Colin Yardley is seemingly a man of few words, though is never afraid to say what he thinks. Best loved for his wickedly sharp sense of humour, he is a litter ‘obsessive’ and prone to entertaining outbursts on issues that matter deeply to him.
Colin is most often associated with Chislehurst Commons having served on the Board of Trustees for over 17 years. As an expert on wildlife and ecology, he plays a crucial role in the charity’s management of the 180 acres of common land.
Although he ‘gives back’ more than most – working almost full-time since his official retirement in 1996 – Colin is exceptionally modest about his contribution to the community. Reluctantly, he was persuaded to open up about his life here:
“No, I am not born and bred, but I believe in having roots and our roots in Chislehurst are deep and strong.
I have been coming here since I was a very small child. We would come for day trips on the bus from Sydenham. It was during the war (the second one, before you ask) and my aunty was working as a ‘clippie’ on the 227 bus.
We have been living in Chislehurst for 40 years now. We didn’t set out to move here – Margaret found a dilapidated house for sale in The Times and that was that. We’re still there now.
I became a secondary school teacher after studying Botany and Genetics at the University of Birmingham, topped up by woodland ecology training in the Wyre Forest and Gwydyr Forest. The whole of my career was spent within the borough of Greenwich, eventually becoming Headteacher at Thomas Tallis school in Kidbrooke.
It was around 1990 that I became obsessed with litter. I had been impressed by a neighbour who went out jogging every day, collecting litter as he went. It’s a tragic story because he was killed in a road accident. That’s when I started collecting litter myself, as a tribute to him I suppose. Since I retired in 1996, I have been picking up litter most days, along various different routes. The enemy cannot be allowed to win! It depends how I feel, but most days I do at least a couple of hours.
The schoolchildren are a big part of the problem, although they have now been overtaken by adults who throw litter from their cars. The worst areas are Centre Common Road, School Road, Watts Lane and the whole of St Paul’s Cray Road. Child-generated litter has got marginally better, but the litter overall gets worse and worse. I blame the food industry. It encourages people to graze and guzzle all day long. It’s killing us by feeding us junk.
Occasionally I get thanked for what I’m doing, but more often I get abuse or things hurled at me. They must assume I am getting paid to clean up their mess. I once got a full pot of yoghurt thrown at me. It hit me on the side of my head.
Whilst roaming the streets, I became acquainted with one of the Trustees of the Commons. He encouraged me to become a Trustee, partly because the Board is obliged to include a certain number of ‘frontagers’ – those with houses directly facing the Common. I had already joined the volunteers in 1993 and was turning out once a week to do conservation work.
Funding shortages meant there was only one Keeper in those days, so I wanted to do my bit. Now there are two Keepers and a much larger body of volunteers, which means that the overall condition of the Commons has improved.
I have always loved the outdoors and the Commons make this such a pleasant place to live. We are virtually in the countryside here and (for those with a mercenary streak) there is no doubt that the Commons contribute to property prices. Being a Trustee is a privilege as it gives us a certain amount of authority to do things that (hopefully) favourably affect the neighbourhood.
We have always had problems with people encroaching on the Commons by inching forward their fence posts, cutting back trees that overhang their property or dumping their garden rubbish. It seems the Commons are an easy target. They don’t appreciate that we are a charity reliant on grants and donations.
As a Trustee, I am most interested in the ecology aspect. I helped to compile the 10-Year Management Plan for the preservation of the Commons and I help to maintain records of all the plants. Records exist since the 1880’s when Reverend Francis Murray starting collecting plant samples and lists of butterflies and birds as a hobby.
The Commons Preservation Society was established in 1885 as locals were getting increasingly concerned about the Commons being encroached upon, exploited and spoilt. At that time everything was in plenitude. Nowadays there is nationwide and international concern about habitat loss and threats to the sustainability of plant and other wildlife species.
I follow the philosophy that charity begins at home and that applies to the preservation of wildlife; protect the area over which you have some control. If everybody everywhere did that, we would solve the problem of mass extinction. We are currently in the midst of the largest-scale extinction since dinosaurs were obliterated by an asteroid strike 65 million years ago.
I have spent time comparing the species listed in Webb’s History of Chislehurst, [published in 1899] with current records in order to identify what we have lost from the Commons. Certain bird species, red squirrels and all the orchids have been completely wiped out. Instead we have invasive species, such as Japanese Knotweed, Canada geese and terrapins that people have just dumped in our ponds.
If I could wave a magic wand, I would exterminate every single Holly tree on the Commons. It dominates the land to the detriment of shrubs, young trees, ground flora and birdlife.
Our volunteers work very hard to keep on top of it, but it is growing faster than we can clear it. As a charity we can’t afford to pay contractors so either we learn to live with it, or find more radical means of clearance.
We also need to find a means of reducing the prevalence of brambles in the undergrowth. What we need is a small herd of goats. I’m being completely serious. Others probably think it’s a ludicrous idea, but I have honestly given serious thought to how it could work. We would need to find somewhere to keep them overnight, otherwise you might find people coming out of the pub half-sozzled and letting them loose!
I’ve always had a social conscience. Ever since I was at school, I’ve been up to my neck in politics. In the sixth form we had this inspirational Headteacher who would give a monthly talk on matters of the day; religion, politics, sexual awakening, jurisprudence. We had to write an essay inspired by his talk and mine took on an increasingly political turn. After a stint in journalism I became involved in teacher politics, serving as president of the Inner London division of the NUT. I am a supporter of the Green Party, CND, Amnesty International and the Electoral Reform Society.
I’ve got other interests – history, amateur dramatics – but mainly it’s politics and the natural environment. My attitude has always been the same; I’m on a good pension so I don’t need to earn. My education was free, my health provision is free, so I feel I have to give something back. I don’t believe that retirement equals self-indulgence.
I can’t say that being a Trustee of the Commons is always entirely pleasurable – it has given me sleepless nights and stress at times. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy working alongside the other Trustees and the volunteers. Increasingly I have to remind myself to look up and around me, to see the plants and the birds, not to get so distracted by all the litter on the ground.
It’s not all bad – The Chislehurst Society is the biggest civic society in the country in terms of membership numbers. So by its nature, Chislehurst has this strong sense of community. I’m happy to be here.”
Interview by Gwen Lardner / Photography by Don Drage
Visit www.chislehurstcommons.uk for more information on Chislehurst Commons.