"He marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again"
This sums up our weekend in Gloucestershire! A high level of fitness and endurance was needed as our members were put through their paces by Major Tom Wills on Saturday - then John Workman on Sunday, with a "grand finale" at The Westonbirt Arboretum (which contained no hills, thank goodness).
55 members from as far afield as Scotland, Isle of Wight, East Anglia and Kent gathered together on a beautiful sunny day in the delightful village of Miserden with its limestone houses set around the main house where the Estate plays an integral part.
Major Wills the owner, gave us a brief history of the estate which is situated 750 feet above sea level on the west side of the Roman road. It comprises 3,000 acres in all, of which 630 acres is woodland on steep ground. The woodlands were clear-felled for the war effort - the timber being used in the production of Mosquito aircraft. As a result all the woodlands are post 1945.
The woodlands are managed by two foresters - Roly Holtham (the resident) and Geoff Huggett (the consultant). Roly has just completed 46 years in forestry - having first come to the estate as a 15 year old.
We were then taken - at breakneck pace - into the beautiful River Frome valley, close to which were some outstanding mature conifers. A group of Silver Firs (one of which hosted a lofty Buzzard’s nest) were much admired and their naturally regenerated "children" gave us hope for the future.
Close by were some magnificent Douglas Firs planted about 1875, with one "monster" of 412 cubic feet, reaching up to the sky with its healthy leader signalling in triumph. The underground springs and micro-climate here produce superb Norway Spruce, Coast Redwoods and Wellingtonia (more 185 feet monsters) which had somehow survived the Ministry Inspectors for the War Effort.
Peter Goodwin introduced Arwyn Morgan from South Wales who is studying Redwood Groves in Britain (see W.H. Journal No.8) and a lively discussion on micro-climate followed. Trustee, David Rice, spotted plenty of natural regeneration of mixed ages and with the potential for true Continuous Cover Forestry in this area.
Then we set off up the hill, along the main drive, to see the progress of thinning the beech woodlands in order to produce final crop trees. Recent work was very professional with minimal damage and neat piles of timber awaiting the timber trucks. David Taylor commented: "I had my office in Miserden for many years and always walked home through this spot, so I have watched it develop from being a pretty nondescript plantation which has benefited from many judicious thinnings. Now it begins to look rather nice doesn’t it ? The quality is here and there is going to be a nice crop of Beech - which you wouldn’t have reckoned on 10-15 years ago".
Asked by Trustee Roger Venables about the long term future of the wood, Major Wills put it like this "Because it’s on the drive, it’s probably looked after rather better than some of the plantations that are further on and I think it will hopefully be kept under continuous cover".
He added: "I think as a private woodland owner one just has to be the eternal optimist, sticking to management that one knows is right - and hope that one is going to get a reasonably good return on the rotation at the end of the day that will encourage natural regeneration to come on, whatever it is. But I would hope by enriching with planting where trees are required, by filling in gaps, we would keep it under continuous cover."
Onwards and upwards we went, to see Ash, Sycamore and Beech growing high on a hillside upon a rich seam of Fuller’s Earth, producing better growth rates than in other places on the Estate. Major Wills was proud of his seed source which had produced consistently high grade Sycamore and Beech for the veneer trade over the years.
At the top of the hill we were allowed to get our breath (believe it or not) under a 630 year old Oak. This stood on the edge of a field which played host to Bee and Butterfly Orchids - only allowed to be grazed by sheep at the end of the summer.
At the promise of "it’s downhill from here" we found new vigour and arrived back at the lakeside where the Ram Pump was shown to us - an 18th century piece of engineering which was used to pump lake water up to the house and garden.
We then examined a 15 year old Beech which had been severely attacked by grey squirrels and which had no future at all. The question of whether controlling grey squirrels was effective or not, was dealt with most convincingly by Bede Howell (past President of the R.F.S. and committee member of the recently formed European Grey Squirrel Initiative). He talked us though the problems of GS damage and led us to the inevitable conclusion that the beautiful Miserden Estate woodlands were at dire risk of destruction by "This American invasive alien mammal". Bede reassured us that the work of ESI was focusing on GS elimination by immuno-contraception. He warned us that European forests were under threat from GS colonies which were already at the foothills of the Italian Alps.
If this bad news did not dampen spirits, then the realisation that our picnic lunches were now some 500 ft above us in the village, was another challenge to be faced in the hot weather.... Most of us made it in the end, although there were some dark mutterings about the "downhill from here" quote.
At the conclusion of the morning session Lewis Scott warmly thanked Major Wills and his staff for giving us such a wonderful tour. Miserden Estate must surely be one of the most beautiful places in the county of Gloucestershire and it had left us all with the deep impression that it was in the most capable and caring hands.
After a picnic lunch we held our Annual General Meeting, followed by a demonstration of mobile log sawing by the Dean Oak Cooperative - using the portable Trekkasaw which Woodland Heritage had provided a few months earlier.
We were then free to walk back (downhill) into the village to see the small workshop of Mark Mitchell who uses timber from the estate for much of his commissions. Finally, we were kindly allowed to tour the magnificent gardens of Misarden House which really set the seal on a memorable day.
Day 2 - Workmans Wood, Ebworth
"I am trying to pretend that this is a National Nature Reserve, not a production forest. It is a compromise. I don’t want it to be a well-spaced boring plantation and if and when I ever write my life story, the title will be CONTROLLED NEGLECT. "
Woods have graced the Sheepscombe Valley for centuries and were part of the Ebworth Estate bought in 1901 by John Workman’s grandfather. In 1976 the wood was recognised as a National Nature Reserve and named "Workman’s Wood" in honour of the family. It comprises 120 hectares of steep sided valleys with slopes of varying gradient and aspect, ranging in altitude from 150 to 250 metres above sea level. John told us that in 1989 the 400 acres of beech woodland and 600 acres of agricultural land was given to the National Trust. The old Ebworth Centre adjoins the woodlands and was established as a centre for woodland study, management and practical work. English Nature and the Forestry Department of the Royal Agricultural College are involved with the venture.
John warned us that he had prepared a tight schedule which necessitated keeping up with him at all times - and promptly roared off downhill in his electric buggy ...
Fortunately, the forestry roads were in superb condition so our party of 70 were determined not to miss anything. Above and below us stood hundreds upon hundreds of superb Beech trees - of excellent form and vigour. The bigger trees averaged 200 years - and some were still looking healthy when nearly 300 years old.
We paused to discuss the provenance of these trees - and to catch our breath. John said: "This area I planted in 1956 when the rabbits had all gone. There were 3 rows of beech, 5 feet apart. The plants came from Kingscote, my father's other estate where there are many marvellous Beech - and these were dug up from the regeneration and planted here. I suspect that the original trees came from the famous Foret de Soigne on the outskirts of Brussels, so we might go back and get some more from that source." John asked us to note that there had been no high pruning because the shaded environment and close spacing will do the job naturally.
When asked about potential damage by Grey Squirrels, John told us: "I have a fairly firm conviction that if trees are growing slowly, the squirrels will find them less attractive. Now it’s a fact that however close the trees are, the height growth is not affected - so by having them close you still get the height position. Obviously, I must now open them up to allow the crowns to expand and hope that they will then be beyond serious squirrel wreckage."
The Past Resource
Trustee, Roger Venables recalled coming to these woods in his twenties as a young timber buyer. "I came with my uncle and ‘his’ father to learn how to negotiate the annual log prices. My uncle had just bought a new Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire and it was snowing heavily at the time. The roads were steep and treacherous and we finally arrived at Mr.Workman’s house and began the negotiations. The more it snowed, the more Mr. Workman Senior thought that Sidney Venables is bound to give in on the price and want to head home ! But Sidney, being the sort of man he was, thought I’ll stay here all day to get this price lower if I can ! And so we sat there humming and ha-ing - drinking endless cups of coffee (and other things) for about three hours before we left!"
Roger went on: "The quality of Beech which we drew out of these woods, which we sold to the furniture trade at that time, could match anything and be far superior to a lot which was coming in from the continent. The thing that finished us was that we couldn't get enough volume to sustain the market that we had found and so we were forced to import a lot from Europe where there was continuity."
John raced ahead again, leaving some of us in need of oxygen, only to brake suddenly. "Here you will see a fallen Beech and an Oak. One of the things that irritate me about naturalists is that they insist that I leave them there for the sake of the insects. Well, okay, they are welcome to that, but I would much rather remove the valuable part to make decent furniture."
He accelerated away again and finally stopped to point out a flat standing where there once had been a charcoal hearth. "This simply indicates that for hundreds of years these woods were used for producing Beech charcoal. Everyone thinks that was only for smelting, it wasn’t, it was mostly for household cooking and heating. People say that the Beech woods around High Wycombe developed because of the furniture industry - but it was the other way round - the furniture industry developed around High Wycombe because the market for charcoal for London had collapsed."
We gathered ourselves again and followed our relentless Leader to his next stop. "Why I am stopping here is that you will see a lot of tiny little Beech - we shall call them Bonsai trees - twenty years ago the Fallow deer arrived and since then they have simply destroyed everything. All I see is a browsing line. You don’t see any young trees at all, whereas 30 years ago the wood was choked with young trees. The Fallow come back each year to feed and they don’t kill the young Beech, they just leave enough so that there will be enough for them the next year. Look, there is one that they missed and it got away alright. I could put guards around one or two young trees, but it is a hopeless task - heartbreaking, because a system which has been running for 50 years is now doomed - unless, of course, you get rid of the deer."
High above us on a steep slope was a parcel of recently felled Ash, destined for the Irish hurley stick market. We noted that the Irish cutters favoured those stems which had the widest buttresses - in order to produce the special sweep of the traditional stick. It was sad to see that only about 5 feet of each tree had been taken, leaving the rest of the butts and 2nd lengths to find a market which, in these difficult days, is only likely to be firewood. The moral being GET A HIGH PRICE FOR THE HURLEY STICK PART !
Now admitting that we were on the return leg, our Motorised Leader urged us to keep to his schedule - not easy for those from flat East Anglia who were now experiencing Second Day Mountaineering Pains - but we pressed "onwards and upwards" where John thankfully stopped.
"Here on the left is all natural regeneration. The wood blew down in 1976, but fortunately the regen was just established and was as good as you could wish for. Below the track we have planted three row strips of Beech and Larch. The Larch have virtually all gone, but I have kept the strips to encourage anything that wanted to come - like Ash or Sycamore. Pure Beech is very destructive, nothing grows underneath it except the occasional orchid. Sycamore seeds about very freely and produces very big valuable white timber which is sadly very attractive to grey squirrels. If you leave Sycamore too long it suppresses the Beech, but by leaving it, the squirrels then attack it and leave the Beech ! But on the whole I do think that we have controlled the grey squirrels pretty well."
Closer to Base Camp now, we rested to admire a stand of magnificent Ash on the lower slope. Just around the corner the writer was permitted ‘time off’ to admire (and girth) a fine Oak in an area where the soils gave it best advantage. We saw huge Poplars, then more beautiful Beech before hauling our tortured bodies up the final track - where our Leader calmly waited for us and announced that we were precisely on time !
It was here at the top of the hill, overlooking the wood, that John had erected an impressive wooden sculpture called "The Spirit Of The Woods" - precisely the words used by Laurie Lee to describe John Workman's influence on the wooded landscape for which he had contributed so much. It had been a memorable tour, conducted by an enthusiastic and highly skilled forester who clearly loved to pass on his knowledge.
Roger Venables then stepped up to present John with a Burr Yew bowl which had been crafted by our (now famous) member, Richard Chapman. Roger thanked our host for giving us a wonderful morning and went on to say: "It has been a tremendous memory for me to come back into your woods after such a long time. The respect we have as a family for the Workman family goes back a very, very long time - and will be echoed by everyone here today."