All about Bewl Water Country Park
PUBLISHED: 14:08 21 July 2016 | UPDATED: 14:08 21 July 2016
Kent's largest reservoir, Bewl Water Country Park near Lamberhurst, reopened for business this Spring after a major upgrade by its new owners aimed at boosting tourism
Bewl Water is back. Not that it ever went away, you understand; it would be hard to lose the largest stretch of open water in the south east, an 800-acre site set in an area of outstanding natural beauty, in the heart of the High Weald.
But ‘back’ in the sense that it has emerged from a period in the doldrums where it appeared to have not only lost its way, but was certainly losing out on visitors. Markerstudy, the privately owned financial group with headquarters near Sevenoaks, completed the deal to acquire the lease to operate Bewl Water Country Park in January and has spent the last few months making substantial improvements at the stunning site near Lamberhurst.
The most dramatic of these are the new visitor centre, which now has much better food offer with The Waterfront café-style restaurant aimed at families enjoying a day out. And at the nearby sailing clubhouse, the upper floor has become the stylish, contemporary Boat House Bistro, where among delicious dishes you’ll find rainbow trout caught just hours before from the better-stocked-than-ever lake it overlooks.
Markerstudy Leisure, whose very welcome first move was to reduce parking charges at the attraction from £8 to £2, has also made the 12.5-mile long path around the reservoir more accessible to people through the introduction of a new water taxi service.
And a new 42-foot long boat, Bewl Belle, is now offering passengers the chance to relax on a cruise across the reservoir; for those who prefer to explore the waters under their own steam, the popular pedaloes and rowing boats remain.
Bewl has always attracted families, fishermen, sailors, walkers and cyclists, but now there are even more recreational activities on offer.
I spoke to Howard Mackenzie, Bewl Water Estate Manager, who has worked here for the past 39 years and must be one of the few people in Kent who is not unhappy about such a wet summer. No chance of the reservoir drying up as it famously did in 2011/12, when water levels were at just 40 per cent in midwinter.
Howard, who studied estate management at university then followed it up with a year in fencing and forestry work, applied for a job at Bewl two years after leaving college. “At the time I was horrified when a chap I met told me he’d been here 16 years. Little did I realise nearly 40 years later I’d still be working here!” he laughs.
Howard was in fact part of Bewl almost from the beginning, joining as a young ranger in 1978, just five years after owner Southern Water first began to construct the reservoir by damming and then flooding an agricultural valley.
Completed in 1975, having been filled with more than 31,300 million litres of water, Bewl is now the largest body of inland water in the south east. Howard, who quickly progressed to head ranger before taking on his present role, tells me: “I have seen Bewl through lots of stages, it started off as a public authority owned local reservoir and there was a huge amount of enthusiasm for it.
“It was a very exciting time, the sports side was just beginning, the landscape was brand new and initially it looked like a flooded valley rather than a mature reservoir. The site also benefited enormously from excellent landscaping by the prominent landscape architect and designer Dame Sylvia Crowe, who chose some exotic species as well as more indigenous varieties.”
In 1989 the UK’s water industry was privatised and Southern Water became a private company, efficiency increased and the standard was set for a number of changes in private ownership over the years, culminating in the exciting new phase with Markerstudy Leisure.
“My own role has changed frequently over the years,” says Howard, who now manages a team of six ranger staff who work with him on the estate,‑ looking after everything from tree felling to grass cutting, the fishermen and boats. He also runs his family farm in Pembury, where they have a small lambing flock.
“One of the biggest challenges is the number of different directions in which one can get drawn, and the necessary interruptions,” he says. “But I am desperately fond of the site and the countryside and if there are days when I am of necessity trapped in the office sorting out essential matters, when I get out again it puts the whole role into a very important perspective.
“Whatever the weather, whatever the time of year, but especially early May to July, then I always get such immense pleasure from seeing the site – it looks really good, without having that air of an urban park about it – and it is also nice to see the results of one’s own involvement.”
Does he ever get time to enjoy the facilities? “I have a sailing boat and I do love to take it out, but I don’t do that nearly enough,” he smiles.
Someone else who adores his job is Phil Daley, Activities Manager at Bewl, who lives nearby in Hawkenbury. He was running a mountain bike coaching business, applied for some investment funding but at the interview got offered the new role at Bewl instead.
“I mainly look after the land-based activities, so the cycles, land train, electric cars, walking groups,” he explains. “I have been given free rein to do what I know best – my experience is mainly bike hire so I’ve set that up just how I like it. It’s one of the best jobs in the world!
“We’ve got bikes for hire for all ages from four years and up, plus buggies and baby seats, the bike trail itself is 12.5 miles and we’ve got different terrain from country lanes to forest paths, so it’s a really good adventure for families and also fitness enthusiasts, as it’s quite hilly.
“A lot of our weekend customers make a real day of it, everything is good value and good fun, our bike hire is one of the cheapest in the country (£22 for the day, which includes a helmet). The new water taxi service has opened up the whole offer and has helped people feel more confident setting off on foot or on a bike, knowing they can get a lift if they need it.”
Phil has used Bewl since he was a child and still loves the adventure playground, which boasts a pirate ship and one of the longest slides in the south east – “we even have a guy who polishes it for us,” he says with pride.
And with the current alarming statistics about child obesity, the biggest public health threat facing UK children today, the site has even more importance than it did for previous generations.
“Our flag says ‘let the adventure begin,’ and that’s what we’re all about,” adds Phil. It’s lovely to walk around and see kids being kids, having fun and getting muddy in a natural environment – and not a mobile phone or screen in sight. Our younger generation are always going to be far more in tune with current IT, but we’ve got to keep kids enjoying the outdoors and nature too.”
At the re-launch back in Spring, Andrew Daniels, chief operating officer of Markerstudy Leisure, described Bewl Water as the ‘jewel in the crown’ for the local community. Its future now certainly looks very bright indeed.
Did you know?
Bewl Water reservoir can hold more than 31,000 million litres of water – enough to provide for nearly 200 million people. It is 90ft at its deepest.
You can expect so see a range of birds on site, from Osprey to diving ducks and grebes, plus plenty of deer and voles.
Fish stocks of around 1500 – mainly rainbow and some blue trout – come in once a month. There are also pike and perch, both popular in competition fishing.
Find out more
Bewl Water, Bewlbridge Lane, Lamberhurst, near Tunbridge Wells TN3 8JH 01892 890000 or firstname.lastname@example.org www.bewlwater.co.uk
Walking: details about walking around Bewl Water can be found at: www.gps-routes.co.uk/routes/home.nsf/RoutesLinksCycle/bewl-water-walking-and-cycle-route
Cycling: cycle hire is available 9am-5pm every day until 31 October. Helmets are included free of charge. Pre-book bikes by calling 01892 893935.
Fishing: boats and tickets can be pre-booked by calling the Fishing Office on 01892 890352. For more about The Bewl Bridge Flyfishers’ Club, visit: www.bewlbridgeflyfishers.com
Canoeing: available all year round at Bewl Water, call 01892 890000. For more information on Bewl Canoe Club, visit www.bewlcanoeclub.co.uk
Rowing: only available through the Bewl Bridge Rowing Club (BBRC), members range in age from 11 to 78, visit: www.bewlrowingclub.co.uk