Caught by the River

Cool Oak Diary #3

6th April 2022

This month, as he continues the campaign to protect Brent Reservoir, Ben Watt crosses paths with hedgehogs, nettle-foragers, and shell-toe-clad MPs.

Early March at any protected habitat is always quiet. Winter conservation works are over, nesting season is underway, and the thumb-twiddling for the first sand martin or little-ringed plover of the spring migration begins. Except the long-awaited conservation works at Brent Reservoir (Welsh Harp) weren’t quite over. They spilled into the first five days of the month. 

Canal and River Trust had excitedly sent an amphibious excavator at the end of February to clear more debris off the east marsh, and cut some scallops and alcoves into the reeds, and a channel through the spit of silt at the mouth of the River Brent; but the digger was too small and sank sulkily into the sediment on the first morning. We’d tried to warn them how treacherous it might be. It took them a day to dig it out. The reed works were put off until the autumn.

Abashed — and a with a special dispensation to carry on for a few extra days — the contractors sent a man in a low-bottomed boat at the beginning of March instead; he was to haul out as much junk as he could by hand. I watched him wrestling with the bumper of an old Ford Mondeo, a pink plastic rocking horse and some sodden sofa cushions.

And then they were gone. A job half done. They’ll have to try again in October. And a stillness settled over the reservoir as the waiting game began for real.

Afternoons got longer. A lesser black-backed gull flew in carrying a dead rat (very Welsh Harp), and then squabbled with two herring gulls over the spoils. A tall electronic hoarding from the A406 threw shafts of blue diode light through the scraggy trees onto the silent lagoon. A fox startled a jack snipe near the cut-back willow. Two men foraged for nettles near the old allotments. Weekend strollers on the main drag negotiated puddles in immaculate trainers. And all the time the constant low roar of the traffic and the tiresome strangled honking of the gathering hoards of Canada geese.

Things went up a gear a couple of weeks later. Lisa Nandy, Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities was making a flying visit to support Barnet Labour’s local election campaign, and she wanted to meet some busy-body communities. That meant us. And so — as official Cook Oak rep — on a sunny Tuesday I gathered on the wooden viewing platform by the reservoir with the Chair of Barnet Green Spaces Network, an urban food grower and a campaigner for an East Finchley playground to await the whistlestop appearance. 

Forty-five minutes late — (de rigeur) — she arrived. The PR team hovered on mobiles, taking phone snaps and looking at their watches. She was good value. Immediately open and friendly and interested. Dressed in mufti. Adidas shell-toes. We all got a word in edgeways, and then it was time for the group photos and the social media posts.

The real story of the afternoon, mind you, was happening in the main hide along the shoreline. Local birder, Magnus, had found a hedgehog — normally nocturnal — stumbling dazed in the hot sun, flies buzzing round its half-closed eyes. He’d got it inside. It was balled up tight. Not until a saucer of water was placed right next to it did it instinctively uncurl and drink, while the vet was called. I’d left Magnus to it while I headed off for the meeting.

A lot hinges on the local elections for Brent Reservoir. A Labour victory could mean a new budget for eco-management, even a full-time biodiversity officer and park ranger — both deemed a waste of money by the incumbent Conservative council. (Yes, it’s called Brent Reservoir, but two-thirds of it is in the borough of Barnet.) It might also mean the contentious footbridge over the north marsh SSSI due in 2023 is called in for review. In the meantime, I’ve written to the developer contesting their ability to build it in line with the planning permission. Most of us reckon the crawler crane they intend to use to lift the 12m concrete bridge spans will sink into the silt like the amphibious excavator sent by Canal and River Trust. Only more quickly. The developers promise they are drawing up a detailed reply, but I think everyone seems to be waiting for the result of the May election before committing to a next move.

And the hedgehog? Doing great. Meds have cleared up the parasites affecting its eyes, and the vet has it in an incubator. It was underweight and dehydrated, but it’s now eating like a trooper. They named it Harper. After the Welsh Harp.


Ben Watt is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything But The Girl. His memoir ‘Romany and Tom’, about his parents, was nominated for the Samuel Johnson (Baillie Gifford) Prize. He runs Buzzin’ Fly Records, and in 2021 founded environmental pressure group Cool Oak.

Ben’s website / Twitter / Instagram

Cool Oak’s website / Twitter / Instagram