In this article, I introduce another of London’s wildlife sites, a gem that is not very well known. Hornchurch Country Park is on the eastern boundary of London in the London Borough of Havering. It is another one of London’s sites that combines good wildlife, easy access by public transport and the provision of visitor facilities. Hornchurch Country Park is around 100 hectares and overlaps a part of the Ingrebourne Valley Local Nature Reserve managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust. A small part of Ingrebourne Marshes, a site of special scientific interest is contained within the Ingrebourne Valley Local Nature Reserve. The Ingrebourne Nature Discovery Centre managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust is accessed by entering Hornchurch Country Park.

I had arrived at Hornchurch Country Park with my wife in the third week of April on a day that was sunny and with temperatures peaking at 15 degrees Celsius. Many of the trees and shrubs were beginning to put on a new coat of leaves. But they were still bare enough to make it easy enough to see many of the warblers who had returned from Africa to breed in Britain. The wooded patches were full of singing Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs. We had occasional glimpses of pairs of Blackcaps, the males with the black caps and the females with red caps. We sat in the outdoor seating area of the cafe to enjoy a cup of coffee from the café when a Common Whitethroat arrived and sang its loud and scratchy song. Common Whitethroats have a habit of moving from one song perch to another. This one was true to form and rapidly moved to another song perch and was soon gone from sight.

A few minutes walk away from the café, is a lookout area onto a small lake. From here we watched a pair of Gadwall and a pair of Common Teal. Both species of ducks have pronounced differences between the male and female, known as sexual dimorphism. The male Teal is striking with a green blaze on the head. In the Gadwall, the male has fine black vermiculations against a grey background. A black bill easily separates the male from the female which an orange bill. We took a path that took us to a bridge over the river. From here, there were better views of the extensive reedbeds. The Ingrebourne Marshes is one of the largest areas of remaining reedbeds in the London area and surprisingly it is also one of the largest areas of reedbeds in Britain. Much of the marshes are beside the river and are without public access to them. Only little slivers of the reedbeds are visible from the country park. The reedbeds we could see were lined with patches of hawthorn and blackthorn. The habitat was ideal for Cetti’s Warbler, an elusive bird that is very reluctant to show itself but betrays its presence at regular intervals with its explosive calls. We heard several Cetti’s Warblers calling until one entered a line of blackthorn bushes and we managed to catch good but fleeting views of one.

The country park is bordered by working farms and has a very rural atmosphere. It is hard to believe that one is still in a London borough. Berwick Glades is an area of open grassland with many anthills. Ants are a favourite food of the Green Woodpecker which unlike other woodpeckers spends a lot of its time feeding on the ground. The yaffling or laughing calls could be heard throughout the day and we had good views of feeding birds. In one of the open areas we watched a male Kestrel hovering over one place. It was probably looking for Field Voles and it swooped down to catch something. From high above I heard a familiar song. It was a Song Lark. Unlike other birds that sing from atop a perch, the Song Lark likes to sing from high above hanging suspended in the sky with rapidly fluttering wings. The numbers of Kestrels and Song Larks have plummeted in London. This is mainly due to changes in land use resulting in the loss of habitat. But ground-nesting songbirds such as Song Larks also face other threats such as disturbance from walkers and especially their dogs. As a result on sites where ground-nesting birds are found, reserve managers often need to temporarily or permanently create ‘no go’ areas for walkers and dogs. For Londoners, one of the most reliable sites for Song Larks is the Rainham Marshes reserve managed by the RSPB. The London Wildlife Trust is engaged in a campaign to protect habitats for Song Lark. More details of their work and the 37 nature reserves they manage can be found on their website.

Getting there

Hornchurch Country Park is very easily reached on the District Line of the London Underground (London’s metro) by getting off at Hornchurch, just two tube stops before the District line terminates at Upminster in the East. Exiting the tube station one can walk along Sutton’s Road to the main entrance which is less than a mile away (less than 15 minutes walking time) or hops on one of the frequent buses that run along Sutton’s Road and alight at the bus stop marked for Hornchurch Country Park. At the main entrance, it may look like yet another formal London park with a large picnic and play area that can be busy with families on a day with good weather. But do not be deterred as it is very easy to lose the crowds. A hundred meters or from the entrance is the Ingrebourne Nature Discovery Centre managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust. It has a shop with a variety of nature-related products from bird feeders to binoculars. There are toilets and a café with indoor and outdoor seating. There are bird feeders at the back, but these are best at attracting birds in winter.

From the visitor centre there are views down towards the Ingrebourne River and a small, reed-fringed lake. From the visitor centre, paths which are tarmacked and pram friendly, lead away. From these, there are other non-surfaced paths that lead away such as the one towards the area known as Berwick Glades which crosses the River Ingrebourne and offers closer views of the expansive reedbeds. On this route, a small footpath leads away towards Abbey Wood. A tiny and uneven footpath which fights its way through a tangle of scrub and woodland. On either side of the path, the ground is covered with moss hinting that the soil is damp through most of the year.