Interview – Bellamy's Hertfordshire world
PUBLISHED: 10:44 18 July 2013 | UPDATED: 10:44 18 July 2013
Celebrated botanist David Bellamy OBE, patron of Butterfly World Project at Chiswell Green, near St Albans, has a lifelong connection with Hertfordshire – a county he regards as his second home. Interview by Andy Greeves
It was during the 1930s that botanist, author, television presenter and environmental activist David Bellamy OBE first visited Hertfordshire. On weekends, the young Bellamy would travel from his parents’ house in Cheam on the London-Surrey border to Watford on the London Underground to visit his aunt and uncle.
‘It was 36 stops, I can recall, from where I lived with my family to Watford,’ he smiles. ‘Visiting my auntie was always exciting – she had two fantastic cars and she’d choose one to pick us up from the station in. And we’d always get to eat cream cakes before our main meal, which was sure to appeal to a child. My uncle had a great Hornby train set but as a youngster I was absolutely not allow to touch it under any circumstances!’
Bellamy’s links with the county became even stronger 20 years ago when he first met Clive Farrell – lepidopterist and founder of the Butterfly World Project just south of St Albans. As it was being designed and built, Bellamy visited the site at Chiswell Green regularly and was at the opening of the attraction and conservation centre in spring 2009. Since that time he has been a regular visitor, delivering educational talks and chatting to youngsters about insects.
‘I draw on my own childhood experiences,’ says the famously young-at-heart environmentalist, ‘I can recall there being lots of butterflies in my family garden in London and lots of other creepy-crawlies. When we went to trim the hedges, we’d make sure we gently removed them first and it was amazing seeing them close up. I offer the same experience for children, getting them to build interaction and get ‘kissed’ by the butterflies.
He adds the insects are not only beautiful, but key to the wellbeing of the ecosystem on which we depend. ‘The importance of butterflies, the same as bees, cannot be overestimated as they are integral to our ecosystems and food chains. Without bees and butterflies for example, we wouldn’t have any food because they are vital for the pollination of blossom.’
Bellamy is just one of a number of high-profile patrons of Butterfly World, which also includes gardener and broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh, naturalist Sir David Attenborough and actress Emilia Fox. The project has a strong focus on conservation – through the creation of a pesticide and herbicide-free environment as well as by supplying livestock to breeding programmes in rainforests around the world. Education is also central, and the popularity of its programmes is reflected in the fact that school group visits are fully-booked until the summer holidays.
Among the attractions is the Tropical Butterfly House, home to more than 500 butterflies; Antworld, which contains the largest colony of leaf cutter ants in the country and the Insect Study Centre, where regular handling sessions take place. Long-term, Butterfly World has ambitions to build The Dome – a multi-million pound 27-acre biome with more than 10,000 tropical butterflies, as well as other rainforest fauna and flora, in a ‘lost world’ setting inspired by Mayan ruins and including caves, streams, canopy walkways and thunderstorms.
‘Butterfly World is incredible,’ Bellamy says. ‘It’s a large estate with many acres of meadow. It’s not just butterflies though, the plant species on site are phenomenal, with my personal highlight being a vast sunflower field. I have to mention the Gardens of The Rose (the Royal National Rose Society Gardens) next door too – they are well worth a visit.’
It’s not only Butterfly World Project that appeals to Bellamy on his regular visits to Hertfordshire throughout the year. He remains inspired by the nearby city of St Albans, a place he has been coming to since his childhood.
‘I’m fortunate that when I come to Hertfordshire friends of mine from Butterfly World Project will accommodate me, giving me time to see the county,’ he explains. ‘I know St Albans very well and of course the stand-out feature of the city is the magnificent cathedral, not to mention the market and the 15th century clock tower. An early memory of St Albans is of my uncle taking me down to the station and we’d watch the big steam trains picking up water before they continued their journeys north, or south to London St Pancras.
‘St Albans is a pretty inspirational city. I can remember seeing the cathedral for the first time and thinking I’d like to become an architect or go into church building in some shape or form! The mix of old and new in the city is fantastic and certainly I think it’s a very good place to take young people if you are looking to show them how building designs and techniques have changed over the centuries.’
As a botanist, Bellamy also raves about the wetlands in the Lee Valley on the eastern edge of the county. He has paid ‘countless’ visits to the 10,000 acre, 26-mile long linear park which spans London, Essex and Hertfordshire, running alongside Cheshunt, Broxbourne and Hoddesdon. The park is four times the size of London’s Richmond Park and home to a wide variety of animal and plant species.
‘Lee Valley Regional Park is just fantastic,’ Bellamy says. ‘The extensive wetland habitats there are an absolute joy for someone like me who is passionate about wildlife, and something like 200 bird species have been recorded there. For example, it’s somewhere you can see the rare and elusive bittern every year. It’s just one of the many natural treasures of the county.’