Escape from the rat race

THERE’S something immensely restful and soothing about Gregorian chant – and the same can be said of the tranquil surroundings of Douai Abbey in Berkshire.

Here, buried in the depths of the English countryside, is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery founded in Paris in 1615.

Vespers is sung prayer – in Latin. Traditionally this evening sacrifice of praise to God takes place as dusk begins to fall, giving thanks for the day just past, and although guests are welcome and some services and concerts are well attended, it’s not uncommon to find the monks alone at this time.

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Uprooted by the French Revolution, the monks moved initially to Douai in Flanders and settled in England in 1903, when they moved to their current base at Woolhampton.

The Order of Saint Benedict, also known as the ‘Black Monks’ because of the colour of their habits, is a religious order of independent monastic communities like Ampleforth, Downside, Worth and Buckfast.

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They observe the Rule of St Benedict, a sixth-century Italian saint who studied in Rome and then turned his back on the world and lived in solitude before founding a monastery at Monte Cassino.

Here at Douai, under the patronage of the Edmund the Martyr (the East Anglian king who died in 869), the monks live a simple life of worship, study and work, centred around six daily services, from matins and lauds at 6.20am to compline at 8pm.

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Despite their crow-like appearance when their black hoods are raised – an indication that they are in silent communion with the Lord – they are individually friendly and welcoming to guests who seek them out.

But “listening” is central to the Benedictine doctrine, so silence is an important part of their daily life – and for guests, a welcome reminder of how important it is for us all to escape the incessant hubbub of the modern world.

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And so it is in preparation for the weekday service that we attend. Beforehand, individual monks sit in contemplation, both inside the abbey church and on benches around the grounds.

They then file silently to their places in the pews for a half-hour of praise and peace,  the two dozen male voices echoing round the impressive arches of the abbey where we are the only other members of the congregation.

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The abbey church was opened in the 1930s but not completed until 1993, and is a Grade II* listed building on the National Heritage List for England with marvellous acoustics.

Our simple evening service is without ceremony or accompanying music but is no less moving for that. The individual Latin words  may be indistinct or unfamiliar, but the message of praise is clear – and the underlying sense of self-sacrifice and humility which underpins the monks’ way of life shines through.

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Douai monks still serve in parishes throughout England and welcome guests on retreats and courses,  as well as those seeking space for quiet or study. There are facilities for  conferences and for youth and chaplaincy groups and throughout the year they host a number of  concerts in the abbey church.

Guests may take a peaceful walk in the nearby meadow or sit in a small wooded glade at the foot of a statue of Christ. This is a place of peace and contemplation – and a welcome escape from the unrelenting noise and activity of our everyday lives.

For more information about the work of the monks at Douai, see their website.

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All aboard for quiz night!

THE lights on the country station platform are shining, the semaphore signals are at red and a handful of passengers alight in the drizzle.

It could be a scene from the 1960s, but despite appearances we are firmly in 2018 and just reaching journey’s end after an unusual sojourn through the Oxfordshire countryside.

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The occasion is one of the periodic “fish and chip” quiz nights organised by the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway – but unlike a country train at a platform like this half a century ago, this one is actually packed with passengers, all of whom seem to be in remarkably good spirits.

It’s the culmination of a leisurely three-hour trundle through the local countryside where teams having been pitting their wits against each other for the sheer hell of it.

There are no big prizes on offer here – but for more than 100 enthusiastic diners, that really doesn’t matter. It’s the experience which counts.

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What could be more English than a heritage railway, a pub quiz and a traditional meal of fish and chips? Put them together and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for success, and this train and others like it are sold out long in advance.

The story of the line’s revival has been covered in detail in a previous post on this site, but the return visit is a welcome opportunity to savour the atmosphere of an evening journey in convivial company.

A team of enthusiastic and welcoming volunteers provide a cheerful and efficient table service throughout the journey as our quiz train ambles towards Princes Risborough and back.

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It’s a good time to visit too, because this is a week which sees the railway celebrating the opening of Platform 4 at Princes Risborough station – a long-awaited link up with the Chiltern Railways main line.

Tonight no one’s going anywhere very quickly after the Class 37 diesel-electric engine booked for the service subsides into silence and has to be replaced. But no one on board is too worried as the quiz picks up pace and another heritage engine clanks into place to take the strain.

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This one is a beautifully restored visitor to Chinnor, a Class 20 diesel decked out in the distinctive green livery of British Railways which spent its working life in the Sheffield area after entering service in 1961. It was withdrawn in 1990, one of more than 200 “Choppers” designed to work light mixed freight traffic which earned their nickname from their distinctive engine beat, which resembles the sound of a helicopter.

D8059 proves a more than worthy replacement for the short journey to Thame Junction, but as dusk begins to fall over the surrounding fields, all eyes are on the quiz questions until our return to Chinnor is met with the excited hooting of a driver racing up with our fish and chips.

Serving dozens of people simultaneously with piping hot chip shop fish and chips is no easy task, but our grinning hosts are up to the challenge and the beer and wine is flowing freely between rounds as competitors vent their frustration at being caught out by tricky foreign capitals or elusive logos.

By the time the results have been compiled – and needless to say our four-strong team is no match for some of the expert contestants on board – it’s after 10.30pm and the lights are shining bright at Chinnor station.

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As the passengers disperse into the night, there are sounds of cheerful farewells, train doors slamming and the smell of diesel on the night air.  Surely railway journeys back in the 1960s were never this much fun?

Tickets for quiz night trains cost £19 but the next trip in October is already sold out. See the railway’s website for full timetable details and other special events.

 

Fresh case for the waste detectives

The Beyonder meets waste enforcement officer David Rounding on Buckinghamshire’s front line in the war against illegal dumping

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DIRTY WORK: David Rounding investigates a fly-tipping incident at Burnham

AN IDYLLIC single-track lane in the middle of the Buckinghamshire countryside sounds like an unlikely place for a crime scene.

But it’s surprising what goes on in our leafy rural backroads – and for David Rounding there’s sadly nothing out of the ordinary about the location of today’s investigation.

Responding to a tip-off from a concerned local, we’re standing in a small layby on a backroad near Burnham studying a pile of debris dumped at the side of the road.

It’s pretty standard household stuff – a sofa, bed, rug and other assorted bits and pieces. Infuriatingly, it’s less than half a mile from a household recycling centre where the items could have been unloaded legally for nothing.

Instead, they’ve been dumped here – spoiling the sylvan setting and posing a headache for South Bucks District Council, who will now have to clear up the mess. But David’s on the lookout for clues – and is not disheartened.

The waste enforcement officer is part of a small team employed by Buckinghamshire County Council – and he has quite a few weapons in his armoury that can help him solve this latest unpleasant ‘whodunnit’.

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FRONT LINE TROOPS: waste enforcement officer David Rounding

“When I started out it was really, really hard to prosecute,” he recalls. But times have changed – and for the past 15 years Buckinghamshire has led the way in the war on illegal waste dumping.

When David took up his job here in 2003, dumping was at a record high and rising, with more than 4,000 incidents a year across the county. By 2013 that had been reduced to under 1,500, partly as a result of an upsurge in prosecutions resulting in substantial fines, compensation payments and even jail.

Sadly fly-tipping is on the rise again – back up to more than 3,000 cases a year locally and costing taxpayers across England more than £57m.

Like other shire counties around London, Buckinghamshire is seen as an easy target because of good transport likes and easy access via the M40 and M25 to deserted country lanes like this one – the sort of idyllic country setting seen in so many episodes of the Midsomer Murders TV series.

From selfish householders leaving mattresses or fridges and rogue traders unloading tyres and plasterboard to criminal gangs dumping waste on an industrial scale, an increasing number of fly-tippers are littering fields, woods, roads and verges with unsightly piles of rubbish like this one.

For nature lovers and local residents taking a ramble or walking their dog, this sort of eyesore raises strong emotions. More than 11,000 fly-tipping cases – six a day on average – have blighted the local countryside in the last five years, costing tax-payers £500,000 a year in clear-up costs.

But it’s not all bad news, and as David Rounding launches his latest investigation, there’s a definite spring in his step.

After starting his career in Halifax he was working for the Environment Agency in 2003 when the various councils in Buckinghamshire first got together to combat the fly-tipping menace.

They realised that proper enforcement of the law was an invaluable deterrent and in the 15 years since the county council and four district councils launched their anti-fly-tipping campaign – ‘Illegal Dumping Costs’ – David and his fellow investigators have successfully prosecuted more than 600 fly-tippers.

As with most crime, a handful of individuals can cause a disproportionate amount of damage to the environment – and in serious cases prosecution can result in imprisonment, as well as hefty fines and compensation awards.

Don’t be fooled by the remote locations, either – in recent years hidden cameras have increasingly helped the team catch the criminals in the act.

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REPEAT OFFENDER: John Keenan dumped waste across Buckinghamshire

Like Letchworth builder John Keenan, 33, who was convicted in 2017 after CCTV twice caught him dumping waste from his tipper truck in local villages. Four other incidents of fly-tipping in rural Buckinghamshire and west Hertfordshire were traced back to him and work done by his company in and around London.

Keenan pleaded guilty to two counts of fly-tipping and four charges of failing in duty of care regarding waste he had produced. He was sentenced to 16 weeks’ imprisonment, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to pay costs totalling more than £4,700.

The cameras are a welcome boost for the enforcement team, who have seen detection rates improve.  “We are becoming better and better at convicting people. If the evidence is there, we will get them to court,” says David. “Since 2010 we have been averaging more than one conviction a week, and they each pay around £1,500 in fines and costs.”

Signs at dumping hotspots advertise the surveillance cameras but a succession of fly-tippers still get caught out. But CCTV accounts for only 40 per cent of the team’s convictions. Eye-witnesses account for another 20 per cent of convictions, with sharp-eyed members of the public equally keen to help catch the criminals spoiling their environment.

There aren’t many things which ruffle David’s composure, but he does get a little irritated by some of the myths which surround fly-tipping – like the claim that fines don’t get paid and costs aren’t recouped.

Last year alone, the team achieved 72 convictions and court-awarded costs of more than £75,000 towards the councils’ clean-up and legal costs, he points out.

“If you look at the evidence the fines and compensation costs do get paid,” he insists – and on top of that there’s the estimated £3m savings made over the past decade because of not having to clear dumped waste and send it to landfill.

Armed with the sort of evidence his team can gather, the net cost of a prosecution may be only around £300. But while nearly two thirds (62%) of fly-tipping convictions are for the act of dumping, the people who produced the waste can be prosecuted too for failing their duty of care if they do not ensure their rubbish is being disposed of legally.

David believes this is something many people may not realise, which could lead to someone unwittingly facing a heavy fine and a criminal conviction after paying someone else to get rid of their unwanted household items.

And he warns that cash payments to strangers are a recipe for disaster. It’s a trend that has been fuelled in the past couple of years by so-called “Facebook fly tippers” offering cheap waste collection services.

The waste detectives have become experts at finding clues to identify the source of dumped rubbish. And although David recalls late-night raids and dawn swoops with police when known dumpers have been caught red-handed, it is the sifting of rubbish for clues which he excels at and which brings 40 per cent of convictions.

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SMALL PRINT: David’s team are expert at sifting through rubbish for clues

The enforcement team works closely with Thames Valley Police, which can make it easier to trace a vehicle’s movements when a crime has been committed – and there’s close co-operation in more serious cases involving crooked commercial operators and even organised gangs.

Other crimes can also result in waste being dumped in rural areas, from professional shoplifters disposing of incriminating evidence to drugs stashes and paraphernalia from cannabis farms.

Another worry is an upsurge in more serious waste dumping by organised criminal gangs, and David’s next call is to visit a council site in High Wycombe where lorryloads of waste were dumped – the latest in a series of such incidents across Buckinghamshire in recent months.

Such large-scale, serious or organised dumping is investigated and potentially prosecuted by the Environment Agency, but their resources are hard-pressed and such crimes are on the increase, so David is only too keen to provide any practical help he can.

Clamping down on the criminals is also good for legitimate waste carriers, he points out, who potentially lose millions in business. But although the short-term profits may be tempting for lazy criminals, David is keen to make sure the prosecutions count.

One man was fined more than £1,000 for adding to rubbish which had already been dumped at the roadside by someone else. In January a Slough man was fined £2,200 for dumping 19 sacks of rubbish in Fulmer, and last month a Calvert Green man was fined £2,000 for dumping boxes near Aylesbury.

There have been a number of other successful prosecutions, as David has highlighted on his Twitter account.

“They might think the money makes it worth the risk but they can serve up to five years in prison, and we have jailed a few,” he points out.

To report a fly-tipping incident to David and his colleagues, visit the county council’s web page or the Fix My Street website.

Peter picks up the baton

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ROADSIDE LITTER: Peter Silverman surveys the problem at Beaconsfield

PETER Silverman is a man on a mission.

It wasn’t always like this. But what began as an observation about the apparently worsening tide of litter on roadside verges around his home has turned into something of a crusade.

It was back in 2010 that the retired financial adviser became aware of specific problem areas that seemed to be being ignored by the relevant authorities.

“The amount of stuff on the verges was monumentally worse than it is now,” he recalls. But part of the problem then, as now, was working out which authority was actually responsible.

Highways England and its contractors are responsible for keeping motorways and trunk roads clean, but in counties like Buckinghamshire, although the county council is responsible for highways, litter-picking is a district council function.

It soon became clear to Peter, now 75, that some spots – like slip roads around the Denham roundabout where the A40 meets the M40 – appeared to be slipping through the net and had been totally neglected.

Part of his frustration was that the authorities appeared to be failing to fulfil their duties under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 S89(1) to “ensure that the land under their control is, so far as is practicable, kept clear of litter and refuse”.

Not a motorist to be trifled with, Peter duly issued a Section 91 warning notice under the ‘EPA’ legislation to the transport secretary, prompting a sixfold increase in cleaning activity by the Highways Agency’s contractor, bringing the southern end of the M40 up to an acceptable standard by June of that year.

But of course the problem didn’t stop there. Eight years on, and Peter’s website pays testimony to his ongoing battle with the authorities – a fight which has been picked up by like-minded motorists around the country.

The problem hasn’t gone away, of course. Only this year another litter abatement order was required before Highways England fulfilled its legal responsibilities to clean up slip roads around the Denham roundabout.

Peter’s frustration lies not only with the agencies involved but with the lack of concerted and effective action from central government – exacerbated by funding cutbacks.

To make matters worse, responsibility for litter is “passed around like a hot potato” by government ministers, he maintains. Whereas an ‘important’ job like health secretary has been held by Jeremy Hunt since 2012, litter has not been prioritised in the same way.

“Jeremy Hunt has been in charge of the NHS for years and every year you get more expert,” says Peter. “With litter, the people do it for a year and move on. It’s the same with the people in charge of the Highways Agency.”

Undeterred, Peter’s website has continued to chronicle his mission to get the authorities to fulfil their duty to keep their land clear of litter – and to do far more to deter those who create it in the first place.

“For decades central government has failed to provide the leadership, funding and resolution needed to get to grips with the problem,” he maintains.

No organisation was charged with the task of policing compliance with EPA duties and he fears that the issue is far from being a top government priority, despite the publication of a “litter strategy for England” updated last July.

“In 2015 a Commons select committee concluded that England is a litter-ridden country compared to most of Europe, North America and Japan,” says Peter. “Our main roads and motorways are in the worst state of all. Local authorities pay less heed to through roads where there are usually no residents to complain about their condition.”

But the national litter strategy promises no additional funding for litter collection and fails to adequately tackle any of the key issues, he believes.

“The litter strategy is a total and utter joke,” he says. There are similarly harsh words for Keep Britain Tidy and many of those working for key government agencies, including ministers and civil servants: “We may not have the kind of widespread corruption you see in some countries but we have our own kind of corruption in the form of making life easy for civil servants, for not having the courage to actually deal with problems.”

There has been much talk about forcing councils to remove roadside litter and prosecute offenders, but he believes many council schemes where specialist contractors can issue on-the-spot fines for littering are only ‘token operations’ to show a council is doing something, with most officers instructed not to issue juveniles with such fines because of magistrates’ “reluctance to give a 15-year-old a criminal record for dropping a packet of crisps”.

It’s not just the roadside litter that’s a problem either, he points out, but spillages from skip lorries and bulk waste transporters. Despite evidence that this occurs on a regular basis, the Environment Agency has only prosecuted one such offending company since 2000, he claims – and that was at his instigation.

“Highways England obstinately refuse to accept that they can and should prosecute these offences,” he maintains.

And apart from our filthy motorways, there’s another major problem when it comes to clamping down on fly-tipping: that despite this being a criminal offence punishable by unlimited fines and a five-year jail sentence if convicted in a crown court, the Environment Agency appears to have prosecuted only ONE case involving large-scale fly-tipping in 2017.

The agency is responsible for investigating larger scale fly-tipping, hazardous waste and fly-tipping by organised gangs. But while Defra minister Therese Coffey referred to more than 200 incidents of large-scale flytipping being ‘dealt with’ by the agency in 2017, Peter’s Freedom of Information request asking about the number of prosecutions brought by the EA between 2006 and 2015 showed the number had declined from 96 in 2006 to 26 in 2015.

There’s plenty of tough talking from the EA, which says: “Our specialist crime unit uses intelligence to track and prosecute organised crime gangs involved in illegal waste activity. We are determined to make life hard for criminals.”

But Peter’s research revealed many of the recorded prosecutions were for the mis-management of waste transfer, treatment and storage sites rather than fly-tipping.

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EYESORE: large-scale fly-tipping in Enfield in March 2018 [PICTURE: Peter Silverman]

He explains: “In fact only three of the 30 cases in 2017 were definitely for fly-tipping. Two of these were in effect the same case as two members of the same family were prosecuted for the same incident. Their combined fines were £75,000. In the other case the fine was only £900.

If such statistics sound depressing, the good news is that it means Peter isn’t quite ready yet to stop being a thorn in the side of the authorities – whether that means government ministers and departments, local councils or the Highways Agency.

Sadly, the campaign still has to reach a wider national audience. Despite occasional outings on national TV (he was a guest on BBC Breakfast in April this year), his Youtube broadcast clips (as when he featured on BBC’s Don’t Mess With Me documentary series about littering back in 2014) are still seen by hundreds rather than thousands of viewers.

But there’s clearly huge support for his work nonetheless. The ‘Have Your Say’ section of his website contains hundreds of comments from drivers who share his anger and frustration at the roadside litter scandal – and who realise the battle is one worth fighting.

As contributor John Lindsay wrote in April: “Peter is doing a fantastic job to bring more attention to the litter disease that engulfs our country.

“We all have a choice to either do something about our littered nation or not. We must spread the word to educate our own families, neighbours and friends. By acting together we will leave a better legacy.”

It’s an important message. Peter’s website may testify to the fact that this is so evidently a one-man campaign – but it also reveals that it’s not one he has to fight entirely on his own.

Litter campaign gathers pace

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IT’s exciting to see a dynamic new nationwide campaign being launched by a small group of professionals united by a shared passion for looking after our environment – and growing concerns about litter.

Clean Up Britain (CLUB) has been lobbying hard for a national litter campaign as well as inspiring and enabling communities and businesses to tackle a range of recycling and environmental issues, from reducing single-use plastics to clamping down on fly-tipping and roadside litter.

Founded by John Read, who has extensive experience in campaigning, corporate communications and public affairs, CLUB launched its Litter Kills initiative last month with the following message:

The UK has a serious litter problem. Take a look around you – every village, town, city, beach and roadside is blighted with the lazy leftovers of our daily lives.

We’ve been wrestling hard with how to properly ignite the conversation about litter and the damage it does.

In particular, we need to get to young women and men, age 16-30, who don’t even think about litter. This age group, while outwardly professing a love of the planet, recycling and other green issues, over-indexes on littering compared to other age groups.

It’s been ages since a national anti-litter campaign ran which changed littering behaviours, the topic of littering gets no airtime with this audience, and any wider efforts to prompt thinking and behaviour change has been largely ineffective.

Litter doesn’t really figure on their radar. Yet.

We had seen the RSPCA stats – they get 5,000 calls a year about animals injured by litter. Instinctively, we knew that this must be the tip of the iceberg.

We also knew, from previous research, that talking about hurt and dead animals was one of the only ways to ignite the conversation about litter with our target audience.

And so we began looking hard at the impacts of litter on animals, and with help of  the RSPCA, the British Veterinary Association and the pet charity Blue Cross, we built the bigger, shocking picture. Our campaign ‘Litter Kills’ was born.

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CLUB recognises the images are shocking, but believes that’s necessary:

We need to give people a reason to react strongly to seeing others litter, and make those who do think twice. We have to shift attitudes and behaviour.

We’re supposedly a nation of pet and animal lovers. British households in total host 8.5m dogs and 8m cats. Millions of us care about wildlife and enjoy seeing wild animals where we live, work and play.

Yet our littering habit affects thousands and thousands of animals in a very bad, sometimes fatal, way.

Tragically, the images selected for the campaign are all real, selected from countless case studies of animals injured or poisoned by discarded takeaways, mouldy food or broken glass.

The “litter kills it’s time to act” message is part of CLUBs Now or Never campaign which kicked off in Leamington Spa and received widespread local and national media coverage.

And earlier news releases have focused on issues like fly-tipping, another issue close to our hearts at The Beyonder.

Back in March last year, CLUB warned busy residents not to unwittingly pay rogue traders to dispose of their waste.

The message was simple: make a quick check with the Environment Agency to see if they have a waste carrier permit, rather than risking a huge fine for having the waste disposed of illegally.  Any legitimate trader should be happy to provide their name or registration number. The agency can be contacted by phone on 03708 506 506).

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Raven Alfie rules the roost

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MAKING MISCHIEF: Alfie the raven is determined to play

ALFIE the raven is in mischievous mood during our visit to Corvid Dawn in Berkshire.

This is not at all unusual, it transpires – and to be fair we were given plenty of warning to watch out for one of the more colourful characters looked after by Aimee Wallis at her wild bird rescue sanctuary.

The captive-bred raven flies free around their rural retreat and takes a very close interest in our movements. But then this is a bird who flies and trots along when the ‘family’ goes for a walk and enjoys playing games like ‘fetch’ and hide and seek (as long as he gets to make up the rules).

Alfie’s clearly in his element amid the motley assortment of other animals to be found in Aimee’s sanctuary, and as we embark on a guided tour there are soon plenty of curious onlookers in tow – a trio of dogs, a couple of rescue lambs from Wales and the neighbours’ children, for a start.

Cutest of the new arrivals is Missy the baby duckling, a tiny white mallard found by a couple on a canal, either abandoned by her mother or dropped by a predator.

The RSPB warns people only to interfere with fledglings as a last resort, and says: “Seeing ducklings and other young birds on their own is perfectly normal, so there’s no need to be worried. Just because you cannot see the adult doesn’t mean they are not there.”

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BALL OF FLUFF: Aimee and partner Dario with Missy the duckling

But the couple who found Missy could find no trace of mum and looked after her for a couple of days before bringing her to Aimee.

“They did so well, did all the right things, she’s a lucky girl. They’re off back to Australia at some point so couldn’t really take her on,” Aimee explains.

Missy will be in good company here. The rescue lambs are taking a close interest in her welfare as she settles into her paddling pool and there’s a lot of curiosity among the corvids too – the crows, rooks, jackdaws and ravens who are the main focus of attention at the centre.

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MAKING A SPLASH: Missy settles into her paddling pool

Yes, there are hens and turkeys here too, but it’s the corvids that are Aimee’s first love and which prompted her to create the sanctuary in the first place. Before all this she had a career in the beauty industry, though that life seems very distant to her now.

It’s a few years since Aimee’s first encounter with corvids, after she and her mother took an injured blackbird to a bird sanctuary and she became intrigued by the intelligence of the crows and ravens who were kept there.

In fact she ended up working at the centre as a volunteer and the love affair was cemented when she first encountered a blind five-week-old crow called Wonder. But as she began to learn more about the birds she also began to realise that she and the owner had very different ideas about how the rescue centre should be run.

She says: “My first question was when will the birds be released, but it was clear they weren’t going to be. He didn’t agree with nature, he thought the birds were better off with him than they would be in the wild.”

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FUN AND GAMES: playing with Alfie

It’s clear that there are plenty of unhappy memories associated with that period of her life, but Aimee doesn’t shirk from difficult questions and has publicly spoken out in the press about her experiences at the sanctuary, which was raided by police in 2015, after she had left.

“The former volunteers were all devastated by the outcome,” she says. “When I first went there I noticed that the cages were not in a great state and there wasn’t a lot of water. I just thought they needed some help so I started volunteering.”

Aimee started releasing healthy birds from the aviaries herself and taking ill birds to a local vet, learning a lot about the birds’ welfare in the process. She was allowed to take two birds with her when she left, but dozens of birds were seized in the police raid and a number had to be put down.

The corvid family includes crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaw, jays and magpies – all known for their intelligence – and it was clear to her that she wanted to set up her own rescue centre if at all possible.

After moving back home with her mum for a while she worked in a local pub and was able to keep her birds on land there for a year until the pub got planning permission to expand. By then, word had got around about her rescue work, prompting one farmer she also worked for to offer her the chance of establishing a proper base in the country.

That move in November 2017 provided the perfect opportunity to set up Corvid Dawn as a more spacious sanctuary able to offer a proper rescue and release service.

“We were in desperate need of a new base and the farm is run by a lovely older couple,” says 36-year-old Aimee.

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WOOLLY FLOCK: the lambs were too small to thrive on the farm where they were born

It’s a perfect location for her centre and it’s been a busy few months working on new accommodation for the growing family. It’s hard to keep track of exact numbers, though, with new arrivals most weekends. That all adds to a pretty demanding work schedule – not to mention proving a costly exercise, with so many mouths to feed.

The aim, wherever possible, is to rescue and release birds back into the wild, although some of the more badly injured will be longer-term residents, along with cruelty cases who may have been mistreated or neglected.

Eventually, Aimee hopes the centre will also be able to perform an important educational role, introducing school children to the birds through talks and displays at locations like the Nature Discovery Centre in Thatcham, Berkshire.

Her mission is to demonstrate just how intelligent and perceptive birds can be and, by sharing her experiences of rescuing and rearing corvids, promote a better understanding of  British wild birds among pupils.

“They are fantastic judges of character. It’s bizarre – they show jealousy and they have favourite objects,” she chuckles.

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SAFE REFUGE: spacious cages provide a home for a variety of rescued birds

Providing sanctuary to her family of animals and birds has involved some rapid cage-building, although one day she would love to have a free-flying flock of rooks.

For now, large cages will have to suffice. But partner Dario, 33, has been a willing worker, even embarking on a carpentry course to hone his woodworking skills.

An Italian with former experience in the military, he came to the UK to improve his English and had a job locally working with horses when they first met.

There are signs of his hard labour everywhere, from the fencing and cage construction to the newly turned over patch which will soon become a vegetable garden.

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MENAGERIE MANOR: Dario with the chickens and turkeys

It’s clear that he loves animals too, despite the hard work involved in almost every aspect of their care.

Alfie is looking down from a lofty perch inspecting us as we wander around his territory, a reminder that establishing such a close relationship with him has been no easy task.

Bred in captivity for the pet trade, he was angry and suspicious and it has taken many, many hours of cajoling – and plenty of slashes from his razor-sharp beak – to win his trust and establish the sort of easy rapport that we are able to witness.

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RULING THE ROOST: Alfie keeps a beady eye on what’s going on

But despite the tough times – the tales of animal cruelty and the trauma of dealing with ill and injured animals – Aimee finds people’s compassion and kindess a huge compensation.

The weekend after our visit sees an influx of new arrivals: badly injured baby blackbirds mauled by a cat, a jackdaw with an eye infection, an almost paralysed crow hit by a car.

“The saddest was three newborn baby blackbirds that came in,” she posted on the centre’s Facebook page, where some of her 1400 followers are quick to offer their support. “They all died one by one, despite antibiotics and heat.”

Yet almost in the same breath she is posting: “Can I just say what wonderful people I’ve met through these birds this weekend, really kind driving them to meet me or even bringing them here, really touching to see people show such compassion, thank you so much xx”

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FEATHERED FRIEND: Aimee with one of the hens

Alfie is far from being the only star of the show, of course – there’s Ratchet the rook grabbing an impossibly large twig for nest building, Dara the one-legged crow recovering from an operation at the vet’s, and a dozen other assorted corvids clamouring for love and attention.

Not to mention the animals too, of course. “We are busy with farm animals – we are suckers for it, to be honest, Aimee admits. “We have two little pigs – that was an emergency thing – and two lambs, and some rescue turkeys. And about 23 birds, mainly corvids.

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FEEDING FRENZY: Dario with the pigs

Out here in rural Berkshire, there’s quite a substantial population of wild animals too, including hundreds of rooks, jackdaws and starlings in nearby fields and woods, along with foxes and badgers.

The wild rooks may be a little perplexed by Alfie’s decision not to stray too far from home – but so far the fencing has proved a sufficient deterrent to keep the hens in and the foxes out.

Not that the education process is restricted to children. Many farmers regard crows and pigeons as pests, and dozens of fieldsports videos are dedicated to the merits of different guns and cartridges for disposing of the birds, citing their damage to crops and potential spread of disease as key arguments for pest control.

Aimee doesn’t mind discussing such matters with anyone, as long as they can keep the debate civilised.

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HOME FROM HOME: the rescue centre takes shape

“I’m just a normal girl who loves animals,” Aimee insists. Maybe so, but it takes a pretty dedicated individual to lavish this kind of time and attention on such a large and demanding family just for the fun of it.

All the hard work doesn’t go unappreciated, though, judging by the reactions of her feathered friends. And it’s Alfie who has the last word, of course, cackling loudly as we start making moves to leave, and even standing out there on the road to see us off…

For more information about Corvid Dawn, see the centre’s Facebook page.

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Beale Park feels the chill

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WINTER’S TALE: an unseasonal icy blast casts a chill over Beale Park

There could hardly have been a worse time to visit Beale Park. It’s only a few days after unseasonal March snowstorms have been swept across the UK by the “Beast from the East” – there’s ice in the lake water, the wind is bitter and the few animals who are out and about look as if they would much prefer to be somewhere a whole lot warmer.

Despite that it’s still possible to see just what a lovely location this riverside spot would be on a summer’s day. The landscaped gardens between Pangbourne and Lower Basildon in Berkshire have the Thames as a backdrop – and on virtually any other day of the year that in itself would be a major attraction.

Back in 1956 when Gilbert Beale set about transforming 350 acres of private Thames-side farmland into a charitable trust, it was little more than a track and a couple of ponds.

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PEACOCKS ON PARADE: the park’s eccentric founder had a soft spot for the birds

Today the distinctive cry of a peacock is a reminder of just how much the eccentric Gilbert loved the birds – by the time of his death in 1967 at the age of 99 there were over 300 on site. Legend has it that his favourite, a peahen called Laura, followed him everywhere and even rode around the estate in his Rolls-Royce.

Flash forward half a century and nowadays the park boasts three main attractions: the collections of small exotic animals, farm animals and birds; the landscaped gardens and woodlands; and the children’s play areas.

For our chilly March visit it would be easy to be hypercritical. Many of the more appealing creatures are hunkering down out of the chill wind, some of the park is still being renovated ahead of the main season and sections of it feel more like a building site than landscaped gardens.

Icy ripples spread out over the closed paddling pool and everything looks distinctly grey – we are too early for even the bravest flora to be flowering and there’s virtually no colour in the gardens yet.

But that’s more to do with the timing of our visit than any lack of effort on the part of the management and it’s clear that over the years a lot of effort has gone into sympathetically landscaping the surroundings and expanding the range of attractions.

It’s still a family affair – thanks to the involvement of Gilbert’s great-nephew, Richard Howard, and his family, along with a dedicated team of staff, some of whom have been associated with the park from its earliest beginnings.

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ANIMAL MAGIC: the story for Beale Park’s transformation

The main appeal is definitely for parents with younger children – even aside from the animals, the big play area is an obvious attraction and the sand pits and paddling pool must be great fun in summer.

It’s worth checking out the park’s website ahead of your visit if you want to find out a little more about their conservation and education work. It’s possible that display boards were in the process of being refreshed for the main season, but we found relatively little information  explaining what was actually happening on the conservation front. In fact the website doesn’t tell you too much detail either, although there’s a rundown on all the animals you can meet on a visit, with a note about their natural habitat and behaviour.

The “park guide” leaflet contains virtually no information about the attractions, but you do get a handy map at the gate – as well as a free trip on the mile-long narrow-gauge railway which dawdles through the grounds, pulling four open carriages and up to 64 passengers.

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PARK LIFE: Beale Park’s attractions are clearly signposted

Since the trust was formed the bird collection has advanced from a few peacocks to a collection of rare and endangered birds, but again there’s too little information about conservation programmes and what you are actually able to see.

We were captivated by the African grey-crowned cranes, for example, but couldn’t find any information about them on the cage or the website. Luckily a couple of staff were able to help identify them – and the 8,000 followers of the park’s Facebook page may get more regular updates and videos than are available on the website.

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CROWNING GLORY: one of the African grey-crowned cranes

The zoological collection has expanded too in recent years to encompass prairie dogs, coatis and unbearably cute slender-tailed meerkats. The larger paddocks are home to large flightless rheas, alpacas and wallabies, as well as fallow deer, pigs and sheep.

There are bugs, spiders and owls too, although again on the day of our visit everyone seemed to be lying low – and outside it was just too cold to fully enjoy the deer park or spend too long shivering at the lakeside.

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CUTE CUSTOMER: a slender-tailed meerkat

On this, the greyest of wintry days, the younger customers braving the weather still seemed to be having plenty of fun – and a surprisingly wholesome sausage and mash lunch for two in the cafe was the perfect antidote to combat the temperatures outside.

But Beale Park will be a whole lot more appealing when spring has properly sprung, and we pledged to return once the sun starts shining again and  everyone comes out to play.

Full details of attractions, admission prices and other details can be found on the park’s website.

Tree of inspiration

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NEW DAWN: the gnarled tree in Langley Park

Those who love an early morning walk in Slough’s Langley Park or Black Park may already be familiar with the work of landscape photographer Kevin Day.

The Slough-based photographer has contributed a number of pictures to the gallery linked from the Friends of Langley Park website – and the story of one major photography project is told in an old profile article in Amateur Photographer.

“I often get up at five or six in the morning and go to the park, which is a ten-minute walk away,” says Kevin in the article. “It’s the light that interests me, and the way it affects the landscape. It’s constantly changing, at different times of the day, different times of year.”

The gnarled tree in Langley Park showed how you can return to the same subject again and again and get a different picture every time. But Kevin goes on to explain how the tree was also a symbol of his photographic renaissance.

Today, his personal work continues to complement his professional output and a selection of his nature pictures reflect this. “It’s more of a little hidden gallery occasionally people stumble across!” he says.

For those who share Kevin’s love of those two local parks, it’s a real treat – with 185 pictures to choose from – and the option to purchase copies too.