Heather Marston

‘I spent part of my early childhood living on Portland, falling in love with it. Much rejuvenated these days, it was a different place then, but the wild sea I swam in, and its unique rocky beauty left a big impression on me for the rest of my life. My parents were both journalists their whole lives—my dad was sub-editor on the Dorset Echo, and my mum worked on the Echo and Bridport News. I went to school in Radipole, then when we moved to Puncknowle I went to Colfox School, which I loved, where I did my A levels. This was the old Colfox, which still had its own small farm, and related very much to agricultural Dorset. In summer classrooms were generally less well attended, especially during haymaking, many of the pupils being needed for work on farms during busy times.
Inspired by my life on Portland, and rural life in Puncknowle, I was determined to do some sort of environmental degree. Although I had passed an entrance exam for Oxford, much against my mother’s wishes I refused to go there as they didn’t offer environmental courses. At that time only 2 universities were offering degrees of interest to me, one in East Anglia, the other being Liverpool, where I studied Environmental Biology. It was a superb course, led by the leading academics of their day, and there’s no doubt it was the right personal choice for me, although there might have been different career choices had I gone to Oxford.
My thesis at Liverpool was about pollution from the anti-knock additives containing lead, a toxic heavy metal, in petrol. The accumulations of lead in the environment from the exhausts of vehicles fuelled by petrol containing these additives was causing severe health problems in populations, especially children, living close to busy roads. Lower IQ’s and hyperactivity in children were directly attributed to lead accumulations from this pollution. Cooperating with Mike Hutton at Kings College, Chelsea, who had already done some work on lead accumulation in feral pigeons, I decided to dissect and analyse the key organs of pigeons from urban Liverpool for lead content. I then carried out similar analysis on control birds from the Dorset countryside, which my friends had collected and sent by train to me. I would fetch them from the station in a taxi, much to the amusement of the scouse drivers. In all I must have dissected about 1000 pigeons. Some of the tissue analysis was done by the School of Tropical Medicine, which was on the same campus, using X-ray micro-analysis, which showed high levels of lead in every organ in the urban birds, and none in the Dorset birds, although the Dorset birds contained levels of cadmium, another toxic heavy metal. My thesis earned me a First for my degree, which combined with that of Mike Johnson, my tutor, was published in the US. Our work was one of the pieces of research which led to the removal of lead additives in petrol, and it’s the one achievement in my life I am most proud of. Oddly, I was subsequently offered the chance to do a PhD, funded by Octel, the company which produced the lead additive, an opportunity I declined.
After university, finding a job in environmental sciences in the Thatcher years was difficult. My parents and I moved to London, and I worked as a production research engineer for Guinness Brewery at Park Royal. I was obviously disappointed not to find an environmental job, but it was a fun place to work, the products of the brewery being free on tap for consumption at lunchtimes. At that time, I met my then husband, we moved to Bristol, then Swanage, and almost completing a full circle returned to Litton Cheney with two young children. I taught a random selection of subjects at Weymouth College, from hairdressing science to sex education. But then I got a job as a teacher/naturalist for the RSPB, working at Lodmoor and Radipole reserves, which was a fantastic job. I was teaching schoolchildren environmental education, an ambition realised at last. That led to being offered a job with a company then called Superchoice, providing children’s educational activity holidays at Osmington.
I started a field studies programme, teaching children about some of the wonders of the natural world to be found in the area, such as the geology of the coast, the range of agricultural practices locally, and the wealth of flora and fauna if you know where to look, using fun and interactive methods which the children loved. The company began to take over Pontin’s holiday camps, converting them to educational centres, and I was setting up the field studies programmes for the centres across the country, recruiting graduate staff and arranging training for them. The innovative part of the programmes was the use of IT to record the data from the research and measurements the students made, which could later be accessed as part of their A level courses. The Times Educational Supplement wrote glowingly about the programme Superchoice was offering, with enthusiastic quotes from schools’ teaching staff, followed by further articles published in the Times Ed about our programme. I was also invited to be a key speaker at an international conference during the application process for the Jurassic Coast to become a World Heritage Site, but the main satisfaction for me came from seeing children who struggled to cope in the classroom excelling when closer to the reality and excitement of nature in the field.
For the last five years I have worked as Lead Youth Worker at the youth club here in Bridport, which has been going for over 50 years. As a youngster I used to come, so did my children, and I felt I’d like to try and put something back and help the young people of Bridport in a different way. When I started youth centres were having problems financially, as all funding was pulled ten years ago nationally and many closed. Luckily for Bridport a charity was formed, and trustees transformed the Youth Centre to a Community Centre as well, so that the hiring of the rooms helped finance the cost of running the building. The Town Council also provide an annual fund which really helps. On taking on the role I also managed to source a grant from Magna of £2000 to start a junior youth club which is immensely popular. The Youth Club then received funding from Dorset Council for an outreach programme in which youth workers patrol and chat to young people out on the streets and parks. This has been successful in bringing the older teenagers, who often remember me from their younger days, back in to youth club; it’s partly in response to the many problems they experience, which are everywhere, not just in Bridport, often seen as antisocial behaviour, vandalism, and drug abuse. The problems are severe and were intensified by the isolation brought about during the Covid pandemic. Sadly, there are drugs freely available everywhere now—I’ve gone on county lines training courses to become aware of the scale of the problem.
The youth club is open on a Wednesday for Junior Youth Club (Swifts) followed by Senior Youth Club (Xtreme), and on Friday, Younger Seniors (Tigers) followed by Xtreme again, the different age groups being split appropriately. The juniors do a lot of sports in our hall, and there are a range of creative, innovative, ever-changing craft activities. Our tuck shop is popular too, and there’s also a space for those who want a quiet time or have different needs. There are trips and workshops provided by local organisations. The older kids often prefer to relax and socialise, and we offer more targeted support to them if needed. I also work for Somerset Mind, running peer support groups for teenagers in both Chard and Bridport. We have 16 staff here in total, about 10 of whom are paid trained youth workers—we are obliged to meet minimum staffing ratios for security. How to fund the staff is my main worry; we are constantly sourcing money from wherever we can, our needs increasing with our success in membership numbers.
I have two children and three grandchildren, with another on the way. My son James and his family have moved to Wales, and my daughter Lottie was a horse trainer for Connie Colfox but has a young family now. I’ve nearly always had a horse; I bought my first pony for £150 with a Premium Bond win, so they’ve always been a big part of my life, and my children’s too. Living in Bridport now, walking to work through the community I’m part of, is a joy.’