Going nuts about squirrels

IT’S Squirrel Appreciation Day, apparently, so a suitable occasion to be celebrating the agility of our furry grey visitors here in the Chilterns.

Sadly my camera can’t really do justice to the incredible acrobatics of the pair doing their best to steal the peanuts and seeds from the blue tits and robins outside our kitchen window.

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Nonetheless although the grey squirrel has plenty of detractors, it doesn’t seem a bad idea to have a day dedicated to the little rascals, bearing in mind the extraordinary variety of squirrels, with more than 200 species around the world, many of them capable of some quite extraordinary feats.

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Squirrel Appreciation Day is observed annually on January 21, it seems, thanks to Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in North Carolina who launched the day in 2001.

But the true extent of squirrels’ talents was revealed in a 2018 BBC Natural World documentary The Super Squirrels, which introduced us to such exotic variants as the Malabar giant squirrel in India and put some home-grown varieties to a gruelling hazelnut-laden assault course to help demonstrate just how clever, ingenious and adaptable they are.

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Of the various species, Christy confirms these fall into three types – ground squirrels, tree squirrels and flying squirrels.

The former include the rock squirrel, California ground squirrel and many others which blanket the prairies and deserts of North America.

Tree squirrels like our own red and grey squirrels make their homes in the trees and can be found all over the globe. The third type of squirrel leaps farther than the others with flaps of skin between the legs.

Flying squirrels glide greater distances giving the impression they can fly. When they leap from tree to tree or building to building, they spread their legs wide and float on the breeze to escape predators.

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Thankfully there are plenty of better photographers around to do justice to the cheeky visitors, including the wonderful Roy and Marie Battell (or the Moorhens), whose weekly newsletter contains a host of high-quality images like the one above, taken in their own miniature nature reserve near Milton Keynes.

Their most recent round-up of visitors to their back garden includes not only squirrels, but deer, a tawny owl, sparrowhawks, chaffinches, woodpeckers and fieldmice.

To sign up for the Moorhens’ newsletter, visit their website. And check out the BBC to catch the Super Squirrels while you can. You can also look up the programme on Facebook to find out more about the tiny orphaned red squirrel featured in the programme and named after Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.



Four go wild in the Highlands

BBC’s Winterwatch team return to the Cairngorms next week for another four nights of chilly wildlife watching.

Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan, Gillian Burke and Iolo Williams host the eighth series of the live show from the Scottish Highlands, starting on Tuesday January 28 at 8pm.

Winterwatch 2020 comes from the programme’s new, year-round home in the Cairngorms National Park, which covers more than 1700 square miles and was established in 2003 by the Scottish parliament.

Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan join forces again to renew a partnership forged more than 25 years ago on the Really Wild Show.

The children’s wildlife programme ran for 20 years from 1986, although the pair were only co-presenters for a couple of years in the 1990s before Chris moved on to other work.

They were reunited on Winterwatch and its sister programmes in 2009 and joined by Gillian Burke in 2017.

Gillian has long been involved with nature TV programming after studying biology at Bristol University. Welsh nature observer and TV presenter Iolo Williams became a regular member of the team in 2019.

Winterwatch runs from Tuesday to Friday next week.

Wolf Moon puts on a show

STARGAZERS and nature photographers have been comparing their images of Friday’s Wolf Moon over the weekend – and it’s fair to say they managed to capture some startling and memorable pictures.

The first full moon of the decade lit up the night sky and coincided with a lunar eclipse, which happens when the sun, moon and Earth are perfectly aligned.

Clear skies across much of England provided perfect conditions for those staking out some of the country’s most iconic backdrops, like Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor.

And around the world, from the beaches of Malaga to the mountains of Macedonia, photographers on the American astronomy website space.com have been showing off their efforts to capture the moon – and the penumbral eclipse which took place between 5pm and 9pm UK time when the earth’s outer shadow falls on the moon, making it look darker than normal.

The term ‘wolf moon’ is thought to have been coined by Native Americans because of how wolves would howl outside villages during the winter. Space.com is one of a number of sites with dates of all the full moons of the year, including the occasional blue moon where the moon is full twice in a month (this year on October 1 and 31).

On Chesham Wildlife facebook group page, Graeme Kennedy, a voluntary duty warden with the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, managed to capture the moon early in the evening, so reflecting the sun’s orange glow (above).

Photographers across the UK managed to capture the moon throughout the night, but some of the most dramatic images were captured by Wiltshire landscape photographer and commercial drone pilot Nick Bull.

His YouTube Channel is dedicated to drone photography and his commercial licence allows him to capture crop circles and historical landmarks like Stonehenge (below).

Particularly dramatic footage this year includes his time-lapse footage of the Wolf Moon over Glastonbury Tor.

The full moon happens about once every 27 days when the moon and the sun are on exactly opposite sides of Earth. The moon looks illuminated because we see the sun’s light reflected from it.

Different tribes may have had other names for it around the world – spirit moon, goose moon or even bear-hunting moon, for example.

There are another three penumbral eclipses to look forward to this year – and the next full moon will occur on February 9, normally known as the “snow moon”, so get those cameras ready!

Zoo for all seasons

YOU don’t expect to find good food at a zoo. You certainly don’t expect to be tucking into a venison ragu or fish stew sporting the sort of seasonal organic credentials you’d expect from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage.

But then ZSL’s Whipsnade Zoo is full of pleasant surprises, it seems, even on a wet and windy day in January. And if seems odd to start talking about catering facilities before mentioning the 2,500 animals on site, it’s just that food can make or break a family day out, as any parent can testify.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. It’s a wild January day, so what possible logic is there for picking this as the perfect time to visit’s the UK’s largest zoo, which boasts 600 acres of land to explore, including areas where some animals can roam free, safari-park style?

One of the biggest surprises, perhaps, is the open outlook of the zoo’s location, which provides visitors with some stunning views over the surrounding Bedfordshire countryside.

If it feels odd to find penguins flourishing in this environment, it seems even stranger to see rural England laid out as a backdrop.

But this is “Europe” on the zoo map, a corner where lolloping wolverines rub shoulders with bears, wild boars and lynx – not to mention the penguins, who are clustered around looking a little disconsolate that the keepers are sweeping their rocks and giving their pool area a bit of a tidy up.

You don’t bump into too many wolverines in the Bedfordshire countryside these days. As with so many mammals, they were hounded out of England centuries ago by hunting and habitat loss, and now you would normally need to go to the Nordic countries or Russia to see the sturdy bear-like animal in the flesh.

At Whipsnade they appear quite happy frolicking in their paddock, but the largest member of the weasel family is a pretty tough customer with the capacity to travel 40 miles in a day and jaws that can crunch through bone – reindeer bone. Ouch.

A stone’s throw away are the zoo’s brown bears, but they are lying low at the back of their enclosure and not easy to spot. One of the great dilemmas for any zoo wanting to put their animals’ welfare first is that this may frequently mean guests can be a little disappointed when their most sought-after inhabitants don’t turn up on cue.

It’s clear from some of the more critical TripAdvisor guests that such problems can leave a sour taste, especially if the family has left the car outside the zoo in the free car park and is trekking around on foot only to find apparently empty cages.

But you have to take your chances when you visit Whipsnade and for us, the distant glimpse of those wonderful brown bears is strangely moving. We are also taking advantage of the fact that the fee to take your car into the zoo – normally an eye-watering £25 – is £12 until mid-February and worth every penny, even if it does mean worried parents keeping a wary eye out for the slow-moving traffic.

But we’ve made a day of it, arriving at opening time (10am), allowing plenty of time to meander around those rolling acres. In “Africa”, the lions may be asleep and the hunting dogs curled up in a family ball, but the white rhinos are getting a little frisky and the meerkets are obligingly cheeky.

We are also suitably refreshed with mid-morning sausage baps from Base Camp. Not all visitors have sung the praises of the new cafe set-up where you order by tablet, but we found the service cheerful, efficient and friendly, and the snacks freshly made and affordable.

While we are talking about moans, some guests seem to find the zoo layout confusing, but the colourful map gives you a clear overview of where everything is, and you can always retrace your steps if you feel you have missed a highlight.

To be fair, the complaints are clearly in the minority, with most guests happy to sing the zoo’s praises. It’s just tough to keep everyone satisfied…

Breakfast behind us, it’s a little easier to join the giraffes as they take their time savouring their food, delighted younger guests watching each ball of leaves travelling back up that long neck for some more grinding.

The wind may be blowing hard on top of the escarpment and there’s plenty of mud to wade through but the younger guests are all well prepared with their hats and wellies, and everyone seems happily reconciled to the cutting wind and occasional shower.

It’s something the zoo is keenly aware of because they do like to advise visitors of the range of indoor options available – not just cafes and an indoor play area, but other refuges dotted around the park, like the hippo enclosure – hot and smelly, it’s true, but a fascinating place to escape a shower if the residents are enjoying a satisfying wallow.

Other hot spots include a tropical butterfly house where 30 species of colourful and exotic butterflies flutter around and a new aquarium which discovers some of the secrets of freshwater fish, explores unusual habitats from flooded forests to mysterious caves, and tells the story of conserving some of the world’s most critically endangered species.

Back in the open air, it’s time to soak up the view again – and consider whether lunch River Cottage style is a sensible investment at this point. It has to be said that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed the best of reviews since it opened, but if previous guests have found the food disappointing or the restaurant closed, we found the reverse.

Yes, £25 for two main courses is on the dear side, but our dishes were good – and on a sunny day, the setting would have been breathtaking.

You don’t have to eat in the restaurant to enjoy the view, either – there are seats and picnic tables all around the grounds for picnickers on a tighter budget, and other cafes on site to choose from, including the cheaper adjoining deli section.

But for our visit the welcome was warm, the meals inviting and the overall experience enjoyable. And families with young children seemed to be coping well too, despite some of the reservations about the menu expressed online.

From this hilltop outlook it’s easier to get a feel for quite what an inspired investment this was when Hall Farm, a derelict farm on the Dunstable Downs north of London, was bought by the Zoological Society of London in 1926 for a little under £500.

The site was fenced, roads built and trees planted, with the first animals arriving in 1928 and the zoo welcoming its first guests on Sunday May 23, 1931.

The Zoological Society of London had been founded in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles with the aim of promoting the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats, at to that end London Zoo was established in Regents Park. Almost a century later, Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, then the long-term secretary of the ZSL, was inspired by a visit to the Bronx Zoo in New York to create a park in Britain as a conservation centre.

The rest, as they say, is history, except that today the conservation message is stronger than ever and central to everything the zoo does, as the website explains. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the zoo’s breeding programme, so it seems like a good time to head off to “Asia” and meet one of the newest arrivals.

This cheeky female greater one-horned rhino was born to mum Behan and dad Hugo in December, weighing in at 70kg, more than twenty times the average human at birth.

Along with other babies, including a couple of wolverine kits and a reticulated giraffe, these are the newest arrivals at Whipsnade, ready to be added to the annual census when the zookeepers welcome the New Year by dusting off their clipboards and calculators to take stock of every creature, great and small, from lemurs and lions to fast-moving vampire crabs and Madagascan hissing cockroaches.

With the total now topping more than 2,500, things have come a long way since author and conservationist Gerald Durrell worked as a junior keeper here after the war, with Beasts In My Belfry recalling events from the period.

Nowadays there are cheetahs and zebra, herds of camels, yak and deer romping across open paddocks and even a farmyard where visitors of all ages can get a little closer to rabbits and hens, miniature donkeys and baby goats – not to mention a shaggy Poitou donkey, with a larger-than-life character and distinctive coat.

Outside the farm there’s even another unexpected visitor pulling in the crowds, with birdwatchers from all over the UK dusting off their telephoto lenses to pay tribute to an Asian avian visitor blown off course by winter gales during its migration.

The black-throated thrush innocently gobbling berries by the farmyard gate has attracted up to 40 ‘twitchers’ a day since it turned up in December, and seems to have been enjoying all the attention.

It might seem ironic that the surprise arrival could fly off at any time it wants, unlike most of the inhabitants at Whipsnade, but this is not a zoo that leaves you feeling sorry for its animals.

The pioneering conservation work, glorious location and acres of rolling paddocks make it pretty clear here what the top priorities are – and just how much affection and respect the staff have for their furry, feathered and scaly charges.

From the tiger’s enclosure a hungry growl echoes around the park, a sound to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. But the Bedfordshire neighbours must be used to some strange sounds echoing down from the hills…

With the light fading, it’s time to head off, and allow Whipsnade’s motley assortment of wonderful animals to get a good night’s sleep away from prying human eyes.

For more details about tickets and opening times, membership packages, keeper experiences and overnight stays, see the zoo’s website.

Classy refuge on the Chess

VISITORS TO the stunning Chess Valley are getting the chance to stay in brand new self-catering accommodation this year, with the opening of a new holiday cottage at Watercress Farm in Sarratt.

The farm is home to the Tyler family, who have worked the land alongside the River Chess for more than a century. In fact this is now the only working farm of its type in the whole of the Chilterns, one of 19 which once existed between Sarratt and Chesham.

Jon Tyler’s great grandfather set up the business in 1896 and Jon recalls how in previous generations the men would travel by steam train from Chorleywood to London to sell bunches at Covent Garden Market.

Now Jon and his wife Sarah have launched a new business venture, offering high-end self-catering holiday accommodation at the farm in a converted barn originally used for watercress seed drying.

Sarah announced this week on the Chiltern Tourism Network’s facebook page that they are now taking bookings via their new website.

Costs range from £250 for a two-night weekend break to £700 for a week’s stay from Friday to Friday, complete with welcome pack and fuel for the wood-fired hot tub.

The cottage provides a perfect base to relax, walk, cycle, birdwatch and fly fish brown trout in the River Chess or carp in the farm’s private lake. It’s only half an hour from Harry Potter world and easily accessible from London for those wanting an escape from the city.

From here there are stunning walks along the Chess Valley to neighbouring villages. Sarratt itself boasts a range of good pubs, a small village shop for groceries and a stunning 12th Century church, the Holy Cross, one of the locations used in the Hugh Grant film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Watercress is one of the oldest green vegetables known to man and the peppery green leaves have been recognised as highly nutritious since Victorian times when they were eaten to help kept scurvy at bay. The River Chess, with its clean mineral-rich spring water, is still ideal for growing the cress, in gravel beds bathed in the flow of pure spring water .

Visitors to Crestyl Cottage can do their own basking in fresh spring water too, with a soothing soak in the wood-burning hot tub after a wintry walk up the valley.

Jon took over the farm when his father Terry died in 2014 and runs it with the help of his sister Suzanne Burr and his nephew Henry Cooper. But though you won’t find watercress any fresher than buying it at the farm gate, the business has its own red tape challenges at the moment, says Sarah.

“The holiday let is a diversification to support the business at the moment,” she says.

A walk on the wild side

Raynor Winn and husband Moth lost their home just as Moth’s diagnosis with a terminal disease also appeared to rob them of a future together. Not knowing what else to do, they began to walk and the true story of their journey along the South West Coast Path turned into a surprise bestseller

IF YOU owned a bookshop, it would be hard to know quite where to place Raynor Winn’s prize-winning writing debut, The Salt Path.

It’s not a nature book, yet the significance of the natural world is inescapable throughout. It wasn’t planned as a spiritual journey or a pilgrimage, yet it certainly was a journey of self-discovery. It wasn’t meant to be a sociological study. But it contains plenty of trenchant observations about homelessness in Britain today – and about human nature.

Nor was it ever planned as a book about long-distance walking. Back in August 2013 when Raynor and her husband Moth set off from Minehead in Somerset to walk the South West Coastal Path, they were a couple in their 50s without any clear plans for the future.

The spur for that decision was a combination of life-changing twists of fate – a toxic investment which led to them losing their home in a devastating court case, coupled with a shock diagnosis that Moth was suffering from a rare degenerative brain disease and probably did not have long to live.

“You can’t be ill, I still love you,” Raynor told the man she had met at sixth-form college more than three decades earlier. But with the bailiffs banging on the door it seemed that choices were limited – and tackling some of the 630-mile South West Coastal Path seemed as good a way as any of buying some time to figure out the next move.

With a friend storing their few remaining possessions in a barn, they set off pretty much broke, equipped with thin sleeping bags, a tent bought on ebay and with access only to the few pounds a week they were due in tax credits.

Their journey – split over two summers, with the winter spent in a friend’s shed – ended in 2014 in Polruan, Cornwall, when their lives changed again with an offer from a kind stranger of accommodation on the coast path they had been trekking along for so long.

Raynor’s story of that walk, originally an article for The Big Issue, turned into an inspiring, lyrical and emotional story of human endurance against the odds – and about what homelessness really feels like in 21st-century Britain.

Published in 2018 and shortlisted for the Costa book award, the couple’s epic trek also proved to be an eye-opening examination of a divided society where our preconceptions about the homeless are often misguided.

Forget the stereotypes about people with addictions and mental health problems, Raynor suggests – what about the rural poor, many of them in temporary, seasonal or zero-hours jobs in communities where housing costs are astronomical?

As she revealed in a Big Issue interview in 2019 this problem is largely hidden, as local authorities eager to support their tourism industries want to keep the streets clear of rough sleepers.

Wild-camping along the coastal path in the footsteps of guidebook author Paddy Dillon, the bedraggled pair feel pretty out of place in the picture-postcard villages they pass through along the way – and not always welcome visitors once people discover they are homeless.

But if that heart-breaking loss of identity and self-worth is hard to handle, along with the physical hardships, it’s not a dark and depressing journey.

Writing with warmth and humour, Raynor manages to remain surprisingly free of bitterness about the circumstances which have combined to push them out on their journey, and equally unsentimental about what they have lost. While being forced to desert the Welsh farmstead they had transformed into their family home and business is tough, it’s the loss of sense of self which is the fundamental issue about becoming homeless, she explains in a 2018 Guardian interview.

Plodding along the path – and doing it together as a couple – helps to offer a sense of purpose and a new perspective, that home is not about bricks and mortar but a state of mind, about family, and about being at one with nature.

Alone for weeks in all weathers, that immersion in nature is inescapable, and Raynor is good at immersing the reader in the experience too, so that we can share in the highs and lows, the uplifting encounters with people and animals as well as the more depressing ones.

Thankfully, despite the aching bones and blisters it seems that the experience helps Moth regain some of his physical strength too, and straddling that void between life and death makes each experience all the sweeter, whatever the elements throw at them.

Walking the path hasn’t changed Moth’s diagnosis, but it may have helped stave off his terminal illness a little longer – and his routine of walking and physiotherapy has continued since the couple finally found their new base in Cornwall.

It’s that reconnection with nature that is perhaps the book’s overwhelming message, and while some readers may not be convinced by the health benefits of surviving on fudge, noodles and pasties, the pair emerged from their roller-coaster journey leaner, fitter and better equipped to face an uncertain future.

Growing up on a farm, Raynor was aware of nature being a fundamental part of her daily life. But most of us have lost that connection and need to rediscover it again. As she told The Big Issue: “Nature doesn’t just make a nice TV show, it’s what we actually need to survive, it’s the most important thing we have.”

Whatever the future holds for the Winns, it’s clear we are going to hear a lot more from Raynor this spring when her second non-fiction book, Wild Silence, is published by Michael Joseph , about nursing an over-farmed piece of land back to health.

Expect Raynor to explore some familiar themes here – of lifelong love, nature and what it means to find a home. And expect an army of well-wishers to be toasting her success as a writer as she and her beloved Moth continue to explore a new chapter in their lives.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn is published by Michael Joseph at £14.99 and in paperback by Penguin (£9.99). The pictures reproduced in this article were taken by Raynor Winn.

Artist with 20/20 vision

HIDDEN down a backstreet in the extraordinarily beautiful French hilltop village of Saint-Paul de Vence is an unassuming chapel which was once the home of a brotherhood of pious laymen who did good works to earn forgiveness for their sins. 

Today it houses some remarkable works created by the Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon, who was commissioned by the town’s mayor to renovate the building. It was to be the artist’s final commission before his death in 2005 at the age of 71, and it turned into a sanctuary of light and serenity encapsulating the work of the Pénitents Blancs while at the same time immortalising Folon’s love for the village.

Known for his illustrations and posters for Unesco and Amnesty International as well as large-scale sculptures in Brussels and Lisbon,  Folon’s vision was completed posthumously by a select group of artisans and master glassmakers. One wall is dominated by an immense mosaic of the village (above), while other murals and stained-glass windows evoke the theme of giving, in keeping with the vocation of the Penitents.

The first traces of the brotherhood in Saint-Paul date from 1581 and they existed in the village until the 1920s. Their charity work with the underprivileged included caring for the sick, handing out clothing and food, and giving grain to farmers in trouble. They would also offer food and shelter to lost travellers and penniless pilgrims. Similar religious congregations of penitents are known by the different colours of their habits – white, black, blue, grey, red, violet and green.

Formally opened in 2008, the chapel is a light-filled joyous place, from the stunning baptismal font (below) to the pastel walls and striking sculptures – but these works also hark back to earlier themes about the preservation of the environment, which is why his work seemed so well suited to being singled out as the first Beyonder tweet of the new decade.

It’s almost 30 years since Folon brought together a series of engravings and posters in an exhibition called Notre Terre which ran in several small towns in France, followed by a collaboration in Italy addressing the same subject – and leaving a legacy of large posters covering the walls of Italian cities for several years afterwards.

Today, the artworks in the Folon Chapel provide a welcome oasis of peace in the heart of the village, which became such a focus for artistic endeavour almost exactly a century ago.

Artists first started frequenting Saint-Paul at the beginning of the 1920s. The trail blazers – Paul Signac, Raoul Dufy and Chaïm Soutine – set up their easels attracted by the colours and rich, intense light, and were soon followed by visitors like Matisse and Picasso.

The artists enjoyed the company of Paul Roux – a painter, art collector and the owner of the famous Colombe d’Or restaurant, whose walls are still adorned with their paintings today.

By the 1950s and 1960s, the village had become a melting pot of talent, with poets, artists and writers rubbing shoulders with the movie stars drawn to the French Riviera by the Victorine film studios in Nice and the Cannes Film Festival.

Find out more about the Folon Chapel on the village website.

Final home for fallen comrades

CANADIAN visitors to Cliveden might be surprised to find a peaceful corner of the estate set aside for a small war cemetery paying tribute to their fallen countrymen.

When the First World War broke out, Cliveden was a grand country estate well known for its exclusive parties and famous guests.

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But Waldorf Astor (later 2nd Viscount Astor) offered part of the estate as a military hospital, and the Canadian Red Cross took up the offer.

The Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital opened in 1915 and by the end of the war was treating up to 600 injured personnel at a time.

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Nancy Astor was often seen helping out in the hospital and famous visitors included Winston Churchill and King George V.

Of the 24,000 troops treated there, only a relatively small number died. In 1918, the 1st Viscount Astor’s sunken Italian garden was adapted to create a memorial garden for the deceased.

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A mosaic floor was replaced by turf in which grave stones were later set and a sculpture was created especially by Australian sculptor Bertram MacKennal.

He was commissioned by Nancy Astor to design and create a symbolic bronze female figure for which it is thought he used Nancy’s features as inspiration for the face.

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Today the War Memorial Garden contains 40 war graves from the First World War, each marked with a stone set in the turf. MacKennal’s statue overlooks the graves and below it reads the inscription: ‘They are at peace. God proved them and found them worthy for himself.’

In September 1939 Waldorf Astor again offered the use of the land and the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital was built. A further two war graves on the site date from World War II.

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Let’s get lost in the woods

CHILLY nights and rainy days can turn your favourite walk into a muddy morass and take some of the fun out of November rambles.

But the weekends around Armistice Day are a perfect time to capture autumnal colour on those rare occasions when the sun breaks through the clouds, turning local parks into places of wonder and mystery.

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Nowhere is more inviting in the sunshine that Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.

Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, with a mix of young and mature trees standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.

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The constant regrowth encouraged by oak and beech pollarding extends the lives of the trees and older trees often have features such as hollow rotten stems, dead or decaying branches and loose bark which can be a great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.

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Dog walkers and families out for a weekend stroll quickly disappear into the 500 acres of beech woodland, and a map of paths and trails offer the opportunity to escape from other visitors, especially on weekdays and out of season.

This is also a very different world from your visits back in the spring (below), with so many of the vivid greens replaced with russets, reds and golds.

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There has been woodland here since the last Ice Age and people have used the site since at least the Iron Age, as evidenced by the Seven Ways Plain hill fort located in the south west part of the Beeches.

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And if the landscape looks familiar, it might be because the proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray studios have made this a perfect filming location, with everyone from Robin Hood to Harry Potter and James Bond using the Beeches as a backdrop for their woodland adventures.

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Mind you, the same can be said for nearby Black Park, another perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.

And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.

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Although the 14-acre lake and popular San Remo cafe tend to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.

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Nearby Langley Park is another favourite autumn retreat, offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.

This is a world of pooh sticks and Eeyore houses, where toddlers decked out in bobble hats and wellingtons are kicking leaves and splashing in puddles like generations before them.

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For those wanting an even more spectacular vista, there is also the sprawling Cliveden Estate, 376 acres of magnificent Grade I listed formal gardens and woodlands with panoramic views over the Berkshire countryside.

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Owned, managed and cared for by the National Trust, the dog-friendly grounds slope down to the River Thames and feature a number of woodland walks suitable for families, as well as perfect picnic spots for when the rain lets up.

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This estate was the meeting place for political intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s, and in the early 1960s was the setting for key events in the notorious Profumo sex scandal that rocked the Macmillan government.

In 1893, the estate was purchased by the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who moved to Hever Castle and left Cliveden to his son Waldorf when he married in 1906.

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The young Astors used Cliveden for entertaining on a lavish scale and it’s not hard to see how the spectacular location made it a popular destination for film stars, politicians, world leaders and writers of the day.

Witty, glamorous and fashionable, Nancy became a prominent hostess among the English elite and followed her husband into politics, in 1919 becoming the first woman to sit as an MP in the House of Commons.

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That sense of history is all about you here, on the banks of the Thames – memories of autumn walks across the centuries where the timeless beauty of the trees has provided a backdrop to countless human dramas, hopes and fears…

For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website. For Black Park, visit the park’s website and Facebook page or call 01753 511060. For Langley, visit the website or call 01753 511060. For more information about Cliveden, see the National Trust website.

We want to hear from some of the amazingly talented photographers out there in the Chilterns who are chronicling the landscape and its wildlife all year round. Drop us a line at editor@thebeyonder.co.uk or use our contact page.

 

Hidden history under our feet

Guest writer Dr Wendy Morrison, project manager of Beacons of the Past, explains how local people can help uncover the secrets of our ancient Chilterns landscape

THE Chiltern Hills have been a focal point for people for thousands of years.

Any walk or ride through the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty will take you past sites and monuments that stretch across huge spans of time and yet have survived the ravages of millennia and subsequent human activity.

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In between Ice Ages, the region was sporadically occupied by people in search of game to eat and flint for making tools. These ancient artefacts are found all over the Chilterns, left by hunter-gatherers from 150,000 years ago up until the last of the Ice Ages (c. 11,000 years ago).

The warming landscape was filled with herds of deer and horse which were the main diet for the Mesolithic (9000-4500BC) people. The chalk streams and valleys were the perfect place for these nomadic groups.

The first substantial human alterations to the Chilterns begin in the Neolithic (4500-2200 BC) when farming technology begins to be practiced. Although the homes people lived in have long disappeared, we can see traces of what they were up to at places like Waulud’s Bank, a monumental enclosure in Marsh Farm, Luton.

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We also know some of the places they buried their dead, in long barrows at Halton, Gerrards Cross, and Whiteleaf Hill. Some of the trackways they used to get around the landscape are still in use today!

The introduction of metals in the Bronze Age (2200-800 BC) to the Chilterns opened up a lot of possibilities to the people living here.

We can see the field systems that outline their agricultural activities at Pitstone Hill as well as their cemeteries – collections of barrow mounds – at Dunstable Downs and at Ivinghoe Beacon, where the Chilterns’ earliest hillfort was built around 1100 BC and where an incredible bronze sword was found.

The enigmatic earthworks collectively known as Grim’s Ditch are seen at various points across the AONB but can best be visited along the Ridgeway National Trail between Nuffield and Mongewell. Although little is known about these features, this particular section of Grim’s Ditch has been dated to the Iron Age.

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BRAVE NEW WORLD: an Iron Age farmstead recreated at the Chiltern Open Air Museum

The period we call the Iron Age ushered in the ability to increase production of grain on the Chiltern fields. Iron tools meant that more difficult soils could be tilled, surplus crops could be grown, and the resulting prosperity mean that some people could show off their wealth and power through the construction of enormous earthworks.

Some of our Chiltern hillforts were certainly these kinds of expressions of power. Some, however, may have had more humble functions, such as places of refuge during conflict or enclosures for livestock.

In the Chilterns we have at least 20 hillforts, varied and unique, and with stunning views. Visit Pulpit Hill, Cholesbury Camp, Church Hill, or Medmenham Camp to take in a sample of these ancient monuments.

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PULPIT HILL: the Iron Age enclosure                  PICTURE: National Trust / Hugh Mothersole

The Chilterns are steeped in prehistoric remains, and a new LiDAR survey of the entire area is revealing hundreds of new features.

Beacons of the Past – a National Lottery funded project to discover more about the Chilterns Iron Age hillforts – flew a bespoke LiDAR survey of the Chilterns earlier in the year, the first of its kind in this area and the largest high-resolution archaeological survey ever flown in the UK.

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RAMPARTS: traces of the past at Pulpit Hill       PICTURE: National Trust / Hugh Mothersole

Encompassing 1400 km2, the survey is revealing hundreds of new archaeological sites across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire.

The project team are asking for the public’s contribution to view and interpret the results of the data gathered by the LiDAR visualisations; in many cases these will be people who may have spent decades exploring the Chilterns landscape or those who live in it, and who will bring a unique perspective to the project.

The team will offer comprehensive training and tutorials to teach LiDAR interpretative skills, allowing users to decipher the results of the data and enter the findings on an online portal at chilternsbeacons.org.

This will enable anyone in the world to discover new archaeological features in the Chilterns from their computer. Encouraging people from all walks of life to engage with a resource that is usually accessible to a handful of researchers will open up the landscape for greater understanding and appreciation, and when we appreciate and understand a place, we begin to take more active roles in caring for it.

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AERIAL VIEW: Pulpit Hill © Google Earth; LiDAR image © Chilterns Conservation Board

Funded by a £695,600 grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a number of partners such as the National Trust, Chiltern Society and local authorities, Beacons of the Past is providing a real focus for community and public involvement through techniques such as remote sensing and survey, practical excavation, and research, as well as a programme of events and educational activities.

Results will be used to further engage communities with their heritage, through work in schools, with youth groups, public talks and workshops. The new discoveries will be made available to the relevant Heritage Environment Record officers in the four counties and will also help heritage managers, archaeologists and policy makers to consider how they look after the Chilterns landscape.

LiDAR, standing for “Light Distance and Ranging,” also known as Airborne Laser Scanning (ALS), is a survey technique that has been used by archaeologists for nearly 20 years. It has aided in the discovery of new sites and is particularly important for its ability to show archaeology beneath tree cover.

The Chilterns Conservation Board was set up following the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000, to conserve and enhance the natural beauty and increase awareness and understanding of the Chilterns AONB. The Board, which also aims to foster the social and economic well-being of local communities, is supported by Defra and all local authorities in the area.

For further information follow @ChilternsAONB, @Hillfortian, and @edpev7 or search #Chilforts. Dr Morrison can be contacted at wmorrison@chilternsaonb.org.