Woods come alive with autumn colour

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

But brighter days in October and November are a perfect time to capture autumnal colour when the sun breaks through the clouds and turns 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 area round the 14-acre lake and popular cafe tends 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.

Check out our nature guides page for things to do in the woods and our What’s On page for other local attractions and special events.

Woodland offers a welcome refuge

IF ONLY trees could talk, what secrets they could tell

The ancient oaks and beeches of Burnham Beeches have provided a place of solace and refuge during difficult times this year.

Through the long summer holidays that followed the easing of lockdown restrictions, the woods have been alive with the cries of children and lolloping spaniels, a safe place to socially distance away from the pressures of supermarket shopping and public transport.

Paths wending through overhanging branches have provided shade from the sweltering heat of early autumn and shelter from the rain, a place for bug hunts and Pooh sticks, of family adventures and solitary wanderings.

From hungry ducks and moorhens to foraging ponies and cattle, the woods are home to an array of wildlife, from the ubiquitous pigeons and squirrels to the industrious ants, colourful dragonflies and elusive reptiles.

Spread across more than 900 acres, Burnham Beeches soaks up visitors and provides a cross-section of different habitats, from heathland ferns and heather to lily-covered ponds and carefully grazed wood-pasture.

A national nature reserve for almost 30 years, it is an oasis of calm in a hurried world, and one which hundreds of local families will remember with affection for the part it played in making the long difficult summer of 2020 just a little easier to cope with.

Trees remain in tune with the past

IT’S a  perfect day for a walk in the woods…not totally airless, not too hot, but warm in the sunshine and even the darker glades are dappled with light.

But here at Burnham Beeches we are in a place where one can feel pretty insignificant, especially when wandering round a tree with a startling past like the Druid’s Oak.

The old-timer may not look so majestic these days, but this tree is around 800 years old, dating back through the reigns of some 35 kings and queens to the era of King John, when the Magna Carta was being drawn up.

This is a time of the crusades and Marco Polo’s travels. It’s hard to believe the same oak will be standing here in later centuries to witness the Spanish Armada, Gunpowder Plot or Great Fire of London.

But time stands still in Burnham Beeches, where ancient sentinels silently recall generations of Victorian schoolchildren coming here for Sunday outings or the war years when the woods were awash with service personnel, with some 65 huts and other buildings hidden among the trees.

Wander down this path and you’re at the site of an Iron Age hillfort. Take that route through the trees and you find a small plaque commemorating the poet Thomas Gray, who wandered the woods in the 18th century and completed his famous poem ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ in 1750 amid the peaceful graves surrounding St Giles’ church in nearby Stoke Poges.

The past is all around you here – and at no time is that more obvious than on an August afternoon when the dragonflies are flitting around, the wood ants are on the march and the cattle are lazily munching their way through the undergrowth.

Helpful Wildlife Trust contacts are able to suggest my fuzzy picture is a male ruddy darter, and a magnificent video from Roger Havercroft on the Wild Cookham facebook page soon confirms this.

At the other end of the size spectrum are the British white cattle casually sun-bathing on the grass. They, along with other traditional breeds such as Exmoore ponies and Berkshire pigs, have been used to bring grazing back to the reserve – a practice which helped to create this ancient woodland.

Back in the woods, the rowan berries are out, the first leaves have fallen and the ancient beeches rustle a little as the evening breeze begins to pick up.

It really is an extraordinary landscape: beautiful, haunting, ever-changing and intimately in tune with the past.

Ferns and foxgloves set the tone

AT LAST the welcome relaxation of lockdown restrictions has allowed scope to roam a little further afield – and after the bluebells of April, it’s foxgloves and ferns which provide the focus of woodland forays in June.

What a joy to be able to escape into the trees of Denham, Langley and Black Park again. And after the hawthorn blossom and horse chestnuts putting on a show earlier in the year, now it’s time for the foxgloves to provide a welcome splash of colour amid the glorious greenery.

We may have missed those startling May displays of rhododrendrons in the Temple Gardens at Langley, but the wildflowers are out, the wildfowl are busy on the lake and the arboretum provides a welcome escape from face masks, shopping queues and worries about illness.

Once a hunting ground for medieval monarchs, this is part of a network of green spaces which make up the huge Colne Valley Regional Park, formed in 1965, which stretches from Rickmansworth to the Thames, Heathrow and Slough and provides the first proper taste of countryside west of London.

Cross the road from Temple Gardens and you are immediately in Black Park, another woodland oasis with more than 600 acres to explore.

From miniature mariners to unusual wildfowl, there’s always something to see on the lake, and with 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space, this is one of those places where it really does feel possible to lose your bearings – for a short while, at least.

This is a perfect place for children to let off steam, but although the lake area tends 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.

Need to get even further away from the family fun? Footpaths lead from here to Stoke Common, and the largest remnant of Buckinghamshire’s once extensive heathland, one of the rarest habitats in England.

Theres less for youngsters to do here, but for walkers wanting room to breathe, the 200 acres are a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) which provides home to some very rare plants, animals and insects – although it may take a sharp eye to spot some of them.

A lot easier to spot are the 20 Sussex cattle currently being used to graze heathland plants on the common, which has been managed by the City of London Corporation since 2007, with friends and volunteers helping to restore it to its former glory.

The site has small areas of birch, pine and mixed woodland, with several ponds, and like nearby Burnham Beeches was grazed by livestock for centuries.

The only difference is that the wood pasture at Burnham is being grazed by seven British white cattle, along with Exmoor ponies.

Due to the they way they graze, livestock help to create a diverse plant structure which is great news for the local wildlife – although stumbling across a beast of this size behind a bush can be quite a surprise, despite their normally placid natures.

Like Black Park, Burnham Beeches is a marvellous haunt for families, and with 500 acres to get lost in, its ancient oak and beech pollards provide a perfect backdrop for those wanting to get back to nature after spending too long indoors.

Ramblers wanting to get a little further off the beaten track don’t have to look far in the Chilterns, of course. Footpaths criss-cross the area, including long-distance paths like Shakespeare’s Way, opened in 2006 from the great man’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon to the Globe Theatre in London, passing through Marlow and Burnham Beeches on its way.

Or there’s always a chance to walk a section of the 134-mile Chiltern Way, particularly well signposted by the Chiltern Society and offering some particularly scenic sections around here, whether through the Marlow woods and on to the Hambleden Valley or sweeping north from the Chiltern Open Air Museum towards Chenies, Sarratt and beyond, in a huge circle heading towards Dunstable Downs.

Closer to home those foxgloves are still beckoning, this time just off the Chiltern Way at Homefield Wood, another SSSI owned by the Forestry Commission and managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

The nature reserve is made up of beech, ash, sycamore and whitebeam with glades and open grassland.

Wild orchids flourish here, including the rare military orchid, and the place is a haven for butterflies such as the marbled white, white-letter hairstreak and the silver-washed fritillary – not to mention hundreds of species of moth.

Resident and visiting species of birds include chiffchaff, cuckoo and blackcap. Tawny owls can often by heard calling during the day. Fallow and roe deer are also regular visitors to the reserve.

If open vistas and sweeping views are more appealing than woodland wanders, check out some of the local National Trust common land like the pastures at Winter Hill with their breathtaking views over the Thames, or the hay meadows at Pinkneys Green, where a rich variety of grasses, flowers and buzzing insects have made their home.

The grasses in these open, unfenced meadows are left to grow tall all summer, with a wealth of wildflowers adding specks of colour across the open expanse of meadow, from delicate yellow cowslips and kidney vetch to bright white oxeye daisies and purple field scabious.

On a sunny day, walkers pause for a lazy chat under the trees, but on a windy evening there’s something invigorating about the gusts sweeping over the meadow and the clouds scudding across the sky, making it a perfect place for kite-flying too.

From Pinkneys Green to Dunstable Downs, the freedom to get out and about across the local areas is such a blessing after the dark days of lockdown. And who would prefer a packed south coast beach at Brighton or Bournemouth to the fresh air and open countryside of the Chilterns?

Amazing antics of the humble ant

ACID-SPRAYING giant ants with a brutal bite sound like the stuff of horror movies.

But at Burnham Beeches these formidable predators are actively encouraged and cared for, so they can’t be as terrifying as they sound.

Unwary visitors to the stunning Buckinghamshire nature reserve might not feel quite as warmly disposed to the mound-building woodland forager, especially if they inadvertently stumble over a nest.

But this site of special scientific interest is particularly well suited to support colonies of formica rufa, with its ancient oak and beech pollards and welcoming mountains of rotting wood.

More alert ramblers won’t take long to spot the small armies eagerly transporting building materials and prey back to their nests, which might support more than 100,000 ants.

They may not be as immediately likeable as the 56 species of birds which inhabit these woods, but they are fascinating creatures, and with numbers decreasing across the country it’s important to pay more attention to the role they play in our ecosystem.

Wildlife film maker Tom Hartwell’s film for Woodlands TV takes a closer look at the life of wood ants with the help of Helen Read, conservation officer at Burnham Beeches for nearly 30 years.

Helen explains how the woodlands provide the perfect location for these insects as they use rotting wood and tree stumps for their nests, collecting pine needles, twigs and other woodland debris to create a “thatch” exterior which acts like a sun trap for their ant cities.

Farming aphids for their food, the ants are known for the strong smell they emit when disturbed, spraying a pungent formic acid to protect themselves from predators. But it has been found that some birds visit wood ants nests to be deliberately sprayed, as the acid helps to repel lice and mites.

It’s said that there are more ants roaming the world than any other creature on the planet and it’s certainly not hard to believe that on a sunny day here at Burnham, where they can be seen scurrying everywhere with their burdens – up to 100 times their own weight.

The combined weight of all the ants on earth would total more than the combined weight of all the humans. Relative to their size, ants have the largest brain of any insect, with someone calculating that an ant’s brain has more processing power than the computer controlling the first Apollo space missions.

To hear the sound of a colony in action (above), tune in to a recording made at Burnham Beeches by Mark Wilkinson in 2017 and featured on The Badger’s Eye website.

Find out more about wood ants from the website of the National Wood Ant Steering Group and more about Burnham Beeches in this short video produced by the City of London Corporation:

Time to go down to the woods

WORRIES about coronavirus may have brought chaos to the supermarkets, but with 500 acres to get lost in, Burnham Beeches should be an ideal place to put social distancing to the test – although gathering in groups to socialise in the park totally defeats the whole purpose of the Government’s strategy.

Few places are more welcoming on a sunny day than this national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.

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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.

A pollard is a tree that has been cut to just above head height, forcing the tree to send up new multiple shoots and preventing livestock grazing among the trees from eating the tender new shoots.

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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.

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.

However the Mother’s Day weekend also brought government warnings that young people in particular were not taking social distancing seriously – and across the country there were concerns about crowds inundating beaches, parks and other public spaces.

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The tarmac roads around the site are mainly closed to cars, so are ideal for cyclists and buggies, although the sensitive habitat here limits the scope for off-road cycling.

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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If the landscape looks familiar, it might 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.

Filming is restricted to no more than 20 days per year and is banned in environmentally sensitive areas, but the revenue goes directly to fund the upkeep and management of the site.

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For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website.

New year, new beginnings

IT WAS great to see the car parks full at Burnham Beeches for New Year’s Day, with dozens of local families starting the year with a breath of fresh air and a ramble through this extraordinary 540-acre nature reserve. 

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It may get dark quite early, with the car parks closing at around 4.30pm, but the weather was dry and mild enough for youngsters to enjoy throwing leaves in the air and a small army of assorted canines to be rushing excitedly around the woodland paths.

More ambitious walkers can embark on a two-hour 8km history trail that provides a living history lesson about the ancient trees and monuments scattered around this landscape – including the 700-year-old Druids Oak and Iron Age hill fort.

Always a popular place for family walks, picnics and Sunday school outings, the reserve grew in popularity after 1880 when visitors from London could pick up a bus service from Slough station which stopped at tea rooms on the south western boundary of the site.

It seems odd to think of Victorian families enjoying the same sort of New Year’s Day ramble here more than a century ago – and perhaps even odder to ponder how many of the same trees they might have seen!

A downloadable map includes information about the reserve’s history and wildlife.