Rushden Lakes will be more than just a shopping and leisure destination – with wildlife being a key part of it.
Thousands of people are expected to visit the former Skew Bridge site at Rushden when the first phase of the scheme opens in July.
But it is not all about the shops and restaurants.
Rushden Lakes will help link up seven nature reserves in the area, as well as be home to the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire’s (BCN) first visitor centre.
The eco-friendly centre with its living roof is taking shape next to Skew Lake, which will be open to the public with a wheelchair and buggy-friendly path around it.
People will be able to enjoy the 20-minute walk around the lake, which will have viewing platforms and a trail of 14 sculptures.
There will also be a discovery area with equipment for youngsters to clamber over and picnic benches.
The visitor centre will have interactive stations for youngsters to find out more about the nature reserve and its wildlife, and it’s hoped that images from cameras around the site can be shown there.
The new centre will be in the same building as a cafe, which is next door to the boathouse where Canoe2 will be based.
Both buildings will offer great views of the lake from inside as well as from the boardwalk outside.
Reserves officer for the Wildlife Trust BCN Ian Hilbert gave the Northants Telegraph a tour of the new visitor centre and around Skew Lake last week.
He said the area is home to herons, otters and mink as well as numerous types of bird, with the Nene Wetlands being known as one of the best places in the world to enjoy the spectacle of thousands of overwintering birds.
Ian said the work carried out so far has been sensitive to the wildlife there, including a boom stretching across the lake for protection if anything leaks into the water.
He has been keeping a close eye on the progress of the visitor centre, and said: “We are a conservation organisation and we want it to be looking natural.”
There is a lot of excitement about the Wildlife Trust BCN project, and Ian added: “The majority of the nature reserve will be open to the public.”
But he said it is a balancing act because while they want to open up the natural beauty of the area, they also want to protect the wildlife there.
This includes an acoustic barrier going in behind the loading bays for one of the shopping terraces to protect the land behind it, which is inhabited by grass snakes and birds, from noise.
The visitor centre, which has been funded by the Rushden Lakes developer LXB, is set to open in July and will create four jobs.
And it is hoped that an education centre can be opened there in the future.
But as well as getting funding from LXB, the Wildlife Trust has also secured £662,800 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
This will be used to encourage shoppers at Rushden Lakes to explore the area and it is hoped the visitor centre will act as a gateway for people to access and enjoy the wildlife of the Nene Wetlands.
Speaking last year, Oliver Burke, director of Living Landscapes for the Wildlife Trust BCN, said: “We are really looking forward to opening our first visitor centre.
“The National Lottery funding for Into the Valley will allow us to extend our work beyond this centre to create a stunning sculpture trail leading out into the Nene Wetlands and offer events and activities in the shopping area.
“It will also pay for vital conservation work including protecting a sensitive heronry from disturbance, restoring ditches and managing scrub and grassland.”
Jonathan Platt, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund East Midlands, said: “This is a highly innovative project that connects the stunning natural beauty and important wildlife of the Nene Valley with shoppers at the new Rushden Lakes centre.”
The 270-hectare Nene Wetlands nature reserve will unite seven adjacent, but currently disconnected, post-industrial sites either side of the River Nene.
These are the four Wildlife Trust nature reserves of Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows, Ditchford Lakes and Meadows, Higham Ferrers Pits and Wilson’s Pits, and the developer-owned Rushden Lakes complex of three sites leased to the trust of Skew Bridge Lake, Delta Pit and Higham Lake.