This week I returned to College Lake, a fantastic reserve created from a chalk quarry by one of the most inspirational men I have ever met.
I was lucky enough to be Graham Atkins summer warden in 2004. I spent a few months living in a converted caravan on the reserve and working alongside Graham, a few short months which were some of the best of my life.
This week I went back to College Lake for a memorial service for Graham who had died in June. I dug a hole to plant a tree, the final thing I could do for him.
There was no one I admired more than Graham. He had been a lorry driver for the quarry company but had a deep love and knowledge of nature. He saw the quarries potential and through a mixture of charm and bloody minded determination convinced the quarry company to let him come up with a plan to turn it into a reserve.
Everything at College Lake was hand made through the efforts of the team of volunteers he discovered and inspired. Following his leadership they had built countless hides, a museum full of ancient farm machinery that Graham had acquired over the years, a 2nd hand bookshop, tracks and trails leading up and down the quarry and fantastic habitats for a variety of wildlife which inhabited the place.
Each morning we would sit around Graham in the tea room, known as ‘The Bothy,’ listening to his stories and hearing about his latest idea for the reserve. If Graham had an idea on Monday then you would be creating it on Tuesday, there was no waiting for a committee to decide, no waiting for a funding application, no waiting for planning permission, you just got on with it. For someone coming from the world of big organisations it made a refreshing change.
Graham once joked that, when he died, he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory on a funeral pyre set adrift across College Lake. I had laughed and told him I would light It. I would have done as well. This would have been a fitting end for a man of this calibre, honoured like the Viking God he was, but it wasn’t to be.
College Lake, the College Lake of Graham and I, has gone, vanished into a education site run by the Wildlife Trusts and I can know longer do him this service, the best I can do is dig a hole for a tree. It is something but it is not enough.
I wasn’t sure when I returned this week how I would feel about the site without Graham. In the years since ill health had forced him to retire then College Lake, to me, had become Graham. Graham was what I loved and went to visit. But still, this week, working on site with some of the original volunteers, it was still there, he was still there and the person that College Lake bought out in me still existed. I become my best self at College Lake. Graham gave that to me too. He made me believe in myself, value myself, know my own worth.
At his funeral earlier this year they said that Graham was a man who showed that you can make your dreams come true. He was a lorry driver, who created a nature reserve, inspired and changed the lives of the people around him and won an MBE.
Graham was my marker in life, my touchstone, my centrepoint, the person who gave me the standard of how to behave to those around me. His legacy was to teach me how to treat the people who worked for me, with respect and gratitude.
He was a most remarkable man and I am forever grateful that our paths crossed and I had the honour of knowing him.