Out in the woods: July 2013

Well, after a long, long wait the bluebells finally appeared almost a month late! When they did arrive they were of course as beautiful as ever and an excellent photo opportunity, as you can see. We also had the added delight of cowslips in abundance on Temple Vale field, which lies on the edge of the wood near Shoplands. The mass of yellow was just amazing, so many more of them than in previous years as they spread year by year, thanks to the nurturing by wood warden and conservationist Neale Holmes-Smith who liaises with the Council to ensure that the area is left untouched when it comes to mowing.

I do hope the cancellation of our Bluebell and Cowslip walk with the late flowering did not stop you from visiting Sherrardspark Wood to experience the joy these wild flowers bring. Let us hope that next year nature will return to more normal flowering times and we have a successful guided walk. If you did miss them this year at least there are some photographs here for you to see that they did eventually put on an excellent show for us.

On the 27th April we had our very first walk with Dr. Agneta Burton and an “Introduction to Mosses & Lichen”.   Not a subject I knew anything about at all, but I found it most interesting and fascinating to examine the different species in close-up. Some of them are quite beautiful so now I look at them in a quite different way when walking in the wood. A very enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of people joined us and I am sure they are hoping that this walk will be repeated next year.

Next up was our “Discovery Tour of the Wood” with wood wardens Peter and Gary who both have a great depth of knowledge of all aspects of Sherrardspark Wood. I am sure all the people who came along found it most enlightening, and even though I know the wood pretty well I still always find something new to learn.

Here is where I mention our next, and final, walk for this year on August 10th with Neale Holmes-Smith “Our Woodland Trees”. Neale is already known to many of you through his wide and varied interests in all things environmental, so I am quite sure we will have lots of people eager to know more about our magnificent and diverse woodland trees. We will be meeting in our usual place - Pentley Park Entrance at 2 p.m.

We are investigating one or two other possibilities to include in our guided walks later in the year; these are still under negotiation but needless to say I will be including them as soon as we have any positive subjects and dates.

In the meantime, our wood wardens escorted a group of about 15 children from Harwood Hill School on expedition into Sherrardspark Wood. In an e-mail subsequently received we were delighted to know that the children thoroughly enjoyed the two hour walk and learnt a great deal. Following their return to school they had a ‘brain-storming’ session on their experience in the wood, and I am told by wood wardens Dave and Neale that all the children were polite and well behaved. Their walk was followed by a picnic on Temple Vale field so it sounds to me as if a good time was had by all, including the wood wardens.

There seems to have been quite a bit in the national press on the advantages of walking, which of course we all know! The emphasis seems on the health benefits to older people who walk several times a week. The recommendation is to walk in the open air for 15 minutes four times a week to improve our length of life with researchers also saying that walking boosts cardiovascular health and strengthens muscles, which can help to prevent falls. I have also seen it recommended that a two hour walk in a forest improves the depth and quality of sleep – probably exhaustion!

So, get those walking shoes on and explore the joys of rambling in our most beautiful woodland. I have to say that I recently enjoyed the unexpected pleasure of walking in a light rainfall, which enhanced the luminous, translucent quality of the fresh green of the abundantly leafy trees and produced such a sweet smell in the air that only comes with spring rain. Well we have had plenty of that on and off recently haven’t we, although we don’t always venture out for a walk when it’s wet, but occasionally it is worth the effort of donning wellies and macs which may well be worn out by the end of this ‘summer’!

With thoughts of the coming Woodland Tree Walk in mind, for me one tree in particular comes into its own in springtime and that is the Wild Cherry with its delicate white blossom at its best in April, just before the leaves.   It is probably most identifiable in autumn when the leaves turn a fiery mix of crimson and yellow, even the peeling bark reveals wonderful, dark, shiny red patches. The rich reddish-brown colour of the timber makes it, understandably, much prized for furniture, wood-turning and carving, is tough and can be polished to a finish resembling mahogany. When used as fuel it burns with a fragrant smell similar to that of the flowers and in a south Chiltern village the blossom is used to decorate the church at Easter. I think my favourite is a story from the former Czechoslovakia where boughs of cherry were cut on 4th December, on the feast of St. Barbara, and kept indoors so that they would flower on Christmas Eve, when the girls would then take them to midnight mass under their cloaks, and the boys would try to steal them. We now come to the fruits, which are apparently the best for making Cherry Brandy! The recipe is similar to that for sloe gin; simply fill a small jar full of wild cherries, add a couple of tablespoons of sugar, top up with brandy and leave for three or four months. That is of course if you can get to them before the birds which like to eat the cherries as soon as they are ripe.  Not quite so tasty I think is the use of the sticky resin which exudes from the trunks when they are damaged and used by children and forest workers as a bitter-sweet chewing-gum.  It was also thought to promote good complexion and eyesight and help to cure coughs. Don’t think I will try this one but maybe the brandy!

Getting back to more practical subjects, the wood wardens are currently working very hard on creating bunds alongside the pathways where the contractors have been working. I find it quite amazing how quickly nature has taken over to the extent it is quite difficult to see where some of the older ones were created, making a marvellous habitat for wild life – small mammals, birds, and insects.

I have now reached the part where I give you the telephone number of wood warden Gary (01707 375216) in the hope that if any of you can spare some time to help with our voluntary groups on a Thursday or Sunday morning you will give him a call to find out more about the excellent conservation work they carry out in Sherrardspark Wood. How very beautiful the woodland is at this time of the year, I do hope many of you are taking advantage of having such a blessing so close to our town. Enjoy the summer – whatever the weather.

Marian Dawson 

Sherrardspark Wood Warden

[This article is also published in Welwyn Hatfield Times Magazine July 2013]

Bluebells Examining moss Cowslip Cowslips Lichen