Friday, 9 August 2013

Rural Relaxation - The Creation of College Lake Nature Reserve

My daughter Lucy's tragic death in 1985 had a major effect on my life, and was undoubtedly an important factor in my abandoning my research and taking early retirement. As a result I spent some 20 years on voluntary work to try and improve the lot of the mentally ill - and I urgently needed somewhere to relax

And I found just the place - a new reserve was being set up only a few miles from from where I live - called College Lake. When I first visited it there was a large white hole in the ground with the promise of a nature reserve at the south end - and a working chalk quarry at the north end. Graham was often seen with an enthusiastic team of volunteers, while Rita's little Sunday cafe in the old barn was not to be missed.

Over the years I have watched the quarry blossoming into a wonderful nature reserve. Under Graham's guidance the surrounding flat areas have grown up, and while the rising water drowned some of the lower parts plans were changed to make the best of the problem. First time visitors, looking out from the recently built Visitors Centre, find it difficult to imaging the natural looking marsh, swarming with wild life, is a recent human creation. And when I visit it on a weekday I am delighted to see classes of school children using the educational facilities and getting to know something about the countryside and what can be found there.

Despite being a regular visitor over 25 years I had never really understood the underlying "politics" that resulted in a lorry driver at the Pitstone Cement Works creating such a valuable resource - and so I welcome Graham Atkins book "The Story of College Lake", which has just gone on sale at the reserve at £18.

Not surprisingly the book is a highly personal account of how someone who worked as a lorry driver because it gave him an opportunity to travel round the countryside was able to persuade the site manager that there was an environmentally friendly way of restoring the ugly white hole Castle Cement were digging at the edge of the Chiltern Hills. The whole idea of managing a quarry in such a way that nature is encouraged to take over at one end while rock is still actively being extracted at the other end is an exciting one, and everyone concerned with the restoration of brown field sites to nature will find much that they can learn from what happened at College Lake. From an early stage the educational use of the site was considered essential, and the disabled were catered for, with specially designed hides accessible from the ring road that ran round the quarry. 

On the wild life side the book's excellent plans and photographs, plus supporting text, provide a highly readable account of how the reserve became what you see today. As someone who has seen the changes taking place I know how fast plants can take over with a little encouragement, and I am glad to see the site's history documented. For anyone who is seriously interested in the reserve, and what it contains, the book is an essential read, and I am sure every recent (and future) volunteer will understand the site better after reading Graham's detailed account.

Graham includes many entertaining personal stories and I enjoyed the one when an off-duty health and safety officer was enjoying a snack in Rita's cafe in the old barn. One of the volunteers saw a mouse and decided to give it a bit of cheese. I must admit I never saw a mouse there (although I am sure there were plenty) but on many occasions I looked up from my table at the dusty cobweb-covered beams hoping to see the resident glis-glis.

Over the last few years Graham has had to retire from the front line for health reasons and towards the end of the book he makes some comments about the changes under the title "The Old and the New." When you have run a dynamic project for 25 years and new management comes in it is very easy to grumble that they are not doing what you would have done. In the circumstances I feel that Graham has been very fair in this section. I agree about the run down state of the wild-life garden - and suspect that part of the problem here, and in one or two other places, comes down to volunteers. College Lake can be considered to consist of many different projects - each attracting its own volunteers. Some projects will bloom and flourish and some will do less well, while management priorities will vary with time and availability of suitable volunteers and resources. I suspect that if a team of gardening enthusiasts could be recruited the garden could return to its former glory.

One area where I think Graham is right concerns notice boards, and I wonder if BBOWT, who manage the reserve, are too influenced by professional naturalists who are very good at recognizing wild life. The facilities for young children seem well planned and only a couple of days ago there was a trail with information boxes relating to animal groups such as butterflies and earthworms. But what about adults (and site volunteers for that matter) who don't know the difference between a dogwood and a wayfaring tree - yet both these trees are important berry sources for the birds on the reserve. It may not be appropriate to have labels on individual plants, as happened this year on the arable weed plot - but at least there should be signs to the juniper plantation or the apple orchard where I have watched green woodpeckers feeding from a nearby hide. Perhaps there could be a map of Marsworth Wood to help people learn to recognize the many different native species that have been planted there. 

So if you love College Lake - or who are interested in the challenge of converting a brown-field site into an educational nature reserve - I recommend this book.. If it encourages more people to volunteer to help on this reserve, or financially support the good work that is being done there, so much the better.

More information on College Lake

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