Tim Matthews is one of my best friends, and also - coincidentally - one of the most controversial figures in contemporary forteana. He has been involved with the CFZ for nearly a decade now, raising eyebrows wherever he goes.
As part of the CFZ Bloggo that we are really going to have to remember to call CFZ ONLINE:ON THE TRACK we have given Timothy his own little soapbox, and boy does he know how to utilise it! As this bloggo entry shows, he is capable of being quite surprisingly sweet :)
Ever since my daughter Alexandra was born she and I have been regular visitors to the nearby Windmill Animal Farm at Mere Brow just a few miles from Southport off the main A565. Over the last nine years I had half expected that she would become bored with this lovely working farm or our perhaps our visits to the Formby Woods Nature Reserve to the south. Happily, I am surprised and delighted that she and her younger sister Freya love nothing more than playing with a myriad of pigs, sheep, cows and chickens at the Windmill Farm.
Sadly, their joy is not shared by that many of their friends. When speaking to parents one finds a certain negativity about such places. Some parents tell you that farms are “dirty” and they’d “much rather take the kids to Spain” or that “animals are boring” and that they’d rather their children spent their time playing computer games. Each to their own I say, but having been brought up in the countryside, and having enjoyed the natural history of the Oxfordshire countryside and numerous walks along the Ridgeway near Newbury as a youngster I can’t help thinking that many of today’s Modern Parents are missing a trip and condemning their children to a future devoid of animals and lacking in a genuine understanding of their environment. And this against the background of a general need for much greater ecological knowledge.
Back at the Formby Nature Reserve, where the National Trust does its best to protect and defend rare species found in the sand dunes and also to maintain a thriving colony of Red squirrels within some stunning pine woods, children are rarely seen. I was speaking recently to a local ranger whose job it is to maintain a close eye on the area and he said, “we do get some families but the place is mainly used by dog walkers.” Why weren’t school parties visiting in greater numbers, I asked. “Well,” he said, “teachers either can’t bring them because of red tape or schools go to other places instead like Alton Towers.” Very educational!
As if to back up the ranger’s claims, many stories have appeared in the news over the years suggesting that the form filling bureaucrats who bedevil this country - and want refuse operatives engaged in recycling activities to wear ear muffs for their aural safety - have really started to put a stranglehold on school field trips as a result of a few accidents that have taken place nationwide. Some teachers are reluctant to engage in masses of paperwork - and they do enough already it seems - and others would probably have more fun at Alton Towers!
The other thing that happens less and less is the good, old fashioned and ever so educational nature walk. I went to school in a lovely place called Wantage and my parents and I lived in a small village nearby called Letcombe Regis. Our primary school was not unusual in its insistence that part of a good education (things like learning to spell and to add up….very rare these days) was to walk around the paths and fields nearby. I remember that we used to go for quite long walks and the teachers would show us all manner of amazing things from bugs to birds, from cows to catkins. You could go to a nearby pond and see frogs and newts and tadpoles and all sorts. We knew which bird was which and our school had bird tables and all manner of what would now be called “green projects” except this was in the mind 1970s.
It was against this background that I found yesterday a remarkable book entitled “Out of Doors” by the Revd J G Wood. This fascinating volume, dated 1891 (and originally published by Longman Green in 1874) includes a chapter called, “A Summer Walk Through An English Lane” where he says, “…the real, dear, genuine, old-fashioned English Lane, with its banks of flowers, its little ripping streamlets, its shady hedgerows; its feathered trees, with their gnarled roots thrusting themselves out of the bank in strange knotty contortions, and occasionally making their appearance in the centre of the footpath, as if for the express purpose of flinging the heedless passenger on his nose; its charming freedom from any kind of regularity, its pleasant him of busy insect wings and its cheerful twitter of little birds. The woodbine flings its graceful masses of twining foliage and fragrant flowers over the hedgerows and the odorous white blossoms of the wild clematis add their bright petals to vivify the scene.”
He goes on in similar vein but the picture he develops over the pages and it is a picture that we should always recognise, embrace and seek to introduce to our children and the younger generation in general. The CFZ finds itself in a place where it could indeed lead some sort of “kids and nature” type movement. It is loosely called “CFZ Outreach” and it is so much bigger than stories of rare beasties in the Third World and all about what is available to us here, in our own country, here and now. It is, of course, also a voyage into a world of wonder and mystery in which we can all engage. As the guy on the bug stall told me at last year’s Weird Weekend, “you don’t always have to look far for new species. It is the case that you and I could organise a simple effort in a field and find new species of beatles within three months”.
This, I venture, is the sort of thing that our children could and should be involved with and the CFZ could promote this almost straight away. Forget the third world and voyages into the distant wastes. What about doing something locally, here and now. Not only would be do something for the environment but also for our children’s education, future and for science in general.