“A lot of kids have never engaged with nature,” said the volunteer at Camley Street Natural Park, “and those from working-class families are less confident in wildlife habitats.”
That did not apply to nine-year-old Anthony from Hackney, who had to be dissuaded from taking his shoes and socks off and paddling to help him win a pond-dipping contest with his mentor Ramon, but it is true of many children.
A recent survey of youngsters aged 10 to 12 for the National Trust
found that half could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp, less than half recognised a barn owl and barely more than a quarter could spot a magpie.
The London Wildlife Trust is working to change this. Each year more than 50 schools visit its oasis at Camley Street, which is open to the public seven days a week. Into two acres beside the Regent’s Canal are packed ponds, wetlands, woodland and open grassed areas. Within them you will find kingfishers, reed warblers, reed buntings, rare fungi and a teeming variety of insect life. Geese, mallards, coots and herons make regular visits, while the cutting of the grass is subcontracted to the park’s resident rabbits Coco, Patch and Merlin.
Camley Street was created from a former coal yard. It opened in 1985 as a joint project between the Trust, the Greater London Council and Camden Borough Council when such partnerships were a novelty. Now the Trust runs more than 150 days of family activities here every year: its volunteers carry out maintenance work on the various habitats and lead guided walks and play schemes over weekends and school holidays.
Each year, in September, sees the Camley Street Festival. As well as a chance to take part in regular conservation work, there are events and activities like making bird boxes.
A few years ago Camley Street was a secret garden, hidden away in a derelict and disreputable quarter of London. Today it stands almost beside the revitalised St Pancras and on the edge of one of the largest urban redevelopment projects in Europe
The London Wildlife Trust enjoyed good relations with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link contractors, who gave the park materials worth thousands of pounds. Working with Argent, the developers of the land north of King’s Cross, offers a new set of challenges.
Go down the road to the German Gymnasium, a 19th-century building occupied by the “King’s Cross Marketing Suite”, and you will see a model of what is to come. The trees of Camley Street are unmistakable, but they are hemmed in by a cliff of office buildings and shops, and a new footbridge crosses the canal along the park’s northern boundary. Add in the trains to the Olympic stadium at Stratford leaving every few minutes from the bottom of the road, and it is inevitable that Camley Street will be discovered by many more than the 10,000 people who visit each year at present.
This poses a dilemma to those involved with the park. They want its work to be more widely known -- and Camley Street could emerge as a flagship for the London Wildlife Trust, which looks after more than 40 sites across the city - but they are wary of the change in character that an influx of office workers eating their sandwiches may bring.
Back at Camley Street, the volunteer was clear: “Ultimately, we are a nature reserve and not a park.”