The Cotswold Water Park
PUBLISHED: 11:56 20 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:50 20 February 2013
Although the name may be something of a misnomer, more and more people are discovering the natural beauty of the Cotswold Water park. Adam Edwards reports on the big plans ahead.
The first thing to clear up about the Cotswold Water Park is that it is not a park. It does not have a water slide, water rollercoaster or a tropical lagoon and there are no fast food stands, souvenir shops or illuminated attractions within its borders.
The name is a misnomer. Not only is it as far removed from Alton Towers as the Antarctic but it is on the very fringes of the Cotswold Hills - in the flat bit between Cirencester and Swindon. Furthermore the water, and there is a lot of it, bubbles up from the ground and not through Theme Park pipes.
It is probably too late to change its title now but realistically it ought to be called The Lakes or The Broads, only unfortunately those names have already been hijacked by Cumbria and Norfolk.
`We are the largest man-made inland waterway in Europe and nobody knows about us,' said Dennis Grant the Chief Executive of Cotswold Water Park Society. `We are the size of Jersey with a catchment area of 20 million people who are within a two-hour drive and yet most of them don't know we exist.'
But from this year that will change. At the end of 2008 a Master Plan setting out the future of the Water Park, commissioned by a variety of interested organisations and authorities and a year in the completion, was unveiled. It stated the beauty of the area must be preserved, that there must be public access to the lakes, that it should be developed as a countryside pursuit park and most importantly that it should have a sustainable economy.
`Until the strategic review we didn't know what we wanted,' said Dennis Grant. `We were just meandering around. The Water Park Society was put in to manage the park 12 years ago but it had no long term plan. Now we have a Master Plan. Now it is time to raise our profile.'
The Cotswold Water Park is 40 square miles of old gravel pits - 147 of them and counting - that straddle the A419. The first lakes were dug up in the 1880s to provide sand and gravel for the railway. However the really large scale extraction was in the 50s and 60s with the expansion of motorways and housing. When extraction from a particular section was completed, nature filled up the hole that was left behind with water, like a hole on a wet beach. But despite nature's best efforts it was, and still is in parts, an industrial landscape.
Over the years the mineral companies and farmers who owned the land began to sell off the redundant lakes to a variety of disparate developers and in 1967 the four local authorities over which the area spans (Cotswolds District, Gloucestershire, North Wiltshire and Wiltshire) got together and christened the gravel pits with its misleading name. Not that anybody took any notice of the place for another couple of decades.
It was in the late 80s that diverse businessmen began to seriously exploit the potential of the area in a piecemeal fashion. The first developers concentrated on building fashionable second homes abutting the man-made lakes. Others invested in campsites, sailing schools, water-skiing businesses, rowing clubs, windsurfing and fishing centres. Meanwhile various bodies and charities bought and developed one or two of the lakes as nature reserves.
`There is nothing quite like it in the rest of the UK,' Said Dennis Grant (with the exception of course of the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads). `Unfortunately what we have had up until now is a beautiful dormitory with residents commuting to Bath, Bristol, Cheltenham and even London.'
The Cotswold Water Park still has the feeling of a work in progress, much as London's Docklands did in the early nineties. There are almost no shops or bars or the usual mundane services that can be found in any established community. In fact it is difficult to know when you are in the Water Park, and where to go when you are there. (Grant admits that the area needs either a nationally recognised symbol like the Broads' windmill or `a Lake Windermere' to give it a focus.)
If the area has a heart it is where the Spine Road (B4696) crosses the A419 to the East of South Cerney.
It is here that The Cotswold Water Park Four Pillars Hotel and the Old Boathouse gastro-pub were completed last year. Both are thriving. The hotel is the perfect rural meeting place for, for instance, a business conference half-way between London and Birmingham.
The Gateway Centre and its caf Coots is also at the cross-roads. It is here that the 50,000 year-old-woolly Mammoth's head, which was dug up in the park, now sits in a glass case besides scores of brochures boasting of the extraordinary diversity of the park.
The Water Park has, for example, has one of the most impressive range of bat species in the UK which do the useful job of eating millions of midges. It has 20,000 wintering waterfowl every year including the Smew, Gadwall and Pochard. It has the best coarse fishing in the country, an elaborate network of cycle and foot paths, willow weaving and fossil hunts. There are also wonderful bird hides, architectural gems and hidden follies.
`People still say to me what time does the park open,' said Dennis Grant who is hoping, among his other future plans, to create a countryside academy in the park. `The name is a continual problem. I think it is one of the reasons that people don't know who we are. What I would like to do is change it. It should be called the Cotswold Lakes.'
If the Water Park is serious about getting on even terms with the other watery corners of the UK let us hope that that is the first step in the Master Plan.