by Katie Isham
Just off an industrial estate in the western corner of Southampton, there’s an entrance to a beautiful magical kingdom. Not where you’d expect to find some magic, but believe me, it’s there. Tucked away past the plumbing merchants and self-storage, you’ll find a safari worthy of any suburb.
Testwood Lakes is a nature reserve made up of three lakes begging to be circumnavigated on your own adventure. You can slowly meander around some of the great expanse available or you can ramp up your adventuring spirit, pull on your hiking boots and see the whole estate and beyond into the Test Valley.
You can’t miss the lakes as soon as you arrive. They are a beautiful sight, no matter the weather. On this visit, I was blessed (?) to experience all four seasons in one lap of the site. Told you it was magical.
Take the route clockwise around the edge whilst gazing out across the mind-clearing water. Prepare to pause often to take a closer look at the ground. It’s currently fungi season and within a few minutes, I found my first beauties. The bright red domes look so perfect that you’ll expect to spot a fairy atop them.
Leave the water’s edge to trek past accompanying hedgerows in a kaleidoscope of colours. Pass fields and find yourself treading the boardwalk. Everyone loves a boardwalk. Especially this one that seems to have trees rising from the soggy ground below like the forest moon of Endor. You won’t know whether to look up or down.
Out of the trees, the walkway continues to snake through open scrubland with patchy flooding to even further necessitate the wooden walkway. Here you’ll also find an impressive model of a Bronze Age dwelling. On my visit, an army of volunteers passed by bearing rakes and wheelbarrows, ready for action. Not just there for the site, they were happy to chat and advise on what wildlife to watch out for.
Heeding their advice, a little further along I found the first of two bird hides. Take your safari experience up a notch here. Hunker down in the wooden box (choose from two levels of viewing in this double decker luxury model) with a good flask (weak lemon is the optimal tipple) and watch the wildfowl living their best lives. A wall of information inside the hide is like a Testwood Lakes Most Wanted line up. I enjoyed a strutting cormorant and a multitude of ducks. Who knows which visiting exotics will pop by over the winter months?
Your viewing pleasure will be accompanied by the nearby roar of the motorway. Obviously, we’d all like to visit a nature reserve miles away from civilisation, but there’s something beguiling about the fact we’ve slipped off the radar so close to the humdrum of reality. Similarly, the lakes are guarded by the magnificent pylons on the far bank emulating the stance of the cheeky cormorants. I wonder who started it…
Once you’ve had your fill of bird spotting, retrace your steps back towards the main lakes to continue the path between Testwood Lake and the River Blackwater. Every angle of the lakes brings a new perspective. Watch out for the intriguing wooden sculptures and the more animated herds of grazing livestock.
On the strip between the two major bodies of water, be careful of flooding. Wellies are essential in some patches and the winter will only bring more mud and puddles alongside the magic.
Look out for the mystical floating oak tree as the increasing waters flood its roots. Across the glassy surface of the lakes, enjoy the enchanting echo of the last of the autumn colours as you try to tell what’s reality or reflection. Not that it matters. Once you complete the loop, it’s time to decide to go home for that warming brew or to take a reverse spin around the lakes. It’s a difficult decision. There’s magic in them there waters.
Cost: Free access and free parking.
Accessibility: Testwood Lakes is reached through South Hampshire Industrial Park just off the A36 by Calmore. Paths around the lakes are mostly gravel but can get narrow or flooded in parts. Also, a boardwalk in places. However, accessibility bonus points for all-terrain wheelchair hire available for all (advance booking required). Wellies vital for foot exploration.
Facilities: Car park and bird hides. Toilets available when the education centre is open.
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