Wish your school days had been wilder?
You can almost hear nature breathing a sigh of relief. The nights get shorter, the birds get louder, and buds, leaves, flowers and ferns sprout from every stem and branch.
You might recall the onset of the summer term during your school days. Lessons in classrooms with larger windows became a real bind, mainly because it was all too easy to see what you were missing out on! Skylarks trilled over the rugby pitches, barren since winter, while oystercatchers piped, lapwings tumbled and starlings chattered with clear amorous intent.
Nowadays, access to ‘out-of-classroom’ learning is far more readily available. School wildlife gardens, vegetable plots and even classroom-sponsored chicken coups are commonplace.
But it would be a rare child – and an even rarer adult! – that said they felt they get enough of the natural world. So why not find your own wild classroom this weekend?
Alton Water, just south of Ipswich, is an ideal location to swot up on the world around you. It’s the largest area of inland water in Suffolk, set in 400 acres of beautiful countryside. Anglian Water owns Alton Water, and the site provides drinking water for Ipswich and much of southern Suffolk – supplying almost 200,000 households with seven million gallons a day.
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Here are a few lessons you might teach yourself on a visit…
Phenology. The study of recurring natural phenomena. Or, as you’ll probably know it, the seasons! It’s not hard to spot the signs of spring at Alton Water. Many birds will be in full song, attracting a mate or defending a territory. Snowdrops are now giving way to bluebells, while the candles of horse chestnuts will be bursting into colour. All of these are a good sign that the world is still turning, and spring is here.
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Geography. Get out a map, and you can find the winter homes of some of Alton Water’s summer wildlife. Chiffchaffs, belting out their repetitive ‘chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff’ song from almost any perch, make it all the way from north Africa and southern Europe under their own steam. Astonishing for a bird weighing little more than a twenty-pence piece! But the stars of the geographical show are undoubtedly common terns. They arrive back in April, some from as far away as the tip of South Africa. Noisy and aggressive but sublimely graceful, they’re everything your geography teacher probably wasn’t.
Music. Alton Water is home to the most tuneful of all the birds that visit our shores in summer – the nightingale. Once heard, its song is never forgotten. John Keats wrote of it as “the nearest to perfection”, and it would be hard to disagree. So named because of its penchant for singing into the night, the crystal clear, melodic and ear-splittingly loud song can be heard on warm evenings in early May.
Biology. Darting low over the water you’re likely to catch sight of a food chain in action. Clouds of small insects will be ripped through by sand martins and swallows, devouring midges, flies and gnats in preparation for raising a family in the coming months. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a hobby or a peregrine in hot pursuit of an unlucky sand martin, stretching the chain even further! Elsewhere, skulking herons will wade through the shallows, stabbing at passing frogs and fish.
So if staying in and learning from books isn’t your thing, why not give yourself some mental exercise as well as a physical workout in the fresh air this weekend? You’ll learn a lot more than you might think – and the only certification you’ll need is the mud on your boots to prove you went!