The story of Lester's Embankment
You became known as the bird boy of Wormwood Scrubs – and even featured in a Daily Mail spread titled that in the 80s – can you tell us a bit about how you got into birdwatching?
I don’t know exactly how I got started, but I do remember being very small, walking with my dad and sister in Acton on a very sunny day, and passing a fern tree under which were a couple of jays. I must have been around 6 years old, and I remember being particularly fascinated with that species – that was the time I first noticed birds. I’ve been interested ever since and do still go birdwatching sometimes. Those early experiences never really leave you.
I grew up in East Acton in an estate called Old Oak Estate, just north of the Westway at the top of Hammersmith and Fulham borough. When I was older, I’d cycle around different parts of London, often all the way down to Staines and Wraysbury Gravel Pits – about a 16-mile trip. Wormwood Scrubs and Little Wormwood Scrubs was my local patch.
How did you go from being a keen young birdwatcher to becoming involved in what would become the campaign to save Wormwood Scrubs?
I read in the local newspaper about the threat to the area called Scrubs Wood, which is the northern end of the open space of Wormwood Scrubs. I was pulled in by the fact that this was my local patch, so I wrote a letter to the local paper the Shepherds Bush Gazette which they published. It was that letter that meant I started to get contacted by a handful of people who then became the core team behind the Scrubs Wood campaign, and we kicked off from there. It was me, at about 14 years old at the time, and quite a lot of old people! Quite an odd combination really – I’m not sure what the age gap was between me and the next youngest, but probably at least 20 years.
How did you all get along? Were they a friendly group of people?
They were good; everyone really had their own talents. There was Suzie Gretz who was an illustrator who would draw birds as well as other things; Norma Hull who was a community activist who was involved in community centres and associations; Jean Lukins who was a sonographer in parliament, and David Thorogood who was a Council officer. He was particularly keen in conserving the area for wildlife and was an enormous help by getting the council more involved.
It was a team of many talents, and the campaign was formed. We lobbied the local MPs, Clive Soley and Nick Raynsford and both, but particularly Clive, were very supportive at the early stages and got involved when the campaign went to parliament.
When the campaign got rolling, we started to see some publicity beyond the local paper. I think one of the reasons for our success was because we really hit some nails on the head at the time, one of which was that the threat to Scrubs Wood was the potential construction of Channel Tunnel depots. This was at a time when the Channel Tunnel was still in a public consultation phase, and it was a contentious issue – much like HS2 is today. People had very strong views about it, one way or another. Our campaign told the story of a negative aspect of the Channel Tunnel which all really fed into the current debate. I think that my age also really helped. It was unusual for someone of that age to be a bird watcher, particularly coming from what was inner London. It all added to the campaign which ended up developing a life of its own and made it a force to be reckoned with.
Tell us more about Lester’s Embankment!
Lester’s Embankment was the outcome of the lobbying process that went on in the houses of parliament – the aim was to create a huge buffer zone which would be protecting as much of the original Scrubs Wood as possible. That idea was to use landscaping to block out the sidings that were due to be built there. The process was all about haggling. And I think in the end at least two thirds of land was saved, and what was left was a landscaped area that became known later as Lester’s Embankment.
While I guess I was the campaign figurehead, I couldn’t have done it by myself. It was a team effort and I think we had a lot of things to thank, not just the individuals I mentioned earlier, but the public support as well.
It’s inspiring to hear that the campaign was fruitful – do you feel it was a success?
It would have been good if we hadn’t needed as publicity as we managed to achieve, and if British Rail had been more amenable. We offered alternative ways of configuring their sidings which would have meant that no tree was chopped down that was not taken up. Unfortunately, sometimes it does take a really big campaign because it’s not necessarily in the interest of authorities or developers to change.The irony is that the Channel Tunnel sidings are no longer at Wormwood Scrubs. The thing with Scrubs Wood, as is the case with many other areas of importance for nature, is that despite you fighting off the threat and saving as much of area as you can, the threat never seems to go away. If there’s a piece of land that is coveted by developers, then it will be perpetually under threat. That’s exactly what we have seen and continue to see with this area of wildlife.
Your involvement in the campaign to save the Scrubs must have been quite a formative experience for you?
Yes, it really was. My parents weren’t particularly political, and I wasn’t really taught about democracy or the power that individuals have – or can have if they raise their voice. The campaign was a real eye-opener in terms of the possibilities of making change or calling for change.
It really made me realise that individuals do have power, and that campaigning can be effective. After Wormwood Scrubs I got involved in anti-racist campaigns, especially the Anti-Racist Alliance which was around at the time when Stephen Lawrence was murdered, and really boosted the campaign. It was an important and formative period.
How do you see the cross over between environmentalism and anti-racism?
Well, it’s a very large topic! There is a huge crossover and a lot to say on that. Green spaces are at their most premium in the places where we have least of them, which tends to be in areas that are the most built up and which have the greatest black and ethnic minority populations.
There’s sometimes an image that communities of colour are not particularly interested in wildlife, which I don’t think is true at all. Particularly at a younger age, all children have an enormous interest in wildlife and that’s true regardless of your background. Perhaps when people grow up, they experience pressure from a culture which moves people away from that, but ultimately, I think that being close to nature is actually in the heritage of many people of colour.
In Britain, there is a common fear that outside of the cities it’s not a welcoming place, that it’s a racist place. And I think that does discourage people of colour which are brought up in the city from fully enjoying the countryside as much as they should. It’s a fear that is not completely unfounded. I’ve had my experiences in the countryside, but equally I continue to encourage people to go and enjoy it and not be put off by those fears.
Do you feel like things are improving?
We are starting to see more people of colour, black and Asian communities getting involved in wildlife campaigns. Increased representation of people of colour on television and in the media all contribute to what I hope is a shift to Black and Asian people feeling as welcome as they should in the countryside.
Things have improved since the 80s, but we still have a long way to go. We don’t have the same level of explicit street racism as we did when I was growing up, but if you look at the statistics, the rates of inequality and disadvantage have hardly improved at all.
HS2 and large developments place the Scrubs at threat once again. Are you in involved with the current campaign?
Every time there’s been a campaign I often go down and show my support in person and online. I don’t get too involved – the local neighbourhood changes, and I believe new campaigns need new people with new creativity. But they always build on what’s gone before.
Sadiq Khan has been Mayor for a few years, and he was elected on several pledges including clean air and green spaces – they are intimately linked, after all. We must follow through with protecting this kind of space. It’s not just important in relation to wildlife, but also as a natural resource for people.
The Voice newspaper is the only print and online publication with a focus on Black British voices that exists in the UK, and is soon to celebrate its 40th anniversary year.