Travel Diary: Lockdown exploration at Aqualate Mere

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This is travel diaries, a series where I tell the story of a recent trip and all of its trials and tribulations. Lockdown has had a disastrous impact on those of us who spend all of our time travelling, but with restrictions starting to relax it was time for us to get out and have a new adventure. Unfortunately, even if we could escape to the countryside, we could not escape the impacts of Coronavirus...

For someone who tries to use every free moment by loading up the car with the bare essentials and taking day trips, Coronavirus has been a real chore. Not only has my car been out of action for the majority of the lockdown due to a breakdown I cannot source parts for, but various restrictions and risk factors have left us unable or unwilling to risk our lives and the lives of those we love just to go out on a little excursion. There is no other way to describe it: this year sucks. But as restrictions start to lift and more freedoms are afforded to us, we decided to finally go do something a little outdoorsy.  We tried to do something within a few hours drive, somewhere we had never seen before and somewhere that would hopefully offer something interesting; we had also agreed that if we arrived at an overflowing car park we would immediately turn around and go home, if we knew social distancing would be an issue on this walk then we would not take the risk. We have really been trying to follow the expert's advice to the letter and so if we were going to head out, it would have to be in the safest way possible.

Sunny days in the countryside

We settled on Aqualate Mere, a small nature reserve in Staffordshire, and picked a day that was expected to be gloriously sunny; we also tried to head off early to beat any crowds but an unplanned lie-in meant we did not arrive until a little later. Clearly, we both had become a little rusty when it came to hiking so this little adventure would be good practice. Aqualate Mere seemed like a great option for us, it was surrounded by countryside and centred around the largest natural lake in the Midlands, but unlike areas such as Cannock Chase or the Shropshire Hills we didn't expect it to pull in the huge groups looking to sunbathe or play games. Our choice was vindicated when we pulled into a car park that only had 3 other vehicles and we barely encountered a soul other than groundskeepers at work and the occasional dog walker throughout the entire journey.

Aqualate Mere is a wetlands reserve primarily focused towards supporting local and visiting wildfowl, so we had hoped we might encounter a few interesting birds and at the very least been surrounded by life as we made our way through the area. In fact, reading up on the area it would appear to be a lively spot all year round with many birds wintering through the colder months here such as mallard, wigeon, pochard and more. To be honest, I'm not much of a bird spotter but I love for the places I visit to feel alive and to be full of bird-song. The lake has a long history although it is said to be surprisingly shallow, averaging a depth under 1 metre, it came to be thanks to glacial melt from as old as 30,000 years ago; the waters are home to plenty of fish and even a few mammals including otters and water voles. This sizeable parcel of land makes up just a small portion of Aqualate Hall's grounds which meant if we wanted there were plenty of additional walks we could see beyond the lake's edges. If you wish to learn more, you can via Staffordshire council's own website but all you need know is the place seems plenty lively and full of natural goodness.

The sun was already scorching by 11 am, we exited the car and made our way through the first few sets of gates and out into the countryside - such a glorious sight to behold considering how long it had been. Alongside our usual kits of water bottles, suntan lotion and overcoats should the weather turn, were face-masks and hand-sanitiser; so ingrained into our life at this point that we never travel without the Coronavirus essentials, even when alone in nature. We made note of a few signs, including one that indicated the bird hide was closed due to Coronavirus - not a problem, the area itself had looked beautiful enough in photos so we could live without a visit to the bird hide. Plus, we were barely into our walk and we could already hear a gorgeous chorus of birds singing including many tweets and whistles I didn't recognise - I was excited to maybe spot a few different birds I had never seen before. No matter what waited ahead for us, it was nice to experience a touch of nature that I had not been able to enjoy for many months. We cruised through the first few fields, enjoying the sights and smells of the countryside while trundling over the dusty paths. Armed with a myriad of different cameras we both snapped photo after photo, clearly having missed getting away from the oppressive concrete and asphalt that surrounds us back home.

Paths out as far as the eyes can see

Aqualate Mere is only a relatively small patch of nature compared to what we are used to, so it wouldn't be long before we arrived at our first crossroads and had a choice to make - to the left is the Bird Hide and the east edge of the lake, to our right a road that seemed to be an exit to the nature reserve and forwards would, judging by the maps, take us to the far side of the lake. We had seen a few walkers in front of us that had turned towards the bird hide, and considering it was listed as closed we decided to carry on forwards to hopefully find a spot around the lake that we would have to ourselves. Best guess, people were still congregating around the bird hide even if they couldn't get in it, and we wanted to keep away from that if we could. With the lake out of view but somewhere to our left, the open fields were replaced by thick reeds and the trees gradually assembled around us until we were enclosed in a surprisingly thick forest; the clear lack of footfall meant we were dodging brambles and nettles that had begun to reclaim the paths. Not only that, but the flies, wasps and bees were certainly a bit bolder here, perhaps because of their lack of interaction with people but we spent our trip through this jungle being eaten alive by many little flying kamikaze insects. The shade had been a welcome break from the direct sunlight, but that didn't mean we were any cooler as the baking rays had been replaced by oppressive humidity that left us feeling like we were breathing air through a wet towel.

The edge of the admittedly short forest was marked by a cute little bridge crossing and another Aqualate Mere sign, that indicated we were less than half of the way to the far side where a viewpoint would be waiting for us. We emerged out of the shade, now in the midday sun, happy to be away from all the bugs but needing to top up our suntan lotion to keep us from crisping up... The next few fields felt more and more like we were out in the proper countryside, with what had been well-trodden dirt tracks replaced by barely flattened grasses. We continued on our adventure until we passed through a double gate and we no longer had a path to follow. It would appear that the lack of foot traffic through the area in recent months had made knowing where to go a little challenging; we had a vague idea of the route to take and the signposts had been very helpful, but while we were debating following the boundaries of the field versus charging onwards as the crow flies, Rox raised an excellent point: What if the viewpoint is closed too? We had no idea what the viewpoint would be, it could just be a hill but it was equally likely to be a building that would be inaccessible due to current lockdown rules. We considered going on for a while, but rather than risk disappointment we agreed to turn back and try to find our way to the nearest side of the lake; we had seen some rough waterlogged tracks on our journey thus far, but as we both had dressed for more of a summer walk our shoes would not have survived the boggy quagmire.

Wondering the open fields

The return journey was a breeze, it often feels like the return journey is so much shorter now you are familiar with the route although we were certainly worn down by the incessant sunshine toasting our exposed skin. We passed back through the little forest and arrived back at the crossroads where we followed the turning for the bird hide. As we approached we checked the maps, it looked like we were parallel with the lake's east edge and were expecting to turn right and arrive at the lake's shoreline any moment. What we were not expecting was a gate locked with barbed-wire down to the bird hide; it turns out that rather than having an open lake edge there is only one route to the lake from this side and it was very much inaccessible. We had hoped we would be able to skirt past the hide to spend some time at the lake but after checking OS maps it would appear we were completely out of luck. At this point, we were low on water, nicely glowing from the sun and ready to just laugh it off as one of those walks that refused to work out. One leisurely saunter later we were back at the car in high spirits having finally gotten out and enjoyed some countryside.

Lockdown restrictions on the bird hide

We are often quite lucky in the fact that so many of our walks tend to go well, it is always memorable and a bit of fun to have a journey not quite work out the way we had planned; this one is especially fun because we had been missing the great outdoors so much that we did not even care that this walk failed to turn out as planned. I cannot wait to give Aqualate Mere a proper try, we will probably come to find that we were a mere stones-throw away from whatever glorious views awaited us around the lake but this walk was more about getting out for the first time in a while and anything was better than nothing. Hopefully, as life returns to normal, we can make more and more grand adventures that don't have to end with us wondering befuddled through a few farmers fields...

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