Volunteer Spotlight on John Cole

Our trees and woodlands are rich habitats, supporting diverse wildlife, plants and humans. To celebrate National Tree Week, communications officer Liz Gyekye sat down with John Cole (right), a regular volunteer at our Enfield Chase Woodland Restoration project (run in partnership with Enfield Council), to ask him some questions about his background, why he enjoys planting trees and volunteering for Thames21.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I have lived in Enfield for more than 55 years. Up until recently I was head of sustainability at a major central government department looking after, among other things, waste and recycling, energy and water efficiency, net zero, sustainable supply chains and biodiversity.

Since the 1980s, I have worked in similar posts in various other central government departments including the Home Office, Defra and the Ministry of Defence. My only other volunteering spell was as parent governor of a secondary a school in Enfield. After I stopped working last year, I have become a Trustee of The Enfield Society and I am currently a regular volunteer and advocate for the Thames21 Restoring Enfield’s Rivers and in particular the Enfield Chase Restoration. I am also co-managing a Friends of Group for a local community railway station. I am married to Gill and have two children, one is currently a lecturer at York University and the other is working in IT. 

Why do you volunteer for Thames21?

After more than 20 years, mostly sat behind a desk and writing reports, policies and strategies, seeking ever decreasing funds from an ever more complex funding regime: it has been fantastic, even in the rain and cold of winter, to be involved in the tangible planting of real trees. Making a bit of difference is great. Even throughout the spring and summer with no trees to plant, we have been maintaining the planted saplings. It’s been fun to see not only the growth of the tiny trees above the guards but wonderful making new friends, and as an advocate, telling other people about the emergence of a new country park in Enfield. There is a lovely heritage aspect too, as the new woodland restores the trees lost on Enfield Chase centuries ago. Thames21 has also led me to be an active Riverfly monitor in a different part of the Borough of Enfield on the same Brook as the tree planting, helping to prepare an area for beavers and also looking after wetland and lake habitats.

How are you making a difference in doing your bit for the planet?

Last year, we planted around 50,000 trees over 30 hectares and we plan to repeat this over winter 2021/2. With a potential for more woodland in the future, we can turn poor quality inaccessible arable land into a biodiverse habitat open to the public. The main aim of the planting and landscape management is to alleviate the risk of flooding in other parts of the Borough. It’s ironic that the brooks of the leafy and richer part west of the Borough, put at risk the more industrial east of the Borough, with denser populations and greater deprivation. Whilst the origins of this project are about flood prevention it has grown into many other areas: carbon capture, creating more diverse habitats, improving access to the countryside and supporting social justice. It’s quite good for my mental and physical health too.

How long have you been volunteering with us for?

I started in November 2020 with tree planting. Covid-19 disrupted some of the volunteering in the early part of 2021, but there is now a regular group of Wednesday volunteers with a WhatsApp group and a Facebook page!

What solutions do you think your help will offer in the future?

One answer is we are helping to prepare Enfield for what many people fear will happen. That is flooding in the East of the Borough. So we are helping adapt to what is more likely. 

But on a different level we are just now looking at putting a volunteer team together to support the Enfield Chase Restoration project as a Friends of Group, working with Enfield Council and Thames21 to look at and deliver wider sustainability and social improvements. So, we might be able to help deliver meadows, support B- lines (or insect pathways), support bird life though erecting nest boxes and even consider the arts and other projects. We would have time to develop ways to get more folk and societal groups to this London Loop (section 17) in Enfield, be they walkers, cyclists, nature lovers, bird watchers, people out for a walk, children’s groups, schools and so on.

 What’s your favourite environmental activity?

So I think I like getting in at the start, promoting something and seeing a practical or actual difference on the ground. So it’s nice to see a field of stakes ready for planting, or the growth of hundreds of saplings above the plastic guard, or improving the ground drainage and seeing the Swales or wetlands filling. This is in contrast to a desk job that was often checking endless monthly reports of RAG statuses and KPIs explaining what we could have done if we had the resources and endlessly reporting the best but settling for the average. Greta has all best lines but we are taking action on the ground, I think she would approve!

Thank you John.

Are you part of the Enfield local community? Would you like to get involved in our community tree-planting events over the winter? If yes, click on link below to find out more. https://www.thames21.org.uk/natural-flood-management/trees/#events

If you are a corporate group, please book with Thames21 using our corporate volunteering page.