An interview with Nigel Smallbones
Nigel, you lived and worked on Berry Head for half your life. What are your strongest memories?
My first visit to the headland still sticks out in my mind. I was driving in for an interview and I’d arrived early in the morning. I drove past the holiday camp and the road narrowed, and I thought to myself, “Where on earth am I going?” And then I saw the top of the fort walls above the hedgerow and started to get very existed about what kind of place I was coming to. The longer I have spent here, the more I’ve got to know about and love the headland, the wildlife, the history. Every day is different – the weather, light, season, angle at which you look at it. I always find something to wonder at.
Has the site changed much since you were first here?
I was the only ranger in Torbay when I arrived, and those early years were a time of discovery. Talking with amateur botanists to find the rare orchids which grow around the headland; investigating the historic remains, not just the Napoleonic forts but odd-shaped flints, the bottom of wells, tunnels and building foundations with archaeologists; meeting cavers who were exploring the many cave systems. I found a hole once and they went in and found a massive cave. They encouraged me to come in with them and I got stuck!
The guillemot colony has done very well since I arrived here. We used to have around 400 birds; it’s up to 1500ish now at a time when most colonies have been shrinking. That was down to a lot of hard work: education, collaborating with agencies. We managed to get the cliff protected and in 1988 we got the first area of no entry out in the bay anywhere in the country. We allowed pot fishermen in but all other boats were banned during the breeding season. That made a big difference to the guillemots.
What are your favourite things to see on the headland?
I love the orchids. We have several types here – pyramidal, early purple, common spotted, green-winged, bee, twayblade down in the woodland. I’m what you might call a general naturalist and this site really has everything you could want. I love to see the changes through the year. I love the early winter mornings when I have the headland to myself; the carpets of wildflowers, especially on the main headland in the spring; seeing the cowslips starting to poke up; just standing at the end and looking out over the sea. I’ve been to a lot of places and I don’t think there is anywhere more beautiful.
I bet you’ve seen some remarkable things here?
Well one Midsummer’s Day I walked to the end of the headland to watch the sun rise. And there was a white-clad priest there with about 20 people, all totally naked! I averted my eyes and politely turned around!
Another winter’s day I looked out across Torbay and you could see a black swirling mass of snow coming towards us from Dorset. It twisted and turned in the air as it travelled across the bay, just totally amazing. Another time we had snow – winter 1986 I think – and we were snowed into the bungalow for 8 days.
What would you say to someone who has not been to Berry Head?
It’s a wonderful place, come up one morning for a quiet walk and just let the sights and sounds wash over you. Your first visit is just a taster, it’s only after spending many days here that you’ll start to feel like you know the place. There’s just so much here. At the end of the headland there’s a really good chance of seeing porpoise. And you might spend a day here without really noticing the sea birds, then you hear a noise and think, “wow! There’s something going on over on that cliff”. And the cliffs themselves, how often do you see rock formations like that? And then the next day might be really windy like we had recently, 91mph I think, and it is a totally different experience again. You’ll never ever be bored here!