A few weeks ago on a beautiful October autumn day I decided to go for a stroll around Radipole Lake. This is one of my favourite spots in Weymouth. There are not many towns that can boast to having a nature reserve in their midst. Completely enclosed by roads and houses the lake is packed with wildlife including kingfishers and Bitterns.There are even otters – but I have yet to spot one.
As I wandered around the “Discovery Trail” I noticed new information boards that have been erected around the route that briefly explain the history of this fascinating lake. They made interesting reading and prompted me to do some more research’ on the subject when I got home.
Once known as the Backwater, Radipole Lake flows almost parallel to the beach behind the town. Radipole Lake was originally a tidal estuary fed by the River Wey.
The River Wey is a spring-fed chalk stream of about 9 kilometres long and is the river that gives Weymouth its name. It rises at Upwey and passes by the famous Upwey Wishing Well, salve then running through the suburbs Broadway, Nottington and finally Radipole before it reaches Radipole Lake and then flows through Weymouth Harbour.
Stone tools, which would have been used for fishing, have been recovered from Radipole Lake which suggests that the lake has been used for thousands of years. Three bronze swords were also found in the backwater possibly indicating a place where offerings were made to water deities. All were found deep in the mud just north of the present Westham Bridge. Two have been dated to the late Bronze Age.
By the time of the Roman invasion, the Durotriges were the dominant tribe in the region and their tribal centre was at Maiden Castle, some 3.5 kilometres away.
The Durotriges fought the Romans bravely but Maiden Castle was soon taken by the Romans. The Romans then soon arrived in Weymouth. Remains have been found that suggest that the Romans used the lake, which they called reedy Pool, as a harbour to carry supplies arriving from the continent. The Romano-British citizens later quarried Portland stone that was used to construct town houses and public buildings.
It seems probable that the stone would have been transported by ship to the upper River Wey and then taken by road to Durnovaria
Weymouth and Melcombe continued to develop as trading ports. In the year of the Spanish Armada, Weymouth provided some nine vessels to the English Fleet. During the 1620’s, there were many pilgrim ships that left for America from Weymouth. In June 1628, John Endicott sailed from Weymouth in the Abigail with a mission to establish another new settlement in North America. They arrived at Naumking (Salem) on 6th September and from this grew the colony of Massachusetts.
In 1794, the importance of Weymouth harbour was confirmed when a regular mail packet service to the Channel Islands commenced from here.
Today Radipole Lake is a mix of open water and reedbed.
Reeds are perennial grasses which are distinguished by having hollow stems and broad leaves. These grasses typically grow in wetlands and humans have been utilizing reeds for a variety of tasks from roof thatching to papermaking for centuries. For generations the lake has been managed to harvest the reeds. Cutting different areas of reed each year the farmers collected the valuable first year reeds known as “single Wale” reed to thatch buildings. Today much reed used in Britain comes from Eastern Europe but in Weymouth the RSPB work with a local Thatcher to use Radipole Lake reed.
But it not just humans that have a need for reeds. The reedbed is cut in different parts to provide habitat for species such as water voles and marsh harriers.
Swans are also fans of the lake. They have been resident here throughout history. During the Middle Ages, the mute swan was considered to be a valuable commodity and was regularly traded between noblemen. In the middle of Radipole Lake there are some building foundations which were occupied by swan herders who would have looked after the swans.
In 1921 it was decided to build a new dam to control the water levels and hopefully prevent flooding. Thus a new Westham bridge was built with four automatic and four hand controlled sluices. If you walk to the middle of the bridge you can see this sluice mechanism.
In 1933 there were ambitious plans to reclaim land from the lake. Radipole Park Drive was built with its gardens, tennis courts and playground. A further 70 acres was to be taken from the lake to build bandstands, fountains and game pitches but World War 2 halted plans.
During the Second World War Weymouth was heavily bombed and many buildings in Chapelhay were damaged. During the early 1950s rubble from these buildings was used to create new paths running across the lake which you still walk across today. Its sad to think that we are walking on what was once someones house and who lost it in such appalling circumstances.
Radipole Lake had been declared a bird sanctuary in 1929. Since 1976 the Lake has been successfully managed by RSPB and it is known for being a quiet wildlife oasis in the heart of Weymouth.