Nature puts on a fireworks display

IT’S great to see so many families getting out into the great outdoors in search of autumn colour.

Ramblers, dog-walkers, cyclists, foragers and picnickers locals have been shrugging off the misery of face masks and social distancing by escaping into the woods at the first glimpse of sunshine, however unforgiving the October temperatures.

And what a spectacular show they have seen on those days when the sun breaks through the rainclouds and turns woods and parks into places of wonder and mystery.

Our earlier post about autumn colours took us to Burnham Beeches, Black Park, Langley Park and Cliveden – but it seemed remiss not to return to Penn Wood, given that our last proper sortie here was on such a monochrome February day.

How different the landscape looks now. The colours at this time of year are truly spectacular, the falling leaves forming a tapestry of different shapes and textures, and the trees themselves a glorious variegated backcloth of yellows and greens, russets and pinks.

It’s warm enough in the sun to linger over the array of different fungi peeking out from beneath the leaves, or pause a moment to study the cattle grazing their way incuriously around this remnant of Wycombe Heath, managed by the Woodland Trust.

Across the centuries, Penn and Tylers Green are villages that can boast a long and illustrious history and until the middle of the 19th century, this was a 4,000 acre common of heath and woodland stretching over seven parishes from Tyler End and Winchmore Hill in the south up to Great Kingshill in the north.

The landscape has changed a lot over the years, but you can sense history all around you here, and the evidence ranges from iron age earthworks and Roman pottery to written records of royal hunting parties in the 12th century or aristocratic shooting parties in the Victorian era.

Indeed, recent suggestions that an important Roman official was living in Tylers Green 1700 years ago might force historians to rethink the importance of this area during the Roman occupation.

The southern edge of Wycombe Heath consisted of Kings Wood, St John’s Wood, Common Wood and Penn Wood, where there would have been little if any settlement during the Saxon and early Norman period.

Back in the woods, the wild boar and wolves of the middle ages may have long disappeared but grazing cattle have returned, helping to maintain open pasture by trampling down thickets and fertilising the ground.

In the heyday of the furniture industry, wood-turners called bodgers worked in shacks in the woods here, while during the Second World War, Penn Wood was used as an army training camp, complete with an assault course and a rifle range. Later it became a prisoner-of-war reception centre and a holding base for Polish soldiers.

Today it’s a place to spot colourful fungi and keep an eye open for rare beetles, tiny mice, amd squirrels gathering their winter hoards. Or listening out for the sound of a red kite or buzzard overhead…or a tawny owl calling as dusk falls.

It’s not quite warm enough to linger under a maple with a book, but this seat under the trees looks so inviting it seems a shame not to be able to while away an hour or two watching the leaves falling and waiting for any woodland creatures to get sufficiently confident to venture out…

Perfect way to unwind with friends

Guest writer Lucy Parks continues her occasional blog about how Cypriot rescue dog Yella has adjusted to life in the Chilterns

top trails for tasty treats

AT THE weekends, Yella and I enjoy doing a longer walk – often with friends – that takes in a refreshment stop.

Okay, so maybe Yella (and canine companions) don’t enjoy the refreshment part quite as much as the humans, but it’s nice to reward yourself with a drink.

OPEN OUTLOOK: meet up with the Gruffalo and take in the views at Wendover Woods

Here are three of our favourites…

Wendover Woods is a well-managed woodland area on the side of the Chiltern Hills with ample car parking. Some fellow dog-walkers aren’t too keen on the structured approach, but I think it’s got a good variety of terrain and a lovely cafe that serves good coffee and homemade cake. Plus it’s high up and there are stunning views across the Chilterns.

There are a number of established routes around the woods and we particularly enjoy the Firecrest Trail, a five kilometre route along bridleways, through woodland and with the all-important open spaces for crazy running. It can get quite busy in the areas around the car park/cafe and presents a picnic hazard for inquisitive dogs on sunny days…

FAMILY FUN: Yella and daughter Lumi check out the Firecrest Trail
  • Wendover Woods can be found at HP22 5NQ. Parking is £2.50 for up to two hours.

Rickmansworth aquadrome is a popular public park and nature reserve that can become hideously busy on nice days… but hurry past the main areas near the car park and cafe and you’ll find a tranquil paradise, rich with wildlife.

There are lovely, level, paved walks around the main two lakes. If you’re feeling more adventurous (and your dog’s well-behaved), explore the more distant Stocker’s Lake Nature Reserve. Yella loves nosing around the water’s edge and then lets off steam in the wider open areas.

PAWS FOR THOUGHT: Yella takes a break from letting off steam

Again, there are picnickers on warmer days and lots of water birds – including swans that are quite happy to chase a small dog if it gets too close. And the cafe… oh, the cafe. The best meaty sausage rolls I’ve ever tasted, beautiful bacon sarnies and excellent coffee. It’s a hot-spot with yummy mummies during the week and with families at weekends, but it runs efficiently and is consistently good. Worth a trip for the cafe alone!

  • Rickmansworth Aquadrome is accessed via Frogmoor Lane, Rickmansworth WD3 1NB. Parking is free. More details on the cafe here: https://thecafeinthepark.com/

Penn Street woods is wet-weather favourite because of the thick tree cover. Park in the Holy Trinity Church car park (it’s free) and go where the mood takes you. There are clear paths, diversions down woody alleyways and an abundance of wildlife to chase (for the dogs). Penn Wood is one of the largest ancient woodlands in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and it can get quite busy on Sunday afternoons. After a lovely dog walk, arrange for your walk to end at The Squirrel pub – it has a fabulous selection of libations, a big outdoor area and cosy nooks inside. Cheers!

Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog. A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals. Click on these links to see her earlier posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Next time: Squirrels, pigeons, deer and grouse…Yella proves her street dog credentials

Past casts long shadows at Penn

MUSHROOMS, snowdrops and spaniels with floppy ears – spring is in the air at Penn Wood.

Youngsters are out building Eeyore houses, the February sunlight is streaming through the branches of the ancient beech and birch trees and the sound of birdsong is everywhere.

What better way to blow away the cobwebs than to take a wander into this Woodland Trust enclave which used to form part of Wycombe Heath, 4,000 acres of heathland and woods with a surprisingly rich and varied heritage.

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Back in the 13th century this was where commoners would pasture their pigs, but the Romans roamed these woods centuries before that, with artefacts like brooches, dishes, coins and tools indicating the presence of a settlement here from 100 to 300 AD.

There is also strong evidence of iron smelting in the woods, with some pottery remnants discovered which could pre-date the Romans, indicating they were simply continuing the iron production that had already been established in the Iron Age.

From as early as 500AD the wood was used as a deer enclosure and the parish of Penn takes its name from this saxon enclosure, or ‘pen’. As in other areas of the Chiltern countryside, by the reign of Henry I (1100 – 1135 AD), the woodland was used as a hunting ground for the citizens of London.

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Pigs were an essential part of the medieval woodland economy with commoners exercising their right to pannage, the entitlement to put pigs out to eat the acorns and other nuts found in the wooded areas of the common, to fatten them up in autumn.

Dry hollows found throughout the wood may show where flint, clay, sand, gravel or chalk have been extracted. Clay from this area was used to produce distinctive decorative flooring tiles which could be seen in royal palaces, churches and manor houses across England.

In the 19th century, the Enclosure Acts changed legal property rights to land that previously permitted communal use and in 1855, ownership of Common Wood and Penn Wood passed to the 1st Earl Howe, forcing many local people and their livestock off the land and sparking years of unlawful protest where poaching was rife.

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During the Second World War, Penn Wood was used as an army training camp, complete with an assault course and a rifle range. Later it was used as a prisoner-of-war reception centre and then as a holding base for Polish soldiers.

Wandering through the woodland today, it’s easy to conjure up vivid echoes of different times in the history of the place amid the busy drumming of a woodpecker and the chirps and chirrups of the other woodland birds.

When Earl Howe took private ownership of the common land, he removed the livestock and set about arranging the re-forestation of the land with oak, beech and conifers.

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He laid out ornamental drives and avenues lined with rhododendrons and azaleas, cherry laurel and spineless holly for the benefit of the Countess who was fond of driving in the woods.

The branches are bare at the moment and the ornamental species have yet to flower, but the memories crowd in: of aristocratic shooting parties visiting the estate in Victorian times, perhaps, or the bodgers who lived and worked here for centuries, fashioning chair legs and spindles for the furniture trade.

By the middle of the 19th century Hgh Wycombe had become a centre for furniture production and there were a hundred factories in the area, many using Penn and Common Woods as a source of timber, with tall narrow beeches being planted to replace more traditional oaks.

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For two centuries, wood-turners called bodgers worked in shacks in the woods, cutting and shaping the wood into legs and spindles and drying them in piles before taking them to the factories to sell – with a small number continuing to work in the woods right up until the 1950s.

Over time, the once ancient pasture changed to privately-owned forest, although public access was not restored until 1999 when, after a long campaign to prevent the site being turned into an 18-hole golf course, Penn Wood was acquired by The Woodland Trust. Public ownership of Common Wood returned in 2002 when it was bought by the Penn and Tylers Green Residents’ Society.

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The wild boar and wolves may have gone but grazing cattle have returned, helping to maintain open pasture by trampling down thickets and fertilizing the ground, with the aim of encouraging an array of flora and fauna to return to the site, including butterflies and other insects, nesting birds and wild flowers.

Birds to be found here range from tawny owls to kestrels and buzzards, while those lichen-covered dead branches provide welcome hiding places for a dozen scarce beetle species.

Butterflies range from the purple hairstreak up in the high canopy to the marbled white in the wide sunny glades.

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But our leisurely February ramble is almost at an end as we retrace our steps towards the wonderfully peaceful churchyard of the ancient Holy Trinity church, which squats at the edge of the woodland.

Every generation for over 800 years has left its mark on this church, from the 12th century through the persecution of the Reformation to the present day, and emerging from the trees into the wintry evening sunlight, this feels like a place where the past casts long shadows.

As a pheasant scuttles for cover amid the silent gravestones, it feels a suitable place to pause a moment and ponder the moving individual stories recounted by each monument, from those of the landed local gentry to that of the most short-lived child.

Inside the church there is a great deal more to discover about the history, monuments and memorials of Penn – but that, as they say, is another story.

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