Birds, wildlife, and a nature walk through meadows and woodlands.
Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)
Minimum time 1hr 30min
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Grassy and gravel forest tracks, prone to mud after rains, some boardwalk
Landscape Reservoir, forest and grassy meadow
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 175 Southend-on-Sea & Basildon
Start/finish TQ 725971
Dog friendliness No-go area except for guide dogs
Parking Free parking at the Visitor Centre, Hawkswood Road entrance. Gates close at 5pm
Public toilets Visitor Centre
© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
1 From the Visitor Centre, take the path to waymark C1 and detour left for views of the reservoir from Lyster Hide. Return to C1 and continue along the path through Chestnut Wood for 100yds (91m). At waymark C2, bear right towards the clearing and then go straight ahead towards tall oaks and waymark C4. Bear right here, over the wooden footbridge, passing the pond on your left, and continue until you reach waymark C5 on the edge of the wood. Ahead are grazing meadows. Turn left along the gravel path, keeping the meadow on your right, and follow the boardwalk to a clearing with deep water ponds and seating made from split trunks.
2 Walk left past waymark 7 to Rawl Hide, for good views of the reservoir and the reed covered embankment on the left. Now return to waymark 7, turn left on to the wide grassy path to enter Peninsular Wood and continue to waymark 6. Bear half left for 100yds (91m) and pass by Oak Hide to maintain direction to the tip of the peninsula and waymark 5, where you'll find Point Hide. Retrace your steps to waymark 4 and walk ahead with the reservoir on your left. Maintain direction through thick forest passing waymarks 3 and 2, where you turn left and cross the bridge over the ditch.
3 Ignore the stile across to Hawkswood and turn left through thick forest for 200yds (183m) to waymark B and enter Well Wood. Turn left and then right for 200yds (183m) until you meet waymark A, with the Fishing Lodge and Water's Edge off to the left. Swing right and walk straight ahead, between coppiced trees with the high embankment on your left denoting the old boundary of the woods, to waymark C. Turn left, keeping meadows on your right, to waymark D. Turn left to way-mark K and right to waymark H. Turn right again, into an area of less dense woodland with South Hanningfield Road on your left.
4 At waymark F, continue along the wide bridleway to a clearing of coppiced hornbeams. Descend timber steps, and past several small ponds to waymark E to enter Hawkswood passing waymarks H1, H2 and H3 in quick succession. At H3 bear right over an earth bridge to H10, with meadow on your right, and bear left towards H9 and H11. From here the path leads straight through hedgerows and a double set of kissing gates. Notice the pond on your right surrounded by a circle of chestnut trees and return to the car park.
If you're a birdwatcher, or just enjoy nature, then Hanningfield Reservoir and Nature Reserve is the place for you. The south eastern shores of the 970 acre (393ha) reservoir have been set aside as a nature reserve by the Essex Water Company and are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust, it is best known for the prolific numbers of wintering and breeding wildfowl. Among them are nationally important numbers of coot, gadwall and tufted duck. If you're there in early winter you will also see pintails in large numbers. The chalk-based sludge on the western side of the reservoir supports plants uncommon in Essex, such as golden dock and marsh dock.
An interesting nature trail leads through the woodland, where there are several especially well-constructed bird hides overlooking the reservoir and banks enabling you to spend all day spotting species such as pochard, shoveler, shelduck and great crested grebe. But for non-twitchers, waymarked trails lead through ancient coppice and secondary woodland, with ponds, hedges and ditches. Pleasant strolls through four different woods, Chestnut, Peninsular, Well Wood and Hawkswood are there to be enjoyed.
Hanningfield Reservoir was built to provide water for an increased population after World War Two and, in the 1960s, the area which forms part of today's nature reserve, was planted with conifers. Thirty years later, in 1992, the Essex Wildlife Trust took over management of the site and the reserve is, today, renowned for its abundant wildlife. In Chestnut Wood there are areas of Scots pine which have been thinned to allow in light to the cleared sunny grasslands, which are an excellent habitat for butterflies and crickets. Ponds, ditches and piles of dead wood have attracted dragonflies, newts and grass snakes. In Peninsular Wood, near Point and Oak Hides, warblers nest and feed in an area which was cleared and allowed to regenerate as scrub. And in Well Wood and Hawkswood you can see the perimeters of ancient woodlands where coppiced hornbeams and hazel allow the old plant and animal communities to flourish once more.
Spend some time in the Visitor Centre, either before or after your nature walk, to see some novel conservation ideas in action, such as composting toilets which need no flush and a log-burning stove using wood from the reserve. Water is conserved by collecting rain water from a large roof and using it to top up two wildlife ponds beside the Visitor Centre. You can use complimentary binoculars (donation appreciated) to spot dozens of birds feeding at one of these ponds from the viewing gallery inside the centre.
Early summer brings a colourful display of foxgloves while huge flocks of swifts, swallows and martins gather over the reservoir to feed on newly hatched flies. In autumn and spring, Oak Hide, which looks across to the Fishing Lodge, attracts a good variety of wading birds. In winter the grazing fields buzz with wigeon, teal, geese and swans.
Pleasant reservoir views, tasty snacks and hot and cold meals can be had half-way round this walk, at the licensed Water's Edge Restaurant at the Fishing Lodge. Choose from jacket potatoes, grills and cakes and pastries. Otherwise pack your own picnic and enjoy the views beside the water's edge.
You'll need a day permit to fish at Hanningfield Reservoir, but if you don't fancy hooking your catch you can always buy fat trout from the Fishing Lodge. The species comes in all its forms from fresh or frozen to smoked and is sold cleaned whole, filleted or as steaks.