“ Wildfowl and Wetlands trust centre with some of the country's best reedbeds „
A brief glance at my profile will reveal that I study zoology, and with my course comes the prerequisite of loving all things fluffy, flapping, scaly, slithering and swimming. It was this unusual condition that first led me to discover the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and subsequently their wonderful reserve at Arundel.
Situated in West Sussex, WWT Arundel is one of nine Wildfowl and Wetland Trusts reserves dotted up and down the country. WWT was founded in 1946 by Sir Peter Scott, and states its aim as 'to save wetlands and their wildlife and raise awareness of the issues that threaten their survival'. At this relatively small, relatively quiet reserve, they have achieved this aim admirably.
The Visitor Centre
On arriving in Arundel, the first thing a visitor encounters is the main Visitor Centre. Here is where you pay your dues (£8.95 for adults, £7.50 for concessions including students, £4.50 for 4 to 16 year olds. Family tickets also available for £23.95, while children under four and helpers of disabled people go free) and those with children or a noisy inner child (me!) can fork out a few coins for a bag of grain. Grain prices vary, but it is never more than a pound, and definitely worth buying. The visitor centre also contains the gift shop, bird sightings board, toilets and restaurant.
The Water's Edge restaurant deserves a special mention because it shows how good an attraction's restaurant can be when done right. It serves a range of hot main meals (best five bean chilli in Sussex, from my experience!), cafe food like jacket potatoes, salads, children's lunch boxes, ice creams, cakes and drinks, none of which are overpriced even by my thrifty student standards. Tables are set out in the large main room of the visitor centre, which is walled on one side almost entirely by windows overlooking a lake. There aren't that many places in the country where you can enjoy toasted teacakes and hot chocolate while watching such birds as swans, greylag geese, Canada geese, Great Crested Grebe, Shelduck, Wigeon, Pochard, Mallards...an endless list that also includes the occasional sapphire glimpse of a kingfisher.
The Captive Collection
Those are the main amenities offered at Arundel: now for the birds. Like all WWT centres, a large part of WWT Arundel is taken up by the captive bird collection, consisting of wildfowl from all across the globe. Now, I love birds passionately, but before visiting WWTs Slimbridge and Arundel I would never even imagined how many ducks the world contains. There are 26 species native to the UK alone, as well as all the swans, geese and grebes, and this diversity leads to an enthralling display of colours, sounds, and personalities - everything from the Hawaiian Goose (or Nene) with its neat brindled frame and soft expression, to black and white Eider ducks and their smoothly flirtatious coos, to gorgeous little White Faced Whistling Ducks (Ronseal birds - the name describes them perfectly). The Arundel collection is better designed than larger animal zoos in that most of the species can co-exist peacefully, and so are allowed freedom to roam over large lakes and lawns. This has the dual advantage of there being a great variety of birds in one place, and of allowing all visitors to get as close as possible to the birds. With a bag of grain and a bit of patience, you can literally have some of the world's rarest species eating out of your hand.
As well as the more family focused part of the reserve, Arundel pleases its bird watching market by providing hides overlooking the outlying lakes. These are what I would describe as five star hides - relatively comfortable seating, windows with real glass, a surprising lack of drafts and no wasp nests hiding in the corners (perhaps more on this in another review!). From these hides you can observe a great range of wild bird species - in past trips I've seen duck species including shovelers, wigeon, pochard and the ubiquitous mallard, several gull and tern species, redshank, and snipe and water rail lurking around the margins. Apparently there is also a firecrest living in a tree near one of the hides - but this is something that I am still waiting to see.
But the thing that makes Arundel so special is not the vibrant captive collection or the peaceful quiet of he hides. Instead, the wonder of Arundel lies in the its reedbed: one of the largest areas of reedbed remaining in the UK. Even to someone who spends a lot of time outdoors, the first step into a reedbed is an eerie experience. On each side rise high walls of thin shivering stalks, in summertime burnt brown by the sun, in winter stunted and glittering with frost. There are water boatmen skimming across the pools to the sides of the path: skittish moorhens scuttling almost over your feet: mallards chortling just beyond sight. Every breath of wind sets the air murmuring with strange, mysterious whispering. If you stand in the hide above the reedbed, you can see those breaths travelling from side to side in smooth, gold trimmed waves. To say something is a feast for the senses is a sadly hackneyed phrase. But sometimes an experience is so good that it transcends the clichés.
You can experience the reedbed in two ways (I would recommend doing both). First there is the winding walk through the main reedbed, which only lasts around ten minutes and gives the opportunity to experience the spooky quality of the area while seeing many species of dragonfly, damselfly, hoverfly and many other insects. More recently the centre has started offering Wetland Safaris as part of their water vole reintroduction project - you can explore another patch of wetland by taking a guided tour on a near silent electric powered boat. The idea is that you can spot the famous Ratty (sadly misclassified by Kenneth Grahame), but even if he doesn't make a cameo, it's still good fun to be out on the water.
So are there any lows?
At this points I normally include a benefits/disadvantages section, but seeing as the description above has been one long list of Arundel's charms, there seems no point in wasting words! I only have a few suggestions on why you might not enjoy Arundel. Firstly, the open plan nature of the reserve means you may well need waterproofs, as unlike many zoos there are no indoor houses in which you can hide when the weather gets bad. It is an outdoor attraction, so dress accordingly (might seem like stating the obvious, but having followed someone in stiletto heels over a boardwalk on my last visit, I felt compelled to mention it!). Secondly, pick your visiting time carefully - Summer can be crowded, which can lead to the birds becoming timid in the face of the noise and makes bird watching much less enjoyable. My favourite time to visit is in January - large amounts of birds, small amounts of people. But maybe that's just me being antisocial! The final point that people should bear in mind (an unfortunate side effect of the area) is that some paths have a steep camber and so are unsuitable for wheelchairs and push chairs, but these are well signed and can be easily avoided.
Once again I have to apologise for my inability to give directions, but the WWT centre is signed from the town of Arundel itself (big castle - you can't miss it!). The car park is only a minute's walk from the visitor centre itself.
I love WWT Arundel - reedbeds, restaurant, flirtatious Eider ducks and all. For the nature lover it is as close to paradise as the UK can offer: for the family, a joyful introduction to the wildlife of this country and others. Maybe it is just a glorified trip to feed the ducks on the pond in the park: but I know that I will be going back in January. And in Easter. And in August. For as long as I possibly can. Thanks for reading, I hope the review was useful, and happy bird watching!