Costells Wood is owned by The Woodland Trust and is a site of so-called ‘ancient semi-natural woodland’ which is made up of ‘wooded heath and gill woodland habitats associated with the High Weald’. ‘Wooded heath’ (I looked it up) is a catch-all term used to describe a kind of landscape in the south of england that is made up of woods, heath, hedgerows and farmland more typical of the 19th century than the 20th while a ‘gill’ is a brook, burn or stream, often ‘deeply’ incised into the soily ground.
In England I rather feel that ‘deep’ here simply means you can’t step over it, though a running jump may do the job. It is deep enough to lose a cow, but perhaps not a skyscraper: this is Sussex after all, not Colorado.
There are three interconnected ‘ancient woods’ here, Costells, Henfield and another one whose name escapes me. Included are a couple of small ponds and some wooded heath. I used the App All Trails to find my way around, pick out paths and monitor my slow, meandering progress.
It doesn’t look or feel so ancient – this is not Jurassic Park; the trees are largely under 100 years old, with a lot of younger undergrowth where rhododendron has been cleared or the trees are being coppiced.
The ‘ancient’ is used technically here to describe woodland that has been constantly used or known as a woodland since the 1600 – but 400 years of woodland use does not mean that any trees are this old. A handful are big enough, I’ve not measured them but would say 250 years is possible. An expert can correct me but I suspect the gale of October 1987 and disease have taken down older trees, whereas woodland management since 1996 when the Woodland Trust took over has seen invasive non-native species, conifers, rhododendron and laurel removed.
The wood has also been designated an area of wildlife importance. Not living locally I’ve not experienced the wood at night so I would be unaware of this. In any case, the ever present sound of cars on the Lewes Road into Haywards Heath, regular flights overhead in and out of Gatwick and one entire side of the wood made up of a housing estate makes the area far less wild than is required to attract much wildlife. Dogs and walkers take some blame, though their presence is welcome, and I have to wonder what domestic cats get up to here. Where the south of the area is bordered by the busy Lewes Road (A272) , to the north there is a row of power line known as ‘Bunny Walk’ where the land below has been cleared and is cleared regularly to protect the cables – it lived up to its name.
The entire area and all its paths could be covered in under 2 hours; I’ve made three visits in many months and came here a couple of times ten years ago when my son was playing football for a local club. It is an isolated patch which risks being hemmed into even further by housing development. The 10 acres to the south is privately owned with a fenced off path through it. It is easily accessed from the village hall car park and blighted by the main road. I rather suspect the recent sale will see three or four very large executive homes appearing on its borders – just like the other such properties on the Lewes Road into Haywards Heath.
Two large housing developments were built on the other side of the road between 2018 and 2020 which will increase the number of visitors and therefore regular disturbance, presence and impact of domestic pets and litter.
My walk today took me from the carpark on Scaynes Common down a cul de sac past two grand homes and down an avenue of trees.
It is easier to park in the Scaynes Hill Millennium Village Hall car park and use the entrance off the sports field. The rest of the wood abutting the housing is fenced off with access restricted or banned.
Quoting the Woodland Trust Management Plan directly I can expect to find ‘oak and occasional ash standards with hazel, birch and hornbeam coppice’ and in spring ‘pockets of ancient semi-natural woodland ground flora such as bluebell and wood anemone’. As well as ‘alder flush woodland’ in the gills, with ‘carpets of mosses and ferns and the occasional and scarce alder buckthorn’.
‘The most notable stand type is the wooded heath area with open-grown oak, birch and Scots pine with a ground flora of heather, bilberry and bracken’ which the Woodland Trust advise is ‘a scarce habitat in lowland England’.
The ‘understorey species are typically hazel and rowan, with occasional holly and alder buckthorn with a dense layer of mosses, liverworts and ferns carpeting the streamside areas’.
Repeated visits will have me pick things out one by one and in time I should get to know my plant types well; I really need to go on a guided walk with an expert. September to November has so far had me experience late summer, autumn and early winter. There has yet to be a frost; unusually there have been only a couple of spells of heavy rain. The ponds are low, the paths largely dry though wellies are recommended given the many patches of well-trodden mud.
I removed some litter, the usual culprits: energy drinks, disposable coffee and a take-away …
A regular visitor to Haywards Heath I will try and make a stop here every month, or at least every other month until I have covered all seasons and weathers. I want to explore Henfield Wood, though a short foray gave me the impression it was made up of a lot of barely penetrable coppiced hazel. I wonder too where the Sussex Ouse Valley Way would take me.
If I am here for long enough I wonder which field, meadow or paddock will be given up to housing. We have to live somewhere, and rather than apartments in town us Brits do love our houses with a tiny patch of front and back garden and a place to park the cars.
The Woodland Trust Management Plan for Costells Wood