Saturday, 8 July 2017

Vane Farm, Interview.

Luxury in the Soft South. at Arundel.
I think it was 1984. Hanna and I both worked at the Wildfowl Trust's centre on the English south coast at Arundel. We were recently married and immensely happy there but we were hungry for another adventure.

I think the invitation to apply for the post of Warden at the RSPB's reserve on Loch Leven came from David Elcombe (the Head of Education) because we had been working closely with his education officers in Shoreham; first with Peter Martin (who went on to greater things with the WWF) and then Ken Smith who, much later, worked again with me in RSPB's international department where he covered our West African partners while I mirrored his work in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Anyway, I was very flattered, and I had a love affair with Scotland because my Dad was from Duddingston, in Edinburgh. It would be like going home, or so I thought.

We broke the 500 mile journey by stopping off at Richmond in Yorkshire; a place I knew well because it was close to my mother's home in Swaledale, but it turned out to also be the home town of the resident warden at Vane Farm, Graham Burton.

By another happy coincidence, the pub we were staying in hosted the local folk club, and this was club night.  We had a wonderful evening of sharing songs that we wrongly thought no-one else knew and went to bed very late and rather drunk due to generous portions of Old Peculiar.

It took us a whole day to travel from Richmond to Kinross because we were totally fed up with the Great North Road. Our old Citroen crawled up through Arkengarthdale and over the tops to the Tees at Barnard Castle, then up many very minor roads until we hit Offa's Dyke.  The summertime heather moors were filled with grrranking grouse and trilling curlews as we headed further into the border country. Red grouse chicks tottered across the road in front of us while their concerned parents cried out to us to stop.
Grouse with chicks.

The whole day was a delight of discovery,  only marred when we arrived at a dark and rainy Kinross to find that the B+B we had booked (garden full of gnomes) decided they didn't like the look of us, thank you very much!

The young lassies on duty at the Green Hotel welcomed us in an efficient but impersonal, tartanley corporate sort of way, but we were exhausted and didn't care. Years later we would be curling on their indoor ice-rink.

Due to our less than cool welcome and the fact that the place was socked in with grey cloud, we went to the interview with the opinion that we didn't need this job and (disappointingly) didn't particularly want it either.

My first impression of RSPB Vane Farm wasn't great; a bleak stone fortress overlooking the south shore of a grey lowland loch. Later I would learn that the locals called it "Fort Knox." Then came the rather enjoyable interview process whereby the candidates were herded together through a series of "sniff-tests" so that both the local staff and the high-heed-yans from Edinburgh could decide who they liked and who they didn't. I say "enjoyable" because I was along for the ride and had already decided that I didn't really want the job.
Fort Knox.

All of the candidates were out to impress the panel and so we didn't really form any bond with each other. I later realised that there were some candidates who already worked for RSPB in Scotland and would become colleagues of mine. One nervous candidate pointedly asked Graham if they still had the midge Chironomus plumosus in the loch. Graham replied "I never really needed to ask". That's because he was a cricketer and not an angler. The big hairy midge comes off the loch in millions and is known to anglers as the "Blea and Black." Of course I didn't know that at the time either, but I thought that perhaps I should. Maybe I hadn't done enough homework?

Graham the warden, David Elcome and John Hunt interviewed me. There were some hard questions and I put my foot in it a couple of times. I slagged off the rather grim architecture of lowland Scotland to John Hunt, an ex submariner who was head of reserves. He told me I would grow fond of it, which I did. I grew fond of him too, but he was always a bit distant, as officers tend to be.

Of course you know how it turned out, but I had no idea.

Graham offered us a bed for the night in the warden's bungalow which was attached to the farm buildings. We had no plans and so we accepted. Rather cleverly, Gramam sent us out for the evening to explore the best bits of the neighbourhood, recommending a restaurant in the ancient town of St Andrews. You may know it as the birthplace of golf, but there is much more to it than that. There's a cathedral, university and many ancient and amazingly intact buildings. The town stands on a rocky promontory that projects into the North Sea, on the south side of the Eden Estuary where the birdwatching is outstanding.

The East Neuk of Fife was new to us. What is a Neuk anyway? It sounds Dutch. By coincidence, Hanna speaks Dutch because her Dad is from the Netherlands. She later explained to me what a Neuk is in Dutch. Neukje is the origin of the word Nookie in English so work it out for yourself!

We arrived in St. Andrews after the shops closed and before the restaurant opened, so took a stroll and found a narrow medieval lane with a few specialist shops, including a second-hand bookshop that had some bird books in the window. My eye was caught by a thick anthology of  classic ornithological texts, edited by the great American bird man, Roger Tory Peterson. I had to have it, but the shop was closed and no-one answered when I rang the bell. We put a note through the door saying we were interested but explaining that we were on our way back to Sussex. The book arrived with us at Arundel a few days later. I still treasure it.
The view from the Vane.

Being 500 miles or more further north than Arundel, the summer evenings are long and at nine pm the sun shone brighter than it had all day. We had a lovely drive back to Loch Leven along the Fife coast, popping in at little fishing villages and sandy bays. This coast was ten times more attractive than Littlehampton beach.

It was still light when we got back to the reserve where Graham met us with the news that the job was mine if I wanted it. I said we still were not sure, but we would sleep on it. As he was talking I looked over his shoulder and was amazed to see a small but steep mountain rising behind the house (it's known as the Sleeping Giant.) Now that the clouds had lifted I could see that there was some serious scenery to be had and we decided to take a closer look by climbing the trail to the top. It was a revelation. Looking north across the loch and the surrounding hills we could see the tops of proper mountains up around Loch Tay and beyond. It was a view that we fell in love with straight away.

Deal done then. What the heck! We would take the job.

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