I loved Langley Vale Wood – so much so I returned the very next day to explore more of it. This is a really special place. Created as part of the Trust’s First World War Centenary Woods project, it's a natural living legacy for those who gave their lives during the Great War, symbolising peace and hope.

Memorials dotted through the site remind us of the enormous sacrifice and offer space to reflect and remember. Langley Vale Wood is an evocative and moving tribute.

As well as these important reflections on the past, the site has a bright future. Previously an arable farm that became non-viable, it’s now a site full of thriving young trees and wildlife. In just eight years of careful management, butterfly numbers are booming, barn owls are breeding and rare plants are increasing too.

Join us for a tour with site manager Guy Kent and volunteer David Hatcher to discover:

  • the ‘Regiment of Trees’ with life-size sculptures of volunteer soldiers among the trees replicating Lord Kitchener’s 1915 inspection of troops right here at Epsom Downs
  • the ‘Witness’ memorial made of oak and inscribed with First World War poetry
  • Jutland Wood, planted in tribute to those lost at the 1916 Battle of Jutland
  • how the former farmland is being transformed into a peaceful oasis for people and nature
  • why the plants here make some of the fields internationally important.

Listen to the podcast now on iTunesLibsyn or Soundcloud. Please subscribe if you want to hear more woodland adventures and don’t forget to rate us or leave a review!

Voiceover: You are listening to Woodland Walks, a podcast for the Woodland Trust, presented by Adam Shaw. We protect and plant trees for people to enjoy, to fight climate change and to help wildlife thrive.
Adam: Hello! I've got to start by telling you this. I have driven to Langley Vale today and I've been driving through suburban London, really not very much aware of my surroundings, and you come up this hill and suddenly everything falls away and you burst out onto the top of the hill and it's all sky and Epsom Downs. And the racecourse is just ahead of you! And it dramatically changes. So, it's quite, it's quite an entrance into the Langley Vale forest area.
I've come to meet, well, a couple of people here. I’ve drawn up next to a farm, I don’t really know where they are, but it gives me a moment to tell you a little bit about the Langley Vale project which is amazing.
It's a lovely thought behind it, because it is about honouring those who died in the First World War, and of course, there are many ways in which we honour and remember the people whose lives were changed forever during that global conflict. There are war memorials, headstones, poetry and paintings – and those man-made accolades – they capture all the names, the dates, the emotions and the places. And of course, they are vital in recording and recounting the difficult and very harrowing experiences from that conflict.
But, what this venture, I think, wanted to achieve with its First World War Centenary Woods Project was a natural, living legacy for the fallen. Flourishing places that symbolise peace and hope, as well as remembering and marking the dreadful events of war, but doing that in the shape of nature and hope for the future. Both now and for many, many generations to come, providing havens for wildlife and for people – and I'm one of those people – and so it’s a great project, it's in its very early stages, but it’s a great opportunity, I think, to have a look around today. So, oh! There's two people wandering down the road there in shorts, I think they’re hikers, I don’t think they are who I am seeing.
[Pause]
Adam: So, Guy you're the site manager here, just tell me a little bit about the site.
Guy: So, we are on the North Downs here in Surrey. It's a huge ridge of chalk that runs along southern England and down through Kent, it pops under the channel and pops up again in France. And this chalk ridge has got very special habitats on it in terms of woodland, chalk grassland, and we're very thrilled here that we've been able to buy, in 2014, a formerly intensively managed arable farm that was actually not very productive. The soils are very thin here on the hills the chalk with flints, so, pretty poor for growing crops, and we were very lucky to buy it as part of our First World War Centenary Woods project as England’s Centenary Wood.
Adam: So, tell me a bit about the Centenary Woods part of this.
Guy: So, the idea of the project was to put a new woodland in each country of the United Kingdom, that being Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. This is the England site, and it is the largest of the four sites. We've actually planted 170,000 trees here. We did go through a full Environmental Impact Assessment and this enabled us to find out where we could plant trees because there are some special habitats here, and there is a national character to the North Downs – national character being that much of the woodland is planted on the high ground and much of the lower land is actually open space, be that for arable use or pasture.
Adam: This is a Centenary Wood, so, is this just an ordinary woodland planted in the name of those who died during the First World War?
Guy: Yes. The difference is… one of the reasons this site was selected was because we do actually have history here from the First World War. We’ve got a number of memorials that I hope to show you today.
One of which commemorates a day in January 1915. Lord Kitchener inspected 20,000 troops here that had gathered and recently joined, taking up the call to join his new army. So, there were many sorts of civilians here in civilian clothing. They got up at 4am in the morning, I’m told, to all assemble here for him arriving at 10am with his equivalent French minister, and they inspected the troops for a very short period of time because they had other troops to go and inspect nearby. But many of those 20,000 actually then ended up going over, obviously, over to the frontline and many were not to return.
Adam: Shall we have a walk down? And what is there then to commemorate that? Are there, are these just trees planted in memory of that occasion, or have you got a sort of statue or something?
Guy: Yeah, well, the Regiment of Trees as we’re just about to see, as you go around the corner… An artist, we commissioned an artist called Patrick Walls who has actually created some statues for us replicating that event. So, we have men standing to attention carved out of sandstone…
Adam: Wow, yes. Just turning around the corner here and you can see this, yes, individual soldiers standing proud of a field of, actually, white daisies just emerging made from that sandstone you say?
Guy: Yes sandstone.
Adam: Sandstone soldiers. We are just walking up to them now, but behind that is all, I mean, I'm assuming this is a statue, but a statue made of trees.
Guy: Indeed, what you’re looking at there Adam is a memorial that we've called Witness. It's actually created by an artist called John Merrill and it is made up of parts of oak trees that have been assembled and it's inspired by the World War One painter Paul Nash, who was a cubist artist, and a particular painting of his called ‘Trees on the Downs’ and that's inspired by that. And we're very lucky to have included within the memorial part of an oak out of Wilfred Owen's garden.
Adam: Wow!
Guy: Yeah so it's constructed to look like trees that have been obliterated, effectively, on the frontline, very evocative.
Adam: Yes, you get very evocative pictures of a single tree either, you know, scarred black or sometimes actually still alive in a field of chaos.
Guy: That's right yeah. And that's kind of trying to illustrate that in our memorial here, and what you can do, the public can actually walk through it. We've got a couple of benches within it, actually, where people can sit and contemplate, and actually written on the inside of some of these beams that go up are actually excerpts from poems from First World War poets.
Adam: So, this first statue we’re actually standing by it’s sort of transformed in the flow of the statue – so it comes out of the ground as a sort of textured rock and as you go up 5 foot, 6 foot the statue also transforms into a man, but this man is wearing a suit and flat cap, so is a civilian.
Guy: Indeed, and that's kind of trying to illustrate the fact that many of them are just joined up and a number of them haven't even got their uniform yet.
Adam: So, let's move on, ahead of us, there’s this sort of city gent on the left but looks a bit grander, but on the right, there are obviously… these look like officers.
Guy: Yeah, the best, how I can best describe this is, that we've actually got 12 statues here and they're actually sitting among standard trees that were planted. So, we've got birch here, we've got beech, we've got whitebeam and we've got maple. But, these statues, the twelve of them, are in four lines. The guys at the back have only just joined up and they haven't had their uniform yet. And what the artist wanted to illustrate was the fact that all classes joined up at the same time. So, we have a working-class guy with his flat cap down the end there, we have our middle-class guy here with his hat on, and then we have the upper classes as well – it's meant to illustrate that everybody was in it together and joined in.
Adam: I thought this was an officer, but I can see from his insignia he's a corporal.
Guy: Indeed, and if you look at the statues Adam, as we go nearer the front to where Kitchener would have inspected, they all put the guys at the front who had all their webbing, all their uniform already, and as we move back through the lines it was less and less uniform and equipment.
Adam: It’s very evocative, I have to say, it’s much more emotional than I thought it would be. Shall we go over to the sculpture?
Guy: Yes let’s.
Adam: So, this is called ‘Witness’.
Guy: So, this is ‘Witness’ yes, and this is… John Merrill created this, he's got a yard in Wales where he works wood of this size. As you can see, it's quite a structure.
Adam: So, yes as you say this size… So, I'm very bad at judging, six… I am trying to think, how many six-foot men could you fit under here? Six, twelve, I dunno thirty foot high? Was that fair?
Guy: I tend to work in metres, I don’t know about you, but I'm going to say about six metres at its highest point.
Adam: So, it’s made of, sort of, coming into it… it's… actually, it's quite cathedral-like inside. Small but is that a fair description?
Guy: Yeah, I think so.
Adam: *inaudible* Now, every second tree here has a line of First World War poetry etched into it rather beautifully. Do you want to read just a couple out for us?
Guy: Yes… so here we have one saying: “And lying in sheer I look round at the corpses of the larches. Whom they slew to make pit-props.” [editor: Afterwards by Margaret Postgate Cole]. “At evening the autumn woodlands ring with deadly weapons. Over the golden plains and lakes…” [editor: Grodek by Georg Trakl].
Adam: Amazing, it’s an amazing place. There are a couple of benches here and these are…
Guy: These are the names of the poets. So, we have W Owen here, we have E Thomas, J W Streets, M P Cole, amongst others.
Adam: Very moving, very moving. Okay, well it’s a big site isn’t it, a big site. So, where are we going to go to next?
Guy: Well, we can walk through now Adam, we can see a new community orchard that we planted in 2017.
Adam: So, we’ve come into, well a big part of, well there are a huge number of trees here. So, is this the main planting area?
Guy: Yes, this is the main planting area. There are approximately 40,000 trees in here.
Adam: We’re quite near a lot of urban areas, but here they’ve all disappeared, and well, the field goes down and dips up again. Is that all Woodland Trust forest?
Guy: That’s right, what you can see ahead of us there is actually the first planting that we did on this site in 2014, on that hillside beyond.
Adam: 2014? So, eight, eight…
Guy: Eight years old.
Adam: [laughs] Thank you, yes mental maths took me a moment. So, the reason I was doing that, is that they look like proper trees for only eight years old.
Guy: It just shows you that obviously, you think that when we're planting all these trees now – that none of us will perhaps be here long enough to enjoy them when they’re mature trees, but I think you can see from just by looking over there that that woodland is eight years old and it's very much started to look like a woodland.
Adam: Very much so, well, brilliant. Well, very aptly I can see, starting to see poppies emerging in the fields amongst the trees. They do have this sort of sense of gravestones, in a way, don’t they? They’re sort of standing there in regimented rows amongst the poppy fields.
So, where to now?
Guy: So, we’ll go to Jutland Wood, which is our memorial to the Battle of Jutland.
Adam: The famous sea battle
Guy: Yes, it was the largest battle of the First World War which raged over two days, the 31st of May to the 1st of June 1916. We're going to meet our volunteer, lead volunteer, David Hatcher now, who's been working with us on the site for a number of years, and he's going to tell you about this memorial that we've got to the Battle of Jutland.
Adam: Right, I mean, here it's, it's different because there are these rather nice, actually, sculpted wooden stands. What are these?
Guy: Yeah, these are… actually commemorate… we've got what we call naval oaks. So, we've got a standard oak planted for each of the ships that were lost in that particular battle and we've also, between them, we've got these port holes that have been made by an artist called Andrew Lapthorn, and if I can describe those to you, they are sort of a nice piece, monolith of wood with a porthole in the middle of…, a glass porthole, that indicates how many lives were lost and it has the name of the ship.
Adam: So, this is HMS Sparrowhawk where six lives were lost, 84 survivors, but HMS Fortune next door, 67 lives lost, only ten survivors, and it just goes on all the way through.
Guy: As you walk through the feature Adam, the actual lives lost gets a bit more, bigger and bigger, and by the end it’s… there were very few survivors on some of the ships that went down, and they are illustrated on these nice portholes that commemorate that.
Adam: And this is all from the Battle of Jutland?
Guy: Battle of Jutland this is yeah.
Adam: And just at the end here HMS Queen Mary, 1,266 lives lost, only 20 survivors from 1913. Very, very difficult.
[Walking]
Guy: This memorial, actually illustrates…, is by a lady called Christine Charlesworth, and what we have here is a metal representation of a sailor from 1916 in his uniform. And that faces the woodland here, where you can see ancient semi natural woodland that would have been here in 1916. So, this sailor is looking to the past and our ancient woodland. If we look to the other side of the sailor, we have a sailor from 2016 in his uniform and he’s looking in the opposite direction, and he’s looking at our newly planted trees – looking to the future.
Adam: Let’s walk through here, and at the end of this rather… I mean it is very elegantly done but obviously sombre. But, at the end here we’re going to meet David who’s your lead volunteer.
So, David, so you’re the lead volunteer for this site? And, I know that’s, must be quite a responsibility because this is quite a site!
David: That’s very flattering - I’m a lead volunteer - I have lots of brilliant colleagues.
Adam: Really? So, how many of you are there here?
David: About seven lead volunteers, there are about one hundred volunteers on the list.
Adam: And what do you actually do here?
David: Ah well it’s a whole range of different things. As you know this was an intensively farmed arable site. And there were lots of things like old fences and other debris. It was also used as a shooting estate, so there were things left over from feeding pheasants and what have you.
Adam: Right.
David: A lot of rubbish that all had to be cleared because it’s open access land from the Woodland Trust, and we don’t want dogs running into barbed wire fences and things like that.
Adam: And it’s different from, well I think, almost any other wood. It has this reflection of World War One in it. What does that mean to you?
David: Well, it actually means a lot to me personally, because I was the first chairman of the Veteran’s Gateway. So, I had a connection with the military, and it was brilliant for me to be able to come and do something practical, rather than just sitting at a desk, to honour our veterans.
Adam: And do you notice that people bring their families here who have had grandfathers or great grandfathers who died in World War One?
David: Yes, they do and in particular we have a memorial trail in November, every year, and there’s a wreath where you can pick up a little tag and write a name on it and pin it to this wreath, and that honours one of your relatives or a friend, or somebody like that, and families come, and children love writing the names of their grandpa on and sticking it to the wreath.
Adam: And do you have a family connection here at all?
David: My father actually served in the, sorry, actually my grandfather served at the Battle of Jutland.
Adam: Wow and what did he do there?
David: He was a chief petty officer on a battleship, and he survived I am happy to say, and perhaps I would never have been here had he not, and all of my family – my father, my mother, both my grandfathers were all in the military.
Adam: And do you remember him talking to you about the Battle of Jutland?
David: He didn't, but what he did have was, he had a ceremonial sword which I loved, I loved playing with his ceremonial sword.
Adam: Gotcha. And you are still here to tell the tale! [Laughter]
David: And so are all my relatives! [Laughter]
Adam: Yes, please don’t play with ceremonial swords! [Laughter]
That’s amazing. Of course, a lot of people don’t talk about those times.
David: No.
Adam: Because it’s too traumatic, you know… as we’ve seen how many people died here.
David: Yes.
Adam: Well look, it’s a relatively new woodland and we’re just amongst, here in this bit, which commemorates Jutland, the trees are really only, some of them, poking above their really protective tubes. But what sort of changes have you seen in the last seven, eight odd years or so since it’s been planted?
David: It's changed enormously. It's quite extraordinary to see how some trees have really come on very well indeed, but also a lot of wildflowers have been sown. We have to be very careful about which we sow and where because it's also a very valuable natural wildflower site, so we don't want them getting mixed up.
Adam: So, what's your favourite part of the site then?
David: Ah well my favourite part…, I'm an amateur naturalist, so there’s the sort of dark and gloomy things that are very like ancient woodland. We call them ancient semi-natural woodland. So there is Great Hurst Wood which is one of the ancient woodlands.
Adam: Here on this site?
David: Yes, on this site. It's just over there, but we have another couple of areas that are really ancient semi-natural woodland, but actually, I love it all. There's something for everybody: there’s the skylarks that we can hear at the moment; the arable fields with very rare plants in; the very rare fungi in the woods. Actually, that line of trees that you can see behind you is something called the Sheep Walk, and the Sheep Walk is so-called because they used to drive sheep from all the way from Kent to markets in the west of the county, and they've always had that shelterbelt there – it's very narrow – so they've always had it there to protect the sheep from the sun, or the weather, or whatever. And it's the most natural bit of ancient woodland that there is, even though it's so narrow and it's fascinating what you can find under there.
Adam: And I saw you brought some binoculars with you today. So, I mean, what about sort of the birds and other animals that presumably have flourished since this was planted?
David: It's getting a lot better. The Woodland Trust has a general no chemicals and fertiliser policy and so as the soil returns to its natural state then other things that were here before, sometimes resting in the soil, are beginning to come up. We, I think, we surveyed maybe 20 species of butterflies in the first year… there are now over… 32! And there are only 56 different species over the country, so we have a jolly good proportion! We have two Red List birds at least here – skylarks and lapwings nesting.
It's all getting better; it’s getting a lot better under new management.
Adam: [chuckle] Fantastic! Well, it’s a real, a real joy to be here today. Er so, we’re here in the Jutland woodland. Where, where are we going to next do you think? Where's the best place…?
David: We’re going to have a look at one of the wonderful poppy fields.
Adam: Right.
David: Because the poppies come up just as they did in Flanders every summer and it's, it really is a sight to behold.
Adam: And is this peak poppy season?
David: It's just passed…
Adam: Just passed.
David: So, we hope they are still there and haven't been blown away.
Adam: It would be typical if I have got here and all the poppies have gone. Forget it, alright, let's go up there.
So, well this is quite something! So, we've turned into this other field, and it is a field, well never in my life have I seen so many poppies! Mainly red poppies, but then there are…, what are these amongst them?
Guy: Yeah. So, what you can see is a number of species of poppies here. The main one you can see, it's the red Flanders poppy.
Adam: And is this natural or planted because of the First World War reference?
Guy: No, it's mostly…, we did supplement this with some…, we've actually planted some of these poppy seeds, but most of them are natural and it's a direct result of the fact that we continue to cultivate the land. One of the most important conservation features we have here on site is rare arable plants. Bizarrely, these plants were once called arable weeds, but when intensification of farming began in the mid-20th century, the timing of ploughing was changed, the introduction of herbicides, all these things meant that these so-called arable weeds actually became quite rare and they were just hanging on to the edges of fields. What we've been able to do here is to continue to cultivate the land sympathetically for these plants and we now have much, much better arable plant assemblages here. We have rare arable plants here now, that mean that some of these fields are of national importance and a couple of them are of international importance, but a by-product of cultivating the land every year for these is that we get displays of poppies like this every year.
Adam: And when you cultivate, you’re talking about cultivating the land, you’re planting these poppies, or what does that mean?
Guy: No, it’s almost like replicating the fact…, it’s as if we're going to plant a crop, so we actually plough the field and then we roll it as if we're going to prepare a crop.
Adam: But you don't actually plant a crop.
Guy: No, no exactly. And then we leave it fallow and then naturally these arable plants tend to actually populate these fields. Poppies are incredibly nectar-rich, they're actually quite short-lived… Some of you may know poppies that grow in your garden, and they could be out in bloom one day and completely blown off their petals the next day. They don't, like, last very long, but they do pack a powerful punch for nectar, so definitely invertebrates… Because we don't use chemicals here anymore which would have been used constantly on this farm – and what that means is that many of these arable plants, they require low fertility otherwise they get out-competed by all the things you'd expect like nettles, docks and thistles. So as the land improves so will hopefully arable plant assemblages making them even more impressive than they already are.
Adam: But actually, as the, as the soil improves isn't that a problem for things like poppies ‘cause they'll get out-competed by other plants which thrive better?
Guy: It's a fair point, but what is actually crucial – is that to actually increase biodiversity in these fields it actually requires low nutrients. In terms of a lot of these fields, as well, we have, from years of chemical application, we have a lot of potassium, we have a lot of magnesium in them, and they have a lot of phosphorus too now. Magnesium and potassium tend to leach out of the soil so they will improve naturally, phosphorus tends to bind the soil and sticks around for a long time. So, we're trying to get these chemicals down to acceptable levels to make them more attractive for rare plants and therefore increasing biodiversity.
Adam: Well, it is, it is like a painting and I'm going to take a photo and put it on my Twitter feed. I just, [gasp] so if anyone wants to see that, head over there. But it is beautiful, properly beautiful.
I mean, so we were walking by this extraordinary painting of a poppy field to our right. It's a site which has been revolutionised because it was all arable farming less than a decade ago. What has that done for biodiversity here?
Guy: Well, as we can imagine these fields, it’s quite difficult to imagine them as we walk through them now, but these would have all been bare fields that were basically in crop production and there’s clearly been an explosion of invertebrate activity here.
We've got increasing butterfly species every year, our bird numbers are starting to go up, but also importantly we've got certain areas where habitats are being allowed to develop. So, we have a former arable field here that is now developing, it has been planted up with hazel coppice in a system we call ‘coppice with standards’, where we plant…
Adam: Coppice with standards?
Guy: Coppice with standards yeah.
Adam: Oo, well very grand!
Guy: It is! It’s an old forestry practice where they planted lots of hazel trees that would have been worked and then periodically in amongst them, there will be oak trees that would be allowed to grow longer and then harvested at a later date.
What this has meant is that we've got long grass now that is growing between these trees and that's making it much more attractive for small mammals on site.
Adam: Like what? What sort of small mammals?
Guy: Things like voles, wood mice, field voles, these sort of things that make sort of tracks and sort of tunnels within the grass.
And what that has meant is, as we go up the food chain is, that that's become more attractive now on the site for raptors. A nice story from two years ago - we have a volunteer that works with us who is a BTO bird ringer, and he sort of approached us to say “you've got barn owls nearby and your site is starting to develop nicely. How do you fancy putting up some raptor boxes to see if we can attract them in?” So, which was great, and we managed…, the local bird club donated some barn owl boxes, we put the barn owl boxes up in this field we have just talked about – the hazel coppice field – and the expert said “well they probably won't nest in it this year. They'll come and have a look…” Anyway, we put it up…, two months later… it was being used and we were able to ring those three chicks that came from that and they've been breeding ever since.
Adam: Wow, how amazing! Must be very heartening to be working on the site which is growing like that so quickly.
Guy: It is, it's amazing and when you consider that we’re within the M25, we’re very close to London, but we've got this site that is growing and it's only going to get better as we manage it sympathetically for the wildlife that it hosts.
Adam: We’re just coming round the bend and back to almost where we started into this field of standing soldiers amongst the growing trees, and the cathedral-like tree sculpture there which will take us back to the beginning. So we’ve just done a little tour…
Guy: Yeah,
Adam: So, I dunno half an hour, 40 minutes or so. Presumably, we skirted the edges of this…
Guy: You certainly have Adam! It’s a fraction of the site. We are 640 acres in size and we're just at the top part of it. This area that we've largely walked around today is very much focused on World War One and our memorials, but much of the rest of the site is, actually, is quite a bit quieter, there are fewer people around and the focus is definitely more on wildlife.
Adam: Yes, well, it has been an amazing trip, I have to say, I’ve been to lots of different Woodland Trust woods all the way up the country, to the far stretches of Scotland. I have to say I think this is my favourite. It’s quite, quite a site! And the memorial is done really tastefully and fits in with the landscape. I think this is quite, quite a site for you to manage, it's quite a thing.
Guy: It’s incredible and we are just so proud of it and we just can't wait to be able to open our car park and invite people from further afield, and not just locals who get to enjoy it as is the case at the moment.
Adam: Absolutely. Well look, thank you! It started this morning, bright sun, it looked like I shouldn’t need to bring a coat then all of a sudden, I thought “Oh my goodness”, we’re standing under a completely black cloud but it has not rained, it is not raining, we're in running distance of the car so…
Guy: Somebody's looking down on us Adam, at least for a couple of hours.
Adam: They are indeed, well thank you very much!
Voiceover: Thank you for listening to the Woodland Trust Woodland Walks. Join us next month when Adam will be taking another walk in the company of Woodland Trust staff, partners and volunteers and don't forget to subscribe to the series on iTunes, or wherever you're listening to us, and do give us a review and a rating.
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