Waterworld (30th December)

We live about a metre or two above the Kennet. Following a series of heavy rains, the fact that we live on a floodplain has been evident like no other period since we moved here. Our neighbours often talk about the winter of 2013, when the back gardens of our terrace, which lead down to the canal, were underwater for months and frequented by happily swimming mallards. Every year since we’ve lived here must have been relatively dry by comparison, but now the groundwater has risen and the end of our garden is close to impassable. One thing we have discovered is that our garden is slightly higher than those on either side, which are more extensively flooded by deeper water.

The water level in the canal is controlled, I think, but has been allowed to rise very high, presumably to take flow out of the river. The Kennet has spilled modestly over its banks in our local park, engulfing a handsome weeping willow, some streamside alders and part of a small meadow. Meanwhile, some impressive expanses of water have appeared on floodplain fields, including part of the local park immediately north of the river. Here a deep flood is feeding startling volumes of water speeding through what used to be a shallow stream. The same ditch where I marvelled at snow drifts during the Beast from the East and found horseradish growing wild one May is now full of turbulent white water and has become something of a local tourist attraction.

One large canalside field, just west of the disused Lambourn valley railway, is now to all appearances a sizeable lake. It appears in Natural England’s priority habitat inventory as ‘floodplain grazing marsh’, but while I have seen it grazed frequently in the past this is the first time I’ve seen so much wildlife in it. Flocks of bright white gulls, gathering noisily at dusk to roost, have replaced the usual sheep. Ducks welcome the new watery expanse, including species such as gadwall and pintail, which I don’t usually see so close to home. These are a real treat – the charmingly understated gadwall, with its nasal quack, has long been a favourite of mine, while a male pintail with his chocolate brown head and cream neck stripe is probably the most snappily dressed of all our overwintering duck species.

A smaller wet field on the other side of the railway embankment, always marshy, is now also mostly underwater. Appropriately enough, a water rail called sharply into the near-dusk as we passed it yesterday on our afternoon constitutional, while a marsh tit* sneezed emphatically somewhere in the tangle of flooded scrubby woodland beyond. This morning I saw, for the first time since moving here, a water vole swimming across the canal. There’s no reason why high water levels would particularly suit them (as far as I know), but this fortuitous sighting seems a good symbol of the wild nature of this river valley, so long constrained by human needs for predictability and security**, beginning to reassert itself.

Soggy gardens in Newbury

*‘Marsh’ tit is certainly appropriate at the moment, though by normal habitat association I agree that ‘wood tit’ would be a better name for the species.

**Which as a floodplain resident I entirely understand!

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