Eco doctor needs your help keeping Hastings green....

Dr Owen Johnson
Dr Owen Johnson

I AM lost somewhere on an industrial estate in St Leonards and starting to suspect I am the victim of a cruel, if well-executed, practical joke.

I am on the way to meet Dr Owen Johnson - one of Britain’s foremost tree experts and the joint leader of the Hastings Conservation Volunteers (HCV) - but there must be some mistake.

There are factories and dead ends everywhere I turn, but a quick phone call later and Dr Johnson puts me out of my misery. He leads me through a hedge, and into another world.

Low winter sun streams through the meadow, and it is fringed by trees. There is a pond in one corner and other-worldly mounds which turn out to be ant hills - in short a world away from the industrial estate surrounding it.

“It’s an old hay meadow and it’s tremendously good for wild flowers,” Dr Johnson tells me.

“In the summer you get a carpet of bright yellow fleabane but there are 50 or 60 different plants that grow here.

“That’s a bullis over there which produces edible plums which my mother makes jam out of, and there’s also a sour cherry tree among the oaks and ashes.

“There are lots of birds here - I saw some beautiful long-tailed tits before you came and we get foxes, newts, slow worms and badgers passing through.”

The Wainwright Close reserve is one of 10 sites the HCV help maintain along with the Marline Woods, the Mallydams Wood, and the Hastings Country Park.

It was saved from the bulldozers when the Churchfields Industrial Estate was built and the HCV and the now defunct Hastings Volunteer Wildlife Group campaigned for it to be left as a nature reserve.

Several times a year the group descends on Wainwright Close cutting the grass, coppicing the trees, digging silt out of the pond or just picking up litter.

“I accept now that some people spend their lives making a mess and some people spend their lives clearing up, but it’s very satisfying to see the difference a day of litter picking makes.

“Working here is great fun and it’s very peaceful, particularly in the summer and you can’t see the industrial buildings. It’s like stepping back 100 years.

“My parents are both involved - my father is 84 and still comes out which is a great advertisement for the health benefits.

“There is always plenty of tea and coffee on the go and between us we have a good deal of knowledge.”

Dr Johnson, 44, of Vale Road, St Leonards, gives up several days a week volunteering and is broadly optimistic about David Cameron’s Big Society.

“It’s potentially a very positive thing. For someone who is unemployed having something like volunteering with us on their CV would look good.

“I would suggest people do more conservation work in Hastings than anywhere else.

There used to be groups in Eastbourne and Brighton but we are the only one still carrying on.

“But I think people take the green spaces for granted, they probably think it’s council workers that keep them clean whereas it’s mostly volunteers.

“And I think people are less and less conscious of the natural world and less and less aware of what needs to be done to maintain it.

“But it’s very much up to the populace to prove they care for things like this.”

As we inspect the huge ant hills, Dr Johnson tells me of his love for all things arboreal.

He wrote the 2004 Collins Guide to Trees and is currently writing a book about so-called “champion trees”, hunting down the biggest types of different species.

“This is an excellent part of the country for it. Alexandra Park has the biggest diversity of trees and the greatest number of champion trees of any public park in England.

“And you do get some amazing surprises down here.

“I remember a man calling me to say he thought he had a willow podocarp.

“But I didn’t believe him because they are from the cloud forests in the southern Andes and they need a very mild, humid climate.

“But sure enough when I turned up there it was in his back garden.”

And with that we shake hands, and Dr Johnson wanders off back into the industrial estate - and back into the 21st Century.

r The Hastings Conservation Volunteers always needs more help and go out every Sunday morning, with a pick up from Hastings train station at 9.30am.

Age/experience/fitness is no barrier to those wishing to help out.

Email or call 01424 426986.