A Photographer’s Guide to Great Amwell

This page is designed as a guide to the Great Amwell Nature Reserve and environs in Hertfordshire, for landscape and wildlife photographers. Originally produced by David Laws and hosted as a Google knol, it is now republished with permission on The Badgers Eye.

Great Amwell Nature Reserve is an area of reclaimed gravel pits alongside the River Lea in Hertfordshire that has been turned into an important area for migrating birds and many other animals. 
In 2008 three new hides were opened, allowing wonderful viewing of the main Great Hardmead Lake. There is also a Dragonfly Walk nearby, which is open from May until September.

The reserve is situated next to the River Lea, between Ware and St. Margarets and can be accessed via the river or from Great Amwell village. It is maintained by the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust who have done a wonderful job over the years of turning these old gravel pits into a fabulous and valuable resource for wildlife and those who love to see it in its natural habitat.
Great Hardmead Lake at sunrise

Great Amwell Nature Reserve
Great Hardmead Lake
Great Hardmead Lake is the main area of the Reserve and is over half a mile long and almost a quarter of a mile wide. As with the other lakes in the area, it was dug out as a gravel pit between 1973 and 1990, and is now the home to many species of waterbirds.
A panoramic of Great Hardmead Lake from White Hide
There is a large open viewing area alongside the bridge nearest to Amwell, which was modernised and updated in 2008 and this provides a great viewpoint for most of the lake. There is also a smaller viewing platform just south of this area.

The species that live on lake are too numerous to mention, but frequent visitors include heron, cormorants, lapwing, swans, common terns and many species of duck. Along with the usual suspects, there are always other interesting visitors such as egrets, snipe, redshanks, plovers and various warblers. The information board at the viewpoint gives up to date sightings and highlights for the current month.

The Hides

The White HIde from the main lakeside viewing area
Heron fishing
Three hides were opened in 2008, and provide differing viewpoints of the lake. Perhaps the least interesting is the Gladwin Hide, situated about quarter of a mile south of the main viewing area. This overlooks the southern end of the lake and in my experience is generally very quiet. There seem to be some reed beds being built out on the lake at this point, so whether the intention is to make this into a warbler hide, I am not sure.

James Hide is the nearest to the main viewing area, near to the next bridge north of Amwell bridge. This overlooks reeds and a small pool which is home to heron, moorhen and warblers. In the winter bittern can be seen. There are also feedboxes alongside the hide which in winter are teeming with finches of all varieties, and occasionally a woodpecker.

The main hide is the White Hide which is accessed by its own path from the rear of the James Hide area. The path is well maintained and boarded for much of its length and skirts the course of the pre-navigation River Lea before arriving at the hide. The hide gives wonderful views across Great Hardmead Lake on three sides. As well as all of the birds mentioned above, I have seen muntjac deer in the surrounding area, and on a number of occasions foxes have come down onto the spit of land in front of the hide to do a bit of hunting.
Muntjac deer
Fox and Mallards
Little Egret
Lapwings mating dance
Hollycross Dragonfly Walk
The Dragonfly Walk 
A welcome new addition in 2008, the Dragonfly Walk is open from May to September and is the home to many species of dragonlfy and damsleflies and also has a fenced off area in which orchids are grown. There are usually many damselflies in and around the boarded walk area, and larger dragonflies such as Broad Bodied Chasers and Emperors can be seen flitting around the ponds. There are numerous wildflowers in the area, and more birds on Hollycross Lake, which borders the walk. Water Rail can often be heard but seldom seen in the reeds.

To reach the Dragonfly walk, head north up the right hand towpath from the main viewing area. Just past James Hide (see above), there is a right turn away from the River. Follow this track for approximately quarter of a mile across a series of bridges to reach the kissing gate to the walk on the right. It is well signed. The track is the course of the old Buntingford branch line, axed in the Beeching era, and can be followed under the old bridge on Hollycross Road towards Wareside and is an interesting walk in itself.

Broad-bodied Chaser
Large Red Damselfly
Emporer Dragonfly
Early Marsh Orchids
Other Points of Interest
Between James Hide and the turn off to the Dragonfly Walk there is a small viewing area and habitat for Water Voles. Let’s just say that I have been past this spot well over a hundred times, and not had the faintest sniff of a vole!

Just off the track to the Dragonfly Walk there is another lake known as Tumbling Bay. There are paths round the right edge that eventually catch up with the River Ash and make for a pleasant walk northwards into Ware. Some of the lakes to the north of the main reserve can be seen and whilst not so heavily populated with birds, are home to grebe, geese and various ducks.

Another viewpoint on the way to the Dragonfly walk has an information board about otters, which were reintroduced to the area some years ago, but I have never been lucky with sightings here either.

Other Nearby Attractions
Great Amwell
The small village of Great Amwell is home to the idyllic spot on the New River known as Emma’s Well. There is also a pretty church and churchyard above the well which is worth a look, and the only pub near the reserve, the George IV, is just up Cautherley Lane from the Well.

Emma’s Well is a great challenge for photographers, as the lie of the land means that it is usually half in deep shadow and half in sunlight. I have experimented with various times of day and year to catch it at its best and have come to the conclusion that the sun is only in the right area at 7.30am on 9th March! At other times I have resorted to HDR to get an even exposure.

Emma’s Well on the New River
Ware is a traditional market town situated a mile and a half north of the Reserve, also on the River Lea. It has a history of malting and there are many remnants of the industry to be seen around town, the most striking of which are the Malt Cowls on the Ware Arts Centre in Kibes Lane, south of the town centre. The riverside walk is attractive, especially between the main town bridge and the pedestrian bridge near Ware Priory. This stretch features the famous Gazebos which were built by the prosperous businessmen to watch their goods being shipped down to London on the Lea Navigation. St. Mary’s Church and the Priory are worth a visit and there are many decent places in town for refreshments (virtually every building on the High Street has been a pub at some stage!). Best parking for the river walk is the pay carpark accessed between the library and Tap pub at the north end of the High Street.
Ware malt cowls
The gazebos on the River Lea in Ware
Kings Mead is another nature reserve run by Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trrust, and this is situated alongside the river between Ware and Hertford and is accessible via the River Lea near Ware lock. I hope to provide a fuller guide for this area soon.
River Lea
The River Lea, which runs past the reserve, is a recreational facility in its own right. Running for 29 miles from Hertford down to Limehouse Basin, it was an important artery in the canal system for many years. Now it is well used by boaters, walkers, cyclists, runners, fishermen and birdwatchers alike. It needs a look at a Google Earth satellite image of the area to see just how convoluted the water features are around this part of Hertfordshire, with the many lakes forming the reserve, plus the original course of the Lea, the more recent Lea Navigation, and the various other watercourses that help make this such a diverse and interesting area.
River Lea looking south from Amwell Bridge, near the main viewing point
Special Equipment
All of the paths around the reserve are well maintained and generally mud free even in bad weather.
Binoculars or scopes for birdwatching.
Zoom lenses for the birds and animals, macros for the plants and insects. A tripod would be useful also.
ND grads and polarisers may be of benefit..

Getting there
By Road
From Hertford and Ware, follow the A1170 southwards. Once clear of Ware (and before Amwell Hill) look for a minor road on the left that crosses a small bridge over the New River. It is unsigned, but has bus stops on either side, so is easy to spot. Follow this down past the Great Amwell sign, then keep left past Emma’s Well on the right. There is roadside parking on the left just after the War Memorial.

From the south, follow the A1170 northwards from the A414 roundabout off the A10. Just before the Waggon & Horses turn right down the narrow Cautherley Lane, follow this to the bottom of the hill past the George IV, and turn right past Emma’s Well. Same parking as above.

There is a well signposted path that takes you over the railway line and across the River Lea to the main birdwatching area at Great Hardmead Lake. Note that the railway crossing is via a wooden gate at each end. There are no signals, but visibility is good in both directions.

By Rail
From Ware Station, either turn left and then right onto Amwell End and follow this to the main town bridge where it joins the River Lea. Alternatively turn right(ish) out of the station and follow Station Road to the junction with Viaduct Road. Across the road at the left end of the flats opposite there is a path down onto the River Lea towpath.Once on the River, follow the path southwards for about a mile, past the industrial units and flats into open countryside, eventually passing Hardmead Lock. The next bridge after this takes you to the James Hide and Tumbling Bay.

From St. Margarets Station, head east into the village and turn left (north) up the Lea opposite the Jolly Fisherman pub. Follow this for 3/4 mile past St. Margarets Lock to arrive at the birdwatching area at the first bridge you will see. From the station, you can also cross the level crossing and go up the hill out of the village to find a kissing gate that will take you onto the New River path which leads northwards to Emma’s Well and the parking area described above.

At all points on the reserve, there are informative signboards showing the layout and the birds and animals to be found there.


You can see more of Dave’s work at his main Flickr site (Zoot42)
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  1. I wish I could visit. What wonderful shots of wonderful animals!

  2. It's a great spot, though a little chilly when the wind blows. Went back on Sunday and saw a lovely Goldeneye – quite similar to your Buffleheads.

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