RICHARD WILLIAMSON: My early days way out west at Kingley Vale

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Fifty years ago this month I arrived in Sussex on my old motorbike to start work on Kingley Vale nature reserve.

The BSA with its royal blue petrol tank had sped well enough down the A12 from Norfolk, for the roads were flat.

Two suitcases tied on to the back seat were heavy with bird and botany books, boots and cooking pots, tins of peas and baked beans, for I had no idea where I would find to live and would probably have to camp.

The Nature Conservancy were to pay me £12 a week in arrears of one month and I had £20 to my name for petrol and food until then.

The Dartford crossing in 1963 was by boat at Tilbury. After that came the hills of Surrey, in bottom gear going up, then unhappily out of control going down.

Books and beans burst on to Reigate’s roads in the rush hour; the bike slid to halt on its side and so did I. That night I began blowing my savings on a B&B in Singleton, for camping seemed impractical after I had nursed the Besa and myself over Duncton hill.

“Kingley Vale?” a local said. “Way out westerly, beyond Chidester. Somewhere in the ’ills, so they say.”

With the fag-hook my father had bought me years before I started clearing the paths. Brush-cutters had not been invented. I remember freeing a sapling oak with stem thick as my thumb, from the binds of clematis. Today that tree is nearly a metre across with a mighty trunk. Miles of tracks were opened, signs put up, scores of bombs left over from two world wars cleared by a gang of Polish refugees. Three tons of bombs were burned on just one fire to free them of high explosives and also phosphorous. I drove all over the hills on my trusty BSA, carrying tools in a sack, or in summer recording all the 360 species of flowering plants and 38 of butterflies living there.

Then one day HQ in Belgrave Square telephoned to say I had been allocated official transport.

I was to collect it from Furzebrook in Dorset.

To my amazement it was not a Land Rover, but a Triumph Bonneville motorbike, with toolbox sidecar. It went like a rocket back through the Southampton traffic.

One day on the Chichester bypass at near 80mph the toolbox lid detached itself and went up like an aircraft wing, floating away into a field. It’s probably still there.

My Labrador used to join voluntary wardens then in the ‘coffin’ toolbox as we roared over the hills with posts and rolls of wire to make the first of the grazing fences which allowed a small herd of ponies and horses to start reclaiming the jungle of weeds that were choking the downland meadows.

That classic bike was eventually sidelined out of NC’s transport section as Land Rovers came on stream for all staff. HQ rang me up to ask if I wanted to buy it from them for £12. Silly me, I said no. Today you could put three noughts on the price.

I gave the BSA to a friend. He took it apart and 20 years later gave it back to me in three cardboard boxes and nine jam jars in which it remains. Happy days.