THE ‘Big Society’ was alive and kicking in St Ives long before it became and idea in the Prime Minister’s head.

If Huntingdonshire District Council could have afforded it, a raised walkway round the nature reserve on Holt Island in the River Great Ouse St Ives would have taken three years to build and cost £300,000.

Enter the Friends of Holt Island.

Just one year later and at a cost of only £10,000, the island re-opens to the public this week with not only the original project fully complete but with additional wheelchair access funded by the Friends. So that saved the Council Tax payers £290,000.

To be fair to HDC, the work has been co-ordinated by its team of countryside rangers, headed by Paul Claydon. But most of it has actually been done by local volunteers.

Friends’ chairman Ian Jackson told The Hunts Post: “We recruited volunteer labour to assist the rangers’ team. St Ives Rotary Club and others have worked through the winter.

“But the original plan fell short of linking the elevated walkway to the main entrance, so buggies, pushchairs and wheelchairs might not have made it to the walkway.

“We stumped up another £2,000 for the 48-metre connection, so now the whole island can be visited safely without stepping off the boardwalk.”

The seven-acre site, properly known as Ingle Holt, was, once used as an osier bed by local basket-makers, Harrisons. It used to be the property of George Wright-Ingle, Lord of the Manors of Hilton and Fenstanton, and was given to the town in 1934.

“It evolved into wet woodland, and it’s unusual to have such an area in a town centre,” Mr Jackson said.

“I’m very keen to get schools to visit, and I’m hoping to put an educational pack together for them to get their first taste of the natural world for real. There’s no substitute for that when kids are losing touch with nature.”

The walkway will protect the site at the same time as providing access to the central meadow, which has been equipped with heavy-duty picnic tables with wheelchair access to encourage visitors to prolong their stay at the reserve.

“I was delighted that the reserve was awarded the Anglia in Bloom biodiversity award last year, in what was the first International Year of Biodiversity,” Mr Jackson said. “I feel this reflects the Friends’ efforts to increase the number and variety of nest boxes, including a large owl box, nesting baskets for ducks and, in collaboration with the Cambridge Bat Group, bat roosting boxes. We now want to set up a bee hive.”

But the effort has come at a price. “We are now low on funds, so I launched an Adopt-a-box scheme this spring. From 24 boxes this has raised so far nearly £400 from members and their friends and families.

“For £10, sponsors pick a box number, receive a certificate, a map of the Island and a photograph of the box. We send two bulletins and pictures of birds, and offer a guided walk in May to view them all.”

INFORMATION: The Friends of Holt Island Nature Reserve are at 8 Audley Close, St Ives, PE27 6UJ; telephone 01480 386 644.