England can be an achingly beautiful plot of land when it puts its mind to it. From the rolling South Downs fields smiling golden beneath an autumn’s setting sun right up to her dark, stark cliffs standing sentinel in the north, undaunted by the furious waves assaulting her feet, this little land packs a heady nature punch, vastly making up in variety for what it lacks in size. So heady that sometimes, when wandering about our great little outdoors, one might even begin to think old Wills was right: Nature built here a demi-paradise. Yet if only our towns had been designed with an eye so attuned to the sublime. For they, poor things, are too often far less pretty than the nature they supplanted – their centres the smoke-stained debris and monoliths of industrial practicality, interspersed with the products of an inexplicable post-war concrete fetish, their outskirts row upon row of identikit box-houses.
And yet placed within just such a town, as though to mock my brash generalisations, I last week discovered, of all unnatural things, a nature reserve. A small sodden bit of wetland, a clutch of ponds and trees, and an unkempt tangle of reeds, weeds and shrubs all squashed inside an enclosing cage of cloned housing. Alright – it doesn’t exactly have the breath-stealing awe-factor of the Amazon jungle or Yellowstone Park, but it is nonetheless a protected site, an honest to goodness nature reserve that on the face of it has as little business forcing itself into an overlooked crevice of an English housing estate as an igloo has popping up in the desert.
Indeed, arguably the only thing more remarkable than that a nature reserve should have tucked itself inside a town was the fact that the town was my town – and I had not previously explored it. The reserve is but a mere two minutes’ walk around the corner from the house my family have lived in for the past dozen years; and yet I can hand on my heart say I have no conscious memory of ever walking through it.
Until last week. When I obeyed not so much the call of the wild as the nag of domesticity, and joined a committed band of conservation volunteers to try and give the place a proper clean up. The recent storm had left it in a right old state of fallen branches and muddy walkways, and so as we dozen or so eco-recruits assembled on a commanding knoll we were given instructions to collect litter, tidy away storm debris and clear new paths.
My first duty of the day was in helping to lay woodchips over the squelching quagmire that was the existing path. Raking woodchips is a task I think I did perfectly satisfactorily, and what is more, I could see a purpose to it: the lives of passers-by were made marginally easier, safer, and at the very least cleaner by my efforts. Yet while the nature of my first task allowed me to feel the unashamed smugness of an underwhelming superhero – fighting for my community against hazardous filth wherever I found it – my next task turned me into a villain, for it seemed to me a bizarre betrayal of nature.
I was asked to help cut out a new path, a back-up in case the existing path flooded. The obstructions to be cut away were mostly fallen trees and dead wood, but I had a gnawing suspicion – perhaps more accurately described as an ignorant fear – that some of the branches I had to remove were still clinging to life; at least the nettles I had to cut away most certainly were, judging by the stings I received for my troubles. As a complete newcomer to conservation volunteering, and with absolutely no claim to any knowledge of horticulture or forestry, I’m hardly in a position to judge whether it is right to cut away life to make life more convenient for man. And given that man has been imposing his order on the natural world at least since the dawn of agriculture, my reservations are a little late in the day – not to say a touch ironic, as this wee pocket of nature in which I worked has only been allowed to survive at man’s grace for the service of man.
Or at least, that is why I assumed it was allowed to survive – for not having spied a tiger or a panda or any other endangered beasty in the undergrowth, and lacking the expertise to pick out precious plants, I was left pondering much of the morning why this particular plot should be protected. Eventually, my impertinent curiosity got the better of me:
“Why,” I asked the gang leader, “is this a nature reserve? Are there any rare animals or birds here?”
“No,” was replied quickly, and then, slowly, as if letting me in on a delicious secret: “but they did find a fungi.”
“A fungi? Really?”
“Oh yes! A rare fungi!”
“Not rare nationally, of course. Just rare to South Oxfordshire.”
So there you have it. This unassuming soggy patch of vegetation is home to a rare fungi that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the surrounding 600 km² or so; and so no more need South Oxfordshire’s adventurers cross county lines, for this tamest, softest, urbanist of all England’s districts has a wild side afterall.
Long may the conservationists keep up their selfless work, and preserve this fungus sanctuary for future generations of South Oxfordshirans! I only hope that in helping them out for a day, I didn’t inadvertently clear away a branch that was that rare specie’s last local refuge. For I would hate to be responsible for sending someone to Berkshire in search of a fungi.