Although I was born in London, most of my life has been spent in the Hertfordshire "New Town" of Hemel Hempstead. From around 1959 to 1993 I grew up, was educated, got married and started to raise my two children within the Dacorum boundaries. The town was a great place to live, jobs were easy to come by, the local industrial estate being home to Kodak, Dexion, Golden West (the bun makers for Mc Donalds) and Atlas Copco - plus many, many more; BP had their headquarters, which housed a monster computer, at the Moor End end of the main high street and Kodak theirs on the adjacent "Magic Roundabout". The infamous Buncefield Oil Depot was just beyond the Leverstock Green boundary and, in Apsley, John Dickinsons had a huge paper mill, cooled by the waters of the Grand Union Canal. (How times have changed - I'm not sure if many of these businesses are still in existence?)
We had moved to Hemel, as a family, because my father had taken the post of headmaster at Hobb's Hill Junior School, my mum soon finding a job as a teacher at Rossgate JMI School; where she was later to become deputy headmistress. We originally lived at No. 27 Cole's Hill, Gadebridge - a council house where my youngest brother, Simon, was born. In those days teachers were not particularly well paid and I remember my dad working as a coal delivery man and on the Gade Valley watercress beds, during the summer holidays, in order to supplement the family income.
We moved from Gadebridge to a new house in Leverstock Green, No. 8 Burliegh Road - this was mum and dad's first purchase. If my memory serves me correctly the price was around £3,600 for a detached 3 bed roomed property with garage and large garden - it certainly wasn't any more! This was around 1964? It wasn't long, however, before we were on the move again; this time it was to be our family home for the next twenty years! No. 75 Warner's End Road - right opposite Cavendish Gramar School (at that time) was purchased for under £4,700. It was here that I had my first aviary, got my first airgun and caught my first proper fish, using this house as a base, my exploration of the surrounding countryside, and the natural history to be found there, began in earnest.
The Grand Union Canal, which connects London to Birmingham, was our playground; the stretch from Hunton Bridge (between Kings Langley and Watford) right up to Marsworth (The Tring Reservoirs) was our regular stomping grounds. Generally accompanied by fishing rod, catapult and/or airgun, my mates and I would find endless enjoyment along the tow-path. Kingfishers, Grey Wagtails and Water Voles abounded and occasionally we would stumble across other creatures - a Slow Worm, a Green Sandpiper or maybe a sunbathing Pike, lurking just below the suface of the murky water. In the fading light of summer evenings it was possible to walk the tow-path and collect Glow-worms and the water quality was such that there was a huge population of Crayfish - proper wild ones and fantastic bait for Chub, none of the America Signal Crays that now plague the fisheries of southern England.
Gadebridge Park (and The Old School) was just a few hundred yards away from our front door; a huge open space which, at the time before the building of the Kodak education centre, was a wild and wonderful playground. Tawny Owls were particularly common in this parkland environment and I remember there being numerous Spotted Flycatchers during the summer months. Grey Squirrels gave us something to shoot at as we wandered around - I would image a Police Armed Response Team being deployed if a kid was seen carrying an air rifle around there today? Treecreepers and Nuthatches were regular and I found my first Garden Warbler's nest in a neglected orchard right in the centre of the park. There were still working watercress beds along the valley, right in the middle of what is now the main recreation area and the clean waters of the River Gade provided home to massive shoals of Minnows and good numbers of wild Brown Trout (later to be replaced by Rainbows which moved downstream from the Upper Gade Flyfishers stretch above Water End.) I saw my first Essex Skipper here, in the summer of 1991 - as birding and other aspects of wildlife watching started to make inroads into my angling time.
Roughdown Common and Boxmoor Golf Course was another very productive area for discovery. The wooded area of Roughdown was a great place to ride our bikes and generally get up to mischief. We made rope swings, climbed trees and learnt how to make a proper fire. It must have been quite a special place as Willow Tits were very common, nesting in the rotting stumps of Elders - I know we found quite a few of their excavations as we explored the site. Edible Doormice were also present in the vicinity, although we didn't realise quite how fortunate we were to know their whereabouts. A still warm evening would see these charming little rodents scurrying around in the mature trees, like tiny squirrels - a privilege.
Ashridge Forest is a magical place of which I have particularly fond memories. The huge herds of Fallow Deer can be found in the depths of the woodland and the diminutive Muntjac is a very regularly seen species, by anyone who wanders away from the main footpaths. There is a population of melanistic Grey Squirrels along the Ringshall to Ivanhoe Beacon road, where Foxes and Badgers abound. In the 70's there was a small population of Lady Amherst's Pheasants in the pine plantation below Ivanhoe - many a time I would watch them heading back towards their roost site as I awaited the first Badger activity of a summer evening. Common Redstart, Pied Flycatcher (a pair took up territory by the Monument - a big event in the early 90's), Wood Warbler, Hawfinch, Tree Pipit, Crossbill and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker all seen, and learnt, whilst I spent time in this fantastic place. I saw my first Ring Ouzel at Step's Hill, just over the Buckinghamshire border and would occasionally be lucky enough to watch a Sparrowhawk or Common Buzzard soaring high overhead - how things have changed in 20 odd years! If I go back now I expect to see Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and Red Kite; plus I know that Raven and Goshawk isn't out of the question. Stoats and Weasels were regularly encountered as I explored the quieter areas and I learnt to find Common Lizzards, Slow Worms and Grass Snakes by turning over items of discarded sacking or wood. Quite often there would be a frog or toad, sometimes even a newt, the forest containing many small hollows complete with pool, where the deer would come to drink.
Startop's End, Marsworth and Wilstone Reserviors (The Tring Reservoirs) were an eleven mile bike ride away from our house, cycling directly along the canal tow-path. To me, these reservoirs have had the biggest impact on my appreciation of the natural wonders of the English countryside. I first plucked up courage to tackle the vastness of these fisheries in 1974 when, accompanied by Roy Johnson, we set about fishing for Roach in Startop's End. If we caught, we didn't get much, although I do recall there being 1,000's of tiny carp fry in the margins - the origins of the fish that are now present in that section of the GUC. (The reservoirs only existing to keep the canal topped up as it climbs over the Chilterns). At these mighty fisheries, over the years, I've caught some fantastic fish, met with so many like-minded people and enjoyed moments of discovery and delight which will stay with me forever. My first Osprey, Little Stint, Grey Phalarope, Slavonian Grebe, Long-tailed Duck and so the list goes on. I found a Storm Petrel one foggy October morning, as the Mitch's and I were pike fishing on Startop's - no mobile phones; so we were the only ones to see it! I was later to find the 10th Avocet for Herts when I discovered one swimming around, in the middle of Wilstone. Rob Young (the County Recorder) lived just up the road and I was able to contact his wife who set in motion the subsequent "twitch" for the county faithful.
When I go back there now, Hemel has lost its' spark - I hear people bemoaning the place, yet the geographical location hasn't changed, all these places, to which I refer, still exist although they will have changed somewhat over the years. I cannot help but think that there is still much scope for discovery for anyone with the desire to look beyond the obvious. I don't know if Tree Pipits still parachute display above the bracken clad slopes by Berkhamsted Golf Course or Tree Sparrows inhabit a small copse in the centre of an Ashridge field; the Alpine Meadow LNR is still there, I read about it occasionally on the Herts Bird Club website. On the odd occasions I've spent time at my brother's house at Bourne End (right on the GUC at Winkwell) I have still had some reasonable sightings, including a Night Heron! There are Firecrests wintering in the woodland around Little Hay GC whilst Kingfishers and Grey Wagtails are as plentiful as ever I remember. Bullfinches persist around the area of Berkhamsted SF and it is now possible to see Little Egret fishing in the cress beds of the area. Yes, I have a lot of things to be grateful about and living in Hemel Hempstead for that part of my life is certainly one of them!