The annual end of year get-together for the Thursday volunteers was held at five-ways corner, on Old Copse Drive deep in the woods at Ashridge with some forty people attending. Collecting and burning brash was the order of the day, following the work of the Countryside Team with their handy chain-saws, followed by the customary exchange of seasonal eats.
It was was mild and gloomy in a lifeless mist, with the fires flames rising dramatically like a rocket and falling back like a stick once the brash was consumed. So intense was the heat that the embers were still warm days later. It was the complete opposite to the previous weeks heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures which had resulted in the cancellation of the work party – only the third time in as many years.
The day in question was the 21st December – the winter solstice. Every day from now on there will be a little more light to taunt us that the gentler times are still miles off. January to March feels like a grim endurance test to come, with only the faintest dreams of bluebells to sustain us till April.
A heavenly peace settled over the carriageway between the intermittent sounds of the chain saws gnawing away at the wood. The sombre yews and Scots pines were standing black against the leaden sky, but the fresh green moss clinging to decaying timbers, the big-leaved laurels, and the hardy wayside hollies saving the countryside from the monotony of a leafless winter. Their greens may be dark or even dingy compared with those of spring, but they are really greens; when the mists sweep over, as they did last week, or the snow melts on them they shine as if polished. The red berries are all the redder for the wet, and even the withered grass is invigorated by the mists which make us shiver. The tall beech stood gaunt and defoliated silhouetted against the sky, and the wet earth was treacherous underfoot.
Following on from work started last July the Trust are hoping to restore this once beautiful drive to it’s former glory. Built in 1813 by the 7th Earl John William it was the main entrance to the Mansion from Aldbury, for his aristocratic visitors coming from Halton, Tring and Waddesdon – the Rothschilds. The Shah of Persia passed this way in July 1889.
And it came to pass in the 1920’s with the demise of the aristocratic property that the carriageway fell into dramatic decline. A hundred years ago the members of a work party would have put down their tools and deferred to the Lord and Lady by doffing their caps, in thanks for their annual joint of beef given to all the cottagers at Christmas time.
The Swedish whitebeams which were planted by the NT in 1934 in an attempt to revitalise the drive-way before opening it up to the public, have now been felled being past their sell-by-date. They had been disfigured by pollarding and some succumbed to rot, and being non-native they were ready for the chop!