Bough Beech Reservoir...

An aerial view of the reservoir and its surroundings courtesy of Google Maps

I first became aware of Bough Beech Reservoir c1971, shortly after its completion, when still in the employ of the Metropolitan Water Board (later to become Thames Water Authority). In those days it was part of my job to collect water at all stages of processing, from river or borehole to tap, and test it for viral content, not only within the Metropolitan Water Board's catchment area but occasionally, on request, from a number of satellite companies such as East Surrey Water Company.

Fast forward twelve years and, having left the now defunct virology unit at Thames Water Authority for a more "laid back" lifestyle in the countryside I renewed my acquaintance with Bough Beech after moving to Hever and joining what was then the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation (now renamed Kent Wildlife Trust). I had entered a competition, the details of which I have long forgotten, in their member's magazine and much to my surprise I won first prize, appropriately a pair of binoculars.

Part of the deal was that I had to have my photo taken being presented with my prize at Bough Beech Nature Reserve by Mike Mercer, a lovely man sadly no longer with us. He it was that first introduced me to the incumbent head warden Roy Coles a founder of the trust who had recently been awarded the BEM for his services to conservation. By profession Roy was an explosives expert working at Fort Halstead who was in part responsible for designing the robot arm which when mounted on its robotic base became invaluable in reducing the risks to life and limb when disarming explosive devices in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. However, conservation was his true vocation. Suitably attired in check shirt and moleskin trousers capped with a deerstalker hat here stood a man whose diminutive stature belied his incredible energy, vision and truly awesome powers of persuasion.

I had made the mistake of arriving in my work van, replete with roof mounted ladders, an error of judgement which would cost me dear. Roy immediately recognised my potential/weakness and within ten minutes of accepting my prize I inexplicably found myself climbing high inside the visitor's centre oast house in order to grease the top cowl bearing. My ability to reach high places instantly qualified me as a great naturalist according to Roy and I soon found myself among the top branches of suitable trees around the area erecting owl and kestrel boxes under highly critical instruction from Roy who remained firmly anchored to the ground. Not only this but possession of a van coupled with my willingness to wallow in mud and filth apparently also made me worthy of high office and, being vulnerable to such flattery, I soon found myself titled Assistant Warden to Bough Beech Nature Reserve. I later found that there were many others but Roy told me that I was the CHIEF Assistant Warden (I think he told the others that too!). The job description as outlined to me by Roy meant that as well as providing free labour I was to be an ideas man. If I had any good ones, Roy explained, he would take the credit and for any bad ones I would get the blame.

This then was the start of a long, happy, and still ongoing association with Roy (At time of writing well into his eighties). In those days the then KTNC was formed of, and run by, members for the members with only a few paid staff acting in an advisory capacity. The then head wardens enjoyed a huge degree of autonomy and the days when their status was to be downgraded by the prefix "honorary" and they were made subservient to an often newly qualified, paid, member of staff lay far into the future. These were the days prior to changing the title to KWT when a lifetimes experience was valued above a three year degree course, which to me seems to confer a huge amount of knowledge about very little upon the recipient, and the hamstringing effects of choking bureaucracy and the 'elf and safety brigade were yet to be felt.

Back in those heady days we benefited from the help and assistance of Malcolm Emery, himself a highly qualified member of staff who oversaw the wellbeing of all the West Kent reserves yet managed to get the balance dead right, being not only extremely knowledgeable across a wide spectrum but also skilled in most practical aspects of the job. I'm sure, however, that neither he nor my fellow assistant wardens including those still serving, albeit now in command since Roy's retirement, such as Alan Ford and Peter and Lynne Flower who continue to do an excellent job of running the place, together with a veritable army of other volunteers both past and present, will agree with me that the overwhelming share of credit for the superb resource that now exists at the northern end of Bough Beech Reservoir must go to our erstwhile leader Mr Royston K Coles BEM.

Roy it was that introduced a variety of floating islands for grebe, coot, shelduck and terns, sponsored, and in some cases constructed, by local businesses together with the contributions of other well-wishers both physical and pecuniary. He developed the orchard, filled with many ancient and endangered varieties of apple tree, built the bat cave, dipping ponds, shingle spit and snipe marsh. He dammed the Monk's Stream to hold a permanent head of water and did so much, much, more besides including the construction of a plumbers nightmare of pumps, pipes and sluices by which the levels of a whole plethora of pits and scrapes, revealed at low water in the north lake, could be governed. He invented and pioneered the use of protective cages made from builders reinforcing weld-mesh which could be placed over little ringed-plover nests to protect them from predation by foxes, crows, etc and thereby greatly increased the fledging success of this species.

When I and others mentioned that the reserve lacked a reedbed Roys answer was to build one to the rear of the North Lake. With many weekends of hard labour by an army of willing volunteers and numerous trips to Romney Marsh in my trusty old van replete with a rickety old trailer borrowed from another member the situation was soon rectified, with the surplus planted along the northern bank of the Monk's Stream.

Not all projects were successful; we could never keep the shingle spit sufficiently clear of vegetation to act as a breeding site for little ringed-plover although they successfully utilised the concrete apron of the reservoir instead (Aided by Roy's weld-mesh cages). Sweet water grass (Glyceria maxima) was inadvertently introduced with a load of common reed and a huge amount of time and labour was wasted in trying to eliminate it by hand pulling. Perhaps my only claim to fame is that it was me who discovered, via consultation with The British Museum, that left to its own devices common reed eventually dominates in this situation. Work on the sweet water grass front ceased and all was soon well. Our efforts to secure a breeding first for English ospreys failed and the nesting platforms erected at the reservoir and in the surrounding hills, where I had discovered a roost site, look likely to remain unused as since the conversion of the reservoir from a trout fishery to coarse they have become increasingly rare visitors.

Despite such foibles it would be wrong to dwell on a few past failures, the reserve at Bough Beech is a huge success with a total of around 230 bird species recorded in its direct environs together with a wealth of other flora and fauna. Upon Roy's retirement a long muted project of his came to fruition with the completion of a new scrape and artificial sand martin cliff close by the visitor's centre. This has been christened The Roy Coles Flood to commemorate Roy's huge contribution and while it will hopefully be many years before an epitaph is needed for Roy I think that we could justly borrow from Sir Christopher Wren with a simple plaque bearing the legend "If you seek my monument look about you".

Opening times for the visitor's centre, special events etc are available on KWT's website. There is a nature trail but no direct access to the reserve. This is largely unnecessary as the causeway which divides the main reservoir from the north lake affords an excellent overview. Binoculars are de rigour.