Guest blog by Minsmere volunteer, Pete Etheridge

I first came to volunteer at Minsmere in April 1983. This was to change my life for ever. Working in beautiful places, experiencing nature close to, and making lifelong friends.

Jeremy Sorensen was Warden at that time, and lived in the bungalow, having taken over from Bert Axell, the previous warden.  Jeremy was full of life, very energetic and always happy and smiling.                


The Bungalow as it was in Bert’s day

Where the Work Centre is now there was a massive old barn known as The Grain Store. Along one wall was a wooden work bench with all our tools. It also housed the tractor, an old blue Fordson, which belched out thick black smoke as it came chugging up the hill.  With only one small tractor we had to take all our tools out to jobs on the reserve in a heavy old metal wheelbarrow - a long slog to Island Mere or Tree Hide (now Bittern Hide) and another long walk back if we forgot any tools,  which of course we often did!

The Old Grainstore

Both these hides have since been rebuilt. Island Mere had simple ‘let down’ wooden flaps and bench seats, and a wet, muddy, slippery and sometimes flooded path up to the entrance.  Tree hide was also an old fashioned 'homemade' hide, about 20 metres high. It only held around half a dozen people, and access was by climbing a rickety old ladder - not for the faint hearted!

the old Tree Hide

A few years before he retired Jeremy designed Canopy Hide. Tall enough to be at eye level with birds high in the trees, Canopy Hide is situated in the woods opposite Whin Hill Watch Point. From this hide, until a few years ago, it was possible to watch redstarts flying to and from their tree hole nest to feed their young. Lesser-spotted woodpeckers were regular visitors too, but hey haven't been seen at Minsmere for more than 20 years now.

Those who have climbed the three flights of stairs that lead up to the viewing hide will know how high it is. Once Jeremy had me hanging upside down out of a window, holding my legs whilst I worked on the edge of the roof!

Building Canopy Hide

The Summer Contract Warden and any resident volunteers stayed in wooden huts situated where the Visitor Centre is now. Any girls – few and far between in those days – had to sleep in a broken down old pink caravan. In front of the caravan was another small shed, the kitchen hut, for cooking and eating meals. Washing facilities were equally primitive in those days – and all ablutions were carried out under a single tap delivering cold water beneath a metal water tank. Washing and cleaning your teeth out in the open air first thing in the morning was refreshing, but if you needed a bath after getting muddy on The Scrape you had to brave the cold North Sea!

Volunteer huts, caravan

 The reserve was open to visitors just four days a week. On the other three we had the reserve all to ourselves!  We still worked hard of course, but we played hard too!  We played cricket, although some craved a more adrenaline filled pastime.  A homemade go-cart was very popular with the younger vols, careering down the hill and invariably tumbling off with scraped elbows at the bottom was considered great fun. We played music - Radio Caroline was the background to all our time around camp. Friday afternoon was our only time off. Monday was shopping day. Very few volunteers had their own car in those days so every Monday morning Jeremy took us shopping to the local supermarket in town.  

One of our least favourite tasks on closed days was 'Hogging'!  The entrance roads into the reserve  from Westleton and Eastbridge were bumpy stony gravel tracks and to keep these in ‘roadworthy condition’ we took the tractor and trailer down a track at the bottom of Clay Lane to old gravel workings known as 'The Hoggin Pit'. I often sat on the back of the trailer, and on our way down to the pit one day we hit a bump in the road, I lost my balance, fell off, and did a complete back flip and ended up sitting in the road much to the astonishment of the others. There was a shocked silence at first, then laughter as I climbed back on uninjured!  Once down at the pit we would shovel gravel as fast as we could before the hordes of clegs, deer and horse flies found us and gleefully feasted on our blood! Then, with a full trailer, two of us would spread the gravel over the road as the tractor drove back slowly and carefully!

In the early spring of 1986 I went to work on the moors of the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire as a Species Protection Officer for five years.  This was a summer contract, March to August, protecting breeding hen harriers and other vulnerable birds of prey until the grouse shooting started on the ‘Glorious 12th'!  Then, each August, I piled my worldly goods, mainly books, into the back of my old Fiat and came back to Minsmere to live and work for the winter.  By this time a new chalet had been built for residential volunteers. This unaccustomed comfort consisted of a contract Warden’s room next to a shower cubicle at one end, three small, two bunk rooms in the middle, with a living room and small kitchenette at the other end. Luxury! Cooking a meal, meant first selecting your plate and utensils from a large pile of unwashed dishes in the sink!

Just outside the chalet stood a large old sofa somebody had given us, and during the winter months we used to crowd onto it in front of a roaring log bonfire with ice cold backs and toasty warm fronts, drinking home brewed beer. Lovingly made and stirred daily with an old broom handle, it seldom got the chance to mature before it was greedily consumed, leading to this noxious brew being given the dubious name ‘Death!'

Bonfires were an enjoyable part of woodland management during the winter too. Roasting potatoes in the hot ash and toasting our sandwiches over the fire on a stick led to roars of laughter when somebody’s lunch - not yours - inevitably fell off!

Another winter job was preparing some of the islands on The Scrape specifically for terns. These birds prefer gravel with no vegetation for nesting. To prevent weeds growing, we first covered the islands with plastic sacks. Then filling up more sacks with gravel from the hogging pit we waded out to each island, spreading a thick layer of gravel over the plastic layer. Not too hard at first, but heavy feet soon made the going very sticky in the thick black mud and, in spite of the cold, warm clothes were soon discarded.

There was plenty of room in the The Grainstore barn and I spent a lot of time one winter helping Frank Rose, a local long-term volunteer, constructing an information hut large enough for two or three people. Known as The Beach Hut, this was erected on the dunes near The Sluice or East Hide and used for recruiting members during the summer.


Beach Hut

During the late eighties I and a few other long-term volunteers received chainsaw, tractor and brushcutter training, and the increasing use of machines made management work easier, quicker and more efficient.  Our old - very old - trusty Fordson was retired and has been replaced with several modern tractors and other machinery, and these days most large jobs like fencing and hide building are undertaken by contractors. There are several offices in the new work centre and many more staff, each with their own workstation and computer.  These days the reserve is much more efficiently run as well as more visitor-orientated, but I can’t help hankering after the old days just a little bit, life seemed so much simpler then.

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  • I can remember my one and only visit to Minsmere in the early.1970’s. You had to apply for a permit by the latest of 6 months ahead. You are of course right about Minsmere only being open 4 days a week. Those 4 days where Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday 11.00am-5.00pm and only from April-September and not open at all during the Aitumn/Winter period. Everyone had to pay to visit Minsmere including RSPB members which was similar to large numbers of RSPB reserves whether needing a permit or no permit including again just limited opening days and hours. No visitor centre at any RSPBreserves and no toilets, cafe’s or shops at any RSPB reserves. When I received my permit for the whole day, you had to queue up to have your permit stamped by the warden. You could either apply for either a whole day permit or a half day permit. When my all day permit was stamped by the warden in what was like a hut the warden wrote on my permit all routes. Which seems that anyone that had a half day permit where not allowed in certain paths. In some of the hides there where volunteer wardens that asked to see your permit and to make sure that your permit was valid on the day, date and year of your visit. Very strict in those early days. Ian Bartlett knows that I’ve started a thread about this a few years ago on the same subject. I can also remember the small Heronry at Minsmere which has nests in the reed-beds which was and still is extremely rare for Herons. I’ve also bought the book from the RSPB when the book Minsmere Portrait of a Bird was published. I ordered In advance of the publication from the RSPB of which had the signatures of Bert Axel and Eric Hoskins.