Gallery: Why I'm away for my wedding anniversary!

The world couldn't turn without volunteers cheerfully giving up their time.

Steven Russell

The world couldn't turn without volunteers cheerfully giving up their time. Steven Russell meets a man whose devotion to the cause has regularly meant being away from home on his wedding anniversary. Now that's what you call dedication . . .

MANY folk know Cliff Dark as the long-time manager of Superdrug in Bury St Edmunds. But, like the children's TV character Mr Benn, he has many other hats. Each May, for instance, sees him bidding a fond and temporary farewell to wife Tracey and heading for Wales. For 15 years, a week of his holiday has been spent helping at a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve in Powys: checking nest boxes, maintaining boardwalks, manning the visitors' centre, clearing paths with a strimmer . . . tackling any job that helps, really. It's a chance to do his bit for wildlife.

During his first visit there in 1994, Cliff met a couple of like-minded volunteers: Malcolm Smith, a tool-maker from Lichfield, and teacher Ian McGlyn, who lived in Lincolnshire. They all shared a sense of humour and cheerfully mucked in together while staying in a basic but adequate bungalow at the bottom of the woods. Fun was had by all and they decided they'd have a working-holiday reunion at Ynys-hir every year. And so they have. The 2009 gathering will be the 16th in an unbroken line.

“We don't see each other at any other time of the year, but when you get together it doesn't feel as if you've been away. You just pick up where you left off,” says Cliff, 47, who lives near Sudbury.

The trio are now so much part of the furniture at the reserve near Aberystwyth that RSPB staff play to their strengths - organising children's pond-dipping sessions for them to run, for example, and guided walks. “It is like going back to a little family you've got in Wales. The little bungalow is almost like your timeshare!”

Most Read

Cliff's volunteering record with the bird charity actually goes back further than 1994. His eye was drawn by a notice in the RSPB magazine saying: Wanted - volunteers. “I don't know quite why I decided this would be a good idea but I sent off for the information and said to Tracey 'I fancy doing this' and she said 'Yes, OK.' So I booked in 1991 at Coombes Valley, in Staffordshire, and spent a week there around Easter-time.”

It was, quite simply, wonderful. “I was able to see birds I'd never seen before; got taken out onto the moors by the assistant warden. Blindfolded - so I couldn't tell anybody the location - I was taken to see the black grouse, which are very rare birds in England, at four o'clock in the morning.” He also saw badgers for the first time, in the snow. Volunteer accommodation was an old shooting lodge in the middle of the reserve. “I came away thinking 'That was really good! I'll have to do it again.'”

The following year saw him by The Wash, at Snettisham in Norfolk.

Cliff consults his notebooks to check about 1993. Geltsdale, in Cumbria, it was. “Windswept moors, middle of nowhere. Different again: a week spent monitoring hen harriers - a rare bird of prey heavily persecuted by gamekeepers because they take grouse.” He also saw short-eared owls and peregrine falcons, as well as red squirrels.

The following year brought that initial visit to Ynys-hir, 15 miles northish of Aberystwyth and 235 miles from home. “But it's fantastic! Diverse habitats on the reserve: reedbeds, hanging oak woodlands, estuary, salt marsh. There are things you don't get here, like wood warblers, red kites and chough.”

By now, Cliff had been well and truly bitten by the volunteering bug - so much so that in 1995 he started devoting two weeks of his holiday to the RSPB: one at Ynys-hir and the second at other reserves.

“I was stretching it a bit!” he admits. Early May of 1995 saw him in Arne, Dorset - a vast expanse of open heathland and old oak woodland - and after two weeks back home it was off to Wales to meet up with his friends. The Whitsun timing was determined largely by jobs: Ian was a teacher, so had to coincide with school holidays; Malcolm ran his own tool-making business and that was a convenient week to temporarily shut down.

In subsequent years he went to reserves such as South Stack Cliffs, on Anglesey, where guillemots, razorbills and puffins raise their young. “When everyone's gone home, the sun goes over the lighthouse and you've got all the noise of the seabirds, all flying round, and it's a fantastic place to be.”

The last year he doubled up was 2002, since when it's just been Ynys-hir. “What put paid to that was my other commitment: scouting.” More about that elsewhere on these pages. “I basically had to give up the other week because I started running a summer camp. So it was like 'There's a limit to what I can get away with . . .'” he smiles.

Speaking of which, what did his good lady think about being a “volunteering widow”? The children are now grown-up, 21 and 18, but were obviously younger when dad was going off for weeks of unpaid toil in the 1990s.

“She hasn't got a problem with me going. It's normally other people who might try to sow seeds of doubt - 'I wouldn't let my husband do it; you wouldn't know what he's getting up to, blah, blah, blah' - but she's absolutely fine with it.”

Last year, ornithology's three amigos brought forward their Wales week to earlier in May, thanks to Ian and Malcolm both now being retired and freed from the restrictions of their jobs.

“For me, that's probably a good thing, because Whitsun week, for all those years, coincided with my wedding anniversary,” explains Cliff. “So not only was I abandoning my wife for that week, it was our anniversary! For most of my anniversaries, I haven't been at home!”

It's clear a love of nature is in his blood. Days off invariably involve bird-watching trips. This morning, for instance, he was at Lynford Arboretum, part of Thetford Forest Park, at about 9am. It's renowned for hawfinches. Then came a 10-mile hop to Lakenheath Fen, a fairly new RSPB wetland reserve that's sprung (with some hard work) from carrot fields on the banks of the Little Ouse.

“I can go back to my early volunteering days, when I worked up at Snettisham and spent a week with the warden, picking out little reedlings. These were being transferred to this newly-acquired carrot field. So it's quite satisfying to think I was partly responsible for setting that on its way. It's a terrific site now, though still a work in progress, but they're getting all sorts of stuff there.

“There's a bird that's been there since December: a great grey shrike. It looks like a bandit, with a black 'mask' over its eyes. It's not native to this country.

“There's another name for it: the Butcher Bird. It's quite entertaining to watch because it catches a shrew or little rodent and spikes it” - on a hawthorn bush, say. “You'll see its little larder with all these corpses!”

Cliff also dropped in at Lackford Lakes before heading home.

“People get really het up about being called a twitcher. Birder . . . bird watching . . . What do I class myself? I enjoy bird watching, ornithology, but I also enjoy nature and conservation. My parents were always interested, and used to point out birds in the garden. They were RSPB members, but as a teenager you think that's not cool. When I was married and we'd got the first child it rekindled the interest - taking the little 'un out into the countryside - and I thought it would be a good idea to rejoin.”

The hobby - more a way of life, really - is a perfect antidote to the stresses of modern living. Yesterday, Cliff had to endure the M25 as he drove towards Crawley for a business meeting. You can see the appeal of a morning out in the fresh air, watching wildlife in action.

His excursions are generally around East Anglia, though that's no hardship. “Norfolk and Suffolk are the best two birding counties in the country, in terms of number and the different things to see. If you were a birdwatcher and were asking 'Where shall I live?' you're more than likely going to put yourself in this area, because you really can't beat it.”

Is that an accident of nature or by design?

“I suppose we've got some good reserves. In terms of migration, birds blown across are going to hit our east coast. We've got some good, big estuaries: the Wash, the Stour, the Orwell. Then we've got lots of diverse habitats: the Brecks and lots of reservoirs. All different things - good for birds and other wildlife.”

Can he explain the thrill of birdwatching?

“It's completely removed from the day-to-day job that I do; it's quite relaxing. There's the challenge of seeing the different birds, and learning the identification by sight and sound. It's also about doing your bit for conservation. If I'm able to give up some of my time to go and help, I'll do that. If we don't do something now, it's not going to be there for future generations.

“It's also about getting out in the fresh air. And for me it's not just about seeing the birds but other wildlife. I've been lucky enough to see quite a lot of nature that maybe other people don't get to see: I've been able to watch badgers; I've been able to watch otters.”

Cliff usually limits himself to just binoculars and telescope as travelling accessories. He's happy to observe and enjoy, rather than take pictures. “I'm not into the digital photography, as lots of people are; that's just more stuff to carry around!”

What are the rarest things he's seen in East Anglia?

“In terms of the rarest bird that's arrived in this country, a spectacled warbler. That was at Felixstowe - Landguard Point.

“The snowy owl was quite good. That was at Felixstowe docks, about 10 years ago, and you couldn't get in, which was frustrating. But I went back a week later and the owl had moved to Trimley marshes, so I saw it there. There's one currently in Cornwall; that's the first since the one in Felixstowe, I think. They cheat a bit, because they don't fly across; they hitch a ride on boats! They're no fools.”

HELPING at RSPB reserves isn't the only volunteering Cliff Dark does.

His son was a Beaver and a Cub Scout. About 12 years ago Cliff agreed to go on the committee of the local group when it was short on numbers. Then they were short of leaders . . . He said he'd be an assistant - and then found himself unexpectedly holding the reins as Cub Scout leader.

He's still there with the 1st Acton & Waldingfield. It's a major commitment but a lot of fun, “and I get to do stuff that someone of my age wouldn't normally do”. Cliff's an instructor in canoeing, archery and air-rifle shooting.

For the past seven years or so they've had a week-long summer camp. Last year they hired two narrowboats in the Warwickshire area - the third time the group had done something like that. “Even with a load of kids it's so relaxing.”

I'd worry they'd fall in . . .

“The only really serious accident we've had involved myself! I once managed to knock myself out, falling in, and ended up in Stoke-on-Trent A&E on a Thursday night with a gashed head. I've still got the scar.”

The different strands of his voluntary work dovetail nicely. The youngsters do things like make bird-boxes, which are put up in local nature reserves or churchyards. Children also carry out conservation tasks at places like the RSPB reserve at Wolves Wood, near Hadleigh, or Sudbury's water meadows. Then there are walks to hear the dawn chorus.

“That's where my knowledge is good. If you ask me to do knots, I'm not so hot on that!”

CLIFF Dark hails from Enfield, though his family moved on to Sussex and Hertfordshire. A job transfer brought him to Suffolk - working in East Street, Sudbury, for International Stores as was. (The company became Gateway and then Somerfield). Cliff joined Superdrug 23 years ago, and has been the manager in Bury St Edmunds “for a long time”.

Any claims to fame?

“Whilst volunteering at Ynys-hir one afternoon we were stopped and asked by a pair of visitors where they could locate a redstart. We did as asked. One of the men was Kenneth Clarke MP - a keen birdwatcher.”