The Beacon, that great hump of chalk overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury has raised its ugly head with the erosion of the sward on the approach to the summit caused by visitors. and lately by mountain bikers – it has now been partly fenced off to prevent further damage during the wet winter period with a detour for walkers and bikers!
Tourists have been visiting the Beacon in force since the early 1920’s when the National Trust acquired the land. First to arrive were the middle class day-trippers on their bicycles quickly followed by the gentry in their cars which were parked at the bottom of Piccadilly Hill. The scars on the hillside were well depicted by Paul Nash in his painting “Wood on the Downs” in 1929. A national preoccupation with prehistory had been growing since the Victorian era and, in the aftermath of the Great War, books like H. J. Massingham’s Downland Man (1926) encouraged readers to explore the landscape of the ancient past.
The erosion of the sward on the route to the summit has occurred over the last one hundred years without any restoration by the Trust and is now part of the landscape – no longer a blot.
However the Trust are now “working with Historic England and the Beacons of the Past Project on a longer term repair plan for 2020”.
This important habitat is a class SSSI site as classified by Natural England, and as such presents particular problems for restoration work. Any re-seeding requires seed to be harvested from the adjacent sward, and any soil for infilling has to be sourced locally in order to have the same ph values and nutrient content. The problem with a steep sloping site is that any infilling will eventually be washed out by the weather because there is no bonding with the chalk sub-base. Regeneration can take place naturally if the scar is protected from further traffic, but takes a decade or more as in the case of the holloways.
Interesting work for the volunteers
Up until about two hundred years ago when the drovers were bringing their cattle from Wales to the fairs and markets of southern England, they created deep scars climbing the chalk escarpment, now known as holloways. – in the low light of winter they are highly visible skirting around Piccadilly Hill. It would be a strange noisy sight today – a line of black cattle trudging up the slope wearing their metal shoes – it was these “cues” which caused the scouring of the hillside. In the mid 1800’s the holloways began to recover as the cattle trade petered out and the Beacon Road was built, producing the natural regeneration that we see today with the profusion of summer flowering in the micro-climate found in the trackways. That earlier damage has now become a benefit to biodiversity!