Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Just "Cobham"

David Cobham had been a volunteer at the Reserve for several years before I arrived. He died recently, quite suddenly, which was a shock to us all. 

Among our mid-week, outdoor volunteers, David was known simply as “Cobham”. This wasn’t just a sign of respect or old-school, laddish camaraderie; we simply had too many Daves. Apart from "Fireman Dave" and “WingCo” Butterworth, there was also "Shop Steward" Dave and a couple more. To keep matters simple, almost everyone else was called Mike. Regardless of the lack of variety in forenames, the team was, and still remains, full of characters. It could be quite intimidating for anyone coming along for the first time to get caught up in the lunchtime banter and get a glimpse of some amazing, often heroic past lives, and each of the volunteers seemed to have had several of those.

There was a lot of jockeying for the various niches on the team. To be "Oldest Volunteer" was easy; you just kept running up behind the incumbent and going ”boo” until it was your turn. "Team Leader" was not a vacant post, at least to me it wasn’t. The Rangers were supposed to be in charge but, as you know, we are all young-uns; wet behind the ears. Every time we started a task there would be a “discussion” among the old lags about how it should be done. Cobham was always at the heart of this; in fact, his favourite phrase was “Now Lad, this is what you must do…….”.(it has to be said with a Preston accent for full effect). One of the worst occasions was when we went to broadcast seed by hand in the arable fields. After a quick rehearsal to keep everyone in line and equidistant, we set off. A few minutes later there were volunteers all over the field, zig-zagging and throwing grain at each other. Some were even facing the wrong way. If it wasn’t so muddy I would have been rolling on the ground with tears streaming down my face, and not just from laughing. As always everyone was in charge and the rangers just had to lump it. Often they were right, of course, and I’ll come back to that.

Another popular niche has always been "Team Raconteur". Over lukewarm tea and digestive biscuits, I have sometimes tried taking on that role myself. I like a good story and I never let the truth stand in the way, but I was always out-classed. Many of their tales were about the war, National Service, old-time agriculture, old aeroplanes, funny things that foreigners do and their own lives before being promoted to the pinnacle of anyone's career, as a midweek volunteer at Paxton Pits. But Cobham mostly talked about the Reserve. He was an ideas man and, once he had one, there was no shaking it off. I’ll give you a few examples.

"Now, here’s what you must do, Lad”…..This might be planting more trees. I would say, “We have loads of trees already and we don’t have a proper nursery.” He would say “Don’t worry Lad, I’ve grown them for you”. That explains the odd horse-chestnut poking up from our hedge, but also some thriving oaks that are dotted about.

"Now Lad. Here’s what we need to do” …”Oh No."…”Old fashioned hedge laying.”  “But”, said Ron Elloway, my predecessor, “We don’t know how to do it properly and we don’t have the tools”.  David teamed up with his old friend Paul Davies and they went off on a “Midland-style” hedge-laying course and returned with a list of tools for Ron to buy. Look at the miles of hedge we have now as a result of that bright idea.

As the year’s surely passed, you might have expected the old team to have quit, but mostly they haven’t. They have just got a bit more picky about what they will tackle with hand tools. Cobham was a bit of a ringleader in this sort of thing, partly because he was getting a bit stiff and also because he just loved machines and technological innovation (by which I mean "new toys for the boys"). We have had various bits of kit come along for drilling holes, flattening lumps and so on, but the biggest was Cobham’s Combine Harvester.

It was the same old story. There we were, happily harvesting our wheat or barley with a cutting bar and a binding machine attached to a vintage tractor. The manual work then started as we stacked the sheaves together into small stooks to dry, and then into bigger ones to store the grain while still on the ear. Sometimes we would winnow some sheaves by hand to get some grain for feed, or for planting, but mostly the stooks just rotted away at the side of the field while pheasants scratched away at them to get at the seeds inside. Foxes did the same to get at the mice. By February, each stack looked like someone had blown it apart with a grenade. So some fool mentioned that maybe we could get a neighbour to come in and gather the harvest for us with modern machinery. I said, “The fields aren’t big enough for those things.” Cobham said, “How much does a combine cost then? I bet we could get a little one, second hand”.

Cobham's Combine
This time there was nothing we could do. We had let him drive a tractor to plough a field (once anyway) but that was’t enough. He really fancied this "combining lark” and he had the support of one of the Daves; Davy Jones the sailor, mechanic and former farm hand. They simp[y went off to a farm-sale and came back wth the bloody thing, which they had picked up for scrap value at £500. We had nowhere to store it, it was a health and safety nightmare, and we only needed it for a few days a year. The thing was, it worked! We used it for several years to gather grain which we stored in old wheelie bins around the farm for feeding the birds in mid-winter. That first year of the combine nightmare, David Butterworth found someone near Godmanchester to store it. Now that combine worked well on the flat fields at Little Paxton, but you wouldn’t want to drive it up the A1, unless, like many farmers, you hated motorists or tourists and simply wanted revenge on them. We chose to go via the Roman Road. Ermine Street provides a pretty direct route through Great Paxton and the Offords but it’s a bit more upy-downy compared to the Great North Road and Cobham’s combine had no brakes. What to do? It’s easy really. You put a tractor in front so that, if the combine doesn’t stop, it just hits you in the bum and not some poor mum with a pram on a zebra crossing. But what if it rolls backwards down a hill? Why then, you put your only remaining vehicle behind. It may be a tiny Italian pick-up but it would stop the combine, in the same way as a tomato would stop a steam roller.

That combine was small-fry compared to Cobham’s BIG PROJECT though. The old wooden Hayden Hide was a prized feature on the Reserve and we all loved it, but someone eventually burned it down. David looked at the small pile of grey, smoking ash and thought about the story of the "Three Little Pigs." "We could have a straw hide, a wooden hide or, how about a brick one?" He did some research and came back to us. “What we must do is build a metal hide, Lad.”  The rest is history really. David got his own way in the end, but there were counter arguments about how it would look; maybe it would be too noisy, too hot in summer or too cold in winter. It was Cobham’s project to find manufacturers, get drawings and quotes and then, one day, it just arrived in the back of a lorry.

When you have someone like David on the team, you really have to give him jobs to do or promote him to Management. At least then you know what he is up to. We did both.

As David withdrew from the heavy work of mid-week volunteering, he carried on with our nest box surveys and then decided to invest in even more kit. He bought a routing machine for making wooden signs. The lovely black-and-white signs you see around the site are all his work. The Parish Council was so impressed with David’s signs that they commissioned some too. He also took on the job of keeping the shop stocked with bird food.

Having finished the Hayden Hide project, David sat on the Friends' "Conservation and Volunteers Committee" in order to plan future projects, one of which was the new hide on the Haul Road that has just been completed this month. He spent many happy days banging in nails to create the deck area in the early stages of that project.

If he wanted to leave a legacy of good works behind him, then I would say that David did that in spades, but it is his personality and his friendship that I won’t forget. David represents the kind of committed volunteering that I admire so much but is so hard to find.

Theres a lot more to the story. David had a life before he came to Little Paxton, but that’s not for me to tell.