David Bevan didn’t fully realise his passion for plants until he was 40 years old. Now aged 75, he has devoted the last 35 years of his life to studying botany, caring for local green spaces and inspiring a love for nature in others.
A retired natural history teacher and former Conservation Officer for the London borough of Haringey, David is regarded as a local hero by many in his community. He has played a vital part in the conservation of some of North London’s best known wild places and can be credited for helping to revive several ancient traditions, from wild food foraging to woodland coppicing.
Here, he reflects on his unusual career journey and offers his advice for budding conservationists and botanists, especially those who, like himself, have taken a little longer to find their true path in life.
What drew you to conservation?
I was not a dyed in the wool ecologist. I’ve had an erratic career and didn’t come to conservation until fairly late in life, although I’ve always had a passion for the natural world. I remember getting my first views of Rosebay Willowherb and Oxford Ragwort while exploring bombsites in London when I was a kid in the late 1940s. Stranger danger didn’t exist back then and I was free to roam.
My father had a great enthusiasm for plants and he bought a little property in Sussex on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, which I still own. His passion must have rubbed off, as plants are now what I love most about the natural world. I also had an inspiring teacher who switched me onto nature and my uncle, Richard Freeman was a taxonomist at University College London and a world leading expert on Darwin. However, all of these influences were going on in the background and didn’t surface until much later.
What key steps did you take in your career?
My father was a doctor and wanted me to follow in his footsteps. I managed to get into medical school but kept failing my exams and after a few years I realised that it wasn’t meant to be. I ended up working in a photographic shop on Baker Street, dealing with furious customers whose gear had broken while they were photographing their clients.
It wasn’t until 1980 when I was forty years old that I enrolled on a course at Birkbeck College tutored by Richard Clarke, and received a Diploma in Ecology and Conservation. Richard told me that I should go into teaching, so I took his advice and wrote to the Workers’ Education Association (WEA) and offered to teach a course on ‘The Weeds of North London’. They didn’t like the sound of that at all, but asked me to take over a course on ‘The Natural History of South East England’ because the tutor was ill.
It was a baptism of fire; I was absolutely terrified that the students would know more than I did, but they realised I was nervous and were very kind. I continued with the WEA for many years and taught all sorts of subjects on different aspects of the natural world. Later I was asked to run courses for Birkbeck College and Middlesex University so my teaching career slowly flourished.
I had been teaching for many years when in 1989 I applied for the post of Conservation Officer for the London Borough of Haringey. I was up against lots of high-powered people with PhDs so I didn’t expect to get it but I had three things in my favour. Firstly, I knew the outgoing Conservation Officer, David Hope, very well; secondly, I had a strong feel for the local area and finally I was what you call a ‘people person’. I did a good interview but even so I was very surprised when, to my great delight, I got the job. I was based at Station House on The Parkland Walk (a green walkway on the site of a former railway line) and from my window I could see Old Man’s Beard clambering up over the embankment. I was in heaven.
After just 18 months there was a cutback at Haringey Council and the conservation unit was axed and so I lost my job. There was an outcry amongst the local population and a campaign was mounted in which I played no small part. During that time, interest in urban nature conservation was starting to build. Many early battles had already been fought, including a campaign, which I was involved with, to save Parkland Walk from being turned into a motorway in the 80s.
Eventually the council got fed up and reappointed me; this time I was stationed at a green space called Railway Fields, where I had a marvellous outlook over a little grove of birch trees. I changed my job description to include a big chunk of teaching, both of adults and children. I loved the response I got from kids; they have an instinctive feel for the natural world. I continued in the job for 16 years until I retired. It was a wonderful experience.
What achievements in your life are you most proud of?
While I was in office I reintroduced coppicing to first Coldfall Wood and then Queen’s Wood (two ancient woods in Haringey). There was a huge outcry at the time because coppicing hadn’t been done since the 30s. People said: ‘Call yourself a conservationist, chopping down trees!’ My experience at the photographic shop dealing with irate people came in very handy then. We arranged a meeting at the local school and I invited everyone I could think of and gave a talk about why we were doing it. The coppicing was the making of me in a way because I wrote a paper on it, which helped to legitimise a lot of the woodland management work that was going on elsewhere.
I also declared Queen’s Wood, Parkland Walk and Railway Fields as statutory Local Nature Reserves, which means that nothing can be done to them that won’t be to their benefit.
26 years ago, I initiated The Grand Haringey Fungus Foray, during which a big group of locals go out and forage for edible fungi at different sites and then cook and eat what they’ve found. It is still going strong today and the number of folk who join in and are switched onto fungi as a result is marvellous.
And of course, getting my job back at the council was an extraordinary feeling. It was down to the energy of the local people. Haringey is often criticised but it has always had strong folk and when we rise up, my goodness, you don’t want to get in our way!
On a personal level, I’m most proud of my marriage to Barbara, inheriting a lovely family of three children and adding our son Ben.
What were the most challenging times in your career?
I have very strong views about this whole business of destroying nature in favour of ‘the national interest’. I wrote a Proof of Evidence for the inquiry into Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport because we discovered that there was a rare colony of Water Avens growing in a meadow exactly where they wanted to build an access road linking the terminal with the M25. The inspector said that he thought it was excellent but that the national interest had to override it.
As for all these ancient woods that the Woodland Trust says are going to be destroyed to make way for the High Speed 2 railway, well I just cannot get under the skin of people who think that whizzing about more rapidly is more important than enjoying the nature we have and trying to look after the little bit we have left. In my lifetime, since the 40s, we have lost nearly half of our broadleaved ancient woods.
I loved my job passionately, but it is the case that with nature conservation it’s often bad news. You’ve got to be tough and put up with a lot of negative experiences or else you’ll get worn down and my trouble is I’m not really very tough, except of course, when I get angry.
Why did you choose botany? Do you think we have enough young botanists today?
I like the feel of plants. Birds are wonderful but you can get up close to plants and touch them and smell them. I have a huge herbarium of odd specimens mounted on sheets, which I started as a teaching aid and which I will leave to the Natural History Museum.
We have hardly any young botanists, partly because universities are no longer offering botany as a degree course and also because there is a lack of role models. I just hope that one or two of the children I taught over the years picked up on my enjoyment and got inspired to study botany.
What’s a botanist doing living in London?
I think paradoxically that London is one of the most fascinating places in the world to live as a botanist because you have this strange situation where plants have managed to escape from various places into the wild, by hopping over the garden fence, and on people’s shoes and from aircraft and motor vehicles and parcels. Not only that, but different sorts of plants are able to survive here than in other parts of the country, so we have a rather specialised urban flora that you don’t find anywhere else in Britain.
That said, I also enjoy being able to absorb nature in the countryside too, especially at our cottage in the Ashdown Forest where the flora is very special.
What’s your advice for people trying to follow in your footsteps?
I’m all for late developers as I think they bring a huge amount to whatever it is they do through their interest in other aspects of the world. Sometimes there are advantages in finding things later in life. I was getting on a bit when I turned to conservation and have been extraordinarily lucky.
But at the end of the day, I’m a great believer that if you find something that you really love, and that moves you and is worthwhile, then you should move heaven and earth to make sure that your life involves it.
If you are interested in botany then there is a huge amount of support on offer from the Botanical Society of the British Isles. They produce a lot of educational materials and guides that are second to none.
Which are your favourite green spaces in Haringey?
I am very fond of Railway Fields; I spent nearly 16 years of my life there and I regard it as home from home. I know every corner like I know my own house. I also like the Muswell Hill section of Parkland Walk, which has spectacular views out across London.
Another place I love is Bluebell Wood. It is a beautiful little wood with everything you would expect to find in an ancient wood, including wild service trees, midland hawthorns, butterflies, wood anemones and lots of bluebells in spring, including a patch of native ones. It once had a superb Wych Elm, which much to my horror was chopped down as it was shading somebody’s garden. Luckily for them I was no longer in post as I would have gone to town.
And do you have a favourite tree or plant?
One of my favourite plants is the Ivy-leaved Bellflower, which is a very rare, tiny campanula, which was first shown to me by my father in 1955 and which I have only spotted a few times since in the Ashdown Forest.
As for my favourite London Weed, I’m fond of London Rocket, which occurs on the old London Wall in Tower Hill. It grows out of ashes and disturbed ground and was described as being abundant just after the Great Fire of London in 1666. It is a pretty little thing with yellow flowers.
I think the Silver Birch is probably my favourite native British tree; it is so beautiful and so elegant. There is a wonderful one as you go up to Muswell Hill, which has a lovely silhouette. I also love the Wild Service Tree and I’ve become fond of the True Service Tree, which has the most beautiful red-green sorbs that taste very good if you pick them at the right time.
What music most inspires you?
I’m extraordinarily unmusical but I love poetry and the poet I love most and best of all is Dylan Thomas. I organised an event at Queen’s Wood last year to celebrate his centenary at which I read a lot of his poems.
I think I haven’t got the genes that respond to classical music, but I do like folk music, especially Tracy Chapman, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and most of Bob Dylan’s stuff.
These days, David carries out survey work and still does a bit of teaching. He has yet to teach a class on ‘The Weeds of North London’, although there are rumors that a local folk band is writing a song with that title…