A walk with bitterns in Amwell, Hertfordshire

See a rare and strange fish-eating bird in wild corner close to London

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Formerly a gravel pit, Amwell Nature Reserve is now a haven for wildlife. With three bird hides, a dragonfly trail, and even a population of re-introduced otters, it has so much to offer. But best of all, it is the finest place in the south-east to see bitterns – a small but fascinating member of the heron family – that are at home in this watery haven.

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Start your journey

Exit Broadmeads car park on to Amwell Street and turn left to reach Viaduct Road. Cross and take the riverside path right, with the River Lee
on your left.

Look out for remnants of industry alongside the river; Ware was the leading supplier of brown malt for the brewing industry in the 18th century. Continue along the river’s footpath past Hardmead Lock until you reach a wooden footbridge. Ascend the steps to the bridge and cross. Here you will reach a crossroad.

Elusive birds
Head for the dragonfly trail which starts along the track ahead, or bear right and explore one of the bird hides nearby. Look out for bitterns, little egrets, cormorants and wading birds while exploring.

The bittern is a quiet and secretive bird, and it may take some patience to spot its dark brown and pale gold (often the same shade as the reedbeds in which it lives) striped feathers.

It will move silently at the water’s edge, looking for fish.

But come spring, you may hear the males before you see them, as they make a surprisingly deep booming sound to attract a mate, like one repeated note on a bass woodwind instrument.

Return to the River Lee and continue along the towpath passing Stanstead Lock to reach Stanstead Abbotts.

You may catch a whiff of malt in the air as the village still has a working maltings. The busy marinas on either side of the river
have permanent moorings for cruisers and narrow boats, both regulars along this stretch.

Water wonder

Climb the slope at the bridge and turn right along Station Road, soon heading uphill. Cross the New River,
a man-made waterway,
opened in 1613.

It starts at Chadwell Springs near Hertford and flows for 20 miles to serve London with fresh drinking water.

Immediately turn right and take the footpath to the right of the bungalows.

Keep following the path before eventually reaching
the church of St John the Baptist. Bear slightly right and descend the steps to another lane and Amwell Pool.

Follow the river back
Look out for a tall wellingtonia tree and a monument to the creator of the New River – Sir Hugh Myddleton. Then, if you divert along the road to your right and look along the left-hand side, you will find some steps leading to Emma’s Well and adjacent,
a stone tablet inscribed with the poem Emma by John Scott,
a Quaker poet and author on the alleviation of poverty.

Bear left along the New River, with it running on your left and continue over Amwell Lane until the path ends at Viaduct Road. Keep following the New River until you reach Ware College.

The older building here was once the home of John Scott (1731-1783). It is open to the public on heritage days.

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Turn right over the level crossing to return to the start and the car park.