Warren Farm – Nature Therapy
Written by John Triggs, Woodland Working Group Leader at Warren Farm
We live in a world of hyperbole. On Instagram, every image is ‘breathtaking’; on Facebook every new experience, ‘awesome’. My friends, it seems, never stop seeing the earth from another amazing corner. Some have what we used to call “the holiday of a lifetime” every half term.
Which is why I found it, to say the least, something of a surprise this summer to experience an actual genuine moment of awe – a truly spine tingling connection with the inspirational beauty of our planet, a life-affirming feeling of elation and joy – just a few minutes walk from my doorstep – in Cheam.
I’ve lived in this area between the borders of South London and Surrey for most of my life. As a boy I could see the golden fields of Warren Farm, a 64 acre meadow adjacent to Nonsuch park from my bedroom. As soon as we could balance on two wheels, my brother and I would take our bikes down there and pretend the gently sloping fields were the backdrop for our epic battles, charging at each other on our BMX steeds. Before long we noticed the kestrels, hovering high above the yellowing grass, staring – miraculously stationary in the sky – down at their domain.
Then we noticed the skylarks, their continuous crescendo a fitting soundtrack to the seemingly endless, blissful summer holidays. As I grew up, I used to marvel at the way the flowers of this chalk downland meadow changed from week to week and month to month as different species colonised each ecological niche in time. It was Warren Farm, (with a little help from David Attenbourough and Gerald Durrell) that sparked my lifelong love affair with the natural world. Then in 1988, we discovered that it was to be sold and houses would be built over the lot if it.
Of course, there were objections. Letters were written and meetings held but the cause seemed hopeless. As today, the demand for homes in suburban London was voracious. The farmer no longer had any need for fields and the housing developers could make a tidy profit from the land. This beautiful meadow was destined to be lost – vanished along with the 97% of such habitat that has disappeared in this country since the end of the war. At one stage, the best it seemed we could hope for was that some of the site might be converted to a golf course. And then – just as quickly as it seemed lost – it was saved. A then little-known organisation called the Woodland Trust somehow negotiated a surprising compromise. The housing developer agreed to give most of the site to the Trust and kept 11 acres for homes on the western edge. The Trust has been looking after it ever since. They planted some trees around its edges but the glorious meadowland has been retained.
Now, some 30 years later, I am lucky enough to live again within a short walk of Warren Farm and it is my children who are beginning to discover its wonders. At the start of this year, I belatedly decided to give something back. I responded to an advert for a volunteer working group leader at the Woodland Trust, helping to set up and build a group of volunteers to work on the meadow. Warren Farm is now being threatened – not by developers but by invasive Canadian goldenrod, that is spreading through the field and will, if left unchecked, turn it into a monoculture of this escaped garden menace. It is vital that we protect meadows such as this if we are to help stem the disastrous loss of biodiversity that threatens our planet.
But just as we were starting to make plans to reinvigorate the volunteer group on the farm the pandemic arrived. We were told to stay at home, many Woodland Trust staff were furloughed and organised volunteer groups prohibited. Because of a pre-existing lung condition, my wife was put on the shielding list and my family were all exceptionally careful as we knew just how vulnerable she would be to the disease if she were to catch it. In an abundance of caution we stayed in our home and garden and didn’t even go out for our statutory daily walk. We told ourselves we were fine and considered ourselves lucky that at least we had a garden to escape to.
In the middle of May we promised our daughters we’d camp in the garden, a small compensation for the holiday in Wales we could no longer enjoy. It was wonderful. We could hear no planes in the sky and the constant wave of traffic noise that is the usual backdrop to our lives had calmed almost completely. Instead, the birds were in full voice and we fell asleep to the reassuring call and reply of a pair of tawny owls.
I was less impressed in the morning – I was woken early – really early, just before 5am in fact – by a combination of cold, the rising sun and an extremely eager dawn chorus. Unable to sleep, groggy and no longer feeling as sympathetic to the local bird life – I decided, for the first time in over two months, that it was early enough to leave the house and go for a walk.
Of course, there was no debate in my mind about where to go. I walked straight into Nonsuch park and through the small woodland of oaks, ash and sycamore that borders the meadow. Sunlight filtered down on me through the freshly-grown new leaves, a tantalising glimpse of what was to come. Through a gap in the trees I could see a golden glow – inviting and irresistible. I stepped through it into the north east corner of Warren Farm and that is when it hit me. The beauty of it all seemed incomparable. The fields of grasses and wildflowers, gently sloping down and then up again to the trees beyond, the butterflies already busily fluttering between orchids, oxeye daisies and a carpet of birdsfoot trefoil. Here and there an occasional tree would complement the scene – a large birch that had been allowed to grow, a stand of coppiced hazel or a row of aspen gently waving a welcome from the edges of the meadow. The morning air was fresh and filled with an orchestra of blackbirds, robins, chiffchaff and whitethroat. No cloud or vapour trail blotted the sky and my worries about our family’s health and income evaporated in the morning air. I just stood there open-mouthed, dumbstruck by the beauty of it all. Eventually, an early-morning jogger came huffing up the path, I smiled at them, slightly amazed that anyone could run so casually through such beauty.
I started making plans to get up early every morning and go to visit the meadow. My 10 year-old daughter said she wanted to come too and so we started what we called our ‘dawn jaunts’. My daughter began taking photos on the cheap compact camera we had bought her for her (now cancelled) Year 6 school trip. As we photographed things, we also looked them up and between us we learned more and more about the wildflowers, birdlife, butterflies and insects we saw. The field became an extension of our homeschool classroom and soon my younger daughter started coming on these dawn jaunts too. Even my wife, no enthusiast of early morning starts, began to join us.
When the goldenrod emerged we turned our visits of exploration to ones of conservation, pulling the plants out, secure in the knowledge that for each plant removed, a little bit more space was being created for the native wildflowers to come back. We could clearly see that in the areas of the field where it had been eradicated, the diversity of wildflowers was so much greater and so was the accompanying wildlife. Occasionally, we would see piles of goldenrod left beside the paths, a sign that we weren’t the only ones taking some much-needed conservation therapy.
Now, when I look back at the pictures I took on that first early morning in May, the day I rediscovered the meadow, I just see Warren Farm again, as I’ve seen it thousands of times before. Nothing can capture the elation of that experience. It must have been seeing it for the first time after so much isolation that made it so incredible for me. But it also brought home, as clearly as the blue sky on that glorious morning, that while we may take these remaining fragments of nature for granted and it may take a lockdown to really appreciate their wonders, we must protect these spaces because we need them. We need them as much as we need the air in our lungs.