I’ve lived in Piddlehinton for about ten years, together with my wife, Ros, and daughter, Fleur. Ros and I were originally attracted to our house because of the garden. It’s reasonably big, so we can keep chickens, grow vegetables and have a workshop in it.
Ros is a nurse – originally working in Bournemouth hospital. She’s now a nurse practitioner, specialising in frailty. I think in terms of having to wear PPE all the year, that’s been hard, but I feel like we dodged a bullet a bit down here where Covid’s concerned. It’s a bit of a worry coz my folk are up in Essex and they’re in their seventies. Getting them used to online shopping and trying to get them slots in the first lockdown was hard. I don’t think they really got it to start with – it was difficult to convince them that popping to the garden centre wasn’t a necessity. And we’ve only seen them once since March – which has been taught, particularly as they were about to come and visit. But this time round they’re better set up. They know their local shops. The butcher drops their order round to them and that sort of thing.
I work for the Environment Agency, where I’ve been for just over twenty years. The Agency is what’s called a quango, a semi-public administrative body funded by the Government; meaning that around 10,000 of us who work there are civil servants. Before Covid I was doing two days at home, two in Blandford and one in Exeter. And I’ve found it quite hard, that pattern being disrupted.
I hadn’t realised that I liked the travelling, seeing a variety of people as much as I did. We’ve got a spare room which I use as an office, so it’s all been perfectly comfortable. But I was used to meetings, workshops and site visits – being out and about. To start with I took one day off a week – just to break it up, although I soon ran out of leave. It’s hard, staring at a screen for seven or eight hours, over days and days.
I have a science background and my specialism is water resources. When I started in 1998 I was out measuring water flow, rain fall, ground water etc, meaning that I got to know most of the rivers in Dorset. Now I deal with people who want to take water out of the river and use it. On a local level, say you want to set up a water bottling plant in your garden, you’ll need a licence to say how much you can have and when you can have it. I actually deal with hydro power plants where people put turbines into rivers to generate renewable electricity. We’ve done schemes all around the country: The Lake District, Yorkshire. I was supposed to go to Dartmoor at the end of this month. But I probably won’t now.
I ask him if he’s particularly worried about the environment.
Looking at the issue of water, we’re seeing more and more extremes: the very wet winters and very dry summers. We’ve got thousands of data points feeding into a database of river flow and ground water, and through this we can prove that before it was more spread out.
I know that Piddlehinton has suffered from river and groundwater flooding, along with problems of surface water runoff. And the return periods of these events are getting shorter. Something that once happened every 100 years is now happening every ten. We’re getting these big peaking events, where once they would have been spread out over months.
But through Environment Agency partnerships with councils, angling clubs and Natural England, we’re restoring sections of river, habitats or managed retreats. They’ve re-introduced beavers into Devon, and a friend of mine’s been out on site and found the little gnawed tree stumps where they’ve been felling saplings.
On a national level, I think our incident response is brilliant. I see this from all the emails that go around. We’ve got an incident room in Exeter, and all the contingency and planning that’s constantly going on is incredible. But this only gets seen for that week of the year when we’ve got the guys out, helping people.
A lot of work has been done in this valley. There’s the flood defence scheme at the school and there’ll be an inspection rota for that when the river is down – checking any gates or sluices, making sure it’s all intact. We’ve also worked with the farmers in the valley. You can see how on the road, when it rains, the silt runs down and ends up in the river. But if we change field boundaries, or put in gullies, then the water will run off in a more controlled way.
It’s all about holding it back; slowing everything down. So there are also partnership projects taking place. For instance, planting trees and rewilding sections of the river. The new idea is to slow the flow as it comes through the catchment. So instead of having a big peak of water you have a slower one that’s far more manageable.
I ask, if it’s about slowing down, is our annual river clearance in fact a good thing?
For that little section I’d much rather the kids can get in the river. Look under stones, get their nets in to see what they can find. We have trout and eels up and down it. Brown trout. Stone loach. That’s why the otters are there – when they’re not taking fish out of people’s ponds.
If you just left it, the river would overgrow and you wouldn’t be able to access it. So ideally you would leave it – but I’d much rather people benefit from getting in, getting wet and muddy, rather than having it truly wild and inaccessible.
I ask if he thinks we’re doing enough regarding the environment generally?
I’d like to think we can do more, but I think we’re still tinkering around the edges. It needs the big players to take a lead. Everyone else gets dragged along in their wake. But it is really difficult.
Does he worry about the climate crisis?
I suppose I should say yes. But… on a day to day level, then no, because I see loads of good stuff happening, through the projects the Agency works on and through other organisations like Natural England and the Wildlife Trust. There’s thousands upon thousands of people, all working towards making this a better place to live.
I think people struggle with climate crisis because it’s just massive. It’s really difficult to see how you can do something when you’re talking about ‘the planet’. I think it’s just too difficult for most people to comprehend.
For those who are fearful about climate crisis, what should they do?
Maybe I’m not particularly coming across as worried, because I see all the good stuff. In terms of sea levels rising, the possibility of countries going under water, I can’t change that with my actions. I can only do what I can do. And that’s what I think we need to worry about. I think if I began to worry about sea levels, I’d begin to worry about everything. So I think, maybe for those who do, do something locally.
Things like the national beach clean takes place every April, and we’ve had working parties on Brownsea Island. The Wildlife Trust is always looking for volunteers. Just getting out there, doing something practical is what I’d recommend.
Finally, I ask if he feels the Government genuinely cares.
I think that individually they do. How could you not? That would be my question. Even if you’re only concerned with your personal well-being, you’re that insular, then having a good environment to live in is of benefit to you.
So, how’s the year been?
I think it’s not been great. We quite like our travelling, and tend to have a couple of holidays a year – abroad or Devon – and these were all curtailed. So we’ve struggled a bit with that. Luckily, we went to Thailand last Christmas for two weeks, which was fantastic.
I can’t help myself. Flying?
I don’t worry about it. Although I know I should. We only do one long-haul a year. It’s not like some people, who are maybe flying to South Korea and Japan once a month. That would be an issue for me. But I think flying once a year is okay.
I’ve struggled with being at home quite a lot. Low mood. I guess I’m an introvert; generally, I’ll stand back a little, and I can certainly keep myself entertained for weeks. So I was surprised at how much I missed the travelling and meeting people bit.
But then the positives this year are that I’ve met loads of people in the village who I’d not met before.
When lockdown started I saw how a young woman in Cornwall had put a leaflet through everyone’s letterboxes, so I printed some off and did the same on the Close. We got a few people on a WhatsApp group through that, which eventually merged with the main one.
I wouldn’t say we’re particularly friends with anyone in the village now, not in a ‘come for dinner’ sort of way. We’re pretty self-contained; although we’ve always had neighbours who we have a nice chat to, and there’s people we see when dog walking.
But now we definitely feel more integrated – to the degree that we need.
I wasn’t particularly into community before – not on committees etc. I’d always help out neighbours, but our community was more about home. Covid’s shown what you can do if you have people who are willing to organise, put in the effort to bring people together. It’s shown what can be achieved and I think that a strong community does make for a better life. It’s comfortable here.
I’m always happy to do anything when asked, so I collected prescriptions, and usually do the stream clean. We sold eggs from our chickens and Fleur made masks to sell to members of the family. She was doing her GCSE’s so was one of the ones caught up with all of that. She was happy with her predicted grades, but initially I think she would have preferred to actually sit the exams. She’s a conscientious student and would have done very well, so she felt a bit aggrieved. She felt she could have done better in Maths if she’d sat it, but in others she felt she got a better mark. So it’s swings and roundabouts.
She literally had six months off from school and before the lockdown eased she found not socialising with her friends hard – they’re mostly in Dorchester and Weymouth. But she’s far more on-line than I ever was, and began doing some pre-work for her A levels.
One of my hobbies is photography and I lost my mojo a bit earlier in the year, so I’m trying to get that back. But it comes in peaks and troughs, and depends on where I am. I used to go to London a lot for work, and I absolutely love the centre of it. I’d always take my camera and after meetings just wander around.
One of the highlights was, of course, the peace and quiet. No lorries going up and down; you could literally walk in the middle of the road. And John’s singing, and getting our veg box off Kate.
We did a thing where we’d walk out in a different direction every weekend and it meant we found some really nice walks that we’d never found before, even though we’ve been here a while. The weather was beautiful, so walking with the dogs, the quiet and finding new places, that was all great.
Everyone just slowed down; took time to notice things, which was nice. I remember seeing pictures from Venice where the canals ran clear after so many days of no boats, and here I think the wildlife came out more – deer coming into the village, and goats in the high streets elsewhere.
I think that in the future it would be nice to have a balance. Take the time to appreciate where we live – because it is amazing. The Jurassic coast. Taking the kayaks down to Lulworth. Normally we might have booked a holiday cottage elsewhere, but we were forced to stay local and it’s beautiful. So yes, appreciating our own area was a highlight.
I ask him if Covid’s made him view life differently.
Maybe it’s highlighted the divisions, although I was impressed with how people came together in the first lockdown. That was impressive and it’s good to see that side of the human spirit. I believe that most people are good people and want to help others out. I think that if you let them, enable them by giving them the tools, then they will.
But I do worry that there’s only so much of that spirit that people can give. If this just goes on and on and on, I worry that things might start getting a bit nastier. But I hope not. Now, I think that, again, people are falling into different camps: mask or no mask, lockdown or no lockdown, tier this and not tier that. Initially everyone was in the same boat; but now we’re worn down and it’s becoming more factional.
I also think the Government’s messaging hasn’t been great – certainly not initially. The thing with the mask or no mask – I think that was more about preventing people rushing to buy up masks when our stocks of PPE were very low.
Now, wearing a mask just strikes me as an obvious thing to do. It’s about protecting others. It might not help you particularly, but if it’s protecting someone else, then it’s not difficult, really.
I ask for his view on Dominic Cummings (if, as a Civil Servant, he’s allowed to express them).
Yeah. Horrible man. I’m on Twitter and he comes up a lot as reasons for this, that or the other. He should have gone. Really.
Would he have the vaccination?
Straight away. It wouldn’t bother me at all. I trust in scientists to produce it well. The process is so well regulated, and I don’t get the sense they’re completely baffled about what to do. There’s plenty of coronaviruses around already, meaning that Covid19 is just another one, and we simply need to unlock it.
There’ll be immense political pressure to rush something through, but the rigours of the system will control it. We have to put our trust in scientists. Personally, I’d rather put my trust in them than anyone else.
So, his silver lining?
I think it was discovering more about our local area. The most beautiful walk we did was in April when we found a wood that we’d not been to before, full of bluebells. We got a map out and plotted a route, after we’d been in every other direction on the compass. We walked in, and it was quite dark, and then it was amazing. There was a big fallen tree where we sat and had a picnic as the dogs sniffed around. There are some really nice walks around here.
And, as someone with a background in science, what about having lived through a pandemic?
It would have been nice to not to have it. But would we scrub it from history? I genuinely don’t know.
After we finish talking and Des is showing me his photographs from his travels, a tiny kitten wanders into the room. When I pick her up, she’s a purring machine, her eyes huge and green. I instantly want to kidnap her.
Oh yes, she came during lockdown. He smiles at her. There was a message on the Whatsapp from someone on London Close who had some kittens to give away. They’d not been able to get their cat spayed because of lockdown.
The kitten’s purring vibrates through her tiny body as I stroke her.
Her mum was very small, so Cleo will probably stay small too. When she first came, she used to curl up in my hood as I worked every day. She’s lovely.
And suddenly I realise that this is my first tangible lining.
Although it’s not an inanimate shiny metal. It’s something that’s soft and furry, purring and warm, black and white. And very much alive.