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My first Woodland Trust Wood 10 weeks ago and one I have returned to a few times since; it is a short drive, it offers a short walk with a variety of terrains, parking, a village shop and pub serving Harvey’s Best. Even the drive there is magical as the old Roman Road from Ringmer to Halland is an avenue of orange and red horse chestnuts.
My trip this afternoon was to capture the late sun glowing yellow onto autumn leaves. Arriving at a little before 4 O’clock I nearly missed it as the days are fast shortening and some low cloud on the western horizon cut the sun off early.
Knowing my way around I aim for the Church car park to take a loop through the church, passed the primary school to the allotments, then into the woods via the remaining conifer stand towards the moat to get the silhouettes of trees and any remaining colour before pushing through the hazel brush onto the road and back into the village.
The light is bright across the church but I’m also eager to get down the path to spot the startling orange of the chestnut in the hedgerow by the road into East Hoathly.
I’m not suitably confident about my tree silhouettes so already wish I’d gone a lot close to look at the leaves. I am sure to be corrected if I have this wrong.
I’m walking our dog Evie who is on her lead; I’ve come off the footpath to get close to the trees so we double back into the woods. I’m struck how much difference a few weeks can make. The difference between the deciduous trees and undergrowth that have mostly lost their leaves and the plantations.
Since 1987, on the back of the October hurricane which took down a lot of the deciduous trees these pines have been thinned, a practice that will continue here, as it does across Woodland Trust woods in order to restore woods to their deciduous native origins.
A Woodland Trust wood is well signposted at the entrances, where there is usually a sturdy gate or style and in the wood itself there are benches dedicated to those who have made a bequest or where a family have left something to the Trust.
I return to these benches as a fixed and unchanging reminder of where I am – even if I also have All Trails live to tell me where I am, and now used like a digital compass.
Moat wood has a number of mature oak; the intention is to allow these to mature over the ‘very long term’ (50 years and beyond), with only minimal intervention as trees fall, create a break in the canopy and other mature.
I tend to find myself in the same spot each time I return so can in due course create ‘before and after’ shots between the seasons and show and timeline between spring, summer, autumn and winter. Lack of rain has reduced the moat to a soggy mud.
In other places the soggy flat ground and a strong wind has tipped a few younger trees over; unlike the trees of 1987 which were replaced, these will be allowed to rot or regrow where they are.
My trip this later afternoon ends as it gets dark and a visit to the King’s Head for a pint of Harvey’s best by the fire.
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