Aliens in the Woods

A dry morning in the woods. I didn’t know what to expect. It was billed as “art in the woods”. We started off foraging. First looking for “Y” shaped branches or twigs, not too big, not too brittle. We left them in a pile by some tree trunks that are good for sitting on. Then more foraging: ferns and feathers, leaves and anything that caught the eye. It’s good to look – that’s how you see things.

Back at the tree trunks the children full of energy, not keeping still, talking of computer games, guns, fairies and made-up words. There were balls of coloured wool. We were told to tie wool to the base of our twiggy “Y”s and wrap it around each side of the “Y” in a figure of 8. And then to repeat, going up the twigs, keeping it taut. I was doing it far too close. I decided to leave bigger gaps like the other people. We were then told to weave a different colour up and down, in and out of our taut strands. Hmm, my twigs were too flexible and everything lost tension. By my third attempt I was getting the warp taut across the Y-loom. Now for the weft (or woof): wool, feathers, ferns,… I knew the words, just not the practice. My big fingers struggled in the tiny gaps down by the join of the Y. And I should have brought my reading glasses.

Looking up there was an impressive old beech right behind me. The trunks were surprisingly comfortable to sit on. A young girl was wrapping a mazy bundle of different coloured wools around her loom, totally absorbed while chatting to the new friend she had just made. A young boy had gathered cones (“alien eggs”: he explained to me later, all aliens are bad and you have to shoot first without any attempt at first contact) around which he was concocting an alien story with wool, guns and twigs. Some adults were discussing mutual friends they had just discovered who had grown up in the south of the county. We hung our artistic offerings on a small tree struggling for light in the shade of the majestic beech. What a wandering anthropologist or visiting alien would make of them I have no idea.

Wood Avens

An early June wildflower walk and 25 ticks on the Plantlife “The Great British Wildflower Hunt” checklist. (www.plantlife.org.uk/wildflowerhunt/). And of course there were flowers we saw that were not on the Plantlife identification charts: some of them we could even name. I think we probably all learned something, or at least remembered something we had forgotten.

We found buttercups – and in the woods something that sort of resembled them. But buttercups like grasslands, covering meadows in great sheets of glorious yellow. These were single, scattered stars of yellow in the wood’s dappled shade. They had 5 petals like a buttercup, perhaps not as shiny or new looking but passable. They were wood avens. They do well in shade and love woodlands. Another name, Herb Bennet, tells us they have been here a long time: they were a useful medicinal plant: herba benedicta, the blessed herb. (And while we’re doing Latin, they are also Geum Urbanum, a city weed.)

But I like the name wood aven. It tells me something: you find it in woods. And I wonder what other avens there are. Once you know a plant’s name you’ll perhaps start to see it more. You recognise it, appreciate it and maybe even like it (or perhaps with stinging nettles just respect them). Your walks in the countryside are a little bit richer. You are learning more about its world, a world where it belongs and where you are just a visitor. This plant has its own concerns: the flowers are to attract pollinators, the spiky seed heads to catch hold of your dog and hitch a ride to another shady woody spot. Its clever chemistry is to help itself get along in its world. That it’s pretty or useful as a medicine doesn’t concern it one bit.

Wood avens do have one close relative in Britain: water avens (Geum Rivale) which I think are prettier. The Wildlife Trust’s website says: “It has nodding, purple-and-orange flowers that hang on delicate, purple stems.” Exactly. You can see them in Foxley wood (near Bawdeswell: next time you go to the garden centre there make a detour and have a look). In a wet wood you may find hybrids, even prettier still, but I never have. Yet. There is a rather more distant relative, the mountain aven. You don’t get them in Norfolk for some reason: head to the Lakes or Scotland.

We litter pick (first Saturday of the month, 10 to 12), work (second Wednesday, 10 to 1) and wander about with people who know a thing or two about it all. Meet at the corner of Enfield Road and Larkman Lane. To find out more email friendsofwestearlhamwoods@gmail.com, follow us on Facebook or call 07920205467

Big Beasts in the Wood

In olden days woods were scary places. I mean really old days when there were mammoths, bears, boars, bison, tarpans and aurochs roaming and browsing. Tarpans? Aurochs? The original wild horse was the tarpan, the original wild cow was the auroch. These big beasts were perfectly capable of disrupting woods: knocking down trees (modern elephants will push trees over to get the juicy top leaves), breaking off branches, churning up the ground, eating young saplings and grazing clearings. Woods of course learnt to hold their own. Most European trees will grow back where they are broken off: that’s why coppicing and pollarding work. Most woodland plants probably benefit in the long run from big beasts trampling and boars rootling. The dynamic exchange between wood and beast creates diverse habitats benefitting all sorts of creatures.

We’ve had big beasts in Bunkers Hill Wood recently. Only this time they were trucks and diggers. There were ecologists too, and foresters and men with chain-saws. I went for a walk after they had gone. It was as if a large sounder of boars had been seriously rootling the ground while a tusk of mammoths had been devastating the trees. I was pleased. Woods need disrupting. Left just to themselves they become dark, dank places like Mirkwood. Sterile places – that’s how the ecologist described Bunkers Hill. The workmen took out lots of trees and opened the place up. Looking up on a nice day you can see the blue sky and white clouds. The sun can get in, right down to the woodland floor. That’s good for flowers. And they’re good for insects. And they’re good for birds. And it’s all good for us.

Some people immediately responded in the right spirit: there were fathers and children here, young couples there trying their hands at den-making with the debris the workmen had left behind. Others needed just a little encouragement. One householder was initially dismayed that all the trees had disappeared just beyond his fence. I met him happily planting out woodland edge species (courtesy of Norwich Fringe Project) that should soon look lovely and enhance the biodiversity (much of the biodiversity in a wood is found at its edge). And two young lads who play there were also dismayed but are eager to volunteer and help look after the wood. The wood of course must be feeling rather shaken up. But it too will respond in the right way: already the bare earth is greening and soon the bluebells and wild garlic will be out and enjoying such sunshine as has not been seen there for decades.  

 Want to get involved? We are litter picking on April 3rd. You can book a place here: https://westearlhamlitterpick3.eventbrite.co.uk See us on facebook or contact us on 07920205467 or friendsofwestearlhamwoods@gmail.com

Trees I Have Known

The by road that goes from Marlingford Mill past the church out towards Colton is flanked by unruly, wildly curving oak trees. Next time I go there I will get off my bike, walk slowly and see them properly. Once there were three black poplars on the green at Bawburgh by the river. I remember one: gnarled and impressive. It survived just into the 21st century. But the beeches with long sweeping branches at the top of the meadow between the cottages and Colney church are still there. My aunt Ethel lived in one of those cottages long ago when Uncle Jimmy was cowman at the farm opposite (now the Spire hospital). When we visited, my sister and I used those low branches for swinging. The trees are out of bounds behind secure fencing now.

Then there were more exotic trees far away. The old pine nut tree in the school garden in Istanbul. The huge cones contained nuts in beautifully shaped shells. The shop pine nuts are as nothing to those from freshly smashed shells. Or the mulberry by the parade ground for the weekly assembly by the bust of the Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic. It used to cover the ground in mushy fruit in the summer. Or the almond tree by the villa up in the hills in Crete. One of the joys of that holiday was again cracking and eating fresh nuts.

Three more. By the old hall in Bowthorpe there is a ruinously ancient lime tree. A fallen bough leads metres up to the broken and hollow trunk which still supports massive branches. I have the scars from my failed ascent. A tiny small leaved lime seedling 3cm high in a pink pot in the garden. We found it in Hockering wood. Its pink buds mirroring the colour of the pot look very much alive. And finally there’s a majestic hornbeam in Twenty Acre Wood, just back from the Enfield Road entrance. Its heavy ivy coat hides the distinctive bark markings. To see those very clearly go to Ashwellthorpe or Tyrrells Wood (when lockdown’s over).

Trees have presence. A presence that’s equalled only by our customary insensitivity that allows us to pass endlessly without seeing. Go and have a look!

See us on facebook or contact us on 07920205467 or friendsofwestearlhamwoods@gmail.com or visit our website: https://westearlhamwoods.wordpress.com/ for details.

Trees in the Slow Lane

Trees live their lives in the slow lane. Our oldest oaks in the local woods are perhaps 250 years old. They are in their prime with possibly centuries to look forward to. They will only be really old by the time they are 700. So they have time to take things slowly, perhaps growing a new side branch the next couple of decades to correct a slight lack of balance and take some of the strain off their poor roots. Trees of course respond to what goes on around them: they warn each other of pests with chemical signalling and share food through fungal networks. Much of their lives we don’t notice: they perhaps are “aware” of it. But even so there is a lot going on in the woods we do notice. A fairy door trail appeared in Twenty Acre Woods and soon attracted attention. Before this last lockdown when such things were still permitted a class of 6 year olds came. They planted trees, collected litter
and raced from one fairy door to the next. There was plenty going on that day.
When you’re 6 it’s no easy matter pushing a spade into the wood’s floor.

“Is this deep enough?”
“Hmm. Try jumping on it”.

They were more practised at writing their names on the tree guards with permanent markers.

“This is my tree. I planted it.”

One youngster lingered at the start of the litter pick. The others were all lined up single file ready to march off and begin. Her heart wasn’t in it: what she really wanted was to strip ivy from a young sapling. She wouldn’t go till that tree was free. I waited to ensure she didn’t get lost: I know older folk who can get lost in Twenty Acres. The teachers were tolerant – perhaps they were used to this
little girl doing her own thing. Good for her.

I learned new things: children do that to old folk. One talkative girl was very interested in the jelly beans that had been left by some fairies’ doors. She explained she wanted to be a “youtuber” and do the “challenges, but her Nan she lived with had told her she had to be 10 to do that. One of the challenges is to do with jelly beans: you have to eat some and not make a horrid face even when you came upon one with an absolutely rank disgusting taste. You post a clip on Youtube of your horrid face. She seemed to think this was a career option rather like my son who was bitterly disappointed on discovering that being a Native American and living in the unfrequented wilds wasn’t something you could do anymore, certainly not as a job. I wonder, do the fairies know what to do with their jelly beans?

The trees seemed unaware of all this. They had quietly and sensibly closed down for the winter break. But come Spring they will find lots of young trees settling in and starting on their long lives with them and in some way the trees will be aware of that.

If you would like to be more aware of what is going on check us out on facebook or contact us on 07920205467 or friendsofwestearlhamwoods@gmail.com or visit our website: https://westearlhamwoods.wordpress.com/.

Fairy Doors

If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise… but can you find them all! Hide n Teak and Friends of West Earlham Woods have created a fairy door trail in Twenty Acre Woods. There are 6 small doors, 1 medium, 1 big and a hobbit hill! Please make sure you’re following current Covid restrictions if you’re visiting the fairy doors. At the time of writing that means only going as part of your daily exercise and if you live locally to the woods.

It’s best to start searching at the Enfied Road playground. There’s a couple of signs to point you in the right direction.

To make them easier to find we’ve created a map showing the locations. You can download it on the link below.

Winter Walks

It’s good to go to the woods all by yourself. Leave the dog at home. It may be that you have seen more than enough of home and your nearest & dearest during lockdown. But anyway they would be a distraction. Think of it as immersing yourself into an alien world, as if you were snorkelling. Go alone.

The wood is lighter than at any other season, more open and inviting. You can see deeper into it, catch glimpses of the sky through the twigs’ tracery. You walk slowly and stop, just looking. Turning around maybe you see the low sun filtered but still bright through the branches. The traffic noise also is filtered by the trees but the wood itself is silent. You relax – even my shoulders, which normally only happens beside moving water. You walk soundlessly, on winter sodden leaves, wanting to be as still as the wood, feeling not hearing your footsteps. The world is all texture and colour: polished ringed brown cherry, fluted columns of silver sweet chestnut, dark ripples of oak bark. Some of the scaly pines are the colour brown you find in packs of pencil crayons. You would have used them to colour your earliest drawings of trees, with brown trunks, green leaves. But now, here, the colours are reversed: the leaves brown, the trunks greenish. It is not so alien after all: I belong here more than where I wait in shops full of the textures & colours of fabrics. The trees are like our columns in grand architecture but not regular and crazily thin for their height. Their shapes hint at the patterns of our buildings but are never repeated. It is all peacefully, splendidly irregular and unplanned. And not alien at all: I grew up with this kind of wood, playing in them and reading of the One Hundred Acre Wood, those of Merry England or the strange fairy tale ones of woodcutters’ sons and sinister cottages. They are always there, at the edge of sight, the back of imagination.

I quietly turn a corner toward the road and stop. There in the middle of the day by the deserted playground under a group of oaks where squirrels are playing tag up and down trunks and across the ground, with a magpie busy in the trees, is a grazing deer; a female roe dear I think – surely too big to be muntjac. She looks at me, decides I am no immediate threat and goes on grazing. I watch her for minutes: she never stops chewing, I never move. She is grazing toward me when, suddenly spooked, she bounces off. I see the brambles open to let her through in a way they never do for me.

Then home, to a sit down, a hot drink, cake and company.

If you want to explore the woods (in company) or to help look after them, find us on  https://westearlhamwoods.wordpress.com/ or facebook. Events can be found and booked on https://earlhamwoods.eventbrite.co.uk To ­find out more email friendsofwestearlhamwoods @gmail.com or call Emma on 07920 205467

Wet October

One wet day in October we had a work morning in Twenty Acre Wood – though all the days in October were wet. Even when it wasn’t actually raining the air was damp and the ground sodden. Spiked sweet chestnut husks emptied by squirrels littered the ground. Here and there strangely varied fungi were enjoying their autumn heyday. There were enough of us that we split into two groups. My group went to a small clearing coppiced last year. Already sycamores were growing back. But foxgloves had taken advantage of the extra light and space: one tall dead spike was busy shedding seeds and several new plants promised next year.

The task was to enlarge the clearing by removing brambles. And to encourage each other: the day demanded it. Of course the brambles were thickest, tallest and no doubt prickliest just where the light was greater, just where flowers could best do their job of attracting insects & birds, colouring and scenting the world. We had loppers, slashers, mattocks and rakes – and each other. New people: one from California, just visiting and looking for some volunteering during a gap year before university to study communication and public relations. And from just down the road, walking the dog and willing to help. He dropped the dog off at home, picked up gloves and tools and got stuck in: a natural. “Good to be out, in the fresh air. I like doing this”, he said. And people who had been often before: one slashing at brambles for well more than an hour. (I’m good for about 20 minutes). Another talking of learning Japanese and studying for a qualification to teach English. And one much younger than me, clued up about the wizardry of facebook, twitter and instagram, taking pictures and determined to encourage more people. Then, to really encourage us, of course it properly pelted it down…

I wonder if your wet mornings in October were half as interesting? There are plenty more wet work days that you can join: find us on facebook or contact us on 07920205467 or friendsofwestearlhamwoods@gmail.com or visit our website: https://westearlhamwoods.wordpress.com/ for details.

In the Hope of Spring Flowers

Thanks to the national lottery and a Norwich City Council grant we planted spring flowers in the lower part of Twenty Acre Wood. And thanks to 6 “good men and true”. Well, we were mostly ladies actually. And 6 is the maximum allowed by the Covid restrictions. But we all know about that.

I was planting wild garlic along the edge of the path. It flourishes there in Bunkers Hill Wood. The smell of this wild garlic had permeated our house for 10 days after it arrived from British Flora until we could plant it. They were not bulbs but shoots an inch or two long with roots at the bottom. Online it said to plant them 1 to 2 inches deep. Never have I paid such serious and sustained attention to the woodland floor. On my knees with a trowel investigating the ground sometimes I found deep leaf litter where we had hacked brambles and nettles back to an oak trunk. That was easy. But I wasn’t sure if the garlic would like deep leaf litter. Nearer the path there were places of compacted soil that taught me (the hard way, literally) the right way to handle a trowel. The wrong way causes blisters on the palm. Maybe – and this perhaps is the way of the world – the garlic would like it best where it was hardest to plant? I don’t know: I hope to see in spring. All planting is about hope – and beauty, utility and life. But really about hope.

So what did sustained careful attention to the woodland floor show me? A passion of wasps. There in the leaf litter under an oak was a rotating bundle of wasps. Just three and one soon flew off. The remaining two formed a writhing nose-to-toe circle. Mating? I have looked at google images of mating wasps and none were nose-to-toe. Was I mistaken? But I watched them quite a long time. What were they doing? What else goes on down there? Later that day cycling between two lines of traffic just about to turn right a wasp stung me on my neck and then on my hand. One learns respect.

While I was working up the path our hard –won clearing was being planted: wood anemones and bluebells as well as the garlic. We didn’t quite finish. One of the ladies took some of the “bulbs” and will go back with her little girl toddler and finish it off. And the remaining bulbs we’ll put in somewhere in the top half of Twenty Acre next week.

Oh and the other thing careful attention to the woodland floor showed me was that it’s a good year for acorns (as well as wasps).

Want to get involved? See us on Facebook or contact us on 07920205467 or friendsofwestearlhamwoods@gmail.com or visit our website: https://westearlhamwoods.wordpress.com/ for details.

To The Woods

Every schoolday for 5 years I cycled past Twenty Acre wood, once in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Some days I took the longer way home and followed Earlham Green Lane out past Bunkers Hill Wood. That was long ago when the cottages opposite Bunkers Hill were the last houses, and Bowthorpe just fields around a tiny village.

The odd thing is I hardly ever deviated from my set route. That route included stopping under the trees at the top end of Eaton Park so my friend would have a smoke before school. But I never stopped at or entered the West Earlham woods. I was, I suppose, urgent to get to school, even more urgent to get home. As a child and teenager I did explore East Hill Woods in Costessey and the Wensum marshes weekends and holidays. As an adult it was only after getting to know other distant Norfolk woods that I took notice of our local ones. I knew Tyrrels Wood, Wayland Wood, Ashwellthorpe Wood, Honeypot Wood well before we discovered the bluebells in Bunkers Hill Wood. Once we had, we tried to go see them at least once a year. And
then gradually became aware of the West Earlham woods more generally.

Those other woods are looked after by Norfolk Wildlife Trust or The Woodland Trust and are excellent places. You can easily find them on the internet and visit them. But our local woods are here, a short walk away and full of wonderful trees. I suspect this tendency to keep to our set routines and not explore our surroundings is quite strong in many of us. Maybe we make an effort and go off for a new experience far away from home while our daily bus ride or walk takes us past places we never go to. Now, when our ordinary life has been disrupted and we are perhaps having to do things differently and locally, now is perhaps a good time to try something new and local. I’m thinking about woods and nature reserves but also more widely. Sometimes it’s good to stop, turn aside, go in somewhere new and see what happens. The wood is there: right here in fact. It’s not going anywhere. It’s free, open, easy to get to and as safe as most places. Go in for a solitary walk, look around you, stop and listen. Or if you are easier with other folk around and eager for some contact with other people join with a small group enjoying or working in
the wood.
We are resuming some activities in small groups as lockdown eases. See us on facebook or contact us on 07920205467 or friendsofwestearlhamwoods@gmail.com

Recently we took part in The Big Butterfly Count. You can survey whenever and wherever you like. Find out more here: https://bigbutterflycount.butterflyconservation.org/

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