House of Grace
Tree Identity

Where Did the River Go?

Ducks feeding at Willen lake Feeding the water birds at South Willen lake is very popular, and the birds know this. They are always on the lookout for likely bird feeders and will come quite close. If you want come to the lake to feed them, access is off the V10 Brickhill Street.


Willen lake in Milton Keynes is a popular spot to visit, but  before they built it, Milton Keynes Development Corporation had to move a river.

They didn’t do this on a whim; they knew that with large areas of land covered in the town’s buildings, roads, and paths, rainwater would run off very quickly instead of being absorbed.

Balancing lakes like Willen were made to store the water from heavy rain until the levels fall, then release the water is slowly back into the Ouzel river. Sometimes the water level is so high that it begins to flow over the emergency spillway and back into the river. I saw this happen at the end of December.

Emergency spillway  Milton KeynesThe emergency spillway from the river side. The lakes are a popular place for walkers, and there’s generally plenty of room for social distancing on the lakeside paths.


The old route of the river ran straight across Willen lake. The new channel for the Ouzel starts upstream at Woolstone, and diverts the river around the Eastern edge of the lake. It rejoins the original route at the bottom corner of the village of Willen.

Around this spot were once a watermill, a couple of bridges for the road to Milton Keynes village, and a moat.

The moat and central island kept the village’s ducks and geese safe from predators. In the moat the villagers kept fish. The birds and fish provided valuable sources of protein.

There wasn’t much to see of the moat by the 1970s and the site is now under the lake. The Medieval mill was dismantled in 1824 and the machinery sold off, but there’s a plaque on a pillar near the North end of the emergency spillway. I could find no sign of the bridges.

Emergency spillway  Willen lakeThis is the emergency spillway at dusk. The last time I came here water from the lake (on the left) was rushing across and back into the river, out of shot on the right. The path was blocked. The plaque for the mill is on that stone plinth in the middle of the picture. that’s Willen church is in the background.


Little Woolstone also had a water mill, but it disappeared around the middle of the twentieth Century. Its position is lost beneath the embankment of the V10, as are the two places where footbridges took a footpath over the Ouzel and across the fields to Milton Keynes village.

Although Great and Little Woolstone are pleasant places to visit, I found that the river on a grey and cloudy day in March didn’t make an interesting photo, so I’ll not show you the one I took. Perhaps I’ll try again later in the year.

The road between Woolstone and Willen can still mostly be followed. There’s a stretch by Gulliver’s Land, and another, now a redway, that runs past the Buddhist temple and peace pagoda, all the way into Willen. Quite a lot of the original hedgerow in this last stretch is still there.

Milton Keynes is full of history, if you know where to look.

Kissing gate on old footpathThis old kissing gate was the start of a public footpath from Milton Road in Willen to the Woolstone road. Its route is now under the lake.

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