Scarred for Life ?

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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!

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TREEMENDOUS – A political planting 

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A promise to plant trees can be a political turning point – mass planting of trees has always been political.
Now some want to be liberal, planting sixty million trees a year, others more conservative at thirty million, while others labour under a pledge of planting two billion trees by 2040, or if you are really green then seventy million trees a year seems sensible! To plant two billion trees over twenty years would require some twenty thousand tree planters a year – probably volunteers!

This enthusiasm for a greener world, expressed in trees, is inspiring and overdue. For two hundred years forested countries barely knew what to do with their trees. They were treated as expendable and a waste of space. But in a great cultural shift, they have changed from being dark and fearsome places to semi-sacred and untouchable.
And why not? In this new ecological age, we have learned that trees have far more value than just providing timber – they keep soils moist, prevent floods and provide shelter, store carbon, beautify landscapes, protect water sources, increase biodiversity, improve conservation and induce human wellbeing. So woe betide councils such as Sheffield that want to remove trees. From the Newbury bypass protests twenty years ago to today’s battles to save the ancient woodlands along the route of the HS2 rail link, there are few surer ways of angering people than cutting down their trees.

Much better to promise to plant anew…


And of course, having targets for more trees is only the first step. Parties need to ensure that tree planting delivers the right trees in the right places to maximise biodiversity benefits, and make the supply chain sustainable. They also need the policies and funding to deliver their pledges – some support greening the Green Belt using citizens’ assemblies to identify tree-planting sites, while some see agricultural subsidies being redirected to environmental schemes.
Friends of the Earth say “the UK needs to double its tree cover – from 13% of the land mass to 26% – to draw down millions of tonnes of carbon and make more space for nature. We have the land to do so – what is missing is the political will. Big numbers are meaningless without context given the climate emergency we face.”
Trees can be planted anywhere from schools and old peoples homes to parks, sports grounds, and even roundabouts and traffic islands, helping people reclaim local green spaces for their community. But while nature loves a mess, officialdom abhors one – instead of natural exuberance it seeks neat industrial rows of plastic tree guards tied with plastic ties!
The National Trust have not recently published any plans for large scale afforestation in England. In April they proposed planting sixty eight new orchards – interestingly they have nearly two hundred orchards on their books! They also have some five hundred tree avenues historically planted to frame a particular view, some of which are in need of restoration. Rooted in the history of Ashridge is the avenue on the Beacon Road at Crawley Wood where the original Ivinghoe common bursts onto the Ivinghoe hills. Planted in the early 1800’s when the road was laid down, comprising some fifty oaks and fifty beeches it is not recognisable today! As an avenue of trees there is no specific treatment included in the 20 year Woodland Management Plan other than the thinning of broadleaved trees – in fact there is no mention of increasing the tree cover on the Estate. 

As a token gesture towards restoration – a byword for the National Trust – Ashridge would do well to replant the twenty five oak trees around the perimeter of Meadleys Meadow lost over the last century, outlined in the previous post “Lie of the Land”.




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High Point

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In the middle of the last century some long suffering professionals trudged up hill and down dale to create a measurement of the land by “triangulation” , now superseded by GPS – the global positioning system. They were masters of all they surveyed – they built concrete trig pillars. The pillar was devised to provide a solid base for the theodolites used by the Ordnance Survey teams and to improve the accuracy of their readings. Starting in 1936 they completed some 6,500 over time choosing the highest point in an area in line of sight with at least two other pillars to form a triangle. By 1962 the project was complete and the Ordnance Survey launched their seventh series of the one-inch-to-the-mile maps

A cartographic classic that turned a generation on to the great outdoors

So on a cold but bright November morning I set out for the Beacon with my current “Explorer” map in hand – that great hump of chalk overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury – to rediscover the landscape from my mind’s eye. The surveyors measured the hill at 230 meters or 755 feet in old money, and I could make out the adjacent trig points at Castle Hill Totternhoe at 160 meters and Southend Hill at Cheddington at 140 meters. But there was more – the Ordnance Survey showed a trig point to the south on Clipper Down. Retracing my steps I headed off to find this elusive pillar which was recorded at 249 meters, the highest point on the Estate – not many people would know that! And sure enough it was still there, but hemmed in by the trees of Crawley Wood. There are no tracks or paths to show its presence as it is rarely visited – a poor relation to the Beacon. Not surprisingly you could not see Cheddington or the Beacon from the pillar because of intervening trees which have grown up over time. It turns out that the surveyors used hurricane lamps in the darkness to locate adjacent trig points and do their measuring, so it would have been possible to have a line of sight through the trees in winter time!

Suddenly from inside the wood there was a burst of noise which I recognised – the loggers were in business – more work for the volunteers. Thinning out this mixed wood plantation is a priority for the Trust in line with their 20 year management plan published last January – a high point in the restoration of the Estate.
“Thinning will be undertaken on a cycle of five or 10 years. It will concentrate on the removal of suppressed or deteriorating trees and will look to increase the light levels reaching the forest floor increasing the sub and understorey to provide improved habitat for roosting and nesting birds.” Enclosed on three sides Crawley Wood is not a safe attraction for the deer population probably predating the new growth, so the recovery of the understorey should take place quickly.
I have taken the opportunity to correct the Trust on the accuracy of their document where it states….
“The Estate lies on the Chilterns escarpment that peaks at an altitude of 230m above sea level (ASL) at Ivinghoe Beacon towards the northern end of the Estate.”

Chris Skinner

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The Haunted Hut

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The origins of Halloween are in the Celtic pagan festival Samhain, when the boundary between the two worlds thinned – the here and now and the afterlife. That’s why it’s supposed to be a bit s-s-s-poooky. It marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the darker half of the year.

So it was quite the perfect choice to use the old shooting lodge as the destination for the haunted Halloween trail – celebrating the past lives of those ancestors that left their mark on the Ashridge estate.

Halloween allows us to enter into the dark, disquieting and mysterious

Staff and volunteers alike enthused in the ghostly story tale telling of times past, remembering and honouring the departed – the Celtic settlers on the Beacon, the Roman family living in the nearby villa, the aristocratic Bridgewaters with their servants at the Mansion and the American GI’s tented in Thunderdell Wood.

Never been lived in and boarded up for decades this unused artefact was refurbished in the 1980’s after the wooden structure was partially destroyed by fire. For Halloween the single room with fireplace was candle-lit for the occasion and the table laid for feasting. This log cabin on Duncombe Terrace was erected at the time of Adelbert the 3rd Earl Brownlow in the 1880’s, next to a holloway giving access to the valley below, and provided with a veranda for the Gentry to overlook the open hillside in the summer time – no trees in those days.

A hundred years ago it would not be uncommon for volunteers to meet up with royalty and the great and the good, as part of a shooting party. Ashridge shooting parties were famous, drawing prominent guests over the years including King Edward VII and King George V, and most of the royal dukes, though in their later years both Lord and Lady Brownlow came to regard such parties as social obligations rather than pleasures. About fifty keepers, most wearing a green livery with silver buttons bearing the earl’s crest, were employed on the various parts of the estate in Little Gaddesden, Ringshall, Aldbury, Dagnall and Studham, under a head keeper and a deputy. The beaters were mostly workers on the Estate, dressed in white smock coats and red caps. A glance at the earl’s game book for 1912 shows that over a three-day shoot it was not uncommon for a party to claim up to one thousand five hundred pheasants alone.

The game birds were reared on the Estate under the watchful eye of the game-keepers. The huge backdrop of nearby laurel bushes seen today provided a perfect dense cover for roosting, while snowberry bushes were also a feature and still survive! This long lived suckering shrub from N America introduced in 1817 will survive on poor soils under a dense tree canopy giving low level cover for young pheasants – bracken is a no-no for shooting parties. All is spookily quiet these days in the woods,  with precious few pheasants!

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Anger in the Coombe

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With its surrounding wooded hillside it ought to be a tranquil rural idyll.
But this bosky valley has become a battleground over the rights of pedestrians and cyclists –
something which is commonplace in urban areas just moved to the countryside.
The Trust with the help of the volunteers have made a determined effort to exclude mountain bikers from entering the Coombe – it is a prohibited area with no bridleway access. So whilst the Estate gives open access to pedestrians – you can walk anywhere – cyclists and horse riders are restricted to the legal or permitted bridleways.
In an attempt to prevent mountain bike access into the valley all of the slam gates have now been converted into kissing gates – see the article “Queue at the gate”. MTB’s often ride roughshod over rights of way, ignoring and removing no-access signs and lifting cycles over gates.

When does a feeling of annoyance or disapproval turn into an act of vandalism? When an MTB has to stop and dismount! Not interested in the countryside per say, but just looking for an adrenaline rush, it was quite likely that a gate would be damaged sooner or later, as was the case last week. More work for the volunteers!

A sense of entitlement………

In earlier times when the working population had few rights, the people of Ivinghoe Aston and the few living in the lost hamlet of Wards Coombe , had rights over the common land in the Coombe – but all was not well in 1656. There was annoyance with the rabbit population which was out of control and which was damaging the grazing resources of the land.
The Bridgewaters having purchased the Estate in 1604 established  a rabbit warren in the valley, with royal consent – rabbit fur was very fashionable in the Tudor and Stuart period.
For the commoners the culling of the rabbits or conies as they were then known was not an option – punishment by imprisonment would follow – so the angry peasants took their grievance to the Lord of the Manor. They petitioned John 2nd Earl of Bridgewater to come up with a solution to protect their interests.
There was an acceptable agreement, which was to fence off the area of the out-of-bounds warren and to allow the tenants to pursue their livelihoods and catch rabbits outside of it’s boundaries. Today’s rebels could learn a thing or two from those peasants!
As part of the plan, box bushes, which were native to the area were grown in rows to create hedges to provide cover for the rabbits. Despite being coppiced over the centuries, the hedges still remain to this day. By the mid 1700’s the trade in rabbit fur was in decline, so the ever resourceful Bridgewaters took to the felling of the box trees. The timber became very desirable for printing blocks and musical instruments, and it was shipped off to the London wood turners.
There are precious few rabbits to be seen today, more’s the pity.

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Lie of the land

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Some remarkable Victorians tramped over every foot of Britain to create precise pictures for posterity, though they used neither camera nor canvas. Even the unremarkable slopes of Meadleys Meadow came into focus on a certain day in 1876, when a team of men visited to grant it immortality.
They marked out the meadow’s boundaries, measured its area (17.485 acres), hand-drew its crescent-shaped dew-pond. And they plotted the trees. Every significant tree in this meadow, all thirty five of them, was faithfully and accurately represented by a miniature cloud on a stick.
In its attention to detail, this single field illustrates one of the greatest map-making achievements of the pre-digital age – the 25 inch to a mile Ordnance Survey series. And over the course of a morning, a printout of the old map in hand, I found that snapshot of the past sharpening my images of the present.

GO Man go……


Though the supposedly oval pond was full of water with likely lush vegetation, while crowded by two adjacent shade trees that sucked its summers dry, it was empty and the shade trees had gone so I could now make out its quarter-moon curvature. For the first time in years of walking this undulating field, its dips and folds concealing and revealing, I stepped a few feet off the path towards the wooden fence at the south and discovered a remnant of the original Victorian metal enclosure with its original gate now padlocked! This led me to discover the metal kissing gate on the eastern boundary which gave access to the footpath crossing the field in ancient times with the last remaining hawthorn the sole survivor of the original hedge.
Thrilled with these finds, I zigzagged around to check how many of the field’s original trees had lasted. Twenty five trees had been lost, including five for the Visitor Centre – none of which had been replanted as a matter of restoration!
All but one of today’s ten trees had the smooth shapeliness of middle age, towering perhaps forty feet or more but lacking the gnarled and crooked credentials of old age. None of the oaks had the spreading waistline of approaching senility and the wrinkles and burrs to match. They were still a couple of centuries from shedding their antlers and morphing from a veteran tree into an ancient monolith. I walked over and spoke to each one of them, patted their trunks and wished them a happy birthday, at least 150 years young. The odd one out was lying prostate on the ground waiting to be consumed by nature.
I pondered on the haphazed planting of the trees all those years ago – there were only three trees shown on the Estate map of 1762. So by the time of the survey thirty two more trees appeared – but not by the hand of man. Acorns will not germinate under a tree so the oaks rely on the good services of the colourful jay to spread their progeny – the bird plants the acorns for a winter larder and invariably forgets where it put them!
Will they be there in the next century? I doubt it – there is regular talk of turning the meadow into a car park, although that would be difficult to equate with the conservation aims of the National Trust! In Britain 97% of wildflower meadows have been destroyed since the survey. It was only a year ago when the Dairy Hay Meadow – the twenty two acre field next to the farm on the Ringshall Road once owned by Elizabeth 1st – was destined to become the Estate car park until it was rescued by an ancient restrictive covenant placed on the property. Nothing is sacred these days!
Chris Skinner

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Queues at the gate………

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The gates at the Beacon car park are the most used on the Estate with serious soil erosion now taking hold on the hillside in the Coombe.
With the help of the volunteers the Trust make regular improvements to the estate infrastructure to accommodate the ever increasing number of visitors – this can have unintended consequences. So the gates into the Coombe have now been “improved” with the three existing self-closing slam gates upgraded into kissing gates – preventing access to horse riders, bike riders and pram pushers. The enclosures around the gates limit access to just one or two people at a time presenting problems for dog- walkers. There may well be queues forming at busy times!

Horses for courses

There were no such restrictions in the 1740’s when the “locals” arrived for the horse-racing.
The Estate map of 1762 shows two arable fields called “Horse race pieces” on level ground south east of the Beacon, and to the east of Piccadilly Hill. This suggests that the area was used for horse racing before the field enclosures in the late 1750’s. The area was no doubt a meeting place for the Welsh drovers, on their way to London – when horse riders get together in any number they invariably choose to race their steeds.
Thoroughbred racing did not become popular in England until the mid 1700’s by which time all of the English classic races had been established. Francis the “canal” Duke (Ashridge 1748-1803) indulged in the fashionable pursuit of horse racing and breeding, keeping a house and stables at Newmarket. He sold his horses at the Robin Hood inn in Little Gaddesden which is now a care home, and may have used the course in the Coombe. Scroop the first Duke of Bridgewater (Ashridge 1701-1745) had some one hundred and fifty horses on the estate, including race horses and no doubt trained them on the course. Mr Ellis the owner of Church Farm in Little Gaddesden writing in 1750 tells us that a certain Mr Herne, a gypsy who lived a while at Brick Kiln cottage on Berkhamsted common along with some thirty compatriots, was “full of money”, and kept a couple of race horses. He ran a little black bay-horse against a Gentleman’s large grey at Ward’s – combe, and won a great deal of money by a particular “bite” – a cunning plan. He restricted the gallop of his horse in the first race, so he lost that race. A large amount of money was then wagered by the “locals” on the second race expecting a similar outcome, but the restrictive harness was removed from the bay-horse without their knowledge, and Mr Herne won the race easily. The cunning plan had worked and Mr Herne had cleaned up!

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Last one standing

The dramatic destruction of the Amazon rainforest is a stark reminder of the importance of trees in our ecosystem – they give us life taking in carbon dioxide and giving out oxygen.
Ashridge has some two thousand five hundred acres of of woodland, some are ancient woods and others more recent where trees have colonised the open commons, and most of the older trees have been recorded. Some seven years ago the volunteers set about mapping the Estate and recording some three thousand three hundred trees for the Woodland Trust – the ancienttreeregister. The 100,000 th tree on the ATI was recorded by Kevin Neighbour and Steve Waters – a veteran beech boundary marker in Old Copse measuring just under six metres at grid reference SP 97691187. So it’s been around for well over two hundred years. There are three categories in the register covering the age of a tree measured by the girth – notable, veteran, and ancient. The Trust have been actively promoting the veteran trees on the Estate by “halo” pruning – taking out competitive trees – to enable them to achieve ancient status at four hundred years. The older the tree the more species of invertebrates it can support.

Conservation should be based on practical observation not unstable theory – Oliver Rackham 2006


Some trees were overlooked on the original survey and have since been located and recorded. Recently an “ancient” coppiced tree popped up – the unprepossessing hawthorn standing solitary in the middle of Meadleys meadow, last coppiced over one hundred years ago. The remnant of a hedge which once divided the field in two, along with a metal fence and an adjacent ancient footpath crossing the hay meadow – the original metal kissing gate still stands at the entrance. The tree has witnessed over four hundred harvests and hundreds of passers-by travelling from the hamlet of Ringshall to Aldbury for supplies, pleasure at the pub, and penance at the church. Overlooked for decades the Trust has now given the lonesome tree the respect it deserves by erecting a protective fence – it is a point of interest – coppiced and used over the centuries.

A fantastic tree for wildlife that can support more than three hundred species of insect. Its flowers are eaten by dormice and provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects. The haws are rich in antioxidants and are eaten by migrating birds such as redwings.
Long live Crataegus monogyna.

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The packed program of special events continues through the Autumn and Winter at Ashridge – The following list will help you when organising your volunteering time-table for the next four months. There are at least fourteen events to consider – dogs are in, but horses are out! There is a Watercolour Workshop on offer for painterly people and also a Photography Workshop for picture buffs.

Details of all charges and bookings must be obtained from the Ashridge Visitor Centre before an event.

Sunday 1st September Volunteer Open Day 10.00am-3pm
Volunteering opportunities at Ashridge.

Tuesday 10th September Golden Valley Stroll 10 30am-12 30pm
Join the volunteers for a walk in the footsteps of Capability Brown.

Saturday 12th October Ashridge In Autumn Walk 10am – 2pm
A volunteer-led guided walk.

Saturday 12th & Friday 18th October Photo Workshop 10am – 4pm

Learn how to get the best out of your equipment.

Wednesday 16th October  Gentle Stroll 10.30am – 12.30pm
Join the rangers in search of deer.

Friday 18th Saturday 19th Sunday 20th Friday 25th Saturday 26th Sunday 27th October Deer Rut Walk 7am – 9am
Join the rangers for an early morning walk to search for deer.

Monday 21st October to Friday 1st November A Halloween Trail 10am – 4pm
Spooky crafts at the Visitor Centre all week.

Saturday 2nd & Sunday 3rd November Watercolour Workshops  1- 4pm Create your own watercolour of Ashridge.

Saturday & Sunday 1st 7th 8th 14th 15th 21st 22nd 28th 29th & Thursday 26th & Friday 27th December Childrens Christmas Trail 10am – 3pm
Follow the Nutcracker trail to collect a gift.

Monday 2nd December to Monday 6th January Christmas Pudding Walk 10am – 4pm A self-led walk through the woods.

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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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