When Hanna and I arrived at Vane Farm we joined a well established team that took care of the visitors and the environmental education, which was the main focus of the site. John Norton was the caretaker reserve warden who was there to hand over the keys to us.
John was very enthusiastic about the birds, the wildlife and the plants; he was also hyper-energetic and heavily into cycling. Within our first half hour he had us down on the lochside looking at the wildflowers there. What he didn't know was that the flowers he was showing us were especially significant to me.
Grass of Parnassus is one of the most beautiful bog plants you could ever wish to see. I knew it from Cumberland but my grandmother once found it is Swaledale where she lived and would often tell us about it. In fact, I think it was the last thing she spoke to me about before she died. The other rare flower John showed us was a tiny buttercup called creeping spearwort (Ranunculus reptans) which I had only ever seen once before, near Swansea in South Wales.
Seeing those flowers made us realise that there was a lot more to Vane Farm than a nice view and a few ducks.
I don't remember what we did at Christmas, but I'll never forget Hogmanay. We had heard so much about the Scottish New Year and we were looking forward to a legendary party, so we dropped a lot of broad hints such as "What are you doing at Hogmanay?" It was stupid question because what most people do is gather at home with the family, unless they hate their family, are far from home, or haven't been invited to anyone's party.
"So. What are you doing for Hogmanay?" apparently translates as "How would you like to spend Hogmanay with us?"
"Oh thanks, we didn't really have any plans, we'd love to come."
And so it was that we spent our first New Year in Scotland with a bunch of misfits who had a taste for whisky and nowhere else to go. One couple actually went through their entire marriage breakdown and divorce during the course of the party. We had some great music and single malts though.
We spent our first winter getting to know our neighbours and the neighbourhood which stretched from Edinburgh to Perth. We delighted in the masses of pink-footed geese we could see and hear every day and the constantly changing play of light on the loch and the surrounding hills was a novelty after living on the flat coastal plain in Sussex. We entertained a string of house guests from down south and became Scottish foodies, digging in to stews, broths, Scotch pies, lorne sausage meat, haggis and neeps, black pudding, Arbroath smokies, tatty scones, salmon and venison.
In the spring we prepared for the arrival of a new summer warden by cleaning up his bothy and we put on a massive full Scottish breakfast, comprising most of the above meaty products plus Scotch baps, vivid orange Scotch Cheddar cheese and Dundee marmalade. I drove to Waverley station to meet him off the London train but couldn't spot anyone who looked vaguely like they were coming to work on a nature reserve. I was expecting a barbour coat, backpack, walking boots and maybe a telescope. The platform soon cleared of people and there was just one young man left behind. He was wearing a battered tweed jacket and flat cap while pushing a bicycle that had a vintage cardboard suitcase tied to the crossbar. The overall (and intended) effect was of a lost evacuee from the second world war.
Matt May was from Essex and you could tell. It wasn't just his accent; there was also the bright red Mohican haircut that was hidden under his tweed cap. He was a really nice lad and keen as mustard. He was also starving and I knew he would love the feast we had waiting for him. Hanna piled the table high with food and offered him a starter of fish chowder made from smoked haddock with an Arbroath smokie on the side. The smokie made a bid for freedom, landing in Matt's coffee and that's when he told us that he was a vegetarian. He had a marmalade butty and we showed him his new home.
I can't remember how it all happened but we had a mass of house guests that year, so many that we had to park a caravan outside our kitchen to cope with the overflow. When you live only an hour out of Edinburgh, it's amazing how many people drop by during festival time. Hanna's sister Susy came over from Chicago and actually landed a job in the Fringe office on the Royal Mile. This meant we got a lot of tickets and went to a huge number of shows that year.
One night we had a massive party that included friends from Sussex plus Susy, Matt and his lovely red-headed girlfriend from Lochgelly, some volunteers and two Dutch girls who were staying in the caravan. After an evening of partying, people were sleeping all over the place, but all was calm until about three a.m. when Hanna and I woke to find two bulky men at the foot of our bed, their stubbly faces lit by a torch from below.
"Is the warden in here?"
"I I I ththththink so" said Hanna, "I'll look."
I was in the bed next to her but I wasn't making any more sense than she was.
"We are with the Perth Constabulary and I'm afraid you have had a break in."
At first I wondered if they thought that all the various bodies distributed about the premises had just raided the place and turned it into an illegal squat but they took me outside to see how someone had cut their way through the shop door and stolen the float and some of the sales goods. I sobered up pretty quickly.
The police often used our car park and toilets at night and they would make a quick security check at the same time, so they found out about the robbery before we did. They had banged on every one of the doors leading off the yard and got no sensible response from anybody. When they tapped on the window of the caravan they met two beautiful girls in nighties who spoke to them in Dutch but pointed at our front door, which was eventually opened for them by our artist friend Richard Kemp who was unable to stand up straight and had lost his voice. He just pointed up the corridor in our direction.
The next summer was a bit calmer and we had an information warden called Jo Thomas who was a young lass from York. She was our ace recruiter, homing in on any new visitors to make sure they didn't leave without joining the RSPB. By strange co-incidence she now lives ten minutes away from me and runs her own wildlife travel business.
Other summer wardens included Mike Pollard who went on the become a Reserves Manager based in Banbury and Norwich. He did a great job of making interactive displays for the visitor centre. Alan Coles was next and he did a couple more seasons on Scottish Lochs before moving back to Cambridgeshire. I see him quite often still.
Mel Kemp and Sally came as a pair, which was nice for us, but the accommodation wasn't great for two and they rented a place in Kinross. Our last assistant was Dave Fairlamb, a gangly Geordie with a pony tail who was, and still is, a larger than life character. He's now the curator at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust in Arundel, where we used to work before moving to Scotland. It's a small world isn't it?
One warden was mad enough to stay for two years. Gareth Morgan is now parliamentary officer at the the Lodge and still a good friend with a brain the size of a planet and heart to match.
So much happened during Gareth's stay that it's worth another chapter.