Woodland Walks with Adam Shaw - Heartwood, St Albans
I have become a caster of pods – as the host of the new Woodland Trust podcast – Woodland Walks. Our debut episode was something special, exploring the largest new native woodland in England, Heartwood Forest. And it was quite an adventure.
Who knew that in my 50s I would be struggling into a makeshift wooden den built by two children, getting lost in the woods with the charity’s chief executive and discovering a giant picnic table in a part of Heartwood called The Magical Wood?
It didn’t start well. One train cancellation, a bit of poor map reading and only being able to find my woodland colleague by her florescent pink socks (spotted across the car park) meant it all started a bit late.
I had planned to meet two of the volunteers: Tim Wright and his dogs and Brian, his wife and his grandchildren. But first I caught up with Beccy Speight, the Woodland Trust Chief Executive, who gave me my first lesson of the day.
As we started off, I asked what the difference was between a wood and a forest. A forest, she explained, doesn’t necessarily have to have trees in it. It’s an area in which the monarch can hunt. The difference between a wood and a forest isn’t really clear – except that a forest is usually bigger. So, having been better informed - we headed off together...
Heartwood, the people’s forest
What’s so special about Heartwood is how the project has been shaped so much by local volunteers, not just in helping plant the thousands of trees – all the trees were planted by volunteers and schoolchildren - but in directing what the woodland would look like. And all of that effort in turn has been made possible by Woodland Trust members and supporters.
The sheer scale of what they have done is jaw dropping. I thought I had read the noughts wrong – 600,000 trees have been planted over 10 years. Our first volunteer, Brian Legg, has planted several thousand of them himself!
And with that effort comes reward. Heartwood is thriving, home to lots of woodland species, adorned by carpets of wildflowers. There are some 30 different species of butterflies – almost half the native species we have in the UK. The volunteers have been keeping track of wildlife in a long-term monitoring project. Since they began tracking species in Heartwood, the number of butterflies has doubled.
Brian has also been one of the driving forces behind a new arboretum – a kind of ‘zoo for trees’, with all 60 UK native trees and shrubs on show. It’s a significant venture and not all the trees were easy to come by. The Plymouth pear, for instance, was particularly difficult to get hold of and in planting 20 of them at Heartwood, Brian and the volunteers have doubled the number of those trees in the UK.
Credit: Adam Shaw
Heartwood’s magical bluebells
Only a shortish walk took us to the first pocket of ancient woodland (there are four in total) which has been there for more than 400 years. In the past it was regularly coppiced and logged and the wood was sent to fire the ovens of London.
Bluebells are a good indicator of pristine ancient woodland. When I visited, the beautiful bobbing heads were in full bloom and - walking deeper into the bluebell wood - I couldn’t help but think it looked like a natural cathedral; bending trees forming a wooded arch leading you down a path of blue flowers to an open space at the end. It’s the only part of the wood where visitors are asked to stay on the path to make sure the flowers aren’t trampled.
Heartwood has plenty of open land, new plantings, a giant picnic table, bridle paths and great views of the village – where I stopped to get some fortifying baked beans on toast before the walk.
There’s also a special area where kids are encouraged to build dens from some broken branches and Brian’s grandchildren, Jonty and Barnie, built one for me. It seemed a good idea to get into it after such effort. But these things aren’t built for middle aged men and, once in, it wasn’t entirely easy to get out!
Leaving the bluebell woods, I met Tim Wright and his two dogs, Molly and Archie. Tim is a retired telecoms engineer and found a new love of trees when he volunteered to help create Heartwood. He has helped build a living willow tunnel for children to run through and recommended I go to an area of Heartwood called High Trees - where, he said, you hardly see anybody.
Tim and Brian are just two of thousands of volunteers who have helped transform this landscape. It’s what makes Heartwood very special - a piece of nature not just shaped by locals but nurtured by them - a testament to the possible.
It’s a great place to visit and although most of the people I saw didn’t move much beyond the bluebell woods, about a 10-minute walk from the car park, this is a huge area in which you can meander, climb trees, and fill your lungs with the fresh air of spring and summer. I couldn’t recommend it more.
Listen to our first podcast!
Do have a listen to the Woodland Walks podcast if you want to hear Brian’s grandchildren building a den and me getting stuck in it, as well as a guide to the flora and fauna of Heartwood itself.
Please subscribe to the podcast if you want to hear more adventures in the woodlands of the UK and don’t forget to rate us or leave a review!
I am keen to hear from you as well – so if you have a favourite woodland walk, do tell me about it in a short email or if you can, make a 5-minute or so recording of your own walk and we may feature your woodland walk in a future podcast.
I’ll be off on another woodland walk next month. Hope you can join me.
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