Happiness is….a little brightness on a dull day.



The marvellously named Yellow Brain fungus and some equally marvellous volunteers.

While trying, unsuccessfully, to take a picture of a beautiful fungus growing on the hillside of Jumping Down in Barham, I captured instead the lovely volunteers of the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership, hard at work, restoring the grassland. It was a bleak day to be on the hillside but both the spark of colour and the joy of being out working with friends was enough to brighten my day.


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 day out with the volunteers at Milton Creek Country Park

Ethan and Madison planting trees at Milton Creek Country Park

Ethan and Madison planting trees at Milton Creek Country Park

When I am not writing about the countryside, I am running my own environmental consultancy; undertaking wildlife surveys, managing river restoration projects and running practical days for volunteers. Read about my day out with the volunteers at the local country park below.



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.

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.

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.

The Net

The gang with the days finds

The gang with the days finds

Back to the beach last week with my loyal gang of volunteers. This time we were cleaning one of our most protected pieces of coastline under the watchful eye of Reculver Towers on the North Kent coast.

After another blustery hike along the shingle collecting the normal hoard of drink cans, bottle tops and strange plastic cockle pots which have been washed up on the shoreline we set ourselves the task of retrieving a huge trawler net which had been torn loose from one of the factory fishing vessels which line the coast and had become firmly wedged in the shingle. The guys in the group quite liked the idea of this challenge but no amount of grunting and tugging could pull the thing loose so we tied together every bit of rope and haulage strap we could find and attached the lot to our mini bus.

At the wheel of the mini bus I inched forward, feeling the ropes strain and the shingly weight of the net slowly drag itself a few inches up the beach before….ping, the ropes would snap. Time and again, we shortened the ropes, created more and more elaborate knots and reattached the whole lot to the net.

cutting up the net

Hilary, one of my feisty women who had declared it was too cold to leave the mini bus was soon to be found on top of the net giving instructions and wielding a knife to cut bits free.

“I thought you didn’t want to get involved,” I said.

“But now it’s a project,” she said

and so it was, a project to get this huge destructive bit of debris off our beach before it washed back out to sea in a storm and floated around ensnaring all manor of sea creatures before eventually breaking into fragments and drifting away to be swallowed by turtles and dolphins and seabirds and join the swirling vortex of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Eventually the net topped the sea wall and like a giant, many tentacle squid we dragged our prey triumphantly behind the vehicle to join the rest of the days rubbish.

Seeing this net up close and thinking of the damage it could cause to our marine wildlife I can’t help but think that the fishing industry should be made to foot the bill for the clean up and financially support those who take the time to do the cleaning.celebrations and we finally succeed in capturing The Net