A great influence on the life of a young ranger is the figure of the Senior Ranger. In my own case I worked with a few such, but perhaps the most memorable was the late Ian Smith, of Hampshire County Council’s Royal Victoria Country Park.
Ian was nearing the end of his long career just as I was starting my own. He was a figure from a different time – a skilled countryman who had been taken on by the County Council as one of the very first rangers in the country. From being a solitary worker having half of Hampshire to work in, he ended up steward of a big and busy country park on the outskirts of Southampton. A quiet man, he enjoyed talking about how things had changed in his life – and indeed, during that time in Hampshire, there had been vast changes, as huge swathes of countryside were built over, a motorway was constructed, and in the south at least farming as a way of life more-or-less ended. His roots were in farming, but Ian survived where few others had, by adapting his skills to delivering countryside management in a different way, and to a very different audience. He realised this and always seemed willing to spend time explaining to visitors what, to him, must have been the most basic of concepts about wildlife and landscape. Not only visitors needed Ian’s patient advice – his own colleagues were often little better, having grown up in an urban landscape rather than a rural one. Ian often seemed gently bemused by the strange new breed of rangers he was working with: graduates with little experience of country life and more interest in education and interpretation. In the winter months when the rain lashed down and the afternoons were too dark to work, we would sometimes spend an afternoon huddled around the radiant heater in the workshop, pretending to sharpen tools. Ian would stand by, smoking his filthy tobacco, and with a wry smile tell us young ones about times past; whilst we would exhort him to get out of his tractor cab and get with the new way of working. And yet when the crunch came – for example in the emergencies caused in the great storms in 1990 and 1991 – it was to Ian that we looked for direction, and we were never disappointed. Ian fell ill just a few years before he was due to retire. It was a retirement he never lived to see, and he died, still a ranger, some fifteen years ago. At his funeral the little church behind the country park was packed with a remarkable range of people including many of the rangers in Hampshire. Much was said in tribute to him. All of us discovered a part of Ian’s busy life that we’d never suspected. I didn’t know he’d written a book, for example. These days, I find myself occasionally thinking of Ian when I am telling some young lad how to do something. I wish I had his patience and thoroughness – and I wonder if I will have the grace to work another twenty years without becoming bitter. Something Ian gave me which I shan’t ever lose is the handful of sayings he delivered on suitable occasions. Ian loved to play up to his ‘old countryman’ image and had an entertaining and occasionally infuriating habit of speaking in proverbs – many of which one suspected he made up on the spot. A few of these have stuck in my mind, and I still use them. One such inspired this post, and always comes to mind around this time of year when the hedges and fields are mostly devoid of flowers. Ian once said to me when I was burning some gorse bushes “If you’re out walking with a girl, tell her that when gorse is in flower, it’s the season for love”. I didn’t understand what he meant – as he knew I wouldn’t. So he explained, and I’ve used his old country joke on countless guided walks ever since. Gorse is one of the few plants in this country that flowers all year around: so it’s always the season for love.