National Trust post a ‘perfect fit’ for Nick
PUBLISHED: 07:30 03 March 2018
Nick Collinson, the National Trust’s new general manager for east Suffolk, looked out from high up on the cliff-top at the charity’s breathtakingly beautiful swathe of purple perfection that is Dunwich Heath, and then turned his gaze down to sea level to scan the shimmering shingle beach that for only some of the time keeps the hungry, scouring waves at bay below.
“It feels like I’ve come home with this new role,” he said. Actually, he’d only left his home county of Suffolk relatively briefly in his impressive conservation career and had most recently been Suffolk County Council’s head of natural and historic environment, based not a million miles away in Endeavour House, Ipswich - but you knew what he meant alright.
I joked that, with his passion for the Suffolk coast and his vast professional experience in nature conservation, landscape protection, environmental enhancement and historic guardianship, surely the job had been made for him, and he for it. Surely no-one else had needed to apply for it. “Well, it does seem a perfect fit,” Mr Collinson replied somewhat bashfully. “It does feel like a dream for me. I’m honoured – and to think of the trust’s portfolio of sites that are in the area I’m responsible for now - wow!”
That portfolio is a roll-call that includes some of the most beautiful, most wildlife-rich and most historically important locations not just on Mr Collinson’s beloved Suffolk coast, not just in East Anglia, but in the whole of Britain – with Dunwich Heath, Orford Ness and Sutton Hoo being the towering triumvirate.
“I feel passionately about nature and about history,” said Suffolk-born-and-bred Mr Collinson. “I feel deeply rooted to this area. Now I am helping to look after these really special places and helping to protect and enhance them while providing the opportunities for people to get out there and enjoy them and to have special experiences while visiting them – it’s an absolute privilege.”
His career path has already led him through the upper echelons of some of the most respected environmental bodies in the land. He travelled widely for four years after leaving Woodbridge School and then became a regional officer for the Woodland Trust in the West Country – where he met his wife-to-be, with whom he now has two daughters.
He returned to his native county as reserves manager for Suffolk Wildlife Trust, later becoming head of conservation and deputy director, before returning to the Woodland Trust as its head of conservation policy.
The allure of the Suffolk coast became irresistible for him, however, and he returned to be manager of the Suffolk Coast & Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. He then was appointed Suffolk County Council’s natural environment manager – a post which was later widened to include the historic environment – and when he looks back on his time at the local authority he says he is particularly proud to have played a major role in formulating the highly acclaimed Suffolk Nature Strategy.
Now 49, he has “come home” with in a post that sees him taking a leading role in the guardianship of east Suffolk sites that include a “big three” that have long been close to his heart – the high-profile, and hugely important Dunwich Heath, Orford Ness and Sutton Hoo.
“Dunwich Heath. Cracking place,” he enthuses. “I feel I have a deep personal connection with all three places and certainly Dunwich Heath. I’ve run the entire length of the Suffolk coast and walked the entire length of it and Dunwich Heath has figured largely in those journeys - and it’s figured largely in my entire life.
“It has amazing wildlife. Heathland is such a really rare habitat and in Dunwich Heath we have such a fantastic chunk of it. About 200,000 visitors a year come to enjoy it and you can certainly see why it’s such a draw,” he said.
At “unique” Orford Ness, military history was combined a wealth of wildlife and the famous but fragile 10-mile shingle spit that was the longest of its kind in north-west Europe. Coastal change was the “big issue” here and striking a balance between public access and protection of vulnerable and rare vegetated shingle habitat was vitally important.
“It has a spirit of place,” said Mr Collinson. “It’s stark and remote and it’s that starkness and remoteness that sets it apart. There is a mystery about its past and there was such secrecy there – it all adds to its sense of intrigue.”
A strong sense of place could also be felt at Sutton Hoo, the Anglo-Saxon burial site near Woodbridge that was “extraordinary for all sorts of reasons,” said Mr Collinson. “They say that Sutton Hoo is the first page of the history of England and you certainly get that sense there.”
He was excited about the site’s £4million Heritage Lottery Fund-supported project that would improve the site’s visitor experience, tell the story of the famous original 1939 excavations by Basil Brown, and help visitors understand the science and skills of archaeology, he said.
“These three sites are individually iconic and you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between them in terms of their individual brilliance,” said Mr Collinson. “They sit on a coast that has a list of protections and designations that is as long as your arm and I feel really passionate about it and really privileged to be where I am.”
Managing about 30 staff who were supported by an “indispensable and deeply appreciated” army of several hundred volunteers, Mr Collinson was acutely aware of the importance of working with partner organisations and individuals across the whole range of the National Trust’s activities.
“Throughout my career it has always been clear to me that partnership working is absolutely vital – it’s at the very heart of everything we’ll be doing,” he said. “We’ll be working hand-in-hand with our partners and our neighbours. It’s the way to deliver in conservation if we want to look after what we have got and enhance it wherever we can.”