There are some wild corners of London if you know where to look, writes Gillian Thomas
It may surprise many to find that the capital offers a host of wild spaces, often tucked away behind high-rise blocks or industrial estates, or bordering canals or the Thames. Yet they are easy to reach and offer a wealth of invaluable learning opportunities.
Minet Country Park in Hayes, west London, was once a stretch of wasteland used for fly-tipping and car-boot sales. Now, thanks largely to A Rocha, a Christian conservation organisation, and Hillingdon Council, it has become a precious local resource.
Hundreds of saplings were planted. Ponds were cleaned. New sub-soils were imported from various sites, including the demolished Wembley Stadium, to make grassy mounds. The wildflowers and grasses which had colonised the 90-acre site have been cherished, and a small area has been fenced off to attract ground-nesting birds.
The park is available as a general resource for all pupils, but two-hour sessions in primary science are offered, geared to growing plants, rocks and soils, habitats and life cycles. Topics in geography, art and design and technology are also covered.
The nearby Minet Infants School is one of 14 local schools that regularly use the park.
"Children love being out of the classroom and we are lucky the park is so close," says Year 2 teacher Alex Ashford during a "feathered friends" session. She has also taken pupils to the park to help with tree-planting.
Pupils begin by listening to recordings of birdsong, then hop and peck their way through a series of bird-behaviour games. Then they set off with clipboards to see some real birds - ducks, pigeons, crows, even a heron.
Jonathan Nicholas, A Rocha's environmental education officer, says: "We can't guarantee what wildlife will be around, but some pupils have seen kestrels and kingfishers." So far, 110 bird species have been ringed and logged here.
The world's first urban nature reserve, and surely the most hidden in central London, is Camley Street Natural Park, two acres of peaceful woods next to St Pancras station. It nestles beside the Regent's Canal, yards from the building site where the new cross-Channel rail terminal is taking shape.
"We are unique as we have such a variety of habitats," says project manager Tony Wileman. "Sixty-five bird species have been recorded here, with most of the garden varieties nesting, and we have around 350 plant species."
At Deptford, in south London, the Creekside Centre offers another kind of open-space experience. At low tide, children can go wading. In suitable gear and with sticks to keep themselves steady, they can walk along the banks for about 800 metres and go fishing with nets.
The silty water is about a foot deep when the tide is out, leaving a three-hour slot for visits. These offer a chance to see flounders, Atlantic eels and Chinese mitten crabs, which took up residence in Deptford some 60 years ago.
"A lot of pupils who come here never go to the countryside, so this is an invaluable experience," says Chris Gittner, Creekside's manager. "Seeing the power of the rising tide is an education in itself. Even writing their names in mud is great fun for them."
The centre is funded by local boroughs, the Environment Agency and charitable trusts. It opened in 2002 and is now being colonised by plants that are attracting new wildlife. The classroom there is built and run on sustainable principles.
Learners from nursery to degree level, including disabled students, can be catered for in a range of topics, including creek animals, habitats and water cycles. Geography and science fieldwork can also be undertaken here, and sessions in citizenship and PSHE that help to clean up the creek are also on offer.
Minet Country Park
Tel: 020 8574 5935; www.arocha.org
Two-hour school visits, pound;2 per child
Camley Street Natural Park
Tel: 020 7833 2311
www.wildlondon.org.uk Tailor-made school visits pound;50 bookable through
the London Wildlife Trust
Tel: 020 7261 0447
Tel: 020 8692 9922; email:
School visits pound;85 per class
OTHER NATURE RESERVES
The Chase, Barking and Dagenham; Crane Park Island, Richmond on Thames; Gunnersbury Triangle, Hounslow; Battersea Park Nature Reserve, Wandsworth.
For more information, contact the Wildlife Trusts London Tel: 020 7621 0447; www.wildlondon.org.uk
For details of free travel on London public transport available for school groups, contact Transport for London Tel: 020 7918 3954; firstname.lastname@example.org