COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
THE parish continues to be plagued by boils, excrescences and what might just as well be locusts. Almost all the hedges have been flailed to ribbons just as they were coming into leaf. The council has deposited one of its rejected "gates", an iron monstrosity that looks like a prop from Wag-ner's Ring, among the shrubs on a new roundabout. And I have begun retreating to a spot that doesn't sound as if it could offer anything more uplifting.

College Lake began life as a chalk quarry at the foot of the Pitstone hill, long before the days of planning regulations. When the owners, Castle Cement, left the site, you might have expected one of several dismal fates - landscaping back to more embarrassingly surplus arable land, toxic landfill, a business park maybe. What it has turned into instead, thanks to a one- time lorry driver, is the most spectacular nature reserve in the district. About 10 years ago, Graham Atkins persuaded his employers to let him create a small marshy reserve in one corner of the naturally flooded quarry. The project snowballed, and there are now hundreds of acres of open water, marsh and grassland. The place has been teased piecemeal into being, not bullied out according to a blueprint. Its arable weed patch is typical. Graham found the cache of topsoil that had been removed and stored before quarrying began in the Thirties. When he spread it out in the sun, long- dormant seeds of rare cornfield annuals - cornflower, corncockle, pheasant's- eye - exploded in a riot of colour. Most of the bare chalk has been left open for natural colonisation, but Graham did ferry a slab of grassland from another site about to be quarried. The transplantation had to be done at the height of the flowering season, and the blossom-laden trucks were followed by trails of butterflies.

So I have been drifting up to this oasis, and watching the spring unfold in ways that aren't too apparent down in the embattled parish lowlands. The vista from the hides above the quarry is extraordinary. It's a landscape chimera, a hybrid, a fen set in the middle of a range of raw chalk. From my crow's nest perch I've watched kingfishers, snipe and redshank, waders whose skirling song-flights transport me to East Anglia. I've seen, for the first time, a great crested grebe turning over its eggs, its dark, striped eyes seeming even more pharaonic in this act of maternal care. Soon there will be terns wafting in from Africa, maybe to nest on rafts on the open water.

The hill-fen's story isn't finished. The company has closed another site nearby, and feeling, perhaps, that it has done its bit for conservation, wants to exploit it as a landfill site. But the planning application has been turned down and now goes to appeal. A few months ago, more than a thousand villagers joined hands into a huge NO on the downland above, from which they could see what the abandoned hole had already become: a vast, jewelled lagoon, with shallow turqoise water lapping over the bare chalk. 8

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