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There is an abundance in the air – not just wildlife, but food and fruits resulting from a favourable growing season sponsored by benign weather.
There has been an embarkation of painted ladies from N Africa – we are talking butterflies here – which has added to the swarms of regular species inhabiting our downs and woodlands at Ashridge.. The rare purple emperor has put in an appearance again around Sallow Copse, its natural feeding area. The rare fickle flowering violet helleborine has put in a magical showing this year at its regular haunts.
Summer is when mother nature presents the fruits of her spring labour. She has not disappointed this year – buoyed by long spells of hot sunshine wildlife and crops are abundant. Mild wet winters followed by a warm spring create the perfect conditions for growing plants. The hornbeams planted in Rail Copse by the volunteers in the spring have burst forth with a near 100% success rate.

Wet May long hay as the farmers say.

February was unseasonably mild – no Beast from the East – and with no severe late frosts to speak of, insects appeared early according to Nature’s Calendar, kick starting a lush growing season. The spring blooming of woodland flowers lasted long, followed by the flowering blackthorn and wild privet supporting the early butterflies in profusion – and the rain showers in May turbo-charged the downland flora.
It’s now payback time as bountiful England basks in a tide of plenty. The hedgerows are bursting with brambles and sloes, the woods weighed down with nuts and berries, the orchards are laden, allotments and gardens are awash with produce.
Now harvest precedes the slow march of autumn which is just around the corner, with lots in store for winter wildlife and Christmas decorations!

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Seven hundred hay harvests and counting………. – that’s what Meadleys meadow has produced over the centuries – first mentioned in 1315. Always a hay meadow, never ploughed, and cut by hand each July since “time out of mind” as the locals would say, until horse-drawn mechanisation took hold around 1880.
Now with the help of the volunteers a small part of the seventeen acre field behind the Visitor Centre has been fenced off and set aside for re-wilding – the deer are to be excluded! A century ago when the deer were contained in the Park, Meadleys would have been a lush meadow with drifts of wild flowers – very meagre nowadays – one of those lost flower meadows which the N T are eager to restore. This is in line with the N T policy when in March 2017 they stated that they had lost sight of their founding principle of protecting wildlife – Peter Nixon, Director of Conservation of the National Trust, said “the charity has a duty to help prevent wildlife decline, which currently affects 56 per cent of British species.”

You may expel Nature with a pitchfork but she will always return


Haymaking is a tricky business being weather dependent even with today’s mechanisation, as it needs a couple of good drying days after the cut before collection. Today cutting and reaping only takes a couple of days when in earlier centuries it would have taken more like a week of hard labour with a team of scythe cutters. Now the lines of drying grass show up the undulations of the ground like waves on the sea, and in what is normally a quiet and tranquil place there is noise all around from the machines reverberating off the surrounding trees – there to give wind protection to the crop.
When Stubbs painted his “Haymakers” in 1785, now held by the Tate Gallery, the vast majority of the population lived in the countryside. Agricultural practices have changed beyond recognition but farming, as then is still governed by the weather. Agricultural life was made up of long hours of slow repetitive labour, followed by evenings of long hours of companionable conversation, either in the cottage or at the ale-house. The painting depicts a bucolic scene showing the fashion of the time when everyone wore a wig called a peruque from the youngest child to the farm labourer, along with the ubiquitous hat.
It was the Irish famine of 1850 which propelled the Irish labourer into the Home Counties to cut hay. From Frithsden down to Finchley in London the fields would have been a sea of hay in Victorian times supplying fodder for the horse transport in the burgeoning Capitol, just waiting for that influx of cheap labour to arrive. The Irish would start as early as 4.30 in the morning strung out in a line across the fields moving forward in unison attempting to be the first to reach the finishing line at the far end – what a sight that must have been – always a competitive bunch!
Meadley’s hay would have fed the many working horses stabled on the Estate, and the deer in the winter period from hay stored around the Park in giant thatch roofed hay-boxes. The permanent hay field is shown on the Estate map of 1762, and the 1877 Ordnance Survey map shows the footpath trod by the villagers on the direct route walking from Ringshall to the shops and Post Office in Aldbury. The ancient dried up water-hole is shown with four shade trees for any livestock grazing the aftermath after the hay harvest had been taken in.

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Cattle grazing in Golden Valley is a big deal – Ashridge Park was laid out in the 1600’s and emparked for deer rather than sheep or cattle. Today we have an ancient breed of cattle introduced to Monument Field next to the Alford Cross in Little Gaddesden.
The White Park cattle are an ancient hardy breed dating back to Roman times at least , originating from the Aurochs which roamed the ancient forests before the dawn of history.
Monument Field has been unused for decades, part of which is wooded with an under-story of brambles, so the wood pasture will suit the seven strong herd down to the ground – the deer do not frequent this fenced off area. Cattle are naturally herbivores rather than grazers, and in historical texts the breed was often referred to as “White Forest” as it mostly frequented remote wooded areas of Britain. The herd will take out the blackberries and and tree branches that are within their reach – in past centuries holly leaves which are very nutritious were fed to cattle in winter time.
A herd of cattle reflectively chewing the cud is well suited to Ashridge Park reminiscent of past centuries when they were reared and domesticated as ornamental animals by the Crown and the aristocracy.
Our cattle are part of the Hoo herd reared by the Hargreaves in Little Gaddesden. The breed came close to extinction during the mid-20th Century, and are still rare today, with just four herds at Whipsnade, Woburn in Bedfordshire, Cadzow in Scotland and Dynevor in the Brecon Beacons. White Park beef is lean yet well marbled and when hung properly for three weeks or so, shrinks very little on cooking and has an excellent flavour.

The wild Chillingham herd, close cousins of the White Park have been at their ancestral home in Northumberland for over seven hundred years – let’s hope the Ashridge herd stay a while!

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High Society

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The Thursday volunteers have been lending a helping hand in the gardens at Ashridge House, assisting with the maintenance of the pleasure grounds, for Ashridge Hult the new occupiers. This is a nice break but a far cry from working in the wild on the Ashridge Estate, where nature has no straight lines.

The Ashridge (Bonar Law Memorial) Trust has a duty of care to preserve Ashridge House and Gardens for the benefit of the nation. Over the past fifteen years the Italian Garden, Rose Garden, Herb Garden and Flower Garden have all been restored and, at the same time modern gardens have also been created to complement new developments. The grade II listed gardens are manicured to the highest standard and are open to the public on a regular basis throughout the summer. This work is normally undertaken by a handful of qualified gardeners, with some regular volunteers and apprentices. The restoration of the grotto is expected to be completed in the next few years. 

Every age develops its fashions in garden planning and ornamentation, which reflects the social taste of the times and the ambitions of the owners.

In the late 17th Century, the wealthy began to build galleries in their country houses along which the ladies could promenade – the outdoors being considered altogether too wild and intimidating for polite society – it would have been bad form to wander in the woods at Ashridge. In time, these galleries were transplanted outdoors, and the aspect of formal gardens in the early 18th Century bore the impress of their domestic origins – yew and box hedges took the place of walls, framing vignettes of the surrounding flowerbeds that mimicked the paintings hung indoors. The long walk out of captivity had begun − although to begin with, it was simply the cell itself that was expanded, as the formal garden morphed into the landscaped garden, which in turn was a sort of scale-model of the countryside beyond, with added features and follies.
The Canal Duke was unmarried and shunned polite society having few visitors to Ashridge so had no need of a formal back garden, but with the employment of Capability Brown in 1750 he had a makeover to the front aspect, landscaped in the Picturesque style – the contours of Golden Valley are all that remain.
The formal rear gardens to the south of the Mansion extending to some ninety acres are a continuing memorial to the work and ideas of many. But pride of place ought to be given to the first designer of the pleasure gardens Humphry Repton, intended to complement the newly completed home of John William the 7th Earl of Bridgewater from 1814. The new owner who had a soldierly passion for tidiness maintained a huge force of men to care for the new gardens, to the extent of sweeping up and burning fallen leaves. When the 3rd Earl Brownlow arrived in 1867 he took on thirty six gardeners until the first world war interrupted the employment, which was never to be repeated.
The gardens were a venue for the elaborate visit of the Shah of Persia in July 1889 when top hats, morning suits and spats were the order of the day for the gentlemen, and the ladies promenading with their parasols all looking decidedly uncomfortable by today’s standards.

There were huge tubs of summer plants brought from the conservatory onto the terrace standing like sentries watching over the guests. These lent to the scene an air of dignity, matching the formality of an age in which to hurry over anything seemed to be bad form. If today we have managed to adapt to the faster, more casual pattern of living , it is reassuring that gardens such as Ashridge can still offer an ambience for mindful refreshment amid natural beauty, and a sense of order and sequence without which our perspectives might so easily become lost.

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Be Friendly

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On Sunday the volunteers helped our friends at the Ashridge College with the Plant Fair, which coincided with the opening of the gardens for the National Gardens Open Day. For the previous twenty years the event was held at the Visitor Centre, and organised and run independently by the volunteers raising tens of thousands of pounds for the National Trust, but was abruptly axed last year.
The Trust maintain that large events can have a negative impact on the Estate, and as with the Plant Fair there was a negative impact on sales at the V C, so there was to be a new initiative of promoting wildlife gardening with the public, using bee- friendly plants raised in the Estate nursery by the volunteers. This is a very laudable policy despite the fact that the plan has been deferred for a year and there will be lost revenue.


Kindness is in our power even when fondness is not – Samuel Johnson



Two years ago Peter Nixon, Director of Conservation for the National Trust, said the charity had a duty to help prevent wildlife decline, which currently affects fifty six per cent of British species.
Many of the Trusts one thousand five hundred farmers are already carrying out practices which benefit wildlife and the charity proposed to talk to them to learn how to introduce nature-friendly measures into all of its farmland. The Trust owns almost six hundred thousand acres of land in total, more than one per cent of land in the UK with five farms at Ashridge.
But where does that leave us gardeners? – the Trust would do well to introduce a labelling scheme for the shed-load of garden plants which they offer for sale to the public. Many of the imported plants on sale at present like choisya, agapanthus, lupins, phormium, and grasses are not bee-friendly, but how would you know without a labelling system to encourage you to go “bee friendly”.
Despite several EU measures in place to conserve and protect pollinators, their numbers continue to decline, and the services they provide may already be decreasing significantly.
Pollination is one of the key processes in nature which enables the reproduction of plants and therefore contributes to the maintenance of species biodiversity. In the EU alone, four out of five crop and wild flower species depend on insect pollination. Pollinators are mainly insects, in particular bees and hoverflies, but also butterflies, moths, some beetles and other flying insects. Up to €15 billion of the EU’s annual agricultural output is directly attributed to insect pollinators notably domesticated honey bees, wild bee species such as solitary bees and bumblebees, as well as other pollinating species. Action is necessary to safeguard biodiversity, to support agriculture and protect our food security.
Some ten years ago big business as well as the BBC toyed with the idea of promoting “bee-friendly” initiatives – Haagen Dazs in the USA and the Cooperative in the UK but they did not gain momentum. We need the BBC along with Sir David Attenborough –  the bees’ knees.

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What’s going on?

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Sumer Is Icumen In………

Summer is a-coming in
Loudly sing cuckoo
Groweth seed and bloweth mead
and springs the wood anew
Sing cuckoo!

Since Medieval times and before, the rhythm of the countryside has been dictated by the seasons.

Get out and about as a Volunteer or Visitor on one of these Summer events on the Estate.
You will need to check on the event details before you sign up at for one or two.

Sunday 2nd June 10 am-12.30pm Canine Capers – watch the ProDogs team demonstrate agility with their dog George, before having a go with your own pooch.

Tuesday 4th June 2.30-4.30pm Ashridge House – join the volunteers and the Head Gardener at Ashridge House for a special tour of the gardens.

Sunday 9th June 1-4pm The Dovecote – a rare chance to see inside Ashridge’s 18th century dovecote. No parking on site. Park in the recreation ground car park on Stocks Road in Aldbury and walk. HP23 5RX.

Sunday 16th June 9-12am Fun Ride – a way-marked two-hour horse ride through some of Ashridge’s most beautiful landscapes.

Monday 1st July 2.30-4.30pm Gentle Stroll to see Chalkland Flowers – Join our knowledgeable volunteers for a gentle stroll through Ashridge’s chalklands (some steep slopes). Meet at Beacon car park.

Friday 12th July 8.30-10pm Totally Batty Walk – try to catch a glimpse of these amazing creatures with the help of the rangers.

Sunday 21st July 10am-4.00pm Bioblitz – join wildlife experts at the family-friendly bioblitz and help to see how many plant and animal species there are on Ivinghoe Beacon.

Tuesday 30th July, Tuesday & Thursday 1, 6, 8, 13, 15, 20, 22, 27 & 29th August 10.30am-12pm and 1.30pm – 3pm Ashridge Adventurers – join for either a morning or afternoon session of family led activities and crafts. Learn more about Ashridge’s animals and plants. Suitable for children aged 4 and up.

Tuesday 6th August 2.30-4.30pm Hanging Coombe – join the volunteers for a gentle stroll through this less well known area of the Estate (some steep slopes). Meet at Steps Hill car park.

Saturday 17th -Sunday 18th August Big Camp – a special opportunity to camp at Ashridge for the night and take part in a number of family activities.

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Pond Life

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On reflection there is no substance in the derogatory term “pond life” – Ponds are important hotspots for biodiversity. … As well as aquatic species, ponds are also wonderful for our terrestrial wildlife. They provide drinking water during dry weather, a supply of insect and plant-based food, and shelter among the emergent and surrounding plants and trees. Most of the twenty or so ponds on the Estate are silted up or dried out and Clinkmere, nestling just two minutes walk away from the V C has seen better days – it is the oldest deepest and largest of the ponds on the Estate.
The volunteers recently carried out an annual tidy-up removing leaf debris and rotting tree branches which affect the water quality – a putrid job! If the water quality deteriorates and the pond silts up the biodiversity is lost.
Clinkmere has been used for educational purposes in the past as part of the National Trust’s “Forest School”, while it was originally dug to provide water for the commoners’ livestock on the open common. It was no doubt used by the passing drovers and was the main water supply for the nearby hamlet of Moneybury Hill in earlier times.

A rare artefact


Clinkmere has been there since “time out of mind” as the locals would say, dating back to pre Norman times, when it was clearly used as a boundary marker. The boundaries of the parish, county and ecclesiastical districts were laid down in Anglo Saxon times, and all pass through the centre of the pond making it over one thousand years old. With the parish boundary between Pitstone and Aldbury passing through the centre, it meant that the commoners from either parish could use the water – hole without fear or favour. First mentioned in the 14th century when “clink” referred to a keyhole, a legend has it that it was the location for the settling of affairs of honour.
It is regrettable that the National Trust have not honoured their founding principles in the case of Clinkmere, which seems to have fallen through the net – preserving and restoring an ancient artefact, and protecting wildlife. In March 2017 the National Trust agreed that it had lost sight of the founding principle of protecting wildlife – Peter Nixon, Director of Conservation of the National Trust, said “the charity had a duty to help prevent wildlife decline, which currently affects 56 per cent of British species.”
Unused since Victorian times, and following the inevitable encroachment of trees, Clinkmere has become sterile.
The degradation of the ponds at Ashridge has been recognised for some time, when in the Spring of 2014 the Trust had a plan to improve all of the water-holes within a five year period using fixed point photography to record progress. Clearly this did not materialise, and following an incident in 2017 the Trust carried out a public safety survey of all the ponds, which has resulted in a number of dead-hedges being built.
The Norfolk Ponds Project created in 2014 is a pioneering organisation attempting to safeguard the ponds in Norfolk through restoration. They maintain that the best ponds for restoration are isolated ponds with no contaminants present from roads or adjacent farmland – so Clinkmere can be saved. The N P P are a fount of knowledge which should be tapped!

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Lock up your Hornbeams

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To prevent the resident deer herd from taking advantage of the recently planted hornbeams on Aldbury common, the trees have been given twenty four hour protection – a six foot high wire mesh fence with a padlocked gate! The Trust have to go to extraordinary lengths to secure their work. Two hundred years ago when Rail Copse was probably enclosed by the 7th Earl Bridgewater as the family set out to become landed aristocrats, deer damage was not a problem. The fallow and red deer were imparked around the Mansion and the muntjac deer had yet to arrive – today they run wild! A benefit of such an enclosure avoids the necessity of using the dreaded plastic tree guards which shatter after a few years. The fence will need to remain for a number of years until the leaders on the saplings grow above the reach of the deer and the trees are established, when they may well be pollarded.
The volunteers helped prepare an experimental site just south of Rail Copse and plant up some two hundred and thirty hornbeam saplings of UK origin, as the first part of the twenty year restoration plan. Supplied as bare rooted “whips” which are cheap and easy to establish they were set in a morning using the notch method of planting. The trees have been planted to a high density to encourage competition and growth with the expectation that some saplings will fail.

Watch this space.


Deciduous trees like hornbeam should be planted any time from leaf fall in the Autumn until late Winter according to the R H S. They need to be well watered in and watered regularly for the first two years during dry periods – the Trust have two large water butts on site.
Hornbeam used to be the best source of very hard wood in Britain, available in larger sizes than the equally prized boxwood. It is a native of south east England, but not normally native north of Hertfordshire. The common English name of hornbeam derives from the hardness of the wood – likened to horn – and the Old English beam. The full Latin name is Caprinus betulus.
Hornbeams are relatively small hardwood trees. They produce catkins in spring followed by a winged seed which spins in the wind as it falls to earth to create the next generation. The hornbeam prefers a well drained sandy or gravel soil, and rarely grows to a height of more than forty feet after sixty years of growth,
Hornbeam can be easily coppiced or pollarded. In the past, hornbeam was used in the production of charcoal as well as being a source of excellent firewood. This is evident from the number of pollarded hornbeams in Epping Forest, relics of the times when common fuel-wood rights existed there as they did and still do at Aldbury – in the 19th century the trees at Ashridge would have been coppiced and the poles used for charcoal for the local blacksmiths. The nearby brick making at the Outwood Kiln appears to have been fired by coal, certainly after 1810 when the canal was in operation.
Hornbeam is almost white, patterned with lovely flecks and swirls in its grain. When well finished, it is very smooth and often compared to ivory. These days it is mainly sold for furniture or turnery. Hornbeam is a very hard timber, so it is rarely used for general carpentry because of the difficulty of working it. Its hardness means it has been used for carving boards, tool handles, coach wheels – places where a very tough wood is required. In fact the timber is so hard it’s been used as gear pegs in simple machines, including traditional windmills. It is sometimes coppiced to provide hardwood poles, and also used in parquet flooring. It has even been used to produce wooden screws.

The hornbeams will now be left to do their own thing – happy hornbeams!

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An arresting place


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An arresting place – striking, eye-catching and silent.

From ancient Greece, Rome and China to the present, there has been a persistent belief in the restorative power of nature. That belief has formed the bedrock of a passion for gardening, the enduring literary genre of pastoral, the concept of national parks and the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the 1800’s.
The English are particularly susceptible to the lure of nature: witness our gardens, our anglers, birdwatchers and ramblers. There is a long tradition that defines Englishness by way of landscape and what William Wordsworth called “local affections”

Dockey Wood is one of those special places

Almost all of life’s pleasures can turn out to be bad for you. Eating, drinking smoking – but one of the most enjoyable activities around can reduce stress and depression, ease muscle tension, counter attention deficit disorder, even calm an erratic heart. What is this wonder therapy? A walk in the woods.
Dr Karjalainen from the Finnish Forest Research Institute maintains, “Many people feel relaxed and good when they are out in nature. But not many of us know there is also scientific evidence about the healing effects of nature.” Forest bathing or ‘shinrin-yoku’ was first developed in Japan in the 1980s, following scientific studies conducted by the government. The results showed that two hours of mindful exploration in a forest could reduce blood pressure, lower stress levels and improve concentration and memory. They also found that trees release chemicals called phytoncides, which have an anti-microbial effect on human bodies, boosting the immune system. As a result of this research, the Japanese government introduced ‘shinrin-yoku’ as a national health programme. The National Trust are featuring this topic in their May ideas program.

Britain is one of the least forested countries in Europe, but woods still cover 12% of the countryside, and half of that is open to the public. According to the Woodland Trust, almost two-thirds of us live within two and a half miles of a wood that covers at least fifty acres. To enter even the smallest wood is to cut yourself off from work, home and responsibility, and thanks to the volunteers effort Dockey Wood is well prepared for forest bathing.

Within those walls of bark, it’s just you, and mother nature. If you can, try it on your own when there are few visitors – you can’t get lost! Savour the silence, for that’s what nature serves up, unless there is a strong wind blowing. In Spring it’s time to wake up and smell the flowers and sap. The emerging tree ceiling of green leaves provides a perfect cover for the violet blue floor. The flowering of the bluebells creates a carpet like effect with a dense blue haze, which combined with a delicate fragrance creates a heavenly experience. The volunteers have created the perfect picture by removing all of the undergrowth and fallen debris from the plantation to give a sanitised result – not normally the case with the natural wildness of the Ashridge Estate. This provides the silence for there is nowhere for the wildlife to hide or nest so it is absent. The Trust have provided some seating for anyone wanting to stay a while and take in the state of well-being afforded by the ancient wood, while some visitors will stay permanently being scattered amongst the oaks seeking the spirit of the place.

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That’s a big delivery of eggs in anyone’s book.

And that was not the end of it for servicing the ever popular children’s egg hunt this Easter at the Visitor Centre, as extra supplies were needed.
It also required volumes of volunteers to support the staff running the annual event.
Set to coincide with the Easter school break the trail was priced at £3 as an “Early Bird” offer for the three days preceding Easter, and £5 over the four day Easter holiday week-end.
Good weather ensured that, at this fickle time of year it would be a run-away success.
Nowadays there is competition from other local venues like Aston Clinton Park, Waddesden and Ascott, so Ashridge needed to have a compelling offer. There were over two hundred and sixty N T egg hunts held across the Country.
The two tier pricing was aimed at spreading the visitor numbers and to encourage early visits – some visitors took to social media complaining that the £5 charge was excessive compared to other venues charging less than £3 – you get what you pay for.
What you got was a cleverly designed woodland trail introduction of migrating birds arriving from around the world – Easter Bunny had invited a bunch of birds to his party.
Several visits to a local supermarket were required to have adequate supplies of chocolate eggs available to give out as prizes on completion of the trail – Easter’s most treasured staple melting in the hot weather!

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