Spent this last weekend at my beloved College Lake near Tring in Hertfordshire where I was lucky enough to work under the inspirational warden Graham Atkins.
Graham was a lorry driver for a local aggregate firm who saw a hole in the ground and had the vision to imagine it as a nature reserve. It became so much more than that, a haven for wildlife but also for people who found a place where they were always valued and their work was always appreciated.
Along the way Graham impregnated the place with individuality, quirkiness and sense of humour. Models of pigs sunbathed around ponds, chickens strutted beneath the plum trees, a Land Girl gazed in wonder at her Ferguson tractor.
College Lake is now run by Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, you can still visit it but the quirkiness and humour have been replaced by ‘sensible’ interpretation and the faceless branding that has become the hallmark of conservation bodies marketing departments. Our landfill girl has been hidden in a shed in case she frightens small children and someone sues.
Still, I don’t go to College Lake for the Wildlife Trust, I go for Graham and I find him there still. In the old farm machinery he lovingly collected, in the plethora of hides and winding paths he planned and in those original volunteers who remember it as it was and struggle to keep Graham’s vision alive there.
So this weekend I painted a reaper binder with long term volunteer Ken Thompson. A reaper binder is the most marvellous piece of kit. To see one working is to appreciate how marvellously clever human ingenuity is. Hundreds of years of thought and improvements went into making this fantastic world of levers and springs and cogs that can cut a wheat field, order each blade, wrap them in string and spit them out the other end as a neatly bundled stook.
Painting this machine you get to appreciate every inch of it and feel the watching presence of the men that made and designed and worked with it. But the real magic comes when you see it working.
One of the happiest days of my life was cutting the wheat fields at College Lake with the reaper binder along with a gang of volunteers. To sit on top of this machine and see it work was a wonder. Afterwards we stacked the stooks onto a hay cart and, I seem to remember, ate fish and chips from the paper as the sun went down over the lake.
The reaper binder will probably never again cut the fields of College Lake. The Wildlife Trust does not have the appetite for such things and would no doubt swamp the whole enterprise in health and safety legislation. But Ken is a clever man and plans to rig the thing up so it can operate at a touch of a button and show a video from a far off time when the machine, the chickens and the volunteers were all allowed to roam free range across the fields.