Kate Allies - Rosliston Forestry Centre's lifetime achievement award-winner
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 May 2015 | UPDATED: 10:03 14 May 2015
Kate Allies came to Rosliston Forestry Centre on a six-month contract in 1994. Twenty years later, she is still here, and with an undimmed passion for environmental education that has earned her a national Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom
Rosliston, the first of the Forestry Commission’s Community Woodlands and the first Visitor Centre to be set up in the newly established National Forest, was as new as she was. Nobody at her employers, South Derbyshire District Council, knew whether an environmental education project would be feasible on the 154 acres of former farmland, but its faith was more than vindicated. Hugely popular with schools and offering an ever-increasing range of activities, its success is due, Kate Allies insists, to the strength of the team she has around her.
To say they work closely together would be an understatement: in their warm and cheerfully overflowing office, where kettle and microwave jostle with files and folders, the six of them are almost within touching distance of each other’s desks. My eye is caught by a line of miniature Wombles, who prove to have been guinea-pigs for a failed experiment in parachuting and who now occupy a place of honour above the sink. Birds are nesting outside the window.
Over 50,000 children and adults have enjoyed engaging with nature through the work of Kate’s team. Her colleagues tease her about her ‘Royal connections’ and call her Lady Kate: she has showcased the work at Rosliston to Princess Anne at an event hosted by the Woodland Trust and has met both Prince Charles and Prince Edward. On the 20th anniversary of her taking up the job, her team had a surprise party for her, at which she was presented with a Scottish title. She thought it was just a bit of fun but when she read the details, was delighted with the gift.
‘They have some amazing wildlife estate that sold it in tiny portions to different people,’ she says with enthusiasm. ‘It means it will never be developed because it would be impossible for a developer to buy back all the land.’
Undeterred by the rain and muffled up against the winter cold, we set out to explore the trails on the site, a horseshoe of woodland and meadow flanked by distant green fields. We pass the sensory garden, the wildlife garden, the herb garden and the birds of prey area and embark on the Tree Trail, one of the longest running projects and with specimens of all kinds to be observed. There’s a Teddy Trail for small children, who are encouraged to bring their teddies with them in the hunt for spiders and woodlice and ladybirds, and where they can walk slowly as snails or as jumpily as rabbits.
The bird hide is still and cool and hushed, a window on the world of bird life that has recently been enhanced by an accessibility grant enabling visually impaired people in particular to identify different bird calls via the Bird Mic system. ‘We have a good history here of getting grants and making them sustainable,’ Kate observes. ‘When we’re developing new things for local people, we look at how we can carry them on once the funding has finished. We don’t always succeed but we’re businesslike about our actual costs and whether it’s affordable for people to pay and their contribution to be ploughed back into another project. The answer is usually yes.’
Swadlincote is booming: the town’s market won the Best Local Market award for Derbyshire and East Staffordshire and is through to the national final; it was a runner-up for Portas funding for high street development, receiving a £10,000 award; and Kate’s team is currently writing the activity plan that is part of the submission for the innovative Swadlincote Townscape Project. The success of the National Forest has gone hand-in-hand with the town’s recovery from the loss of the pits.
Ancient trees grow alongside saplings on the Rosliston site, where the trees planted between 1994 and 1996 are now in need of thinning to enable all to flourish. We pause to observe a tree planted by Repton School, perhaps a metre high. ‘It will be a Giant Redwood,’ Kate says with pleasure. ‘At the moment it’s just a mini Redwood but it has grown a lot... last year, the nettles were taller than the tree was.’ Stopping the encroachment of nettles is an ongoing task in the rich soil here in which they thrive, and groups of workers from Rolls-Royce and Toyota, with whom the Visitor Centre has long-running relationships, are among the volunteers who do regular work on clearing and planting. The Visitor Centre in turn helps with the companies’ community projects
Funding from Rolls-Royce also enables the development of science education here, on a Science Trail that is full of fun and challenge. The mathematics of estimating and measuring comes into play with a wooden sculpture of a giant-sized tent peg, for example, at one of the points on the trail. ‘So we questioned “if that is a giant’s tent peg how big would the giant be and how big would the tent need to be for the giant to lie down in it?” If they pace out the size they think a tent would be on the ground, people can then have a go at working out exactly how big that it. It’s a way of learning how to estimate, calculate and measure,” is Kate’s explanation.
Embedded in concrete at this particular science shelter is a quirky set of objects to be identified, including a rubber boot, a yard brush and half a brick. ‘Even on a challenging weather day, you can touch these things and feel how warm or soft or hard they are – a wonderful way of introducing materials and designs,’ Kate observes. ‘The brick is deliberately a half brick so you can see what goes on inside it and where the mortar goes – children imagine a brick is a solid thing.’
When this particular science shelter was being built, the team were baffled and intrigued by a visiting rabbit who dug a fresh hole on the site every night of the construction process – in an area completely devoid of rabbit holes or any other evidence of a rabbit population. It can only have come from the opposite side of the stream, they suggest in a mystery that continues to delight.
Kate is hoping to spot a kingfisher on the lake but the bird is tantalisingly absent on this occasion. We cross the wide Rolls-Royce bridge over the lake and proceed to the dam – constructed, on ‘make and mend’ principles, from an old cattle trough – that enables a supply of fresh water to the nearby pond, one of the sites for the Nature Detectives sessions. Children can study anything from the technology of bridges to the secret life of plants and trees at Rosliston, either on guided visits or self-led, and aside from the Environmental Education Project, can be active in the forest in everything from archery and orienteering to climbing and laser combat. The project itself has won a National Green Apple Award and delivers activities around the country for the Woodland Trust.
Much loved and photographed is the outdoor art: the carved wooden animals and birds on the Sculpture Trail are a fascination.Just how resourceful Kate’s team are is well illustrated by the snail sculpture. Expensive to buy, the team were pleased to get a science education grant to replace this much-loved piece, but the old one now serves as an illustration of the effects and timescale of weathering.
It’s moving – and fitting - to see the South Derbyshire Miners sculpture at Rosliston, created by a local artist, Robert Webster, and carved with all the objects to be spotted that are important to miners. From here we take a diversion from the path into the hushed mystery of the ‘deep, dark forest’, a fairy tale of a forest with its carpet of needles and its beckoning branches. At the Visitor Centre, they all work together and support each other’s projects, and Kate is proud to show the Glade, a permanent wedding venue and performance area in this woodland setting, and the four high-specification, environmentally sustainable business units used for training purposes by Burton and South Derbyshire College. Rosliston is an important local attraction, and visitors can do everything here from Nordic walking and astronomy to dancing and T’ai Chi.
Entering the colourful Forest Classroom gives a thrill of excitement. ‘We want to feel it’s bringing the outdoors indoors and that the children can touch anything. It can all be handled – we just ask them to be a bit careful,’ says Kate of the vacated wasps nests and other objects that invite a closer look. Rosliston hosts the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Entomological Society and runs the Environmental Forum for South Derbyshire – ‘so people we work with know we have this room and bring us interesting things they find,’ Kate says with satisfaction.
It’s a rest day today for the teddies of the Teddy Trail, who are collapsed in a corner of the classroom awaiting their next outing. A family has booked the classroom for a Woodland Party, and there’s clay and other activities set up in readiness for that. We walk back to our starting-point, past the iconic giant wooden Sparrowhawk, and pause to survey a plantation of larches, some of the first trees to be planted 20 years ago.
‘When we first brought children here to measure the growth of the trees, we had to warn them to be careful not to tread on them,’ Kate reflects. ‘Later we measured them with a ruler. Then we progressed to metre rules. And then to ranging poles. Now it’s about estimating because they are too tall to measure We’re about to go on to the next period of change, and that’s always exciting.’
Find the team and see what they are up to next through their Facebook pages: ‘Environmental Education Project at Rosliston Forestry Centre’ or ‘Swadlincote Townscape’ or twitter feed: Roslistonenved or on www.south-derbys.gov.uk/environmentaleducation