Author: Ian Hartley
If you had travelled along the road from Ipswich to Manningtree in the 1970’s, you would have looked in vain for somewhere called Alton Water. There was a watermill on a brook that ran through the valley near the village of Tattingstone, with a handsome wooden mill called Alton Watermill which had been built at the turn of the nineteenth century. Why was this carefully dismantled and moved to Stowmarket in 1973? It was taken down because work on a new reservoir was about to commence, a reservoir that would flood this tranquil valley. Soon the silence would be broken with the sound of great earth moving machinery.
In the 1960’s the town of Ipswich was expanding rapidly, and the council realised that the existing water supply would soon be insufficient. So, plans were drawn up to create a reservoir which would take water from the river Gipping. It took thirteen years to fill the valley to a depth of sixty feet and create the reservoir. Today, as you look at the well-established lake, it is hard to believe that farms and houses had to be abandoned. Three dozen dwellings were flooded, and seventy-five people lost their homes.
The reservoir is situated on the rural Shotley Peninsular with its many varied landscapes. The peninsular is bounded by two rivers: in the north is the Orwell and to the south, the Stour. Both rivers meet the North Sea at Shotley Gate. As well as Tattingstone and Sutton, there are other villages including Chelmondiston, Wolverstone, Freston, Erwarton, Harkstead and Holbrook.
Alton Water started operating as a reservoir in 1986 and was officially opened by the Princess Royal the following year. It provides water to 200,000 customers and delivers seven million gallons of water every day. In the last thirty years it has become a much loved and well used local amenity. Finding Alton Water today is quite straight forward. Travelling south from Ipswich on the A137, take the signposted left turn before reaching the village of Tattingstone. Follow this country lane until you see the White Horse pub. Before you reach the pub, take the left turn down Lemon Hill. Lemon Hill crosses the reservoir with a bridge constructed when the valley was flooded. There are free car parks on either side of the bridge.
If you feel like a circular walk around the eight-mile perimeter of Alton Water, Lemon Hill North is a good place to begin a clockwise hike. The well-maintained tracks are well signposted and used by cyclists as well as walkers. Approximately half way round you reach the southern end and the dam which was constructed to contain the water. Just beyond the dam is the Visitors Centre and café. After walking for as much as two hours, you may well feel in need of refreshment. The café provides a range of hot and cold snacks and drinks, and there are also water bowls for thirsty dogs. Energetic children are catered for in the nearby play area.
Many people chose to drive and park at this point on the route. To reach the visitor centre car park you will have continued on the A137 passed Tattingstone and then to the village of Brantham where you take the B1080 back toward Holbrook and Sutton.
The visitors centre is the right place if you are interested in the many other activities that Alton Water has to offer. If you enjoy cycling but haven’t brought a bike with you, then it is possible to hire a range of bikes from Alton Cycle Hire. The perimeter track offers a variety of surfaces and some rugged terrain. There are routes for all the family including ones to suit the young and inexperienced. If you’re feeling adventurous, you might choose to leave the lake and cycle on the many country lanes to nearby beauty spots found in “Constable Country”, so called because of the many places featured in the paintings of John Constable (1776-1837) who lived on the Stour at East Bergholt. Or if you travel northward to the Orwell estuary, I can recommend stopping at the riverside village of Pin Mill with its renowned watering hole, the Butt & Oyster.
I’ve mentioned several pubs so far, there are many more! Travelling clockwise around the reservoir as well as the White Horse at Tattingstone there is also the Wheatsheaf, then on to the Gardeners Arms and Kings Head, both in Sutton, then the Compasses in Holbrook and the Bull at Brantham. They all receive good reviews, but each has its own special ambience: the visitor has plenty of choice.
Close to the Visitors Centre is the Alton Water Sports Centre. The Centre provides the opportunity to sail and windsurf with your own equipment. Or, perhaps you or others in the family might want to learn to sail, and the Centre hosts a RYA and AALA registered school, catering to all ages and abilities throughout the year. In addition, the Wolverstone Project is a very successful sailing club for people with disabilities.
Once a year, Alton Water hosts the Great East Swim. Normally swimming is not allowed, so this is a great opportunity for wild swimming. The event has been running for more than ten years and is very popular. Entries on line. If this hasn’t offered enough choice of great outside sports, and fishing is your bag, permits are available for coarse fishing in the winter months. Maybe you fancy trying your hand at landing a mighty pike, the malevolent predator found lurking in the depths.
But what could be more delightful than to wander through the trees with a camera and a pair of binoculars, hoping to spot an osprey hunting prey or the turquoise flash of a kingfisher. As the habitat changes and now you’re walking through a bluebell wood in Spring you might spot a dog fox. Or in a meadow of wild flowers, look carefully for a sleepy grass snake basking in the sun. As the poet William Davies writes, “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” Whatever the time of year there is so much to do and see at Alton Water.
This guide was written by:
Suffolk Writers Group