Wandering the pathways of Swanholme Lakes

Words by:
John Bennett
Featured in:
February 2017

This is the latest in a series of articles aimed at highlighting some of the beautiful areas in and around Lincoln that remain relatively unknown to the majority of people.
When you discover somewhere new and fall in love with it, the first thing you want to do is tell everyone. Then a little voice in the back of your head whispers “keep quiet”, because one of the things that attracts you to beautiful places is solitude, and too many people could spoil that. This is an age old quandary, one that I have no simple answer to. But if anyone is persuaded to visit any of the places I describe I would hope that they would treat them with respect. Always follow the Country Code, step lightly, leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photographs.

Even in the middle of the summer holidays, when the car park at the adjacent Hartsholme Country Park is full, you will find few people venturing the short distance into Swanholme, I find it baffling. And I have been surprised to find many locals born and bred who have never visited this beautiful place. It seems that the majority of people never stray far from the main lake in Hartsholme, but what a treat they are missing. Have you ever sat in the garden of the Swanholme pub on Doddington Road looking across the beautiful lake there? Well that is the southern end of Swanholme Lakes; unfortunately there is no direct access to the area from the pub.

To get there follow the signs to Hartsholme Country Park from the Skellingthorpe Road roundabout on the A46 Lincoln bypass, or Tritton Road if coming from within the city. Once at Hartsholme just follow any paths south and you will come to Swanholme Lakes within 1km, twenty minutes or so, depending on how much you linger. Hartsholme itself is wonderful too, with far more to see than just the main lake and the children’s play area where most people seem to congregate. You might want to stop off at the Visitor Centre to check the route, or even pick up a leaflet including detailed maps and historical background information. Save the lovely café for after your long walk if you can! There are also two footpaths into Swanholme from Doddington Road, one from Birchwood Avenue, one from Anderby Drive, and another that crosses the railway line behind the Moorland Centre. Sadly the latter is due to be closed by Network Rail at some point – it is a lovely secret route, and I hope it survives.

Today Swanholme Lakes is a local nature reserve and a nationally recognised Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), but what you see there is a relatively new landscape. The underlying geology is sand and river gravel from the last Ice Age, overlying Liassic clays from the time of the dinosaurs. Since the end of the Ice Age the area would have been low lying marshland with areas of scrubby trees, typical of the old Lincolnshire Fenlands. Pigs may have been grazed on the drier areas, with charcoal burning and timber cutting for construction in the woodland, while the wetlands supplied a variety of fish. The area was extensively drained during the early nineteenth century – to reduce the flood risk that regularly claimed many lives – and enclosed by Lord Monson, then planted with new trees. The earliest OS maps from the 1880s show a large forest here with a grid network of tracks, and in 1907 it was known as Hartsholme Wood. The first railway had arrived in Lincoln in 1846, and around this time two lakes had been created on the eastern edge of the area by the extraction of gravel for railway ballast. One is now known as Starmers Pit and is well worth a quick visit from the adjacent Sainsbury’s supermarket car park on Tritton Road, but neither of these lakes are part of the nature reserve itself.

During the 1950s there was more extensive sand and gravel quarrying, and by the early 1970s the lakes that dominate the area today had been created. There was also massive housing and industrial development in this part of Lincoln after WW2, some of which continues to this day, and Swanholme/Hartsholme is now completely encircled by the city. It is one of the many remarkable features of Swanholme Lakes that you can still get utterly disorientated and forget about the surrounding urban sprawl while exploring its delights. The only point of reference is the tower block of Jarvis House on Ashby Avenue that is occasionally visible from within the nature reserve. The City of Lincoln Council declared Swanholme Lakes a local nature reserve in 1991, and it now covers an area of sixty-three hectares, preserved for the people of Lincoln to seek peace and solitude with nature at their leisure.

There is an extensive network of winding paths throughout Swanholme Lakes, and you are requested to stick to them because many of the surrounding habitats are so fragile. Mother Nature continues to reclaim the area after the quarrying, but the soil remains very thin in many places and a few misplaced feet could do untold damage. For the same reason dogs must be kept on a lead while in the nature reserve, although dog walkers would be much better suited in the open spaces of Hartsholme Park to be honest. The Rangers run regular organised walks into the more secret corners; they are very informative too and it is well worth checking them out back at the Visitor Centre. The various lakes look very natural now, but you can still find signs of the old quarrying if you look close enough, as small ruined buildings and spoil heaps are scattered across the area.

During the winter of 2010/11 a major conservation project was started, designed to remove the intrusive rhododendrons that were rapidly colonising the area and destroying the native habitats. Many trees were also removed to open up the lake edges and help the aquatic flora and fauna there. This was very controversial at the time because the machinery involved turned much of the nature reserve into a muddy wasteland resembling photographs of WW1 battlefields. Locals raised petitions to have the work stopped and it was hard to imagine that the area could recover from it. But recover it did, and the benefits of this work are now clear to see. Large areas that were previously covered with the overpowering rhododendrons are now far more light and open and being colonised by heathers and other heathland plants. This project is ongoing, as rhododendrons are very hard to kill off entirely, but the major work has been done.

Within this relatively small area you can now find sandy heath, the only lowland heathland within the city boundary, willow carr, sphagnum bog, grassland and native oak, ash and birch woodland. Each of the lakes has different chemical and physical attributes and so supports different aquatic plants.

The heathland areas are at different stages of development, with the younger ones showing a variety of lichens and mosses, while the more mature areas support gorse and a range of heathers. These very different habitats exist side by side and have resulted in a huge variety of flora and fauna for such a small area. This is why Swanholme Lakes is so valuable, both nationally and locally.

The sandy heath, sphagnum bog and willow carr support amphibians, reptiles and many invertebrates including grasshoppers, bees and crickets. Seventeen different species of dragonfly and damselfly have been seen on the open water, including the rare red-eyed damselfly, black and ruddy darters and the emperor dragonfly. You will also find water shrews, frogs and toads and several rare newt species around the shallow lake edges. As well as the more common swans, geese, moorhens, coots and ducks you will see great crested grebe and kingfishers breeding on the larger lakes. There aren’t any actual birdwatching hides, but there are several places from which to view the bird life around the nature reserve, or simply take the weight off your feet for a few minutes. The grassland might look the least interesting habitat in Swanholme, but it manages to support at least twenty-four species of butterfly, including the rare purple hairstreak and a large grasshopper population. There are also many breeding warblers and finches, plus greater spotted and green woodpeckers. Reptiles such as the common lizard, adders and grass snakes might also be seen if you are lucky on hot summer days.

I have been visiting Swanholme Lakes for twenty years now and every time I find something new and interesting. When I lived nearby I used to love going for a run at dusk, when the noise from the resident birds could be deafening and sunset across the lakes was quite magical. A hard winter transforms the lakes into an arctic wonderland that leaves the water fowl confused, and the spring wildflowers are magnificent. But my favourite time of year in Swanholme is late autumn when the golden colours are at their most beautiful and the ground is covered with the greatest variety of fungi that you could imagine. The ‘fungus foray’ guided walks by the Rangers are very popular at this time of year and you will probably need to book in advance. As a photographer I have a big tip to offer anyone who wants to get nice shots of the mushrooms and toadstools, and that is to lay down on the ground for the best perspective. Wet elbows and knees are a small price to pay!

The only time that I wouldn’t recommend visiting Swanholme Lakes is on a still summer evening when the mosquitoes will make your time there a living Hell, but the same applies to anywhere close to water. Otherwise I can guarantee that you will have a wonderful time, exploring the winding paths through the trees and the wide views across the large lakes. You might bump into the odd walker there, but I have had many visits when I haven’t seen a single soul, even in summer. And once the sounds of the surrounding city have faded into birdsong and the rustle of leaves in the wind you could be almost anywhere your mind takes you.

Even if you walk the same route day after day it will feel different as the weather, and even the light, changes minute by minute. The paths are generally well maintained and remain dry underfoot even after rain, but you may need to wear boots after very wet weather or if you are going further afield with the rangers. It isn’t a large area, but a couple of hours can easily disappear, maybe more. There will be times when you can see where you want to be just a few metres away, but there will be a large lake in the way involving a long detour to reach your destination. However, there are several seats scattered around Swanholme to stop and have a picnic, so there is no rush and the café is waiting back at Hartsholme if you are in need of more substantial refreshment.

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