Sunday, 26 September 2010

School Bus

I have always been fascinated by all things American. I even married the first American who would have me. One regret is that I never got to travel to school in a big yellow bus and do all the crazy things that cool American kids do in the movies.

On Thursday I finally had a dream come true and rode in a yellow school bus. It was small and British, but it was yellow. My fellow passengers comprised mostly of Countryside Rangers and other staff from Hinchingbrooke Country Park, so I felt too inhibited to moon out of the back
window, or exchange my gum with the girl in the next seat, using only our tongues. I settled for singing out loud to my iPod until all the seats near me were empty.

This was a double treat for me, because the yellow school bus was going to Lakenheath, which is really part of the USA despite the fact that the signs say RAF Lakenheath. If you turned up in an RAF uniform, the next thing you would remember would be waking up in Guantanamo Bay wearing an orange jump suit. I was looking forward to a stack of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, white Land-o-Lakes Wisconsin butter (whipped up), hash browns and Canadian bacon on the side; followed by a quick swipe of my credit card at the PX store.

I'm guessing that the RAF sign is to remind the USAF that they can't actually keep the place if we ever fall out with them. The same applies to Ascension Island and Diego Garcia, I suppose, but probably not Virginia. Anyway, my hopes were dashed when I found out that we were going to RSPB Lakenheath (a bird reserve) instead.

Just beyond the air-base there is a strange, little border town called Brandon; like West Yellowstone but with less taxidermists; famous for its traffic jams in summer, and also for its Country Park where we stopped for our picnic lunch, in the rain.

The purpose of our visit was to compare notes on how to manage a country park during a recession. Brandon is on the extreme edge of Suffolk; a long way from the HQ in Ipswich. Suffolk County Council has just made the national news by declaring its intention to privatise nearly all of its operations in order to save 30% of its costs. You might expect the result to be a saving of something like 90% but they will still have to subsidize many, if not all of the companies or trusts that they hand over to. For example, Brandon Country Park is likely to become a Trust, with the Town Council taking a large share of the responsibility, but with core funding still coming from the County.

We asked some tough questions about profitability and were told some very interesting facts. My summary is that you can't actually make money from a country park, but you can offset some of your costs. The Visitor Centre has over 140,000 visitors a year who come to the shop and the cafe. They spend only about £1 a head (the same as at Paxton Pits) despite the facility to use credit cards. When they introduced car park charges, their takings went down. However, no two sites are the same. Our Hinchingbrooke staff will be returning to talk about cafe management. Meanwhile, I thoroughly recommend an autumn visit to see birds such as firecrests and a wealth of forest fungi.

If you want to see some really rare birds, then the RSPB reserve at Lakenheath is the place to go; but in May, not September! Cranes breed there, but at the moment they are enjoying a break at Wicken Fen. It is also the premier site for golden orioles but they are long gone at this time of year. Well over 100 pairs of bearded tits breed there but disperse in autumn, so we didn't see very much at all, except a few late hobbies chasing the last dragonflies and a very distant marsh harrier.

The RSPB site manager is Norman Sills who moved over from Titchwell to design and manage the project. He gave an interesting talk about the hydrology and design of the site and some useful tips for reed-bed creation at Paxton. He is not keen on hides, saying that we live in stone boxes, travel in metal ones, so why go to the countryside to sit in a wooden one on a day off? He has used a bus shelter design to provide cover from the elements and somewhere to put interpretation. (see picture.) This design could work well at Diddington perhaps?

Talking of bus shelters; there's my bus now.