If you go down to the woods today...

29th June 2012 at 01:00
Roley Walton is 82, a former biology teacher and perennial environmentalist at Currie Community High. Loved by pupils and staff alike, she is still stirring them into action and has even had a wood named after her

Everyone's a bit in love with Roley. This afternoon she's in her purple wellies scouring the burn for litter and every so often you will hear her laughter drifting up through the woodland.

If she's not laughing she'll be urging everyone on - "Come on, let's get on, it'll soon be time for lunch" - traipsing along the muddy edges of the water, spearing abandoned sweetie papers.

Eighty-two-year old Roley retired after 25 years teaching biology at Currie Community High in 1995. She then worked as an environmental project volunteer at the school for another 15 years. Today she's helping clean up the woods next to the school with the promise of a barbecue afterwards.

Most eighty-something women are pretty careful where they put their feet, but Roley's happily tramping through the undergrowth and slithering down the muddy embankment, chatting to children and teachers while she works.

The school named this woodland "Roley's Wood" to mark her 70th birthday, celebrating her work transforming it from a derelict dumping ground to a haven for wildlife and resource for learning.

"I think they thought, `Poor old woman, she's still picking up crisp bags in the wood. There she goes - she's bound to die soon, we'll name the wood after her.' So they did - oh I was so thrilled," says Roley.

She has recently been presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the RSPB in their Nature of Scotland Awards. This was for conservation in her home community at Livingston and for pioneering work developing an outdoor classroom in the quadrangle at Currie Community High.

"It was the inspiration of the pupils that made me restore this grotty, filthy, dying wood. It was a mess. But once I had done that, that was me - my life changed completely and I thought, `I'm going to do that'. I suddenly realised that there was conservation work that I had the ability to do," she says.

The restoration of this leafy strip of woodland began in 1989, when a group of sixth-year pupils knocked on her classroom door just before the summer holidays. "They said: `Mrs Walton, we want to go in for a competition to improve a square mile of our environment.'"

Roley suggested a plan of action to the pupils and went off on holiday, thinking their teenage enthusiasm would evaporate. But when she returned, they had done the homework and the legwork, filling skips with rubbish and clearing 10 metres of the burn.

"I said: `If you've done 10 metres, we'll do 300 metres - we'll get all these dead trees removed, we'll get new trees planted. And that was it - one of these life-changing moments. So it wasn't really my inspiration, it was an inspiration from a group of sixth-year kids."

The following year, Roley developed the central quadrangle of the school into an outdoor classroom - turning the concrete area into a lush and leafy wildlife garden, filled with flowering plants and trees.

"First we dug out a pond with a surrounding marsh, then we made a wildlife area that is suitable for frogs. We have another little pond inside that area and we created an area for plant classification. So we have a spore garden there with ferns," says Roley.

She used the quad area and the woodland for teaching biology and both continue to be used to inspire learning across the curriculum.

Roley's influence has made a lasting impression on this school and its pupils through her commitment to environmental education and conservation. Currie Community High has been awarded four Eco-School green flags and has a programme of sustainable education for first-years, which Roley helped design.

She was also a key contributor to the school's success in winning the Ashden UK Award as a green energy champion in 2009, for achievements that included a decade reducing energy consumption. The school even employs its own environmental project worker, Rachel Avery.

"My role is to co-ordinate all of the Eco-Schools work that happens at school. I am the outdoor learning champion and I also help with the global citizenship work," says Ms Avery, who supports teachers and pupils with environmental work.

Today she has organised teachers, parents, pupils and local primary school children to tidy Roley's Wood using an arsenal of long-handled litter pickers and black bin bags. Among them is Roley's son Clive Walton, one of the depute heads at the school, who disappears off with a barrow to clear sludge from the bottom of the burn.

It's easy to see why Roley manages to cajole everyone into being in her gang. She's good company, doesn't take herself too seriously and never loses sight of her goal. She is also slightly eccentric, but in a good way.

Among today's litter pickers is Lesley Helm, principal teacher of home economics - one of Roley's pupils 30 or so years ago. "She taught me right up until sixth year," says Mrs Helm, scrambling across the sloping woodland.

Her department has prepared today's barbecue, using plants foraged from the woodland - pakora made with dandelion flowers, nettle soup and potato salad with hawthorn leaves.

"One day, I remember we were doing something about worms. We had the hut door open because we were out in the huts and she starts wriggling in on her stomach to be an earthworm as a demonstration to the class," Mrs Helm says. "And we all just stood there and watched as she wriggled her way into the classroom and then started the lesson. Fab - absolutely brilliant. She is so enthusiastic and keen and always has been, she's never changed."

Roley's also determined. Her passion is restoring habitats destroyed by urbanisation in her community, creating wildlife corridors and giving people a sense of joy in nature and pride in their surroundings. She's also passionate about making the most of school grounds and using them for learning across the curriculum.

But she's concerned that developing school grounds as a resource for learning is less of a focus in Scottish schools now, with so many other objectives on the radar.

"I think children learn more from actually seeing plants, seeing soil, seeing trees, seeing water, seeing invertebrates in streams. I think they get more from doing that than seeing it on a virtual screen in IT," Roley explains.

"I think it's more of a spiritual and emotional learning process - they gain more from actually being part of the natural world - being out in it."

Later she shares her idea for a campaign to encourage schools to create what she calls "Grounds for Excellence" with headteacher Kate Paton, as the two women gather rubbish by the burn.

Mrs Paton has got plenty of time for Roley. "Roley is just fabulous. She was a volunteer when I came here five years ago. I have just got to know her and love her because she is so wonderful.

"She gives so much to the school and to the community in terms of keeping the environment going and providing this outdoor classroom for us. It's fabulous - she is a real powerhouse - she's just amazing."

Fifth-year Gemma King is on the school's eco committee and was a member of a conservation group Roley led in her second year. "I love doing work in Roley's Wood, because it's fun to do and it annoys me when there's litter in it."

Several classrooms have a view looking down into the woods: "If it wasn't kept nice, it would just be a bit depressing having it next to the school," she says.

When Roley retired from teaching, Alison Nind was taken on as the first environmental project worker. Dr Lind is now semi-retired and works at the school a few hours a week as environmental projects co-ordinator.

She sums up her friend Roley's special qualities. "She is the most charismatic person with this tremendous vision and she is totally unfazed by things that go wrong - by obstacles.

"She sees what she wants to happen and she works really hard to make it happen and she pulls everybody else along with her. So she has this tremendous vision, but she is also really acute - she really is able to analyse a situation and she knows what needs to be done. She's a leader - a great leader."


To celebrate the town of Livingston's 50th anniversary, West Lothian Council has presented Roley Walton and her friend Wilma Shearer with community champion awards, recognising their outstanding contribution to local life.

Wilma, 75, is secretary of the Dedridge Environment Ecology Project (Deep) alongside Roley who is the vice-chair.

"We'd always been the ones that were picking up litter and phoning up the council - `There's a trolley in the pond!'" Roley shrieks for comic illustration.

The office bearers of Deep are resourceful retired people like them. "But in among us we've got the schools, the Scouts, the churches, the police and the council. It's a big organisation - these little old ladies have kind of attracted them," says Roley.

Deep has been restoring the Dedridge Burn and surrounding areas since 2007 and last year it won Scotland's Finest Community Woods Award.

Supported by schools and the local community, it raises money and restores local woodlands and ponds, creating sanctuaries for wildlife and beautiful places people can enjoy.

Another Deep project, the Jubilee Ponds, was opened this term - an eyesore and magnet for vandals that has been transformed into a magnificent wetland habitat of four ponds linked with weirs in the centre of Livingston.

Pupils from Livingston schools helped with the venture, creating a new nature trail and planting wild flower bulbs.

Children from Dedridge, Bankton, Williamston and St Ninian's primaries were presented with trophies for their efforts along with pupils from James Young High and St Margaret's Academy.

At her home in Livingston, Roley is describing some of the work done by Deep when she is interrupted by a call from her friend Wilma. "I've got the paparazzi here," Roley tells her.

Wilma has good news of pound;10,000 funding for the next stage of their project, working on the burn where it joins the River Almond in Livingston.

Roley leans back in her armchair and kicks her legs into the air and shrieks "Yes!". That Bodyvive exercise class for the over-40s is certainly working its magic.

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