Mapping spring

Wood anemone: photo Jo Sinclair

I flattened out my concertinaed Ordnance Survey map and scowled. Planning a trip to collect something seventeen miles away, I wanted to plan a walk in a wood on the way. But in the countryside near the road I'd be driving along I couldn't find a single one with a public footpath. 

I ventured over the border into Essex to make a spring pilgrimage. Wanting to find woodland wildflowers I needed a nice green patch on the map with green dotted lines inviting me in.

Reaching Little Bendysh Woods near Radwinter I found a cheeky declaration of territory. Badgers had dug neat latrines along the bottom of a metal gate. Their pots of poo mimicked the human boundary where a twenty year old warning flapped in the breeze. Foot and Mouth disease: Keep Out. 

Flowers embroidered the edge of the wood, scant survivors of years of clear-felling and a recent excavation of mud (satisfyingly known as slub) from the ditch. The boundary is a typical sign of ancient woodland, coppiced, felled, fiercely protected. It made me think of peasants ruthlessly punished for poaching. Surviving a fragile existence on the edge of the ditch oxlips, lesser celandine, dog violets and wood anemones spangled the ground with yellows, purples and white.

Glimpsing walkers with maps in hand in this secret, quiet place I wondered at how surprising that seems; there is so little accessible woodland near my home. But you can visit some of the relics of the ancient woodlands that date back a thousand years thanks to conservation charities such as the Wildlife Trusts. The Wildlife Trust BCN owns Brampton Wood, the largest accessible woodland in Cambridgeshire and other smaller areas that they are aiming to link up.

For the rest of my visit I had Little Bendysh woods to myself. I breathed deep as I ambled along. Butterflies and flowers lead the way along the rides. Peacock butterflies are one of the first species to emerge from hibernation. They float about and settle like sumptuous velvet scatter cushions. I watched one close its wings and become quite invisible against the background (see photo). There were brimstones too, looking like fluttering daffodils with the sun shining through their yellow wings. All along the rides were oxlip flowers, the iconographic symbol of ancient woodland in East Anglia. This rarity is related to primroses and cowslips.

Peacock butterfly, camouflaged with wings closed

I looked online later to find out more. I discovered that this ancient deciduous woodland was historically planted up with conifers for commercial forestry. As with many of the woods, it's now being restored by the removal of the conifers to encourage deciduous trees such as oaks and hornbeams: so much better for wildlife. The Woodland Trust have published their findings on the State of the UK's Woods and Trees 2021. It doesn't look good, but small actions taking place across the country could make all the difference.

Little Bendysh Woods is mentioned on the website of community interest organisation, Walden Countryside. They say that out of 92 woods they know of, the public are offered the 'right to roam' in seven of them and another eight have a designated public footpath. So they have taken the initiative to fund the purchase of a small amount of ancient woodland, and encourage people to visit and volunteer in them, or follow their example. I love their charming and inspirational suggestion:

"Maybe the next time a local woodland comes on the market a village community group could get together and buy it (as Walden Countryside did at Noakes Grove)? Woodland costs about £5-£6 a sq metre: the same as wallpaper at Homebase but it lasts forever."

On my way home I noticed multiple footpath signs pointing to the woods, a sure sign of a time when they sustained the local villages with firewood, thatch, fencing and beanpoles, fruit, nuts, fungi and meat. I recently read The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes. It's a strident and visceral look at how land came to be claimed and valued and enclosed, pushing out the 'commoners' who made a living from it to the point where to this day we're excluded from 92 percent of the land. Very illuminating. I've now started on his friend Guy Shrubshole's book Who Owns England: How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land