Becoming a Seventies Conserver

Becoming a Seventies Conserver: experiences with the Cambridge Conservation Corps

The natural world began to exert an appeal when I was a sixth former and was taught by a good biologist, who took his class to a local coppice to learn how to identify and survey plants. I also took an interest in some of the garden wildlife at home, particularly our abundant frog and newt populations. While still at school I also read in a naturalists' handbook that there was something called the Conservation Corps. This sounded rather fun; but being somewhat shy and unenterprising I did nothing about it at that time.

Arrival at university changed this. My degree course was in biological sciences, but that was not the trigger for action. Instead, I happened on a Cambridge Conservation Corps stand at the freshers' fair - and discovered that its organiser John Booth was in Pembroke College, as I was myself. That made things easy. I thought it over, went and talked to him a few days later, and joined up.

My first Sunday's conservation work was at Hayley Wood - which I later came to realise was a famously well studied, intensively managed reserve. The work was coppicing and like many new recruits, I spent a fairly ineffective few hours battering a hazel stool with a blunt axe; and discovering the hard way that saws do not work very well either - if you work from the wrong side of the tree so the cut closes on the blade! Later I graduated to ash coppice, whose stems made a satisfying crash when felled - if they didn't get hung up first.

Another early task was scrub clearance on the steep chalk of the Devil's Ditch, an ancient linear earthwork which runs from higher ground near Newmarket to the edge of the Fens. As well as being an introduction to chalk grassland - a perennial feature in my conservation career - this site was notable for large bonfires down in the bottom of the ditch. These could be fed from high above, standing on the summit path and throwing whole trees in the general direction of the fire!

Chippenham Fen was the only regular place we worked at in the Fens themselves, and my first National Nature Reserve. It was a little-visited and atmospheric place, notable for clear spring-fed water flowing slowly in ditches. The work was mostly tree and shrub removal to increase the acreage of reedbeds, but we also did some construction. In addition to making boardwalks, we assembled several wooden sluices to control water levels, using an ingenious local design of specially shaped planks driven through the soft peat into the clay layer beneath.

At this time the Cambridge Corps had just split itself off from the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Naturalists Trust (CAMBIENT) - though it still worked almost entirely on the Trust's reserves and met every Sunday in term time outside the CAMBIENT offices at Brookside.

In 1970-1 the Corps was very largely composed of students. Possibly in connection with this, CAMBIENT provided an incentive for people to volunteer, in the form of flagons of beer and cider which we drank at lunchtime on the worksite. This could make the afternoons seem rather hazy but I don't remember any significant accidents. As most tasks took place in the winter months and the drinks had been standing out in the open all morning, they were very cold and uninviting by the time they were opened!

I didn't take any part in organising the Cambridge Corps - a role which passed to a new person every year, being ably undertaken at this time by John Booth, Jo Burgon and Camilla Huxley. But I remained a fairly regular volunteer during my three years of study. Coursework pressures got greater, my academic ambitions slowly evaporated, and my first girlfriend (a non-conserver) came and went, but Sunday tasks remained a constant pleasure. The Cambridge Corps slowly broadened its volunteer base and recruited some people who were not students - notably a lively girl called Pauline. Her contribution included "porridge party" breakfasts at her house, as an incentive for people to get up early on Sundays to go on task! On one occasion a student who had overslept was hauled from bed by some so-called friends and duly arrived on the worksite, via the porridge party, still in his striped pyjamas ... but I believe some thoughtful person brought along his wellies and someone lent him a warm jacket.

Nearly all our work was on nature reserves and - unsurprisingly for a group based in Cambridge - there were opportunities to learn about the science behind our conservation work. A young don, Oliver Rackham, was a regular volunteer with us, particularly for the coppicing programme at Hayley Wood. He gave us guided walks with much information derived from his research on the history and biology of East Anglian woodlands. (Dr Rackham is now of course well known, having published several books and become a leader in this field of study).

A Cambridge Corps innovation was to organise one weekend residential a year, after the May/June exam period was over. I went on one of these, at Wicken Fen, which was very enjoyable. Living and working together for a whole weekend was a great way to get to know one's fellow volunteers a bit better.

Another thing that happened during these three years was my first encounter with a BTCV weekend task run from London. We met up at their village hall accommodation, and I think worked on the same site for a day. However the two groups did not mix and I remember getting the impression that the London lot were rather uncouth!

Social events also took place, including a party hosted by Jo Burgon at which my alcohol intake exceeded a prudent level for the first time. Some kind person drove me back to college before the gates closed, where I promptly fell into the flowing water in the gutter which is such an attractive feature of Trumpington Street.

This aside, much of the Cambridge Corps' success was down to its positive influence on the social lives of its members. It attracted a fair number of female participants, which made a welcome change from the University as a whole (with only three womens' colleges at this time and no co-residence, the Cambridge undergraduate population notoriously contained ten men for every girl). And a lot of our volunteers came out on task quite regularly, so there were good prospects for getting to know people and make friends.

The Cambridge Corps was also an equal-opportunities kind of organisation, as was shown by Camilla becoming the group's leader during my final year, and doing a very good job.

Another friend, Sue Vale, later became tools officer. The tools were kept in the basement of the CAMBIENT offices and from time to time needed sharpening, repairs or replacement. The Corps did not own any transport, so we travelled to worksites by piling ourselves, our belongings and the tools into a motley collection of cars and small vans. A perk of Corps membership, for undergraduates, was that the University authorities recognised that motor transport was essential to our work. So they would give selected members permission to keep a car while at Cambridge - something that was denied to most students.

Another Pembroke volunteer, Andrew Mallinson, provided our most memorable vehicle. This ex-military Austin Champ was notable for its machine gun mountings and for having as many gears in reverse as in forward. (Cynics hypothesised that the Army was mindful of its forte in retreating when it specified this feature). The Champ also drank vast amounts of petrol so Andrew had a large collection of the free drinks glasses which many petrol stations were giving away in the 1970s. In many ways a more practical vehicle for Corps purposes was John Booth's ex-Post Office Morris Minor van; with a mattress in the back it could convey tools or people or both, though not exactly in style or comfort.

Looking back on this time with the Cambridge Corps, I am struck by the massive role of chance in the direction of one's life. Joining the Corps has turned out to be the most lasting influence from my three years at the university. Like many first year undergraduates I had no firm sense of the goal to be attained in life and career; getting a degree was expected of me, but beyond that I had no idea. Choosing to study biology was almost a random event as well, being driven at that stage by only a mild curiosity about the natural world. Although when I got to Cambridge I had read about the practical conservation movement, I had done nothing more about it. It took my discovery of the Cambridge Corps to break through the apathy - and subsequently begin my long association with the national BTCV as well. Had I been in any other college or university none of this might have happened. So that initial contact with the Cambridge Corps led to a big change in life direction.

Others joined up in an even more accidental kind of way. One person who quickly became a fully active and committed member only found us by coming to the wrong introductory meeting. He had been looking for the CU Astrology Society, but decided to stay a little while and hear about the Corps instead!

My subsequent "career" in conservation has been a voluntary and spare time activity, but far more fulfilling than my normal employment, which in my case just paid the bills. Where would I be now and what would life have been like without the Cambridge Corps and BTCV? It’s impossible to know; but I’m convinced the impact has been positive.

Nigel Watson

rev2 14/7/2010