Insiders know that visitors should always be ready to expect the unexpected in Swindon. A case in point is famed comedian and bird-watcher Bill Oddie, who was gleefully taken aback when he visited the town’s idyllic stretch of the Wilts and Berks Canal for the BBC’s ‘Springwatch’.
When the Wilts and Berks Canal was built for trade transport around the turn of the eighteenth century, Swindon was a small market town still based on the hill now referred to as Old Town, and to keep the ten-mile long canal topped up with fresh water, Coate Water was created (it’s now a breathtaking country park on the eastern edge of town).
Narrowboat trade was rendered obsolete with the advent of steam and the canal was finally abandoned in 1914. Much of its route was filled in and built over, but the stretch between Kingshill Road (behind the Esso petrol station) and the Wichelstowe development (park next to Waitrose) survives and is now a popular destination for bird watchers, dog walkers, strolling lovers and families with kids in search of tadpoles; not to mention families of swans and mallard ducks.
About half way along the canal is the Rushey Platt nature reserve which is managed by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Bill Oddie waxed lyrical about this wild space which is a remnant of the lush wetland marsh that used to cover much of south Swindon before land drainage made this type of habitat uncommon in Wiltshire. Now, sandwiched between the River Ray, Wilts and Berks Canal and the former Old Town railway line, it is a vital area for wildlife. Be careful not to step on a handsome slow worm basking in the sun!
Wetland plants thrive in the rich peat soil, including marsh thistle, fragrant water mint, poisonous bittersweet and greater bird's-foot trefoil. In the summer dragonflies like the broad-bodied chaser and the fearsome emperor prey on butterflies and other flying insects. See if you can tell them from the daintier blue-tailed damselfly and banded demoiselle. Reed bunting, common snipe and little grebe, along with other more common waterfowl, populate the area. Rustling in the scrub are great spotted woodpeckers, jay, finches and crows.
Back along the canal, you may hear the plop of the water vole as it dives into the water. This charismatic animal is slowly recovering from huge population falls since the middle of the 20th century. The common toad, common frog and smooth newt make use of the ponds and at dusk bats come out to hunt their insect prey.
A couple of minutes stroll along from the nature reserve you come to a spectacular new footbridge that runs between the recently open Hall & Woodhouse bar/restaurant and Waitrose supermarket. Installed into the steel superstructure of the 28-tonne footbridge are plant-inspired designs cut into metal and resin panels, designed to catch the fading light and inspired by the local surroundings, wildlife and flora.
This final stretch of the canal is at the heart of the ‘Canalside’ development which will see some spectacular new homes spring up alongside the canal footpaths over the next eighteen months.
Both Hall and Woodhouse and Waitrose have large outdoor terraces making it the perfect spot to stop for a refreshing drink after a stroll. One tip, though. If you are planning to eat at Hall and Woodhouse, book in advance (01793 872145) - their funky narrowboat-themed restaurant gets very busy!
Finally, a great way to see the full stretch of canal is to take a trip in the handsome Dragonfly narrowboat. Trips run at the weekend from the Waitrose landing stage at 10.30, 11.45, 13.30 and 14.45. Fares are £6 for adults and £3 for children. You can just turn up on the day, but if you want to be certain of a place, please call the boat team on 07401 220076.