As with much of this area, from around 1300 the present-day village of California formed part of the royal hunting grounds of Windsor Great Forest and remained so until 1901, when Queen Victoria finally disbanded the Royal Buckhounds of Windsor.
From brickworks to holiday camp
In 1873 John Walter III, grandson of John Walter (founder of The Times), began a brick-making industry in the area with excavations on the site of the current country park. The clay that was dug out of here produced some 4.5 million bricks which went into building nearby Bearwood, one of the largest Victorian country houses in England. Formerly Walter’s residence, it is now the main building of the prestigious Bearwood public school. Later, bricks from California also went to build The Times office at Printing House Square in London. When the brickworks closed the clay pits were flooded to form the present lake.
The family sold the land after World War I, and during the 1920s an entrepreneur named Mr Cartlidge bought up part of California with leisure in mind. He began by operating mystery coach tours from London to here, and these proved so popular that he built a holiday camp, preceding Butlin’s and Pontin’s by some 10 and 20 years respectively.
California in England, as it was known, reached its zenith in the 1930s with huge numbers coming from London and further afield. The main attraction was its ballroom with a glass floor that lit up in different colours, reputedly recycled from the famous Crystal Palace of 1851. A mini-railway, boating and all kinds of sporting facilities were also on offer. Swimming competitions were held on the lake and there was even an Olympic-size diving board. The site also gained fame for its speedway motorcycle track, which between 1930 and 1950 staged national competitions.
The post-war years
After World War II chalets were built to accommodate up to 300 guests, and the complex continued to prosper. However, as the 1950s went on, competition increased (from Butlin’s, Pontins and others) and the park gradually declined. The grand ballroom became a nightclub in the 1960s but burned down in 1976, never to be rebuilt. During the 1970s the district council began to acquire the land and turned it into what it is today – a multi-recreational area, though on a much reduced scale than in Cartlidge’s day. There are still camping facilities, a paddling pool for toddlers, a play area and a heathland of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
With your back to the cafe, walk ahead to the lake and turn left, following the edge clockwise. After a few paces follow it round the bend, then branch off left, signposted 'Everglades'. Continue ahead, through tall trees and through a weighted gate marked 'stock grazing'. You are now entering the heathland SSSI area and the landscape is indeed evocative of Florida’s Everglades, albeit on a very small scale and with grass snakes instead of alligators. Cross a small footbridge and continue on the winding path. The next gate takes you onto a long boardwalk. The swampy water to either side is usually completely still, and its bright orange colour is caused by a rare but harmless bacteria.
Leave the boardwalk and enter the area known as the Speedway Heath, part of which was used between the 1930s and the 1950s for motorcycle racing. Continue ahead to a fork that diverts briefly off the main path, to a small pond. Shortly after this, look for a small path, no larger than a gap in the trees, to your left. Take a brief diversion from the main path to see the concrete apron (marked out with paint lines) where the motorbike races used to start. Return to the path and ahead is a gate.
After a few more paces turn left to rejoin the path heading clockwise around the lake. The lake is no longer used for swimming (on health grounds) but attracts a good number of birds and is popular with anglers who come here for the carp.
Take the first path on your left, bearing into the woods. Continue until you see the red roof of a house in front (just outside the woodland perimeter) and take the next turn right onto a narrow path. Continue ahead, keeping the houses to your left.
When you come out of the trees you will see a paved path ahead. Turn right on it and follow it back down towards the chalets and touring park area. Bear left, passing though a gap between two posts, and follow the winding path. Turn left across a small boardwalk bridge – over the same type of orange 'swamp water' that you saw in the Everglades earlier – then turn right and continue straight ahead. The lake is now visible to your right. Take the footpath between two posts and follow the path back to the cafe.
Well-defined lakeside path and heathland track; unmarked woodland paths and tracks (can be very muddy)
Bogland, lowland heath, woods and lake
Lead required around livestock and where requested by signs
OS Explorer 159 Reading, Wokingham & Pangbourne
Pay-and-display in permitted areas of Country Park
At entrance to cafe (no purchase required)
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Berkshire essentially consists of two distinct parts. The western half is predominantly rural, with the Lambourn Downs spilling down to the River Lambourn and the Berkshire Downs to the majestic Thames. The eastern half of Berkshire may be more urban but here, too, there is the opportunity to get out and savour open spaces. Windsor Great Park and Maidenhead Thicket are prime examples. Threading their way through the county are two of the South’s prettiest rivers – the Lambourn and the Pang. Beyond the tranquil tow paths of the Kennet and Avon Canal, Greenham Common’s famous airbase has been transformed to delight walkers of all ages.
Reading and Newbury are the county’s major towns, and the River Kennet flows through them both. Reading is a vibrant, multicultural centre with great shopping and plenty of history. Oscar Wilde was incarcerated in Reading prison in the late 19th century, and wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol about his experience. Newbury is probably best known for its race course, which opened in 1905, although the first recorded racing at Newbury was a century before that. Famous people born in the county include Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Winlset and Ricky Gervais.