July’s walk of the month: WWT Washington Wetland Centre
Ponds buzzing with dragonflies, meadows awash with flowers in bloom, cool waterways and woodlands offering shade and exotic wildlife at every turn…
Distance: 103 acres (full site)
Time: 3 hours
The trailhead for all three walking routes around Washington Wetland Centre can be found at the main visitor centre – with facilities also including a café (with sun terrace), a gift shop, accessible toilets and a baby changing room.
WWT Washington Wetland Centre is a wetland nature reserve and visitor attraction on the banks of the River Wear. Open 364 days a year, this family-friendly site offers visitors of all ages and abilities a host of unforgettable wildlife encounters and beautiful scenery whatever the weather.
In summer, wetlands are truly uplifting places to be. They are lush, verdant and brimming with life. Birds are busy raising their young, ponds are buzzing with colourful dragonflies and meadows are awash with flowers, while cool waterways and woodlands offer shade on warmer days.
Better yet, there’s no right or wrong way to explore these magnificent wetlands. In fact, there are three main routes for you to choose from, all starting at the main visitor centre.
These can be divided into the “inner circuit” – which is circular, fully tarmacked and takes in the animal collection – and the “outer circuit”, comprising a number of wild habitats and split roughly into two walks, which take in either the East or West of the reserve.
Both outer routes lead to one of WWT Washington’s year-round wildlife hotspots, Wader Lake, from which you can access the inner circuit for a quicker return to the building or carry on and enjoy the opposite side of the reserve from where you began.
HLN Hint: most of the site is accessible, but one or two areas are too steep for wheelchairs. The centre’s visual accessibility guide here shows you what to expect to help you plan your visit.
- The inner circuit – approximately 880m – involving a collection animals including wildfowl, otters and flamingos.
- The outer circuit (East) – approximately 1300m – wildflower meadows, ancient woodland, wildlife ponds and Wader Lake.
- The outer circuit (West) – approximately 1300m – reedbed, deadwood habitat, woodland bird feeding station, saline lagoon, the Lookout, the River Wear and Wader Lake.
On arriving at the main visitor centre, you’ll find a large map in the corridor detailing the layout of the 103-acre sloping site. Snap a photo for reference and look out for the signposts with maps guiding you around outside, too.
The inner circuit
A walk around WWT Washington’s animal collection may be the shortest option on a day out, but it’s certainly not short of amazing sights to enjoy.
Step out from the visitor centre and you’re greeted by a flourishing stream habitat, complete with giant oxeye daisies, blooming lavender covered in bees, the sound of running water and incredible views of native wildlife such as barnacle geese, goldeneye and once-extinct common cranes.
Walk on and you’ll come to Close Encounters; home to ducks and swans from around the world, some of which have young families in summer and can be seen feeding and enjoying the sunshine.
Further along is Ganderland – where you can meet the world’s rarest goose, the gentle Nene, as well as many other species – followed by a network of ponds with a variety of feathered inhabitants and a large grassy picnic area framed by pine trees, ideal for a picturesque snack stop.
The nearby Chilean flamingo flock has been resident here since 1986 and breeds some years, with the newly hatched birds just visible between the many legs of the surrounding adults.
Down the hill from their enclosure and its solar powered flamingo house, you’ll pass the world’s smallest swan species – the coscoroba – before arriving at the Asian short-clawed otters.
Mimi, Musa and their son Buster can be seen frolicking in their watery habitat all day long, with twice-daily talks from their keepers at 11.30am and 2.30pm (followed by commentated flamingo feeds at 11.45am and 2.45pm).
From here, it’s a short stroll up the bank to the rain garden and interactive Water Lab – gold award and Best Showgarden winner at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show, from where it was transplanted and lovingly reinstated in WWT Washington’s grounds.
Still on an incline, the path continues back towards the visitor centre, with an optional detour to the duckery, as well as passing the insect garden.
As the route levels out again, the site’s orchard and working allotment are worth a look and provide Waterside Café with tasty homegrown produce across the seasons.
The outer circuit (East):
Exit the centre building at the café end and you’ll first encounter the reserve at the turning behind the children’s play area.
Travel through the fox-proof gates and you’re quickly enveloped by the tree canopy of North Wood overhead. Wander along this shady track until you emerge from the trees and Top Meadow opens out in front of you. Filled with common spotted and Northern marsh orchids, yellow rattle and flitting butterflies on sunny days, there’s seating along the path edges to allow you to pause awhile and just ‘be’.
Carry on to Spring Gill Wood, where the ancient trees were growing long before WWT Washington’s wetlands began thriving around them. Enjoy chattering birdlife overhead and babbling water below. You may even glimpse a roe deer.
Through the woodland to your left is East Down – home to flora and families of hare – and at the bottom of the path stands the oldest tree on site, an ancient oak, thought to be around 300 years old.
Meander along the pathway and down to the dragonfly ponds, where you can climb a small embankment and observe the River Wear curving its way past the site.
Across the path, a series of amphibian ponds begins. Created and maintained by WWT Washington’s team, these crucial water bodies support a number of frog and newt species, including the protected Great Crested Newt, which breeds on site.
Head through the next fox-proof gate and find yourself at one end of Wader Lake, where the Window on the Wear viewing area offers a sneak peek at wildlife on this tidal section of river, including cormorant, European otter and the occasional seal.
From here, you can follow the footpath and end your walk with a visit to one of the waterside bird hides, where you’ll discover easy views of wading birds hatching, raising and defending their young.
The outer circuit (West):
The second of WWT Washington’s reserve walks leaves the visitor centre via the Close Encounters end and enters the reserve at the filter reedbed.
Stop and appreciate the breathtaking view of Penshaw Monument in the distance or the gentle sway of the reeds, interspersed with warbler calls and the sudden movements of young moorhen or coot emerging to feed.
Travel into Hollowood – home to countless insect and bat species thriving within its deadwood habitat – and walk around the reservoir and its families of tufted duck, before coming to Hawthorn Wood Hide and feeding station.
Here, brightly coloured woodland birds including bullfinch and great spotted woodpecker feed among the tree branches. Sunlight floods in through the floor-to-ceiling window and provides close-up views for wheelchair users or those in buggies – after all, you’re never too young to start your birdwatching journey.
Along from the hide, on the other side of the fox-proof gates, lies one of the centre’s most recently established habitats – the saline lagoon.
An example of one of the rarest and most unique habitats in the UK, make your way down through the steep woodland path to Lagoon View Hide to enjoy panoramic vistas and watch wildlife including wild European otter, oystercatcher, kingfisher and roe deer.
Back up from the hide and along the path is The Lookout birdspotting screen. A great spot for photographic opportunities, as well as some peaceful time spent in nature.
Head down the hedge-lined path that skirts the lagoon and come out onto the river viewpoint, with its outlook right along the River Wear corridor.
Through the fox-proof gate is the opposite end of Wader Lake footpath and its cool bird hides, offering welcome sanctuary on hot days.
WWT Washington runs its own guided walks every month, led by expert staff and volunteers. Free with admission, the hour-long walks start at 11am prompt and there’s no need to book.
For the latest upcoming event info and news stories, visit WWT Washington’s What’s On pages or follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and check out the wildlife sightings, updated daily, for an idea of what highlights are about at the moment.
WWT Washington Wetland Centre, Pattinson, Washington NE38 8LE