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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Derek Niemann

Country diary: An old haunt that’s now full of life

Priory country park in Bedford
Priory Country Park … ‘Nobody needs the accoutrements of hiking boots or green wellies, or need fret about getting lost.’ Photograph: Sarah Niemann

Right here, on top of a rubbish tip, I started my first paid job after college. A slab of clay slapped over a landfill site constituted much of the land that was rebirthed as Priory Country Park. There was no longer a priory, it was hardly in the country, and for those first arrivals in the newly grassed ground planted with a scatter of whips, it wasn’t much of a park. Our visitor centre offices even had methane counters to remind us of the toxic stew below our desks. But the visionaries who created it knew that they would eventually get more buds for their bucks.

Years have softened away the starkness into bushy groves, and hidden behind those little trees is an adventure playground. The visitor centre that had no visitors now hums with coffee and a cafe culture that extends on to a decking veranda almost as far as the lake shore. On this sunny day, the deck is full of chatter to its cappuccino brim.

Swans with the smudged plumage of juveniles have suspended their wildness to loaf by the side of the lake. They tolerate a toddler on reins who totters over to greet them, a child standing before nature that is bigger than she is. It is an encounter she will scarcely remember, though she will hang on to that thrill and awe for the rest of her life.

A stream of people pass by the child on a tarmac strip that runs around the perimeter of the lake and close to the Great Ouse river. It is a lunchtime procession of bikes and buggies, dog walkers and fitness walkers, and people of all ethnicities, everyone sociably distanced in the company of strangers. And in this town-countryside promenading, nobody needs the accoutrements of hiking boots or green wellies, or need fret about getting lost, feeling like an impostor on someone else’s land, or simply being afraid of isolation. The warden of 20 years’ standing tells me that the country park is busier now than ever.

Do I prefer the crowds today to the quiet I found here in 1986? A thousand times, yes.

• Country diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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