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Outer-London for Open Space

So arriving in London in *hot* weather was a bit alarming, everyone was complaining about the heat. Our only challenge was that we packed for the stereotypical English weather and not the outlier…

In big cities open spaces for the community are premium property. With everyone stacked-up on each other in apartments and terraced houses, the slightest sunshine brings everyone into the parks for their dose of open space and fresh air.

Kitted-out in my best sub-optimal Summer attire, I made my Uber-way to my first ‘official’ Churchill Scholarship visit to Essex Wildlife Trust’s Thurrock Thameside Nature Park. 50 minutes into our trip through industrial London, Uber-driver finally spoke, as we approved the nature park, he gave me an insight into big city living – “we are stopping at a building aren’t we”?

Perched overlooking the Thames is a stunning visitors centre, with the shorebird environment there protected for migratory wading birds. The centre provides 360-degree views of the Thames and the landscape, with wheel-chair rooftop access providing a welcoming experience for all-comers. The visitor centre has been funded as part of an offset package for the development of a key port for London. It was great to see it frequented by locals, staffed by volunteers, and alive with workshops and birdwatchers. Apparently its a great spot for Adders too…

Testament to the value of open space in this big city, the Essex Wildlife Trust* is embarking on an ambitious program to transform this former landfill (the main landfill for London for 40+ years) into a recreation (fishing, cycling, walking) and biodiversity conservation park. Already attracting over 40,000 visitors/annum (at a unique location ‘on the way to nowhere’) – the development of new facilities will no doubt grow visitation through enhanced and diverse offerings. Funding for these new facilities is part of the closure requirements for the landfill operator.

Thankfully England is not a big place, and after we had chewed the fat over this site and Essex Wildlife Trust broadly, we managed to pack more into the adventure – with whirlwind visits to nearby Langdon Visitors Centre and the recently opened Ingrebourne Valley Visitors Centre.

Each has its unique place-based interpretation and design features to attract people and showcase the environment. At Ingrebourne, the Trust has embraced the past use of the land as a Spitfire aircraft base – this has also helped ingratiate the community with the new centre and organisation. The removable partition that divides the learning centre from the cafe has, on one side, interpretation of the natural environment, and on the other side, interpretation of the military history. Nice symbolism of the landscape change through time, showcasing both cultural and environmental values.

The surprise-highlight of the day was discovering the ‘birthplace’ of possibly the most famous wildlife image to grace the interweb. The famous woodpecker-riding weasel was captured by a local photographer who is there all the time, and got internationally lucky this one time.

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Will we see a water rat riding a swamp hen at Jerrabomberra Wetlands one day? I certainly hope so.

Finally, a massive thanks to the impressively capable Andrew Impey, CEO of the Essex Wildlife Trust, for sharing his time and enthusiasm for all things management, fundraising, stakeholder engagement and leadership broadly. All insights gained will be immensely valuable, and it was great to engage with a leading conservation organisation where *local comes first* and reconnecting people with nature is paramount for conservation and good for business.

*Essex Wildlife Trust has more than 35,800 members, manages and protects over 8,400 acres of land on 87 nature reserves, 2 nature parks and runs 11 visitor centres. The aim of Essex Wildlife Trust is to Protect Wildlife for the Future and for the people of Essex.

This study tour is sponsored by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust

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