Having just returned from a weeks residency at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory and Field Centre, my thoughts have turned to what role such places can play in 2011.
Firstly, I must declare a love affair for bird observatories that stretches back to my first stay at Dungeness in 1976. I have spent over 600 visitor nights at that particular observatory, from sudden one-night residencies through to a four month stint in 1979. I have put up with thin mattresses, fug-fumed bedrooms full of large hairy men, kitchens where the dirty crockery has hidden every kitchen surface and, in the early days, the lack of a shower or bath. And I loved every single minute of it...
I have stayed at Spurn, graced the lighthouse at Portland Bill and turned up with a rucksack at Sandwich Bay.
A sea-change occurred for me in the late 1990s when I realised that I no longer could put up with unhygenic conditions, did not want to share a room with farting strangers and I increasingly enjoyed the pleasures of a good night's sleep without the need to anaethatise myself with copious amounts of alcohol. My search for observatory accommodation took on the need for added civilisation.
Dungeness became a place that I could only tolerate if nobody else was staying (although it has had a recent kitchen re-fit). Portland was almost hotel-like in comparison, with large bathroom/shower facilities and space that allowed you to command your very own. My recent Sandwich sojourn upped the ante with lockable rooms, clean and modern showers, libraries, wi-fi, B&O televisions, shops, CCTV and butler service (OK, I made the last one up).
The days of communal flaggons of cocoa, bird logs by tilley-lamp and cable sweaters being worn to stave off the overnight cold and mallets by the camp bed to fight off the rats are long gone. Visitors demand comfort. They demand en-suite. They demand coffee machines, fruit blenders and juicers. The bird observatory that cannot cater for these demands, I think, is on borrowed time.
There may be observatories that do still function with a film of squalor, but I bet they are patronised by an older, decidedly male demographic. Where will they be in twenty years time? Have observatories got a future unless they diversify into the model of establishing a field centre and trawl for custom from schools, adult education centres and universities? Do they need to hold quizzes, talks, walks and open sessions to maintain a stream of interest and money? Do they need to accept that they cannot exist without enticing people to stay - and then stay again and again? Do they need to become hotels with a natural history theme? Or are they an echo from the past that is slowly, but surely, dying?
I'd be interested to know what you think.