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John Parry's work for the Railway Land Wildlife Trust

PUBLISHED: 10:24 02 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:24 02 January 2014

John Parry

John Parry

Tony Tree

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Railway Land Wildlife Trust, a Lewes-based organisation that has turned 40 acres of former railway sidings into an educational nature

John Parry has been passionate about the environment since he was a child, and an experience he had when he was five years old, he says, coloured his life.

“We were living in North London and there was a little wood behind our house where I used to go and play. I was fascinated by a man shooting grey squirrels and one day I looked up at a squirrel and asked the man to shoot it. He did. I shall never forget it and even now it makes the hairs on my neck stand on end. The squirrel fell to the ground at my feet and died. I was shattered and completely mortified. I couldn’t believe the power I had unleashed on this innocent creature and the power I had over nature. I didn’t jump up and down saying ‘yippee’, I cried. It was my first moment of thinking: ‘We are so powerful but we can’t go on like this.’”

This year, he will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Railway Land Wildife Trust that he set up in Lewes, Sussex, to turn 40 acres of former railway sidings into an educational nature reserve for local schools and adults with learning disabilities.

His career route had been a chequered one. He worked for Coca Cola, taught English as a foreign language, wrote several books (Let’s See Secret London for tourists, and the National Trust’s first children’s book, Passport to Treasure. He wrote and presented six 20 minute programmes for Yorkshire Television.

But it was working in a Sussex school that was to change his life. “I was able to teach things I was really interested in, which was to make films about the environment with young people. We made six or seven fantastic ones. About a year ago I had an email from one of the team now working for a bank, saying I’d kept his flame of interest in the environment alive and signed the letter Sustainability Officer. That was a wonderful thing to happen.”

By this time, he said, he’d given up the idea of saving the world. “I thought ‘let’s do something really good in my own local patch’”. He discovered there was a piece of land under threat and felt he could play a role in protecting it. A property developer had put in an application that would have changed its use for ever and the case went to a public inquiry. Peter Linklater, a local lawyer, presented the evidence with the idea of creating an educational local nature reserve. He won the case and in 1988 the Lewes (Sussex) Railway Land Wildlife Trust was born.

Much work has gone into making it the place it is today: volunteers cleaned ditches, cleared paths and undergrowth, planted trees, set up bird boxes and sign posts, built board walks. There are water meadows, a woodland area and on summer Sunday afternoons volunteers chat to visitors about the wildlife there. In the summer months, too, water warblers nest in the Heart of Reeds, designed by sculptor Chris Drury and at certain times of the year you can hear the alarm call of the kingfisher, marsh frogs croaking in the ditches and see dragonflies hunting on the wing.

In 2000, Peter Mettyear, a local businessman, said to John Parry: “We’ve seen what you’ve done on this land without a building – think what you could do with a Study Centre. Here’s £100,000. Get going.” Which Parry would like to have done, but disastrous floods caused a ten year delay.

It wasn’t until 2006 that they could launch a campaign to start the building. It was to be a social, ecological, sustainability centre, called the Linklater Pavilion after Peter Linklater who had died in 1995 and had been so instrumental in saving the land. The original estimate was £300,000 but over the years it rose to £750,000. Hundreds of individuals, local groups and companies sprang into fundraising activities.

The building was officially opened in 2010. It had been built on stilts to allow for flooding from the nearby River Ouse, with solar panels, a green roof, ground source heat pump, photovoltaic cells and its own water supply, a rare mix of green technologies. It has become the community hub about which John Parry had dreamed, used for environmental education, conserving and researching the land, helping local young people connect with their environment. East Sussex County Council funds adults with learning disabilities, local schools use it. There are talks on rural subjects, adult education courses, art exhibitions, poetry and music evenings, training days for science, geography and maths teachers. Both the Pavilion and wildlife reserve have won many awards.

John Parry concludes: “What we’ve done is take a bit of land, and given it great meaning. My dream would be for other communities in the country to do the same. The plans for the building would be free and the building could fit any piece of land, any community, I’d like to think future generations would say this was a moment when Lewesians made a bold statement about the value of open space, biodiversity, art and science at a time of great change.”

For more information see; www.railwaylandproject.org

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