I was moved by a memorial service for one of Sudbury’s finest last weekend. The celebration of Andrew Phillips’ life at St Peter & St Paul’s Church in Lavenham was a poignant but ultimately uplifting occasion, where we heard several well-worded tributes to the former Lord of Sudbury.
What came across was a man with down-to-earth principles who believed in action on a local level and gave his time and energy to organise campaigns for causes he believed in, such as access to legal services for all and the preservation of the architectural character of Sudbury. He was also a passionate lover of the Suffolk countryside and maybe less publicly, supported conservation organisations.
I was lucky enough one time to go on a long walk with him around a private woodland that he looked after near Arger Fen. He told me wherever he travelled, he collected an acorn and brought back to Sudbury to plant in the wood. He also confided that the woodland had literally ‘saved his life’ and that, often, after a frantic week of working as a city lawyer and sitting in on long sessions at the House of Lords, he would return to Suffolk exhausted and sleep in the woods to restore his mental health.
I was thinking about the healing properties of nature a few weeks back after a solo walk through the meadows. It was a wet and windy day and I let myself get soaked before taking shelter under some trees. I took time to look and to think: small observations on nature, snippets of poetry, colours, sounds and smells came to the forefront.
As the rain subsided, I made my way across Little Freeman’s Common, and past the magnificent hollyhocks lining Noah’s Ark Lane. But no sooner had my feet touched the pavement of Cross Street than the spell was gone. Lorries and cars chuntered by, it was noisy and dirty and a world away from the Eden I had just left.
It made me think that in some ways we can only appreciate the gift that nature provides when we come up against the complete opposite of it. The loud, fast, rush, rush of the modern world. I instinctively turned back to the Common Lands, and the fact that I could, I took for granted. But what if tomorrow, or sometime soon, there are no natural places to find solace and our primal search for the peace of nature becomes fruitless.
When I first started writing about wildlife years ago, I found it strange that all nature groups spent most of their time carrying out surveys: the Big Butterfly Count, the Big Garden Birdwatch, you name it. But I soon realised that this obsession with numbers was a symptom of the natural world dwindling on all fronts. These groups were charting, digit by digit, Mother Nature’s decline.
So many people value nature, but everywhere I look we are not looking after it.
Here are a few examples:
A few people have told me they have been sick after capsizing their rowing boat or swimming in our local River Stour because of sewage pollution.
The Trustees of the Sudbury Common Lands must remain vigilant against inappropriate development on our boundaries or encroachment on our protected lands.
People close to the Council tell me they must field complaints from people disgusted by their progressive policy of letting verges and roundabouts grow to encourage wildflowers, complaining that the town looks scruffy.
I say we should take a leaf from Andrew Phillips’ book and rather than watching on benignly, get behind initiatives that will make a difference, that look to protect and nurture our natural world and encourage more of this good work.
I’m talking about the River Stour Trust and Sudbury Town Council looking to gain Designated Bathing Water Status for our stretch of the River Stour, which will then require the Environment Agency to monitor water quality more closely. Contact your local MP, demand action on this scandalous situation.
Remind yourself of the valuable work of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity and its commitment to managing what are increasingly precious green spaces for nature as well as people. Why not volunteer a few hours with us.
Speak up for the Council for being brave enough to let our verges grow and even let a bit of your garden go wild. Around the country I’ve seen with my own eyes local authorities from Brighton to Rotherham taking a similar stance and it should be applauded.
Being an environmentalist can be a depressing occupation in the twenty-first century but on a local level these small ventures taken together can make a difference. Let’s do more of it.
Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity