Reading explored: The making of View Island

View Island Reading gate

Last week, Matthew Farrall showed you around View Island on the Thames. This week, in the second of our Reading explored series, we look at ‘the making of View Island’.

In the late 1990s, Adrian Lawson was Open Spaces Development Manager at Reading Borough Council. He was charged with reclaiming View Island and turning it into a public park along the River Thames. Here, Adrian documents the story behind View Island, and how his team turned it from a junk-filled boatyard into a riverside nature park.

Creating Reading’s View Island

Throughout the 1990s, View Island was inaccessible to the public. It had been a boat construction and hire business since the 1960s, but the proprietor had passed away, leaving it to his son. All you could see through the locked gate were boats and ramshackle buildings; you had to be, or know, one of the small community who lived on the boats to get in.

The new owner wanted to give it back to the council, as the lease had expired, in return for a piece of land on George Street, between the BMX track in Hill’s Meadow and the road, so he could develop a hotel. The council declined, preferring to recover possession of the lease. Although it had expired, it was a protected tenancy, which meant a trip to court.

In preparing the case for the hearing we developed a plan for future management of the island, and to create a new park along the river. My job would be to start work on the project, if, and when, we got it back.

In late 1998 the first hearing was scheduled, which we thought would be the start of a long process. The hearing was listed for 10am. At 10.10am, I received a message to say the occupier hadn’t turned up to the court. The judge gave us possession and it was now up to me to get the island turned into a park.

As our case hadn’t been heard, the original plan, a rather sterile but high maintenance landscape, was not produced. I therefore had a blank canvas to work with. Well, not entirely blank, I still had the small matter of clearing the island and re-homing the occupants of 23 houseboats. We had lots of discussion with local people about what should happen once the site was open, and the overwhelming consensus was that we should focus on nature, wildlife and peace.

The piles of junk were pretty spectacular: Unlabeled drums of chemicals used in boat making, huge moulds that boats were for forming the hulls, 134 45-gallon barrels of old engine oil – some so rusty they were paper thin.

The bridge and the boardwalk were rotten, so there was no easy access and some of the banks were undercut. The concrete wharves, where the hired boat fleet had been tied up in the distant past, were at risk of collapsing into the deep and fast flowing water below the weir.

There was also the matter of the crane. A huge yellow thing with an enormous engine, it had sat unused and rusting for 20 years. The crane had apparently been a dodgy structure when it was acquired, now it was a monumental obstacle to get off the island. Once contractors had removed the worst of it, we did some soil surveys and, sure enough, tons of noxious chemicals were buried in the soil, which had to be dug out and carted away.

The chemicals used for making fiberglass, and the waste created, had simply been burnt in a great heap. As the site was on an island, safe disposal of the materials wasn’t easy or cheap, and it hadn’t been well regulated over the years.

View Island river

Once the contaminated material was removed we had a pond, so we decided to keep that. The Environment Agency, whose offices are across the river, came down one day to advise on restoring the riverbanks. The team grew quite excited about the project and soon became a partner, more than doubling our resource. The year 2000 was looming and we decided this could be a millennium project, so the target of June 2000 for opening was set.

New boardwalks were constructed and the millstream bridge was rebuilt, all using wood coming from oaks felled on an estate ten miles away. The bridge builder hired half a dozen local people to help with construction, and taught them his woodworking skills. A lock gate refurbishment up river provided the arch, the great greenheart timbers a reminder of how we tamed the Thames.

The ‘famous’ View Island troll statue was carved from oak by one of the tree surgeons at the estate and shipped over (alongside a duck statue, which has long since been swallowed by brambles). Getting it across the river, and across the land, to a spot by the boardwalk was a hell of a task, but it has endured and become one of the defining icons of the island. Well worth the effort!

Even before the island opened thousands of toads were born in the pond. Common spotted and pyramidal orchids sprung up where the soil had been removed for the pond. A dozen bird species raised their young on the island in the first spring. Yellow meadow ants built their anthills in the short turf.

Benches, made by two local craftsmen from trees blown down in the 1990 Burns Night storm, provided somewhere to sit. One huge bench overlooked the river. “It was where the troll sat at night”, we told some of the younger visitors.

Six benches and drawing tables were built on the old tennis courts. Before the island was a boatyard it was a nefarious hotel, and the tennis courts were a part of that legacy. We kept them, along with the hundreds of sycamores that had sprouted in the long grass at the foot of the fence. It made a marvelous outdoor classroom for school groups to use on their field trips to the site.

View Island Outdoor classroom

Amazingly, we achieved our opening deadline of June 2000. Once the island was opened we asked people not to take their dogs there. They hadn’t ever before, and they had tons of places to walk their dogs nearby, so it would be nice to have a place where people could go and not even meet a dog. That in itself is a rare thing.

View Island burgeoned for a few years. More and more wildflowers bloomed, more birds arrived, a posse of people cut and raked some of the grass once a year. Soon, a canoe slalom course was put in below the weir and we had tournaments in the turbulent water off the island.

Sadly the island fell victim to its isolation. The canoeists went back to Hambledon weir, their favourite place. The benches were eventually burnt and wrecked. We replaced them with utilitarian blue steel ones. The dog walkers found it and were unbelievably uncooperative, taking their dogs there every day.

After I left the council, the grass stopped being cut regularly and brambles took hold. The litter picking sessions we organised with kids on probation stopped. Schools stopped visiting, it was too dangerous their risk assessments said.

Nature took over. The orchids may have gone now, the pond is full of reeds and dog walkers go there unopposed. The path is overgrown too, kept open simply by the passing of feet.

In many ways the project has been a disappointment, the original vision we had for View Island hasn’t materialised. But nature now has a place on the Thames where it can have its way. And that is pretty special.

Written by Adrian Lawson.

Reading explored: View Island

Discover how to get to View Island and what to explore while you’re there.

Photography: Claire Slobodian

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