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Woodland Visits : When I go down to the woods each day …

I use Waze or Google Maps and check advice from The Woodland TrustFind A Wood‘.

When I visit a wood for the first time I look at the following: parking and signage, nature, variety and age of trees, the varied habitats and undergrowth, a note on birds and animals, as well the amount of human interaction or intervention, from fellow visitors, to historic and current land used. A wood on an urban fringe is used in different ways to an isolated wood or a wood that is popular and frequently visited; being southern England it is difficult to escape noise from air-traffic or roads. I also think about the signage and in some instances proximity to a pub! There are some great woodland walks that have a pub attached, that welcome dogs and don’t mind muddy feet.

I’ll note how easy it was to find in the first and to park. In some cases ‘getting there’ is part of the pleasure as there are some steep banked roads think with woodland plants in spring or with dense, overhanging trees in summer through to autumn.

In some cases it has taken me two or more visits to figure out where best to park, either because the entrance is off a residential street or off a road where there is no immediate parking at all. 

I use AllTrails once we set off. 

I usually have our dog with us so I check if there is any signage about dogs. And depending on ownership, time of year I check any information board regarding keeping to paths, sheep, working in the forest and other matters. Following UK Gov The Country Code appears to be a good idea all round for me.

Then I’m off, intent on following or finding a circuit with no doubling back.

I try to clock the trees, types and age and the flora and fauna depending on the time of year.

I’m not great with birdsong and find it hard enough to spot them to make the connection.

I take pictures constantly, usually relying on my phone but where I want close ups taking a Sony DSLR with a macro lens. 

I take notes in ‘notes’. 

The experience includes what goes on underfoot – so the state of the ground and the presence of boardwalks or bridges: Wellies cover all wet weather and sturdy shoes the rest of the time.

I’ve been using PictureThis to identify plants on the move.

And then I try to sum it up, at first just a few sentences and pictures shared in AllTrails. I would hope to write it up later more fully with reference to a Management Plan, where there is one; they are readily available for all Woodland Trust Woods. 

I love a gill or stream: hereabouts they are often seasonal, shallow and unchallenged – in ancient woodland allowed to flood and dam. I love patches of water too, from small ponds to lakes and reservoirs. These all add to the woodland experience.

As I get to know ‘my’ woods I then return across the seasons, more often in spring as things change rapidly from February through to the end of May – here on the South Downs, with visits to the Low and High Weald. 

Whether or when I write it up follows, starting in a Google Doc, uploading to a WordPress blog then adjusting accordingly with keywords, tags and captioned images. 

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Markstakes Common   

I visited Markstakes Common May on the 7th, 12th and 17th May 2022.

(I get to places using Waze and one there I use AllTrails for my walks).

My discovery of Markstakes Common came about by accident: I was headed for a return trip to Beechmill Wood but finding roadworks blocking the road to Newick north of Chailey and a diversion too out of my way to bother with I doubled back, checked on The Woodland Trust website ‘Find A Wood’ and found this gem – a wood and common up there with any of the best ancient deciduous woods I’ve discovered around East Sussex over the last nine months. I was a bit late for any wood anemones or bluebells at their very best.

Nonetheless, even if not in their full glory, the common awash with bluebells on 7th May was wonderful to see – as if a blue mist were lifting off the common. 

Then I stumbled across a diversion in the path put there to protect an ancient oak – 360 years or more old, I believe. 

Then, there are more, many more ancient trees: oak, beech, ash and hornbeam. 

Courtesy of Friends of Markstakes Common there are various detailed maps picking out the ancient trees and the different habitats; it is this that has me fall in love with the Common; it has variety. 

There are ancient trees (I’m thinking 34 trees with ‘ancient’ status meaning they are over 350 + years old). 

Yet there are trees of all ages, open spaces and meadow, pools and ponds and seasonal streams. I can’t get enough of it. This suggests to me a space that will still be thriving in another 200 years time. 

I’d gladly live close-by. Each time I have come here I meet and talk to someone: an elderly gent with whom life-stories were shared, a mum with kids two young for school but hurtling around like puppies. Most of us had a dog, And young couples too. Everyone is happy to talk and share their love for this space. 

It is messy; trees fall and are left, maybe a few branches cut away to assist people on a walk. There is mud, partially dried up seasonal streams, a pond of sorts … 

Parking is easy; it is well-shaded off a quiet road by a sturdy stone walk with a large access gate. Unlike every other wood of its kind I have been to around the county there is not one sign here relating to the Country Code, the need to keep dogs on a lead, footfall because of bluebells or a myriad of other concerns that can cause organisations a flurry of worries, costs and concerns that necessitate information boards and other announcements in various forms that can stand up to the weather (or not), or look dated … but does any of it work? My understanding is that all that works are ‘ambassadors’ on the ground talking to as many people who visit a space as possible and sharing the word.  

I even have to wonder if information boards and signage simply encourage footfall and visitors by their very presence and do little to contain behaviours: some people drop little and let their dog(s) shit where they like, others do not. Some people trudge across beds of wood anemones and bluebells in search of a unique shot or photo op while others keep back. 

These trees and these woods will, I very much hope, still be here long, long after we have gone. All we have to do is avoid killing them off while we’re around.

Hempstead Wood, East Sussex 

Wood anemones, wild garlic and bluebells at their very best.

Picking my way around the woods of Sussex and having often visited the Woodland Trust Woods around Uckfield: Lake Wood and Views Wood, as well as Buxted Park I thought I’d try others from the handy Woodland Trust ‘Wood Finder’. This is how I found myself driving through ‘old’ Uckfield and out towards the east and Framfield along Sandy Lane. This was mid-April (12th April). I have been back several times since (13th, 28th & 29th April and early May: 1st and 2nd)  – alone, with our dog, with family and friends. There is often no one around; sometimes a solo dog walker. There are stick dens scattered about so clearly kids come here at weekends or holidays. It is a short walk from Uckfield and easily reached by road. 

Location of Hempstead Wood, west of Uckfield (cc OpenStreetMap 2022) 

Leaving Uckfield you soon find yourself on Sandy Lane which is in itself a delight, with steep banks covered in bluebells from mid-April to mid-May and mature trees overhanging the road. If you know someone who has mobility issues who would like to see the woods in spring this is one of several lanes around Sussex which do the job. 

Hempstead Wood is ‘ancient woodland of the low weald’ (Woodland Trust) and would once have formed part of an ancient wood that stretched right across Sussex to Kent. Indeed many place names are indicative of a ‘clearing in the woods’. 

There is parking off Sandy Lane for four cars at most: there is a sign asking that the farm gate is kept clear. 

Hempstead Wood is a private wood. Bikes are not permitted and access for them has been restricted by new fencing. There is a rough track packed with rumble and in places deeply incised by the rain that runs steeply down the east side of the wood; the entrance to the woods propper is via a smart stile on the right some 170 metres down the lane. Signs restate that this is a private wood and asks that people stick to the paths; there is also a sign banning bikes.

In spring there are a number of clear stages in the wood marked at first by  wood anemones followed by wild garlic before it flowers and then by bluebells and before the tree canopy encloses all.  

The wood anemones bloom early to create an ever denser speckled carpet of white and then the flowers disappear quite quickly as leaves appear on the trees. 

Bluebells follow at first forming a dense matting of leaves before the distinctive flowers emerge and stretch a foot or more above ground. 

Bluebell bulbs are easily damaged by trampling by footfall and dogs. This means that they can’t produce enough energy to flower and reproduce in subsequent years. There is a request to stick to the ‘path’ but with multiple paths around the wood these can be hard to define; sadly there are many additional paths being made through the bluebells which could in time cause fragmentation of the colonies.

In mid-April the wild garlic had not flowered.

A week later flower stems with tear-drop-like bulbs emerged, finally opening  into a chandelier of small white flowers at the beginning of May. 

The wild garlic here is extensive and covers the damp banks of a seasonal stream that runs through the wood. There are multiple similar beds of wild garlic in many of the woods I have visited, with leaves appearing as early as 11 February on the High Weald. 

Sadly, there has been some severe cropping with a scythe in patches. 

Whilst Woodland Trust woods permit foraging and guidelines are provided; namely, picking only a few young leaves from any one plant, here in a private wood this ought not to be going on. 

Finding wild garlic on sale in local markets is a worrying trend.

A circuit around Hempstead Wood might take 45 minutes; this can be extended by adding a short walk onto the meadow above the Uckfield rail line then back to Spring Lane. There’s an option here to cross the railway line and head into Buxted Deer Park beyond. 

As well as the wood anemones, bluebells, wild garlic and tree canopy there are a few early purple orchids, cuckoo flowers and primrose. On different trips we have seen a jay and woodpeckers. 

I’ve only seen this sign up in one place, Brede High Wood (early in the season when there were no bluebells to see at all). I rather think these are needed elsewhere otherwise, where they have the resources, owners will fence of the only ‘right of way’, which in some cases can be quite brutal with barbed wire fencing keeping walkes to a single, narrow and well-worn track. 

For all walks I use the App ‘All Trails’ and for plant and tree identification I use ‘PictureThis plant identifier’. 

I only discovered Hempstead Wood in April; most of the woods I visit, Woodland Trust and others around Uckfield, Blackboys, Tunbridge Wells and Hastings I have been visiting since December 2021, some since October. I have therefore had the chance to see them in late summer, autumn, through winter, early and now late spring. Other woods, heaths and parks visited include: Little Foxes Wood, Lake Wood, Views Wood, Moat Wood, Kiln Wood, William’s Wood, Beechwood Mill and Brede High Wood, as well as Buxted Park, Laughton Common Wood, Chailey Common and Markstakes Common. 

Further advice and information

Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland

Natural England – The Countryside Code (link to PDF) 

Forestry Commission – New Forest Fungi Code Q and As

Scottish Natural Heritage – Scottish Wild Mushroom Code

British Mycological Society

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Williams Wood, Warninglid

Photographs: CC BY SA 3.0 J F Vernon 2022

Last autumn I took my interest in trees (urban and woodland, ancient and young) a step further by joining The Woodland Trust and taking a close interest in (and supporting) the world of Lewes Urban Arboretum.  My journey across Sussex then began, picking out almost every Woodland Trust Wood in East Sussex with the intention of paying a visit to each during each season of the year: another few months and the task will have been completed. 

Venturing out across England I’ve visited a few other Woodland Trust woods while I was in the area; I’m unlikely to pay these a second visit. To minimise my journeys and to spread my interest I have also started to visit all the woods in a catchment of around 10-15 miles out from Lewes. This has me visiting The National Trust, Forestry Commission Woods, RSPB Nature Reserves and other private woods and parks. There are some large garden parks such as Sheffield Park (National Trust) and Wakehurst Place which I have not visited recently or included in this journey both because of the cost of admission and because most are planted with excotic and even invasive non-native species such as rhododendron. I will write about Chalk Downland and the likes of Landport Bottom and Malling Down Nature Reserve (Sussex Wildlife) elsewhere – they are not known for many or indeed any trees. 

I have visited William’s Wood, Warninglid at least once a month since October 2021 as I spend Saturday mornings down the road at The Triangle, Burgess Hill and enjoy the contrast from a humid swimming pool teaching swimmers in a busy swimming club to the woods where I only rarely come across a dog-walker, cyclist or the odd rider out on a hack. I have also returned several times with family or friends (and our dog). I last wrote up a visit at the end of March. I had Covid from the end of March that kept me at home for a few weeks right when I most wished to be capturing the winter/summer transition through spring which has distinct stages through the dotted white carpet of wood anemones through to bluebells, and other plants on the woodland floor and by the deeply incised running gills.

I read up on any Woodland Trust wood in advance and enjoy the detail that comes from each wood’s Management Plan. Much can change in a wood over four weeks, in this case,as I hoped, the bluebells were out in modest clumps by tree stumps, and in huge carpets under the still open canopy of the older deciduous trees.

This is the High Weald here, ‘ancient woodland’ (‘an area of land where there had been continual growth since 1600’). Inevitably the woods in the south of England are surrounded closely by farmland and parkland, though William’s Wood benefits from not abutting a major town or residential sprawl which greatly increases the footfall and other consequences politely described as ‘anti-social behaviour’, namely litter and sometimes malicious damage. The A22 is just distant enough not to be heard, though plains and assorted aircraft do leave and come in overhead to Gatwick Airport 12 1/2 miles to the north (20km).

Williams Wood is adjoining another extensive wood and abutting a seasonal shoot (pheasants and ducks) – making it noisy on my Saturday visits from October to February for pheasants and September and to the end of January for ducks. 

OS Explorer OL34 Crawley & Horsham © Ordnance Survey

There is really only parking for one car by the gate along the lane to Bellevue Care Home (formerly Stonewick Lodge) as additional cars can inconvenience residents of Stonewick Lodge on the other side of the lane trying to get into their home; a further two or maybe three cars can park on the grass kerb by the B211 (Warninglid Lane) 

A well marked track, claggy with mud after heavy rainfall and for a few weeks in winter therefore, with ‘Keep dogs on lead’ and ‘Private Woods’ signage either side takes you after some 450m to William’s Wood along the left hand fork – turning right takes you on the Sussex Ouse Way along a path that is mostly fenced in between a shoot and other private properties. The ‘keep dogs on lead’ thing is certainly to avoid scaring pheasants.

Having tried an old fashioned map and struggled with Google Maps providing much once off the road I now swear by AllTrails.  This is a record of my late April visit, stumbling around a route that might have taken 45 minutes in well over an hour: I was stopping to take photographs and listen to the wildlife. 

This also takes you onto the Sussex Ouse Valley Way, which were I to follow it the south east would take me to the English Channel, home in Lewes and then down to Newhaven and the coast. With motorways, urban sprawl, railways and all other kinds of human activity to negotiate, let alone the distance I may give this one a miss. Wellies are recommended after rain, in all but the driest weather sturdy footwear is recommended though trainers might do. 

The meadow as you enter William’s Wood was full of primroses.

The first beds of bluebells were a little further on, on banks and in spaces around the gill.

Further on, entering Bishop’s Wood (all part of the same woodland) I hoped to find the largest carpets of bluebells and was suitably pleased by what I found.

Along the way I saw a number of small, bright yellow butterflies (clouded yellow I think), a lesser-spotted woodpecker, black birds, coal tits, a falcon and a few ducks and pheasants that hadn’t been shot or netted during the shooting season.

As well as the sounds of birdlife and a trickling brook, spring smells noticeably different to winter with the scents of flowers and smell of energised greenery.  As I suffer from hayfever I don’t quite understand why I am in a wood rather than out at sea or up a mountain in spring – I take antihistamines. 

Most visits I record a one minute ‘sound scape’; though I am yet to upload any of these. I’d like to be able to identify more of the birds first.

Links:

Woodland Trust

Woodland Trust Management Plan 

Sussex Ouse Way

UK Butterflies 

The Storm of 16th October 1987 

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