You reap what you sow




Reaper Binder Restoration Team

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. view-from-the-new-bothy

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Lake is now run by Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, you can still visit it but the quirkiness and humour have been replaced by ‘sensible’ interpretation and the faceless branding that has become the hallmark of conservation bodies marketing departments.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.

kent-restoring-reaper-binderSo 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.

Ken on the reaper binder 001

Ken on the reaper binder

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.

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 Remarkable Man

Graham and I.

Graham and I.

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.