Reflections on Swanwick by Di Smith

Reflections on Swanwick by Di Smith

Swanwick Lake, by John Windust

This year we are celebrating an amazing 25 years of Swanwick Lakes Nature Reserve. In this blog Di Smith looks back over the last 25 years, giving us an incredible insight into the site's development and huge success as a wildlife haven and education centre.

Back at the start of the 1990s, the Trust’s then CEO, Bob Page, saw the opportunity to make sure that wildlife and the local community benefitted from the increasing development happening in the area.  The Trust wanted to establish an education centre and had already spotted the potential at the former Brickworks land at Swanwick. 

When NATS selected Swanwick as their new base for the national air traffic control centre, the idea took flight.

The site had been derelict and untouched for 30 years after the brickworks closed.  Where the NATS offices are now located was formerly a dumping ground.  The other land that had been left to nature, now forms Swanwick Lakes Nature Reserve.  

Di Smith was involved from the very first day at Swanwick Lakes nature reserve.  She became the first reserves officer in 1991 and remains actively involved with the reserve to this day. 

School group Swanwick Lakes

16 January 1991 – Day 1

On day 1 we were starting from scratch.  It was my first day in the job and I remember meeting on the Bursledon Brickworks side of the M27 with John Wallace (in charge of the project) and a local contractor.

The contractor asked ‘Right, can I set my men to work then?’ I replied ‘No, where are the boundaries of the nature reserve going to be?’  The contractor didn’t know.  I had a map showing what trees could and couldn’t be felled so I spent my first half an hour in the job marking out with tape two acres that the contractors could begin clearing. This bought us time to survey the site in full and to define the nature reserve’s boundaries over the course of the following week.

Swanwick map

Badgers beware

Back then the nature reserve was a sea of mud, covered in secondary woodland but with many primroses and a badger sett.  I monitored the badgers’ movements and could see they were completing the same journey each night from the reserve down to River Hamble and back again. Even when some large ridges of clay from the former brickworks were removed, they still followed the same route, undeterred by the altered landscape. It soon became apparent that the new high security fence that NATS had planned would be in the path of the badgers – and we all know that badgers are notorious for simply burrowing under fences! It was this observation that lead to the installation of ‘badger flaps’ along the fence (that remain to this day).

The badger sett was located on top of the hill that overlooks the rest of the reserve. Installing the new retaining wall behind NATS’ new buildings was a serious undertaking; huge pile drivers were used.  I remember sitting on top of the hill when the pile drivers were in action to see what impact it might be having on local wildlife.  Each thud sent shockwaves across the lakes and could physically lifted me off of the ground!

One of the contractors asked me ‘How are the badgers doing?’ and I remember joking ‘Well I did see them clearing out a lot of smashed crockery last week!’  Jokes aside, the impact the work might be having on wildlife was cause for concern.  Not long after, a new pile driver arrived that ran on a different frequency – this was very different and had less impact on the surroundings.

There were drill rigs to assess the geology of the site.  As part of the assessment they were keen to put one next to the badger sett.  A few weeks before I had taken the lead geologist to watch badgers in Stubbington and needless to say she was smitten!  I agreed that they could conduct the survey but warned that they should leave nothing on the ground…

A few days later I was met by a very disgruntled engineer, covered head to toe in oil. They had left a steel mesh hose on the ground and when they turned it back on, oil burst from the hose – it turns out a badger had chewed a hole in it! The lead geologist said “Well, you did warn us!”

When they were building the road down to the NATS offices (Sopwith Way), we had to build a badger tunnel – it was the largest in Europe at the time! Careful monitoring showed that badgers were regularly moving north and south. The tunnel had to be double the width, so two badgers could pass – we joked whether we should paint a white line down the middle!


© Andrew Parkinson - 2020Vision

Unexpected ‘treasure’ at the bottom of the lake

Centre Lake used to be a 30ft deep and used to be a vertical sided quarry. It became the repository for much of the pure clay removed for the NATS building foundations. In order to re-profile the landscape, the lake was dredged – it took 2 weeks of pumping water 24 hours a day to empty the lake. The fishing club caught any fish and translocated them to another suitable site.

After dredging they found a workman’s toilet still in tact at the bottom, but surprisingly no dumped shopping trolleys.

They also found an unexploded bomb! A local person from the Home Guard who was later involved with the education centre recalled launching grenades into the lake many decades before – “I remember that one [the bomb], it didn’t go off!”

Many fossils were found. There were even new records for London Clay – an expert from the National History Museum drew breath when he first saw them as he had not come across them before. Those fossils now reside at the Natural History Museum.

Swanwick Lakes nature reserve education centre

© Ian Cameron-Reid

Restoring the reserve and building relationships

Of course, management of the nature reserve would have been much easier if we had been able to simply close it off to the public to begin with. But this was never an option – local people had been using the land for 30 years and so it was really important that we built good relationships and brought the community with us.

We had to let local people know that the area wasn’t a free for all anymore.  There had been lots of unofficial fishing and shooting going on while the land was left unmanaged and I kept finding shotgun cartridges on the reserve. 

I gave a talk to local groups to explain our vision for the reserve and to restore it for wildlife.  After that talk, I’m pleased to say that the shooting stopped immediately, which just goes to show the power and importance of local engagement.  

It did take a while to work with our local visitors to get them to understand the potential and perils of the site.  I remember finding a lady sunbathing on the side of the lake in the early days, while her two children played by themselves in an inflatable, in the lakes nearby. “Do you know how deep the lakes are?” I asked.  Once I explained that the lakes were over 10 metres deep the mother panicked slightly and immediately called her children out of the water. 

Indeed, there were  parts of our plan for the reserve that were a little harder to ‘sell’ to the community.  What’s now the north meadows, was young woodland when the nature reserve was first established.  We knew it had been meadows full of orchids once before and wanted to see if we could restore this habitat.  But this required felling oaks – never a popular move!  However, we spent the time explaining what we were trying to achieve and gained the support of many local people.

After a while, we received funding to employ a part time Assistant Warden to help over the summer months. The assistant helped manage the reserve before it was officially opened to the public, helping to deal with any irresponsible behaviour. Having somebody present on site from the early hours through to late evening made a huge difference at that time.

Walking at Swanwick Lakes

Building the Education Centre

Swanwick Lakes Nature Reserve centre

The education centre arrived in a container!  At that time the road had been built and the reserve car park was partially surfaced.  NATS bought the log cabin from Canada – it was built in Canada, then dismantled and sent it across the world.

There were 3 sizes of log (long, medium and short, pre-cut at the end) - it was just like a Lego kit!

There was a step-by-step guide and nothing was left over at the end.  It took about 2 weeks to build but there was a worrying moment when the instructions blew into the lake!  Luckily I was able to fish them out!

Keep an eye on the blogs to find out more about the growth of the education programme at Swanwick Lakes over the last 25 years. 


School children on a nature reserve visit © Paul Harris/2020VISION

School children on a nature reserve visit © Paul Harris/2020VISION