In what looks an increasingly familiar mix of ‘just doing our job’ and risk management gone haywire, contractors for Southeastern Railway have destroyed a large section of the wildflower meadow sown along the winding path down to Warrior Square station and most of the mature garden plants in full bloom along Station Approach on the north side of the track. 

The contractors arrived in mid-July with apparent mandatory requirements to keep the entire area clear of ‘hazards to pedestrians’. On that occasion a volunteer from Transition Town Hastings (TTH), which had initiated and coordinated the sowing of the meadow path in the spring, managed to intervene, pointing to signs along the railings saying: “The wildflowers are coming here”. However, according to Sherry Clark, Chair of TTH, while the contractors left the path intact that time, they moved over to the north side of the track and strimmed along the railings bordering the garden there, cutting down everything that was blooming across the top, including honeysuckle, sweet peas, jasmine, clematis, rosemary, lavender, poppies and countless other plants that have been painstakingly planted and cared for over the past six years by TTH volunteers. 

CREDIT: Rod Webb

When Ms Clark discovered the destruction, she wrote to Southeastern Railway, explicitly asking how to ensure it would never happen again. In return, she received a profuse apology and an acknowledgement of the need to ensure no recurrence. Then last Thursday, only two weeks later, contractors were back again, and this time managed to strim the winding path before anyone could intervene. As John Bownas of Love Hastings, one of the stakeholders in the project, recounted, “The contractor had just finished when I got there… 20 minutes too late! He told me that the plants were a ‘hazard’ to pedestrians where they were growing over the path.” 

Apologies

More apologies followed from Southeastern. Station Manager for the Hastings Area, Lauren Heap, replied to Ms Clark by email: “I can only echo what [two other officials] have already said by sending my sincere apologies for the fact that this has happened. I can fully appreciate your upset and frustration. I visited last week and noticed how lovely it was looking – what a transformation from what it was looking like before you did this work!”

The wildflower project started last autumn, when Fergus Garrett, CEO and head gardener at the historic house and gardens of Great Dixter, and Richard Scott, Director of the National Wildflower Centre at the Eden Project, visited Hastings to learn more about local community efforts to increase its biodiversity. Walking up the winding path on their visit with members of TTH and the Hastings Garden Town team, everyone agreed the winding path was a perfect location for a wildflower meadow, as it is such a busy public thoroughfare. 

“It used to be hideous,” says Ms Clark. “It was covered in rubbish. There were all kinds of shrubs
and bushes, there was drug paraphernalia, there were used condoms.” But this spring, both TTH and Tidy Up St Leonards got grants to improve the area, through the Home Office-funded Safer St Leonards project, led by the Sussex Police Crime Commissioner and delivered by Hastings Borough Council, Sussex Police and Hastings Area Business Crime Reduction Partnership.

Working closely in cooperation, the two community groups were able to combine efforts. Volunteers spent three weekends cutting back, clearing, and preparing the ground. Then, in late May, TTH hosted an event with Richard Scott to sow the wildflower seeds.

Appalling

It has clearly been a big hit with local residents, and its despoliation has appalled many. One told HIP: ““It’s unbelievable that they would do this. I saw it when they planted the flowers. I saw it when they started to come up. It’s taken a long time, then suddenly it’s exploded in the last week with flowers everywhere.” He had recently watched a five-year old girl reacting excitedly to the flowering, saying, “Look, mummy, all the flowers are coming out!” 

One volunteer commented: “So many people worked so hard on it, and it’s devastating that it’s been cut down with no consideration of what it is. It’s clearly not a hazard, though I’ve heard that was the excuse they have given.”

Ms Clark offers a measured reaction. “I think we’re all learning a lot about the complex system dynamics at work when communities want to do something positive but the wider contextual factors in play aren’t that clear”, she says. “What this has highlighted most strongly to me is the need for a better understanding for us all of the maintenance contracts in place and the potential implications they pose. 

“The contractors are an easy target. I do feel sad that they had little regard for what was very clearly a wildflower planting in bloom – but it also sounds like they probably have no discretion when it comes to cutting back. Until they are instructed and trained differently, and contracts are changed to reflect the need for supporting much more bio-diverse environments, this will happen again and again.”  

If you’d like to help or learn more about the work of Transition Town Hastings, see transitiontownhastings.org.uk or email [email protected]


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