By Jodie Nesling
The sound of birdsong fills the air as excited youngsters explore the vibrant Autumnal nature at isle beauty spot, Monkton Nature Reserve
For Tom Plastow teaching the children is the most rewarding part of his working day but he also says being at the 16-acre site has changed his life.
Just four years ago he was diagnosed with the debilitating condition, fibromyalgia. The condition means he suffers with pain and chronic fatigue and needs to use of a walking stick.
Shockingly. assessors at the controversial PIP (disability benefit) assessment said Tom was fit for full-time work despite his condition.
The 26-year-old from Westgate accepted the decision as he was convinced there was little chance of a successful appeal. “I wish I had appealed now but it grinds you down. I now know many others have been successful (in challenging the decisions) but I was depressed,” he said
However a chance conversation between Tom’s mother and the reserve’s volunteer coordinator, Sharon Blayney saw the nature lover spend time at Monkton as and when his health permitted.
Now, after a stint of volunteering, his “dream job” of working in conservation – which he had studied at Hadlow College – has come true thanks to the support of the reserve.
“It’s saved my life. I was stuck and it’s really improved my anxiety, being able to talk to people. It’s just amazing teaching children about nature and I just love the serenity,” he said.
Another volunteer Vince Woodward visits Monkton once a week. The 43-year-old is waiting for the decision on his PIP assessment but is concerned there will not be enough points accrued as he is deemed mobile. “It’s hard to talk about,” said Vince, of Minster. who has had cataracts since birth and also suffers with glaucoma.
“I can make out outlines but rely on recognising people’s voices mainly. Steps can be a problem because I cannot gauge the depth. Simple things like shopping I just can’t do,” he said.
Relying on his 83-year-old father to cook meals and transport him most places, Vince likes to help with what he can at the 16-acre site which provides conservation and education services.
Trustee Les Shonk has been volunteering at the site for 25 years and is passionate about the effect nature has on people suffering with ill mental health and depression.
He said: “It’s a peaceful place and people can come and enjoy nature. listen to the birds and explore the area. We have volunteers fix fences, build the fairy garden which the kiddies love and help clear for regeneration for next spring. It’s a very special place. the chalk quarry side is feathered which indicates the last ice age. It’s amazing to think that this was all once under water.”
A sensory garden full of pungent herbs ranging from punchy sage to aromatic curry leaves helps educate visitors and also provides a floral vista for those about to enter the nature trails.
Activities for children, bird watching and stargazing are all on offer at the pocket of paradise which also hosts falconry displays by local, Alex Goodier.
Alex said: “I have been interested in falconry since I was 16, ever since I volunteered at a display. Barn owl Oka is very friendly and lets people stroke her. We have Odin the Raven – they are becoming rare and are often shot on sight by farmers- , Blaze the Kestrel, Zach is a Harris Hawk and Fraggle (another owl).”
Sharon added: “People can bring a picnic here and eat their own food. We have regular trails during half-term shows and offer work experience for people and CV writing assistance too.”
The reserve, which is owned and managed by Thanet Countryside Trust, is open six days a week during the winter months. Visit Monkton-reserve.org