The Beddington human zoo

Yesterday's retro post about Beddington Sewage Farm - (note: NOT Farmlands) - got me reminiscing even further. I have posted about the birding before, but the people who populated my early memories have barely got a mention. It is time to rectify this.

These were times before the reign of the Messenbirds and Alfreys. When I first set foot on the 'hallowed acres' there was a regular, loyal set of observers - Derek Coleman, Nick Gardner, John Bacon, John Dalgliesh, Bill Blake, Keith Mitchell, Martin King, John Gent, Dave Eland, Stuart Holdsworth to name but a few - but the two who took me under their wing and influenced me beyond all others were Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood.

Ken and Mike were primarily bird ringers, and two-three times a week would turn up at the sewage farm with the express intention of trapping birds. The Beddington Ringing Group had been a flourishing concern back in the 1960s, but by the mid 1970s it fell to just these two men. I joined them as a trainee ringer in the summer of 1976. Those of you old enough to remember that summer may recall that it was very hot indeed. We mainly used single panel mist nets in the dry beds, where finches were congregating to feed on the Fat-hen, mainly Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Linnets, and if the season was right, Bramblings. During the summer we would target Swifts, utilising a special method of capture that I believe had its origins at Beddington. You can read about it here. Sometimes we got lucky - memorable freak captures included a Short-eared Owl and a Bluethroat - plus a Willow Tit that would have any modern Surrey birder salivating profusely.

Back then, as you crossed Hackbridge Bridge, a long straight road cut right across the sewage farm directly ahead of you. This was Mile Road. And there were two houses, both inhabited, that were along it. The first was just about were the current BFBG hide now stands. It was lived in by a brother and sister, the Murphy's, who kept largely to themselves. Halfway along the road, right out in the middle of the farm, was a not unattractive dwelling where Alf and his wife lived. Alf worked for the sewage farm and kept his eye on things. Near to Alf's house, alongside a series of concrete water tanks, could be found our small ringing hut. Inside were a couple of chairs, a table, and a log book into which we entered our sightings. These may have been the days before you needed a key to access the farm, but to possess a key to the hut was the 1970s equivalent. This hut acted as a meeting point, a library, a handy shelter from the worst weather, and a place to store our bikes (we all seemed to cycle back then). I have happy memories of a Christmas holiday morning when Alf came along to the hut with a bottle of sherry and a number of glasses. Somewhere under all of that landfill the ghosts of that festive meeting are still toasting each others happiness... When Alf retired and moved out, the house was demolished. The ringing hut, without its guardian angel, was repeatedly broken into, then vandalised, and finally removed.

It wasn't just us birders who wandered between the sludge lagoons. A number of traveller people kept their horses strewn across the farm. We got to know them, in particular a chap with a mouthful of rotten teeth who was christened 'Toothy'. There were also a few local oiks who, from time to time, would bring their ratty 50cc mopeds to tear along the trackways. Sometimes the farm was used as a base for a pirate radio station, the practitioners hiding low on the banks of the deepest beds to elude detection from the authorities. I can also remember being barred from the farm on at least two occasions when permission was given for a car rally to take place!

Back then, the human 'footprint' on the farm was largely represented by the charming red-brick outbuildings, concrete channels, farm fencing and a few electricity pylons. The cooling towers to the west were an unmissable landmark, but were forgiven for the visual intrusion as they were the nesting place of Black Redstarts. It may be the result of looking through rose-tinted spectacles, but the place did ooze charm, and those that populated that period of time did so in an unhurried manner. Much has changed.


Factor said…
Brilliant post, Steve. I can picture it. I wish I had been interested in birding back then. I wonder if there are any photos of the old place from back then - would be great to see them.
Steve Gale said…
Thanks Neil. I used to have a set of black and white prints that have long since gone, but did convey the spirit of the place. The lines of trees (some old elm) and hedgerows were pictured, along with pumping stations built of brick and the houses mentioned above. I used to think that it most probably hadn't changed since the 1930s.
Derek Faulkner said…
I've never been to BSF, or heard of it till reading the blog, but I think that many of older bird watchers have that person or persons who took us under their wing and started us off on the magical ride through birdland. I'd always roamed Sheppey's marshes, interested in birds, but when Peter Makepeace arrived to set up the new RSPB reserve on Elmley in 1976, I became good friends with him and all of a sudden with his tutorship, I started learning about birds in a way I never had before.
Peter Alfrey said…
Good memories Steve on the last two posts,
I wish I was reigning! lol Spending three to four full unpaid days a week (ok when I'm in the country :-)- which I justify as sanity regaining trips ) doing the reports, writing articles, recording, doing tours, meetings with councillors, Viridor, CAMC, CSG meetings, protesting, high court cases, presentations, campaigning etc etc. Derek been at it years doing the same things too. Certainly not reigning, more like a sentence but worth fighting for the best birding site in this area with such a fantastic history. Certainly not prepared to let it go and Derek (who almost single handedly won all the conservation conditions in the original public enquiry) and I have had some success recently with getting Viridor to work with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in developing a new wet grassland habitat which will create some more wader habitat. Also a new restoration management plan has been signed off and a new management committee has been established with the London wildlife trust on board. Will certainly be a core of the SINC that will be secured as a premier urban nature reserve (we've got lots more battles yet- the threats are to the perimeter and the inadvertent negative ecological effects due to the cessation of sludge use)- but it's still the best birding site in the area and one of the best in the London area. I wish it didn't change too but nobody wants this apart from Viridor and Thames Water- both of which have an obligation and public duty to manage the site as a nature reserve- an obligation which will only be fulfilled by making them accountable through public pressure. The more people that get behind the campaign the better. It won't be the same but I'm confident we will be able to secure something special for future generations to reminisce about.Really enjoyed the memories- cheers Steve!
Steve Gale said…
I got to know Peter M when he was at Dungeness. I think it is fair to say that when he arrived his way of doing things was very different to what went before, but he certainly knew his stuff. The terns did very well indeed!
Steve Gale said…
King Peter! Yes, I know that your reign has not been an easy one, with a civil war, subjects having meltdowns and the threat of war on the horizon, but by my reckoning, the history books will look back on the Alfreyan era as one of mobilisation and of care. Good on you my friend.
Peter Alfrey said…
Lol- I can't win (anything!) lol

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