The English Lake District is one of the most visited (and beloved) regions of the country. Located in the northwest county of Cumbria, it is a dramatic landscape of rocky fells, steep valleys, picturesque villages, and, as implied in the name, lakes. It was a favourite haunt of the Romantic poets in the early 19th century, and it became a popular tourist destination through the writing of William Wordsworth, whose I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (a.k.a. Daffodils) is often listed as one of the nation’s favourite poems. Beatrix Potter, an author better known for giving the world beautifully illustrated children’s stories, spent decades in the Lake District raising rare breed sheep and purchasing large tracts of land to conserve them for the future. These are now maintained by the National Trust and are one of the reasons this remains such an unspoiled part of the country.
I have been fortunate to visit the area once before, and it is truly an incredibly beautiful corner of the world.
However, this is not where I recently had the opportunity to explore. Instead, I discovered a gem practically on my doorstep: Cotswold Water Park. I am embarrassed to admit that I have passed signs for it dozens, if not hundreds, of times yet gave it very little thought. If pressed, I sort of imagined it as a large lake with a few water sports. Maybe a waterslide or two? But, as I quickly discovered, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
My initial confusion was understandable; while water parks are now synonymous with spiral slides, flumes, and lazy rivers, the Cotswold Water Park was named long before these popped up across Europe. Indeed, as they stress on their website, the Cotswold Water Park should be viewed as an area and not a park. Straddling the counties of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, and Oxfordshire, it covers 40 square miles and contains over 150 lakes. These lakes were formed naturally after gravel quarrying ceased in the mid 20th century, and, in the intervening decades, have become a haven for waterfowl and other wildlife.
There are water sports available in certain lakes—kayaking, windsurfing, paddleboarding, angling, and more—and plenty of non-water-based activities as well. In fact, it was the latter that brought MrElaineous and I to the Cotswold Water Park in the first place. As we start to prepare for a long-distance walking trip next year, it has become apparent that we need to trade in our trainers (US readers: tennis shoes) for something a bit sturdier.
Finding my perfect pair of walking boots was a breeze—the very first pair I tried on at the very first store fit like a glove. MrElaineous, however, has size 12 feet. And you know what they say about men with big feet: it’s really hard to find shoes for them. We had visited four stores over two weeks; perhaps it would be fifth time lucky?
We started at the Gateway Centre, which was the ideal introduction to the region. Part information centre, part café, it was a great place to learn more about what was available in the park while brunching on incredibly delicious food and enjoying spectacular views across one of the lakes. The fact that the outdoor store we were planning to visit was immediately next door was a bonus, as was MrElaineous discovering his Goldilocks boots—a “just right” fit means that we’ll have to begin training in earnest!
Our main task thus accomplished, we decided to explore a small section of the park around the Shorncote Reedbeds Nature Reserve. Reedbeds like this have become rare in the British countryside, but are an incredibly valuable habitat for a variety of wildlife—water voles, dragonflies, otters, and the eponymous reed bunting and reed warbler. While none of these were visible during our visit, we did catch sight of a large mixed flock of Canada and greylag geese who were peeking out from a nearby field.
The rest of the walk was a good reminder that we will probably want to brush up on our map reading skills before next year’s long-distance adventure. We didn’t get lost exactly, but for the last mile or two we weren’t sure how the landscape in front of us corresponded to the map in our hand. We celebrated our successful return to civilisation with a second visit to the Gateway Centre, a slice of chocolate cake, and a well-earned cup of tea. We could even continue the wildlife watching as I spotted a great crested grebe out on the lake, a bird whose distinctive hairstyle and courtship dance makes it well worth looking out for.
It cannot be denied that the 20th and 21st centuries have had a far bigger impact on the Cotswold Water Park compared to the Cumbrian Lake District—cookie-cutter holiday homes, industrial estates, and active quarrying sit side by side with traditional villages, nature reserves, and walking trails. However, this region is just as worth exploring as its northern counterpart … just don’t expect any waterslides.