caused further loss. In these times it has contracted to some 350 metres long and 140 metres at its widest. It has suffered at least one period of drought, during which the water fell to a drastically low level, exposing parts of the bottom and killing some of the fish.

Extraction from Theale New Gravel Pit - the Theale main pit we know today - began about 1949 (grid reference then SU650705) and a Goldeneye would occur there in December 1953. Its creation caused trivial confusion in the 1954-1956 Reading Ornithological Club reports, all of which referred to three pits: Theale Old Gravel Pit and Theale New Gravel Pit and Theale Gravel Pit! By the 1960s Theale Gravel Pit generally meant the newer site, its predecessor having fallen distinctly out of favour after 1961. The newer pit was enticing, as such rarities as Ferruginous Duck, Aquatic Warbler, Icterine Warbler and another White-winged Black Tern were turning up, along with scarcer species such as Little Tern, Little Stint and Wood Sandpiper, while the older pit in comparison was receiving scant coverage and producing little.

At Theale Old Gravel Pit over the summer of 1957, Ken Simmons, who was an esteemed authority on avian behaviour and the Great Crested Grebe, undertook an intensive study of that species, five pairs of which were breeding. On returning in 1975 after a long absence, he came across a single parent apparently coping with the feeding of five young, the other parent having presumably died. This is an exceptionally large brood for just one parent to feed. He enlisted the assistance of Robert Gillmor and myself to continue observations and establish its success in raising all five (Ken was hoping to publish this observation but two decades later he told me he had not).

Chronological list of selected records to 2010

The following list omits any summer/breeding records there may have been of the Little Ringed Plover, whose local breeding sites in the 1950s were not publicly identified. It is not immediately clear from the old reports (nor was it clarified in The Birds of Berkshire avifauna) whether the species was breeding at Theale Old Gravel Pit.

Englefield Park

Englefield Park epitomises a glorious olden England estate, comprising 150 hectares of splendid Elizabethan house, formal gardens, parish church, estate village, wooded hillside, small plantations, agricultural land, deer park and willowed lake, bounded in part by a wall and nicely maintained by estate workers. In common with many such estates, it employed gamekeepers and organised shoots - 9,000 Pheasants were released in one year! Although the site of Englefield appears regularly on the Bird News page of this website, the great majority of the sightings there relate to the landing strip area and fields up to a kilometre south of Englefield Park. The records included here, however, principally concern Cranemoor Lake (grid reference SU625713) within the park, plus one or two others which appear to relate to the park itself or close by.

"Cranemoor Pond" is depicted on a 1761 map, though it was smaller than the ornamental lake as it would exist through the majority of the 20th century. Set beside the beautiful parkland where a herd of Fallow Deer still graze, it was about 600 metres long by 230 metres at its widest, and the 1935 report notes it as covering 20.2 acres (8 hectares). In the 1960s it had 11 small, wooded islands where Grey Herons built their towering nests and muddy fringes where waders fed: Green Sandpipers were often present, up to 27 having been counted, and both Wood Sandpipers and Greenshanks were more frequent than Redshanks! Six Greenshanks were seen in 1974, a Spotted Redshank and Grey Plover were recorded once, but there were apparently no records for Jack Snipe, godwits, Dunlin or stints.

Table 1. Highest counts of four wader species, 1960 to 1965
  1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965
Common Sandpiper1+033210
Green Sandpiper14+8+27+1139
Wood Sandpiper501120

It can be seen in Table 2 that the lake was large enough to harbour 860 Mallards in 1961. It was deep enough to attract, once in a while, such deeper-water ducks as Goldeneye, Scaup, Goosander, Smew and even the Ring-necked Duck - only the second for Britain! On the other hand, it barely met the requirements of the Great Crested Grebe, which apparently only bred once, in 1962 - suggesting a good supply of small fish.

Table 2. Highest counts of Mallards in selected years
  1932 1949 1952 1953 1954 1959 1961 1962 1964 1965

Sadly, however, during the 1970s it gradually dried out, the water table falling as the extraction of gravel in the Theale and Pingewood districts continued to expand. The majority of the lake-bed has been dry and weeded since 1977, with the consequent loss of the waders that had been so reliable and appealing. To redress this, in the late 1990s the north part of the lake was substantially deepened, which restored the water there and allowed a reed-bed to be established. Today it holds modest numbers of the commoner waterfowl, including Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Greylag Goose, Egyptian Goose, Mallard, Mandarin Duck, Little Grebe, Moorhen and Coot.

The name Cranemoor Lake might appear to contain an old allusion to the Grey Heron, and a heronry had been established by the 1960s. However, the first pair were not documented to nest until 1932, then a single pair bred sporadically up to the 1960s - bearing no comparison with the heronry at Coley Park (Reading) which held about 50 nests in 1949. As Table 3 shows, the number of occupied nests had grown to seven in 1967 and went on to peak at 16 in 1975, probably encouraged by the expansion of Theale Gravel Pits. Possibly because of the dry lake-bed, the number of occupied nests fell back during the 1980s and 1990s, though upturning to four in 2003.

Table 3. Number of apparently occupied Grey Heron nests in selected years
  1931 1949 1967 1968 1975 1980 1988 1994 1998 2003

The ridge at the top of the park is somewhat reminiscent of a west country wooded hillside, and indeed a few species strongly associated with such a place have been recorded. Back in the 19th century, Pied Flycatchers summered for some years and a Redstart was encountered in song; and in 1925 two or three pairs of Redstarts were present. One or two Ravens have recently been in the vicinity. While the 1987 1991 tetrad survey did not yield any published evidence of Buzzards breeding in the Englefield area, I gather that three or four pairs were known to estate workers then; they are certainly breeding there today.

Although private, permission to enter Cranemoor Lake for excursions, wildfowl counts, Canada Goose studies (by Nicholas Blurton-Jones), private visits and even the erection of a hide was generally granted to birdwatchers by Englefield Estate Office. Improbable as it seems, it was a Reading Ornithological Club excursion on 20th August 1967 that encountered a Melodious/Icterine Warbler (considered to be Melodious) right at the top of a tall Poplar! A reasonable portion of the lake, including the heronry, could be taken in by peering over the wall beside the road at the south - voles would often be scurrying on the grassy bank at my feet! Rather inadequate views were - and still are - possible from the village road to the north. Its popularity with birdwatchers declined considerably during the 1970s and since that time it has been ignored by most, excepting coverage to an extent by the Theale Area Bird Conservation Group. Of noteworthy value, several of its members undertook a survey of the farmland surrounding Englefield Park in the 1997 breeding season and located about 106 pairs of Skylarks, 6-8 pairs of Lapwings, 4 pairs of Yellow Wagtails and 15-20 pairs of Linnets - but rather ominously, no breeding pairs of Corn Buntings.

Chronological list of selected records to 2010


© Peter Gipson 2011