When Mr C and I first talked about moving to St Albans (over ten years ago now) we had a bit of a dream about buying a little house there and having a very different lifestyle. Back then we were living in a flat in north west London and it was anything but calm and peaceful there. We’d pictured a little two up two down terrace with a tiny back garden and I was already picturing being able to sit there and relax with a cold drink after a tough day at work.
We started going round all the estate agents and drawing up lists of places to view, but when we did we realised that the house of our dreams would stretch the budget a bit too much, and if we went for a modern flat instead we’d get so much more space for our money. And there wouldn’t be as many ongoing maintenance costs either. It was a sensible decision, but one that left us feeling a little bit flat (if you excuse the pun) as we wouldn’t be getting that outside space we’d dreamed of.
Once we had moved in to our sensible first floor modern flat we started exploring our new city on foot and discovering all the wonderful green spaces it had to offer. One day our walk took us along the Alban Way and we discovered the amazing oasis of calm that is the Watercress Wildlife Association. This community run local nature reserve is tucked away between the Alban Way and the River Ver and has to be one of St Albans best kept secrets, and whilst we lived in our flat it became a surrogate back garden to us.
Twenty years ago this site was a mix of old allotments and derelict garages, all on the site of some old watercress beds – hence the name. The council realised something had to change so they asked local people to put forward ideas. One group of determined and passionate local residents came up with the concept and plan of creating a local nature reserve and I’m delighted to say that they won.
The site now is a wonderful local nature reserve where you can spot everything from kingfishers to muntjac deer. The volunteer management committee (which Mr C and I are both now members of) has managed to preserve the site as a nature reserve rather than it becoming a park, and that difference is such an important one. The main focus of the site is the nature and that means that whilst visitors are very welcome they really do have to respect the peace and quiet of the reserve. Picnics are not allowed; there are no children running around screaming and visitor facilities are minimal. To me though this all adds to the charm and calm of the site. If I want to take the kids to run off some energy we go somewhere else, yet this is where I bring them to teach them about nature and to help them experience peace and quiet.
I find it amazing to think that all this is tucked away in a city. Depending on when you’re on the site you can sometimes hear the sound of the Abbey Flyer as it clatters along the single track railway nearby. Rather than being an intrusion though, the difference from the sound of high speed trains nearby just adds to the feeling that you’re in the middle of the countryside instead. If there’s an event on at the Abbey the peal of the bells drifts overs and provides a backdrop to the sound of water running in the Ver.
There’s so much packed into this site – the Mere, a butterfly garden, a boggy area, a pond, a small woodland area and even a newly acquired allotment area that’s in the middle of being returned to nature – and the volunteer workforce is kept very busy as a result. The reserve came about through a community’s passion and hard work and both of those continue today. With no dedicated car parking most visitors arrived foot or by bicycle and it is therefore mainly locals that you find there, but again that just adds to the community feel. During today’s visit with Master C we met a regular who was there with his camera trained on one of the main bird feeders that attract a variety of birdlife. Over on one of the benches were three work colleagues enjoying the lunchtime break from their office and soaking up the winter sunshine instead. How I wish I’d had somewhere like this to escape to during my working day.
With two small children we don’t now go down to the reserve as often as we’d like to, but I do try to go down on my own every now and again just to clear my head and remember the calm feeling that came over us both when we first discovered the site. Whenever I talk to local people about it I’m always pleasantly surprised at how many of them know of it and enjoy going down there and everyone talks about how it’s their special place to have complete peace and quiet and regain calmness after a busy day.
Disclaimer: This #BetterPlaces post is in support of the Syndol Find Your Better Place campaign with BritMums. Syndol is now formulated for headaches. Visit www.syndol.co.uk for online resources with information about headaches and how to restore calm in your life.