Woodland memories from childhood
ADDENDUM - Jan 2017
I was delighted a few years ago to discover that my old junior school had planted a fat finger of woodland diagonally across the playing field, linking it in with the band of woodland on its eastern boundary. This boundary is a wooded, narrow, sunken lane that was my journey of adventure and discovery every day I walked the half-mile to school. The adventure started as I crossed the centre of the village, past the yeasty smell of the village bakery, and then on along the wooded dirt track of Park Lane. The Lane had fields on one side, and ran along the boundary of Stubbington House School on the other. Known locally as Fosters after its founder, it was a large prep school for boys set up in 1841 that dominated the village until it moved out in 1962, leaving a range of buildings, swimming pool and large playing fields that ended up being a community centre, recreation ground and a massive scout hut in the old gymnasium.
I would turn left at Old Park House, at the end of Park Lane, still following the wooded boundary of Fosters, but now there was no high wall as the woodland was wider and thicker, with the trees flanking the other side of the sunken lane opening onto a horse paddock next to the vicarage. Half way along, sometimes taking to the bank, I would arrive at the back gate of the junior school, the path leading across the playing fields to the main building. If I was lucky, some days I would see what I remember as red squirrels, but there were birds and gaily coloured spring flowers, the trees giving an enclosed feel to the walk. I can see this now as an important element of green infrastructure, of a forest habitat network (1) that still exists for the village, and for the children who walk that same route to school. The magic they have is that the forest habitat has been brought right into the school.
As a scout, I was so lucky to have that scout hut, but also a woodland site elsewhere for use as our camp ground. We had moved a mile to another village by then, living much closer to the sea. The campsite was a bike ride of a couple of miles, first along the coast and past what is now a wetland National Nature Reserve (NNR) albeit a highly modified, predominantly tree-less landscape (2) before turning up the Meon valley alongside that wetland. I say it was a woodland campsite, but in fact the centre was a mostly open area, with a few shrubby clumps and some wonderful mature oak trees that were the high-end anchor points for our aerial runways. I think I spent most summers camping out there (or in the back garden) often just with friends as well as the scout troop, developing those backwoodsman skills that dirty, smoke-cured boy scouts did. We had one cardinal rule, never to cut living wood for use on our fires. I went back to that woodland, perhaps 15 years ago, and unsurprisingly the open space had filled in with trees over the intervening 30 years. There was a small car park, put in by the County Council, and which was surrounded by fencing, cutting off access to the woodland interior, and leaving only a fence-lined path that led out of the back of the wood and onto farmland. The car park sign called the woodland Thatchers Copse, but even though I can trace this name on maps all the way back to the 1870s, I don’t ever remember calling it that (for old maps, see (3)).
Memories of white and blue
There is another woodland of my childhood that I had not been back to until just a few days ago. This is the woodland of my pre-school days that backed onto our brand new estate of the early 50s, and which was a short walk out of the estate and onto a footpath by the side of fields. My mum used to take us there to see the wildflowers that she loved – I have memories of white and blue – and my brother and I would play there, along with the rest of the gang from the estate. I don’t remember the wood having a name, but I do have this memory (or was it a dream?) that I could walk the half-mile to infants school all the way through woodland.
Tips Copse is a joy: bluebells and wood anemone in flower (the blue and white) as well as stitchwort, ivy, ferns, wood avens, and campion filling the ground layer. A shrubbery of bramble, honeysuckle, young trees, field maple, hazel and holly fills a middle layer below a canopy of young beech and differently aged oak - some grandly old with an architecture of wiggly branches. Tips Copse feels like, and is, ancient woodland, its 2.5ha designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) by the County Council (4). It has been identified as a W10a woodland under the National Vegetation Classification (5,6) which is typical of a southern oak woodland, and a survey of ground flora undertaken by Hampshire Biodiversity Information Centre in 2002 records that there are 12 ancient woodland indicators present (6).
We wouldn’t have wondered about ownership of Tips Copse when we were children in the 50s. There was a public footpath across it, and we would wander off that and around the casual paths that often develop in woodland. I was surprised but pleased to see a lack of litter and wrecking, inevitably associated with such an urban setting as the woodland has now, even as an entrance sign indicated it is in public ownership. That public ownership is recent, the Borough Council responding to increasing local concerns about dumping, vandalism, and the incursion of motor cyclists, by tracking down the owner, only to find that he had died a year before my birth (6) and that the deeds were held by a Trustee (7). There being no money in the trust for repairing fencing and clear ups, the Council bought the woodland in 2007, securing legitimate open access to it, and supported the reinvigoration of local voluntary efforts to safeguard the woodland (7).
As to my remembrance of walking all the way through woodland to infants school, we called the wood out the back of the school on its northern boundary Old Pop Farthings, occasionally venturing in there. Looking at old maps now, that woodland was actually called Hellyers Copse, but today it is dramatically smaller, the change occurring after 1979 from the incursion of new school buildings and clearance. Sadly, it has also lost its name. Old maps show that Tips Copse was never entirely joined with Hellyers Copse, but even today, there is a path in Tips Copse that leaves the woodland in that direction (although someone has blocked it) and there is a tree line along the field edge between the two woodland areas.
Horror stories about woodland management
I had told a colleague that I was going to revisit my childhood woodlands, and he had warned me against what I might find. We had swapped horror stories about the industrial scale of woodland management we had recently witnessed, he in Cotcliffe Wood to the east of Northallerton, and myself in Grass Wood near Grassington. A few weeks ago, I had gone for a walk to see the herb paris in Grass and Bastow Woods, finding that the winters conservation work in Grass Wood had left it an industrial wasteland in places. I should have had a camera with me, because I could then have posted up a photo as an example of what hypocrisy there is about the management of SSSI. I was particularly depressed at finding one patch of herb paris skewered by sticks surrounding a newly coppiced hazel. I am likely to take a different route in future to walk Bastow Wood, as it is just too depressing to see the insensitivity in Grass Wood. Thus for the third year in a row, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are recipients of my award for STINKING UP A WOODLAND (8). I also had to make a fast retreat out of a more local, mixed woodland, having gone there to see the bluebells only to find large areas clear-felled, leaving the odd weak stem, my suspicion being that this local authority-owned woodland was being sacrificed to the new mantra of carbon substitution and neutrality.
As well as these three disgraces, my informant on the devastating impact of the continuing work at the National Trust’s woodland at Cwmma Moors in Herefordshire (8) has told me of his attempts to intercede on behalf of its wildlife. However, he says that this is the first spring that he has deliberately avoided visiting Cwmma Moors, the damage being too great that he can’t get away from it. He too admires herb paris, but when he last went to look for it in the woodland coupe coppiced in 2013, only a few plants had survived under some brash, the larger population of a hundred or more plants seeming to have disappeared. At issue at Cwmma Moors is the balance in managing the wood when the evidence suggests that wood fuel extraction for the National Trust estate is driving it more than any measured, defensible ecological reason for this SSSI. As it is, the National Trust is not even keeping to the vague commitments in its work plan on retaining standard trees and standing deadwood. It should be noted that the destructive work in all four of these woods is driven by the lure of funding from the Woodland Grant Scheme administered by the Forestry Commission.
I should have listened, and not also gone back again to Thatchers Copse. While there is now permissive access to the woodland interior, this takes you past a large area of felling and coppice, surrounded by ghastly dead hedges made from the coppice material (9). So much for our childhood rule of not cutting live wood. A Council interpretation board confirms that this work has also been funded by the Forestry Commission, with the usual dogma of coppicing being a traditional form of woodland management, and that “Nowadays the hazel trees are cut to create habitats for nesting birds and small mammals”. That’s a questionable assertion, given that the dogma it is usually associated with promoting is ground flora and butterflies, but if it is so, then I wonder why it also says that logs and other woodland products are being sold at the Visitor Centre of the NNR? Thatchers Copse is an ancient woodland SINC of 5ha (4) but its name switches back and forth on mapping from 1870 between being Copse and Coppice, the mapping only showing an area of coppicing rather than all high canopy from 1964 onwards, around the time that I would have first started camping there. It certainly was not coppiced then.
Before I went down to visit these woods, I looked at a War Office Edition paper map from 1950 that I had found in my late mum’s papers. Intriguingly it shows Thatchers Copse as having two long buildings just in from its eastern boundary, as well as a further 10 square buildings dotted into the area of the open space that existed when I camped there. These buildings are also shown on a map from 1942, but not before. The buildings weren’t up when I camped there, but it didn’t take me long this time to find their overgrown concrete bases, suggesting that they were huts. So was it really coppicing that had created the open space so diligently recorded as coppice on old maps from 1964 through to 1990, or was it really woodland clearance to make way for the erection of that hut complex and the activity associated with it? How many other maps make false assumptions about woodland management just because there is some open space. This wouldn’t be important if it wasn’t the habit of the conservation industry to invoke traditional management, and often resorting to historical mapping, to justify its damaging ideology.
Triumph of hope over expectation
Though woodland had an important place in my childhood, it was quite a sparse habitat generally where I grew up. There were, however, a couple of places where I had an expectation on going back now that I would see overgrown with woodland. One was an area of gravel pits tucked into the western edge of the NNR (but not covered by SSSI!) and in which I would trespass to walk amongst this unusual, pitted scrubby tree and gorse landscape. I did not have time to explore, but the scrub has succeeded to tall woodland now, earning it a place in the mapping of both the National Inventory of Woodland and Trees (NIWT) as well as BAP Priority Habitat for Deciduous Woodland. It’s not ancient woodland, has few of the woodland species that indicate a long continuity of shade, but it is a developing ecosystem, one that has vertical structure, higher humidity than open ground, and a burgeoning natural process of vegetation turnover and decomposition. No doubt it is an inviting place for birds, small mammals, invertebrates and much else that would be missed by the casual observer. It made me think of Peter Rhind’s point about the variety of natural peak woodland communities that could be expected to develop in Britain under differing conditions, given that only 19 had been identified in what’s left of our woodland (5,10).
The other place I had high hopes for was at Browndown Training Camp, a few miles along the coast in the other direction. As an army cadet at secondary school, I would fire live rounds on the shingle ranges of the shore at Browndown, and then cross over the road into the northern training area, a gravelly, scrubby landscape, firing blanks in day or night exercises. I revisited the ranges about five years ago, marveling at the very unusual, bushy dwarfed oak dotted through the shingle, their growth shaped and limited by the coastal exposure. These oak get a mention in the SSSI notification (11) but not for their growth characteristic, just as scrub, even though they are really mature trees. It is of course the heath areas more inland where there is a little more soil that get prominence, leading to the persecution of these oak if they happen to spring up in a heathy area. The ranges must also be one of the better opportunities along the Solent coast to see maritime shingle wildflowers like yellow horned poppy, sea campion, thrift, sea kale, sea beet and viper’s bugloss.
I have over the years passed a number of
times along the road that separates the ranges from the training area. The
dense woodland that I could see lining the road on the northern side did
give me hope that the training area had succeeded to woodland like the
gravel pits. However, when I looked at aerial imaging before travelling
down, determined this time to explore, I found out that I had been
deceived by what turned out to be just a fringe of woodland, a large
central space of the training area being probably more open than it was
over 40 years ago. My expectation was not entirely wrong, as mapping of
the NIWT does show the whole area covered in shrubs and trees around the
time of the survey in the late 90s, but then marks a central area of 7.4ha
as being since felled. As there is a Browndown Conservation Group wedded
to heathland (12) and that the County Council has designated the training
area as a heathland SINC (4) then you know why my hopes have been dashed.
It seems hopeless to point out that the tree persecution of heathland
mania cuts across the bye-laws still in effect for Browndown (13):
This exhortation is also found in the contemporary Defence Training Estate User Guide that covers Browndown, in its section on DURING Training DON’Ts – “DO NOT cut down trees” (14). I just wonder, since this Browndown Conservation Group think cattle are a “possible answer to the problems on Browndown” (12) that they may find another bye-law much harder to have breached - “7. No person shall:- (a) Graze any animal upon the Military Lands” (13)
Corridors of water and woodland
I’ve looked at a lot of mapping in gathering my thoughts about these woodland places, perhaps learning much more about the area I grew up than I expected. It is always important to stand back and see the context of particular locations. When you do this for Browndown, you can see a corridor heading north away from the coast along the River Alver that, in spite of the reduction in wooded potential at the training area, actually stands out as being a belt of woodland patches interspersed with wetland that stretches two miles up the floodplain of the Alver Valley, to the roundabout at Peel Common. Most of this valley has some designation, such as SINC, Local Nature Reserve (LNR) or SSSI. The Wild Grounds SSSI has open-grown oak so that it resembles woodland pasture, having thought to have developed naturally on former common land in the late 16th and early 17th centuries (15). Carters Copse is a SINC for its alder carr wet woodland (16) which is also found in The Wild Grounds nearer the river, and the Alver Valley SINC (4) has wet woodland and reedbeds.
I looked to see if there was another corridor like this, and found that I had been walking a section of one when I used to stay with an old school friend at Warsash, 3.5 miles further west along the coast from the wetland NNR. We would walk through good oak woodland at the end of his road to get to Hook Lake and out on the coast, going past alder carr and reedbeds. The shingle zones of Hook Spit also have sea kale, sea beet, yellow-horned poppy and sea campion. All of this is part of the Hook with Warsash LNR (17). What I hadn’t known is that the woodland also stretched the other way, along the stream valleys extending inland NE along a former tidal re-entrant, giving altogether a wooded corridor of 1.7 miles. This other section encompasses Hook Lakes Woods (Upper) SINC (4) Warsash Common LNR with its wet woodland dominated by alder with occasional grey willow and downy birch (W6, W7b) located in the valley bottom either side of the streams, and with W10 oak woodland on the drier valley sides (18) and Fleetend Road Woodland SINC (4).
While these corridors are remarkable assets for the communities surrounding them, a compelling testament to what public ownership can provide, they are not particularly wild, nor could they be when they are so freighted with the expectations of the conservation industry. This is especially so in the Alver Valley where the local authority leaflet says the habitats need to be constantly managed – “Quite simply, the work is never ending!”(19). It is only the wet woodland of alder carr in both corridors where the temptation to meddle is forgone, the habitat presumably proving just too difficult (16,18). Or maybe it’s a realisation that it can’t necessarily be improved by humans? It was with this premise that I approached writing an article for the Irish Wildlife Trust about ecological restoration in Ireland, working with four Irish writers that I have come to know, to lay out a vision for a wilder Ireland (20). You can’t really imagine a wildlife trust in Britain asking me to do such a thing. The article inevitably ended up with a large component of new woodland creation as the basis of wilder landscapes, with predominantly natural colonisation being a key message, whether it was on the cut-over peatlands of the Irish Midlands, or the return of upland woodland to the hills. With new alliances forming around creating wilder land in Britain, then I would expect to see some underpinning with visions for England, Scotland and Wales. Where would be the best places for more woodland, and what would be the criteria? Could this be a fulfillment of Peter Rhind’s vision of many new woodland types emerging?
It is a question of trust – a trust of what nature-led lands will produce. If you know and control everything, like the conservation industry, then you will miss the surprises that wild nature can bring. One of those surprises recently was finding a new shrubby plant for the first time in local woodland. While I want to find the unexpected every time I walk them, it rarely happens. However, I came across two spurge laurel, one about 90cm tall, flowering and producing berries, the other un-flowering and younger at 40cm. I’m not even sure why I haven’t seen them before, because they weren’t hidden. There is then the puzzle of how they got there, but knowing that the seed is spread by birds, it seems fruitless to ponder how far and from where the bird had to fly before visiting this woodland. It is enough to marvel at the power of wild nature to colonise, if we leave it to do so.
Mark Fisher 19 May 2014
A search hit my website this January asking when Thatchers Copse came to be known as Thatchers Copse (see above) implying that the wood may have had another name. A little bit of digging came up with the name Greenwoods, as recalled by six people who told their war time stories of the 1940’s to a community history project of those who lived in or near the village of Titchfield, about 1.4 miles north of the wood (21). Others who gave their stories also mentioned the wood, some naming it as Thatchers Copse, with most referring to the presence of an army camp there, along with anti-aircraft (AA) artillery (22). It is this information that explains the buildings I had seen marked on maps of the wood from 1942 and 1950; the overgrown concrete bases I found when I revisited the wood; and the reason why the open space in the wood had nothing to do with coppicing, but were the result of woodland clearance to make way for the erection of that hut complex and the activity associated with it (see above).
John Williams remembered that one of the woods on the road to the Meon shore had quite a number of AA guns (23) Sheila Hignall talks of a big army camp in Thatchers Copse (24) and Paula Weaver said that Nissen huts had been built there for the army and ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the army during the war)(25). Mike Ferris described the Royal Artillery army camp as substantial, with the concrete gun emplacements located to the seaward (southern?) side of the wood (26) while Don Upshall said there were four 3.7 inch AA guns in Thatchers Copse, along with permanently based soldiers (27). He said the guns were targeted using a “predictor”, an early range-finding machine that tracked aircraft optically and set aiming data for the guns (27). Gerald Read said that a decoy gun emplacement was made out of scaffold poles in the open field across the road from Thatchers Copse (28).The location of this and the gun emplacement at Thatchers Copse is shown on a schematic map of WW2 Military Bases near Titchfield provided by the history project (29) and this location at Thatchers Copse tallies with a nationwide mapping of heavy AA gun sites where it is named as “Southampton Brownwich” (30) presumably taking its name from the nearby Brownwich Farms. This latter mapping also shows a heavy AA gun site located at Browndown, the military range and training area further east, along the coast of the Solent (see above)
A number of people noted that the army huts were used as temporary accommodation after the war, Don Upshall saying that its occupants were waiting for a pre-fabricated house to be built elsewhere (27). Mike Ferris also said the huts were used after the army withdrew, at first by homeless squatters until the council took them over to provide temporary accommodation whilst the Bellfield estate, just at the southern edge of Titchfield, was constructed (26). Linda Felton described the huts where soldiers had been housed as cottages, and that her aunt Betty had moved into one when she got married (31). Jean Faulds said that when the war ended, the huts were let out to young married couples (32) whereas June Pellatt said that the ex-army camp was lived in by people who had been bombed out or made homeless (33). Eileen (Pudge) Moore gives us our best evidence of a post-war use when she recounts that she was born there in 1952, as her parents lived in one of the huts, which had no running water, the lavatory being outside (34). Some black and white photos show her with a wooden hut immediately behind, and there is also a view of a number of huts in the middle distance behind her, and with only the odd mature tree in that view.
It seems to me from these remembrances that the name Greenwoods is used mostly when people were referring to the post-war use of the army camp. Thus I think it likely that the wood did not change its name from Thatchers Copse, but that Greenwoods was the name given to the hut complex when it was in civilian use after the war. It would have had a better ring to it for the people living there than the ex-army huts in the wood. The name Greenwoods does start to appear on maps along with Thatchers Copse from 1968 and 1984, but this is after the huts were dismantled – the huts don’t appear on a map from 1962 – and the name is not located where the huts were, but hard up against Brownwich Lane on the northern boundary of Thatchers Copse. Common or popular names often spring up in usage, and I now know why in the late 1950s we called the wood out the back of my infant school Old Pop Farthing, because Douglas Elkins recounts that the head teacher of the school when he started there in the 1930’s was a Mr W.E.F. Farthing (35). Elkins remembers two bombs had landed in Tips Copse, which he describes as being at the bottom of the playground, just north of the school (see above). The explosions, he said, had blown out all of the school windows.
25 January 2017
(1) Open or closed - what is the natural landscape matrix of a wild Britain? Self-willed land June2009
(2) Titchfield Haven SSSI, Natural England
(3) Old Maps – the online repository of historic maps
(4) Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs) within Hampshire, Hampshire Biodiversity Information Centre
(5) National Vegetation Classification: Field guide to woodland. Joint Nature Conservation Committee 2004
(6) Land at Tips Copse, Stubbington, Report to the Executive for Decision, Fareham Borough Council 3 April 2006
(7) Land at Tips Copse, Stubbington – Agenda Item 14(2). Record of Executive Decision, Fareham Borough Council 5 March 2007 http://moderngov.fareham.gov.uk/Data/Executive/20070305/decision%20-%20notice/x-070305-2006-07-235.pdf
(8) Wild trees and natural woods, Self-willed land April 2013
(9) Contemplation of natural scenes, Self-willed land January 2012
(10) Rhind, P (2004) Give Nature a Chance. ECOS 25(2) 85-91
(11) Browndown SSSI, Natural England
(12) Browndown Conservation Area, Roshan Taylor, Lee-on-the-Solent Residents’ Association Newsletter-November 2008
(13) Browndown & Rowner Millitary Lands Bye-laws, Statutory Instrument No. 1764 of 1954
(14) Browndown Camp and Training Areas, User Guide, Defence Training Estates
(15) The Wild Grounds SSSI, Natural England
(16) Carters Copse Heritage Area, Gosport Borough Council
(17) Hook with Warsash Local Nature Reserve, Natural England
(18) Wet woodland, Warsash Common Management Plan 2009 - 2019, Fareham Borough Council
(19) Alver Valley – Gosport’s Wildlife Haven. Gosport Borough Council
(20) Fisher, M (2014) Floating wild seeds in the sea of Irish landscapes, Irish Wildlfe Summer Edition, Irish Wildlife Trust, pg. 18-21
(21) Titchfield Spirit
(22) Village Voices: People's stories in their own words. Part Three 1939 – 1945. Titchfield Spirit 2015
(23) John Williams’ Story, Peoples’ Stories, Titchfield Spirit
(24) Sheila Hignalls’ Story, Peoples’ Stories, Titchfield Spirit
(25) Paula Weavers’ Story, Peoples’ Stories, Titchfield Spirit
(26) Mike Ferris Story, Peoples’ Stories, Titchfield Spirit
(27) Don Upshalls’ Story, Peoples’ Stories, Titchfield Spirit
(28) Gerald Reed's Story, Peoples’ Stories, Titchfield Spirit
(29) WW2 Military Bases in the Ancient Parish of Titchfield. Titchfield Spirit
(30) Map of Heavy Anti-Aircraft gun sites
(31) Linda Feltons’ Story, Peoples’ Stories, Titchfield Spirit
(32) Jean Faulds Story, Peoples’ Stories, Titchfield Spirit
(33) June Pellatts’ Story, Peoples’ Stories, Titchfield Spirit
(34) Eileen Moores’ Story, Peoples’ Stories, Titchfield Spirit
(35) Douglas Elkins Story, Peoples’ Stories, Titchfield Spirit