The Chairman of the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, Cliff Dean spoke with Peter recently on his last day as a volunteer.
It was a grey, cold day when I dropped in at the Information Centre, pausing to make way for an emerging group of visitors clutching reserve maps and ready to set off towards the sea. Inside, Peter had just sat down again, taking advantage of a few minutes’ quiet to peruse The Times until I interrupted him on his last day as a Reserve Volunteer, following no fewer than18 years of service. Many people will have come to know him during this time by his distinctive white hair and beard and from his boundless enthusiasm expressed through information and anecdotes.
But how did he get involved in the first place?
“It was a couple of years after I retired,” he told me, “Thelma – my wife- and I used to go out walking and one January day she suggested coming to Rye Harbour which, although I grew up just the other side of Hastings at Glyne Gap and had been fishing all over Romney Marsh, I’d never visited before.”
“I thought, ’What a marvellous place!’ and stopped off at Lime Kiln Cottage to learn more about it. There I met Paul Troake – the Warden at that time – who persuaded me to help out with my carpentry skills. I was on the look-out for a new project, but couldn’t have guessed this one would involve me for nearly twenty years!”
His first job was to line the Colin Green Hide – now enlarged and known as the John Gooders Hide – and then to fit out an equipment shed and workshop behind the cottage, but in no time at all Paul had also recruited him to volunteer at Lime Kiln Cottage Information Centre greeting and assisting visitors. Then, when other long-term helpers relinquished their Saturday slot, Peter took it over and was still in place when I talked to him in our temporary information centre on the last Saturday of 2017.
“I didn’t like moving here last year,” he explained, “it seemed so bare at first, compared with the cosy space I was used to at Lime Kiln. But once all the furniture and merchandise was installed and the information panels put up in the next room it seemed so roomy and light – and so many more people come in! And this is what I love doing – talking to people, especially the children, sharing what I call the Magic of Nature with them, seeing their faces if I show them a Curlew through my telescope or a bumble bee sitting harmlessly in my hand.”
Peter was ready to give help wherever it was needed, in building nest boxes, joining in walks or lending a hand to Beach Cleans. Like many people, he volunteered on Tern Watch, organised by Community Officer Miriam, sitting out on the beach, where at that time Little Terns nested unprotected, to make sure they were not disturbed. More recently these birds have moved within the area defended by electric fences but however much we try to safeguard them we are powerless to guarantee them sufficient food to raise their young and it was the result of two lean years that Peter found unbearable to witness.
“I just could not watch the chicks starve to death as their parents struggled to feed them oversized Sand Eels,” he confessed, “so, after four years on watch, I asked to be taken off the rota.” (Happily, not many seasons are so desperate.)
Happier times – his happiest in fact – were spent with Thelma, opening Camber Castle on summer Sunday afternoons: “I’m fascinated by what I call ‘Layman’s History’, not Kings and Queens but by the lives of ordinary people, like the soldiers stationed out there. I read the big English Heritage book through and through to learn all I could to pass on to visitors – from the rare flowers to the officers’ garderobe (always a favourite with the youngsters)” he recalled.
“Yes, it’s exposed out there, but we’d shelter in one alcove or another according to the wind direction and if it rained we’d sit in the car because it’s such a special place that people would always come across the fields, whatever the weather, and we’d be there to welcome them.”
Now, at the age of 82, our longest-serving Volunteer plans to focus on some different projects closer to home.
“But I’ve genuinely enjoyed every minute, working together with reserve staff and visitors, he insists, “I feel we’ve all been in it together protecting this wonderful reserve as it goes from strength to strength. I feel enriched from having known them and I’ve never looked on it as work because for me it’s been pure, selfish pleasure. Pure selfish pleasure.”
Peter with Cliff Dean in the temporary information centre.