Touching Base

20150815-0007Do you have a place where you belong? A place where you feel most yourself? A place which brings out the best in you? For me this place will always be College Lake, a nature reserve near Tring in Hertfordshire.

If you visit College Lake nowadays you may wonder why this place grounds me. The local wildlife trust landed on site a few years ago and nowadays there is a giant car park and shiny visitor centre selling posh mugs and bird seed, the place, at times, seems full of yummy mummies with noisy children but behind all this is the College Lake I know and love deeply, so deeply, I carry it around with me at all times and open a box inside myself to look at it from time to time to remind myself of what’s important.

So, I spent the weekend touching base. Working in the sun, restoring my beloved Shepherd’s Hut, a project I began eleven years ago when I was a summer warden working for the inspirational founder of the reserve Graham Atkins. It was a project I had suggested to Graham one morning over the normal cup of tea and chat. “needs doing,” Graham said and so I began “doing.”

20150815-0004This weekend, while DIY projects mounted up around my own home, I spent the weekend attempting to strip peeling paint from the woodwork and sloshing on undercoat while goldfinches twittered in the bushes, plums ripened on the trees and the Virgin Pendolino train raced past unseen in the cutting. I painted and drunk tea with Ken Thompson, a long term volunteer, a man who builds computer programmes and also comes here at weekends to restore farm machinery.

Ken on the reaper binder

Ken on the reaper binder

Why did we do it. I can’t speak for Ken but for me it’s two fold. One is for Graham, who died last year but who I sense everywhere at College Lake. The Shepherd’s hut and the old farm machinery were his pet projects and I want to keep them in good order but also I come here for me.

College Lake restores me, now as then, I feel confident, relaxed, centred, accepted, practical. I care not a jot what I look like, I know my own worth, I am my best self here. College Lake weaves a magic within me. I come away surer or who I am and what I want.

How can painting a shepherd’s hut in the sun do that? I don’t know, maybe because working outdoors, doing something of practical use, is what we are all originally built for, maybe because it is a world away from the challenges my real life throws at me. Whatever it is, it works for me.

We all need this, to touch base, in our increasingly busy and hectic lives it is easy to lose site of who we really are. Find your base, go visit it. Once you have, you will wonder why you left it so long.

The finished Shepherd's Hut

The finished Shepherd’s Hut

A pot of jam and a cabbage

I returned this week to visit some of the people I interviewed last year as part of my Estuary Life book. It was the first chance each person had to look at what I had written, a scary moment for me as well as them.

I have been very aware throughout the whole project how people have trusted me to let me into their homes and lives and reveal sometimes very private feelings about their situations so it was really important to me that they would like how I had portrayed them.

Along with the manuscript I bought each person a gift. What do you buy for people who have been so generous? In the end I bought them something related to their section of the story.

Angela at the shack in the woods

Angela at the shack in the woods

Angela Welford had opened up the plotland shack that her mother, the author Lena Kennedy, had built along with her husband in the 50’s. Afterwards, over lunch with her family, friends and neighbours, they had reminisced “It’s not like the old days, then people were always popping around with a pot of jam, or a cabbage from the garden.” so Angela’s gift was easy. A pot of my special plum and mulled wine jam and a cabbage, if not from my garden, at least personally selected by me from the supermarket.

12 a parting drink

enjoying Alex’s homebrew on board his boat

Alex, the houseboat owner and former Radio Caroline D.J. wouldn’t let me leave without trying his blueberry brandy. I returned the complement with a bottle of my homemade cherry brandy.

Martin Simpson had let me stay on his houseboat at the end of my first weekend’s walk. I turned up at his luxury home on a damp Bank Holiday, dripping onto the parquet flooring and barely able to string a sentence together, I was so exhausted. He had poured me a hot bath and fed me pie and beer. He looked quite delighted when I returned the compliment and sent me a text later that evening to tell me pie was delicious.

martin looking happy with his pie

martin looking happy with his pie

All three people were thankfully happy with their part in the story. Now it’s time to brave the agents.

Back where I belong.

Only Debbie could invent a five prong marshmallow toasting fork. photo: Simon houstoun

Only Debbie could invent a five prong marshmallow toasting fork. photo: Simon Houstoun

Back out in the woods with my gang of volunteers, toasting marshmallows on a big bonfire while tawny owls called amid the trees. Mulled wine, baked potatoes and good friends providing the perfect antidote to an excess of Christmas shopping. Came away full of festive spirit. Hope everyone enjoys the season in whatever way means the most to them.

The Volunteers

The gang Christmas 2013

The gang Christmas 2013

My dad thinks that volunteering is crazy.

“Why don’t they get jobs?” he asks of the group of people who turn up week in week out in a car park in Canterbury in Kent to be ferried off around the county to do practical conservation work. “Why work for nothing?” he says, “They are fools.”

But, In this, my dad is the foolish one. Choosing to give your time voluntarily to something you believe in, working outdoors in beautiful places with your hands, making a difference is one of the most enriching things you can do.

When I first took over the running of the volunteer group I was in a dark place. I had been made redundant, my relationship had ended, I was in Kent where I knew few people and didn’t really know why I was still there. But going out every Thursday with the volunteers, I forgot my problems, I became absorbed in the work, I felt the peace of nature, I laughed and then realised it was the first time I had laughed all week.

Over the years the volunteers have become much more than a bunch of conservation workers, we have supported people through depression and probation, we have set people on new roads to new careers, we have banded together through illness and death. I know our gang has helped many people and for the opportunity to do so I am eternally grateful as, through managing this group, I have found that sense of community we are told is so lacking in modern life.

Tomorrow, after five and half years of running the volunteer group, I am leaving to go freelance and to write. Life moves on whether you want it to or not but to give up my volunteers is a big sacrifice. The volunteers are not just a bunch of people I manage because I’m paid to do so. These people are my support network, my sat nav, my diy advisors, the people I phone in a crisis. These people I happily climb out of bed for at 6.30am on a rainy morning, not wanting them to be kept waiting. This is my gang, these are my friends. And so I would be a fool indeed to give this up, from tomorrow I am no longer the group leader, I join the ranks as a volunteer.

There was an old man that lived in the woods

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

Andre Van Beest spent 12 years living in a shack in Cobham Woods in Kent until he was evicted by the council in the 1980’s. Andre’s story struck a chord with me when I first read it one rainy afternoon on a microfilm of an old newspaper in Medway Archive Centre. He had bought his land, he had caused no one any harm, he had lived there with his goats and his dog and his geese and then one day he had received a letter from the council telling him he had to go and his house had been bulldozed to the ground.

Twenty years later I faced a similar plight when I was evicted from my caravan on the marshes having fallen foul of some planning law I never knew I had to comply with. I understand how it feels to lose your home in the most graphic fashion, to literally see it vanish before your eyes.

Andre in some ways was lucky. A family living in Iwade, a small village on the Medway, heard of his troubles and offered him and his animals land and a caravan. Later Selwyn and Ernestine Lawrence took Andre under their wing. He worked on their smallholding and together they planned to build a new cabin in the woods near their home.

Andre’s desire to escape to the woods was understandable when you hear his life story. Born to a British Soldier and a women from Belgian who met in the First World War. Andre started life with the misfortune of a hair lip which, untreated, meant he could barely speak. Left in an British orphanage he spent the Second World War down the mines as a Bevan Boy. After the war he bought the land in the woods from Lord Darnley and retreated from society.

But although Andre’s life was full of bad luck he also met with kindness. The policeman who was forced to evict him, spent the rest of his life helping him and looking out for him. When the Lawrence’s first employed Andre the policeman visited them to make sure ‘they weren’t going to take him for a ride.’ People in Iwade took food to his camp on the pretence it was ‘for the animals.’ and the Lawrence’s, when Andre died in 2000, took his ashes back to Cobham Woods and scattered them on his former home. People were willing to show kindness and care to an outsider to act unselfishly to help another

This weekend I take off on the third leg of my journey for my book Estuary Life. I am walking the marshes between Rainham and Iwade and am meeting the people who helped Andre in the last years of his life. These people, like so many others on my trip, have treated me with the same generosity and kindness they showed to the old man in the woods. They have given up their time to talk to me, they have never met me but they have offered to let me stay in their homes. 

We are all so absorbed and busy nowadays but this journey has restored my faith in the goodness of people. Twenty years after Andre was evicted from the woods people will still take the time to help a stranger who crosses their path.  

Estuary Life – The Journey begins

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Estuary by MLP

After months of planning and research I am finally taking off tomorrow on the first leg of my walk across the North Kent Marshes for my book Estuary Life. First stop is going to be the church of St Mary’s where Charles Dickens daughter got married. This little church on the edge of the marshes is a very important and peaceful spot for me and it feels fitting to set off from here and ask for a safe journey as generations of pilgrims have done before.Higham church

From there I am heading to the former plotlanders settlement of Cliffe Woods to meet the daughter of writer Lena Kennedy at the last remaining plotland shack in the woods. After this I hope to spend some time with two women who have possibly done more to protect and save the marshes than anyone else. Joan and Gill run the campaigning group, Friends of the North Kent Marshes and having successfully defended their homes against the airport threat which plagued the area 10 years ago they are now heading the fight to prevent the destruction of the marshes by Boris Johnson’s island airport.

caravanHaving accosted a farmer on the marshes a few weeks back I then hope to visit my old caravan bought by Keith a local sheep farmer for his daughter. I haven’t stepped foot in my former home since I was evicted from the marshes back in 2007 so going home will be an odd experience. I hope to finish the day camping with my oldest and dearest friend at a secret location on the marshes.

Today in preparation I visited this spot and hid my sleeping bag, camping mat and some porridge oats, well wrapped up in several layers of plastic. I felt like I looked deeply and worryingly suspicious as I headed across country with a heavy bin bag slung over one shoulder, but thankfully I encountered no one.

Hopefully, despite a day of heavy rain, they will still be ok when I get to them tomorrow night. I sent my friend a message with instructions on where to find this bounty. “Go to the old witch tree and then up, where old meets new, there you will find my stash.” I’m keeping my fingers crossed that no nosy hound or badger finds it first and snaffles my porridge oats.

After my nights camping, I am  heading to the Medway and visiting Alex an eighty something houseboat owner and former DJ for Radio Caroline before taking a mammoth walk along the river, passing the location where Sir Francis Drake spent his childhood. By nightfall I hope to make Rochester where my friend Martin has promised me a sailors supper aboard his boat.

Alex and Martin

Alex and Martin

I am so excited to finally be setting out on this adventure and to begin the bigger adventure of writing my book.