An eight mile walk (or bike ride) around Suffolk’s largest Man-made Reservoir.

Lemons Hill Bridge.

I have always found the best start/finish point for the 8 mile (13km) circumnavigation of the reservoir to be the little free car-park at the northern end of Lemons Hill Bridge,

SatNav; IP93NH.

The first obvious question is which way to proceed? Clockwise or Anti-Clockwise? It all comes down to personal choice really but personally I am always drawn to go Anti-Clockwise. Whether you’re walking (about two and a half hours) or cycling (approximately one hour) the track here immediately hugs the southern “shore” of the reservoir with some lovely views of the 1970s bridge that is the western boundary edge.

Just to your right here is the quiet little village of Tattingstone, a village virtually split in half by the building of Alton Water. There is an interesting old church here and a former 18th Century workhouse. At the village playing field however there is a pavillion with a little piece of obscure local history. It was constructed by local workers using the doors and some of the structural timbers that came from an old boat house, situated on a lake that was lost when the entire valley was flooded between 1974 and 1987. Further along the valley the historic Alton Water Mill was dismantled here and completely re-assembled intact at the Museum of East Anglian Rural Life, Stowmarket.

Alton Water Mill was dismantled, moved and reconstructed at the Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket.

This photograph was taken in March 1973. Picture: OWEN HINES/ARCHANT

Not all buildings were as fortunate though. The 17th Century Alton Hall was demolished before the entire valley was flooded. Also lost Five Acres, at Holbrook, a row of 24 cottages built just after World War One and home to about 50 people, most owner-occupied and recently modernised.

Plans first appeared in the 1960s, when it became obvious that the rapidly increasing population of the “greater” Ipswich area would need a far greater water source than the outdated Victorian system still in place.

After disregarding alternative sites, including Mill River at Foxhall to the east of Ipswich the plans for the new reservoir were unveiled in January 1968 with the project forecast to cost approximately £2mllion.

The footpath is easy going most of the way, remarkably flat and ideal for cycling as well as walking. Along the route there is a wealth of flora and fauna in different well-managed habitats. Geese are obviously in evidence but there is an abundance of wildfowl such as coots and tufted duck. It is also renowned as one of the main breeding sites for great crested grebes. Other birds seen here include nightingales, kingfishers and common terns.

Not far along the trek there is another little car-park and across the road from here is a fascinating piece of local history known as the “Tattingstone Wonder” a building designed to look like a little parish church but that in fact was estate workers cottages.

Tattingstone Wonder, cottages built in 1790 and designed to look like a church.

Across the valley here this “folly” was created by Edward White, the local squire who did not like his view of workmens cottages from his hall known as Tattingstone Place. So he gave them a church flint fasçade that has become quite infamous in the region as one of the most unusual, if not unique houses. Tattingstone Place is still there, obscured slightly from view now because the Reservoir has changed the geography here, but the Wonder can still be seen from the old hall, albeit across water, surely Edward would approve?

Continuing along the track we now pass through Larch Wood, a beautiful part of the shore with some fine old ancient oaks and some popular bird hides where “twitchers” can spend hours on the water’s edge waiting for birds such as terns. Strange to think then that just in front of you here the gently-sloping valley fell away to the little Tattingstone Brook that was damned to form a large fish pond, all part of Tattingstone Park. There was of course a little Edwardian boat house, that which was partly used at the modern pavillion back in the village.

Our journey now takes us along the southern shoreline until we come to the large “main” car-park with a chance for some refreshments at the little café. There is also a cycle hire shed here. For most visitors to Alton Water this is their first sight and their first stop. For the very active there is a Great Run here every Sunday with a 2k and a 5k course. There are other sporting events here too, the Reservoir is the perfect venue for an annual Triathlon Event and the Great East Swim. A little way along is the Sports Centre where there is a sailing school. And also the Regatta Cafe, open in the Summer on the water’s edge.

Just before the dam as you continue along the track you can’t fail to notice the impressive tower of the Royal Hospital School, just a little way behind farm fields.

The clock tower of the Royal Hospital School, from near the Reservoir dam.

The school was founded in Greenwich in 1712 but moved to Holbrook in 1933, designed by Arts & Crafts architect Herbert Tudor Buckland (1869 – 1951). The neo-Wren buildings are now Grade II Listed. It is a true bastion of British naval history with its traditions dating back to the very beginnings of the Royal Navy. The school is the only UK independent boarding school to have ever been continuously granted the Queen’s Banner and it flies its own Admiralty-approved Blue Ensign. It is one of only two UK schools whose students have the privilege of wearing Royal Navy uniforms, the other being Pangbourne College in Berkshire.

Former pupils who attended here include the accomplished mathematical Professor Bernard de Neumann (1943–2018) who was a descendant of Johann Andreas von Neumann, nobleman of the Holy Roman Empire, and of Johann Heinrich von Neumann, nobleman of the Kingdom of Bavaria.

Another noteable former pupil was Rear-Admiral Stanley McArdle, GM (1922–2007). McArdle had a distinguished wartime career rising to high rank from humble beginnings. But his greatest honour was a civilian one. He was awarded the George Cross in 1953 for his part in rescuing survivors of a sinking ferry, the MV Princess Victoria. The tragedy unfolded on the night of 31st January 1953 in a severe storm the ferry somehow left the port of Stranraer bound for Larne with the car bay doors still open. She inevitably sank with the loss of 133 lives. McArdle was Lieutenant Commander aboard HMS Contest, one of the first ships to respond to the stricken ferry’s distress call. With disregard for his own life McArdle, along with Chief Petty Officer Wilfred Warren both dived into the water to help survivors. Both were awarded the George Medal for their bravery. There were only 44 survivors in what was the greatest maritime disaster in British waters since the World War Two.

Back to Alton Water, we are approximately half way round now, with a commemorative plaque at the start of the 65feet (20metre) high dam.

Commemorative plaque at the start of Alton Water dam.

The dam was constructed in 1974 from local London clay, it was built to a length of 650 yards (595 metres) and immediately the valley began to be flooded to a depth of 60feet (18metres) water was pumped from the River Gipping at Sproughton. Water treatment works and a pumping station were built below the dam and the first fresh water was pumped in October 1986 with the Reservoir being officially opened by The Princess Royal on July 10, 1987. Between 85% and 95% of the water pumped from here goes to Ipswich and Felixstowe with the remainder fed to villages in South Suffolk.

The dam at the eastern end of Alton Water.

Crossing the dam you should be aware that here was Alton Hall, the ancient manor that gave the reservoir its name and was eventually demolished. Just beyond the treatment works are Alton Hall cottages, part of an estate that was dramatically terminated back in the 1970s. The Hall dated back to the Domesday Book and the estate totalled just over 1,200 acres in all but the reservoir flooded nearly 350 acres and split the rest into two.

At the end of the dam, jutting into the water is the Draw Off Tower, this is where the water is pumped from the reservoir into the pumping station and treatment works below, capable of treating up to 10 million imperial gallons (45,000 m3) of water a day. The reservoir can effectively hold up to 3,000million gallons with water purified at a softening plant and pumped to users at the rate of five or six million gallons a day.

The “Last Leg” along the eastern shore of the reservoir is mostly through woodland and skirts isolated farm fields, tracing the contours of the inlets of the water as we head back to Lemons Hill, passing through Crag Hall Covert before stumbling across the lovely little car park at Birchwood House, within sight of pretty Woodley Wood and Great Birch Wood, part of the ancient parkland known as Holbrook Park. Our path then continues along the edge of the reservoir where some spectacular woodland hugs the shoreline, something of a hindrance to views across the water here but still serene and beautiful.

Very soon the austere “brutalist” bridge of Lemons Hill comes into view and we are back athe start point. However, just a short distance away and well worth a visit after the completion of our circumnavigation is the charming old White Horse Inn. This 16th Century pub was once a drop-off point for busy traffic on the main road from London to Ipswich but now (due to the building of the reservoir) it is a peaceful cul-de-sac. There is a white horse outside, high on a plinth that was originally outside the Great White Horse Hotel in Ipswich, a hostelry made famous by Charles Dickens who stayed here and used the hotel in his book “Pickwick Papers”.

2 thoughts on “Alton Water

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