Recollections of a Travellin' Man


Derek Burch


So, how do you describe a summer of dreams come true? Did I mention a range of meetings and shows in the previous 'Rootloose'? Well. I went to them and did them. I spent ten weeks working around Great Britain, living much of the time in pubs, meeting people with the accent that I share (well, some of them) and drinking some good beer. It was a homecoming after too many years away, and a time of pure muscle-tired, brain-eased joy. There may never be another like it.

Most of the time I was at Living Rainforest near Newbury in Berkshire. The director, Karl Hansen, is leading the organisation in the vital area of research into the compatibility of man's needs with sustaining natural environments. My contact was as a gardener in the two large greenhouse ranges that are home to a rainforest environment and one that simulates lowland moist tropical conditions. The plants are the backdrop for butterflies and free-ranging birds and lizards, and for breeding colonies of two endangered species of monkeys. The place is alive every day with school trips and adult groups, and it is altogether a stimulating taste of an exotic world, that encourages local schools to develop a more telling curriculum that addresses man's place as a part of natural systems.

For the botanist, there is an outstanding collection of members of the aroid family grown to specimen size and in beautiful condition, and, moreover, used in a way that exactly enhances the feeling of penetrating a hot humid forest.

One of the main features in the larger of the two houses is a pool which, last summer had a spectacular plant of Victoria amazonica. Scarcely visible in the foreground of the second picture is part of a clever display of leaf-cutter ants who carry plant parts cut from material placed on rocks in the water back to their nest along a system of vines. There it is a substrate for a fungus cultured by the ants who in turn make use of the fungus as food. The size of the leaf or flower part carried by each ant amazes visitors. Entomologist E.O. Wilson has compared their strength and speed to a human running four-minute miles for 30 miles while carrying a 500 pound pack. You may enjoy reading more about Living Rainforest at

Life in the village of Hampstead Norreys was well removed from my normal reality - three buses a day in and out, and I didn't have a car most of the time. I walked to work and back, a mile each way, up a hill and down, and walked the village and country around it in the evenings.


All very calming and relaxing, and the real joy was having a room in the pub and seeing at least the surface of village life. Really nice, and welcoming, people. (Not to forget the good food and good beer.)

Weekends were a chance to rent a car and go off to see the world.

The White Hart, Hampstead Norreys

The second part of working was a few weeks at the Butterfly Farm in Stratford-upon-Avon. I was an extra pair of hands for an extremely well organized group, so it was odd-jobbery and fitting in where I could. Plenty of gardening and a chance to see behind the scenes in a world of butterfly import/export and breeding. Stratford itself is beautiful, attuned to tourists, of course, but having a job there let me kid myself that I belonged and could see it like a local.

Seeing the world during time off meant the Cotswold's villages, time in Central Wales, the Hampton Court Flower Show, loads of gardens and a great deal of walking in places that I knew from growing up, and new favourites to return to in future years of 'summers at home'.

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