I think we've all been left reeling by the huge changes that have occured in our lives over the last 18 months - from empty shelves in grocery stores to lockdowns and mask wearing it would be fair to say that it's been a bit of a roller coaster! There have been some positives though and one of them has to be the number of people, especially families, who seem to have discovered the joy of walking in the beautiful National Forest.
Moving from Ashby to live alongside the canal by Moira Furnace just 2 days before the first national lockdown I watched as the visitor numbers to the paths in this area grew. It's marvelous to see the furnace, Donisthorpe country park and Hicks Lodge give so much pleasure to so many people - whether it is having a picnic, taking a trip on the boat, taking a stroll or enjoying the events it seems that lots of new people have found the joy of being outdoors at Moira Furnace.
Like many others I've often sought peace by exploring local paths since the pandemic started. During the first lockdown we set out to walk all the public footpaths within a 3 mile radius of home and had great fun getting the map out and colouring them in as each one was walked. Some were hidden gems, some a bit of a trial, some went nowhere and the very occasional one was missing or blocked but it was great fun and gave our daily walks a new purpose. Once the lockdown eased it was with new eyes that we rediscovered the joys of places slighty further afield such as Beacon Hill (pictured above).
I've been seeing a steady stream of orders for Walks for all in the Heart of the Forest over the last 12 months and have had a growing realisation of two things - firstly that the last box of books is starting to empty and secondly that I really hadn't updated the website very often. So today I've foresaken the pleasures of a walk (it is 29 degrees outside so probably a wise decision) to do a bit of website updating and look at the possibility of offering a digital download of the walks so that people can continue to enjoy them even if they aren't able to access a printed copy of the book.
Confusion did reign initially as it took some time to remember how to actually log in and update the site but I'm happy to say that I got there in the end so watch this space for more news on digital downloads. Meanwhile, if you fancy exploring Beacon Hill and meeting the chap pictured above (he's handsome but I found him a bit wooden!) - you can find instructions for the walk on the Ashby Life website - just click here.
We're just starting to see the first bluebells appearing and within the coming weeks many people will head out to enjoy the sight of carpets of these lovely blooms in local woodland - but are we missing something?
While both snowdrops and bluebells are (deservedly) well celebrated - what about those forgotten beauties that also herald the arrival of Spring that pop their yellow heads up to brighten our days. Primroses, cowslips, marsh marigolds, celandine, and don't forget the much maligned dandelion - we should have yellow walks just to celebrate them.
Take a walk at Oakthorpe Colliery in April and peep into the woods on the north side of the lake - you'll be rewarded by the sight of large patches of primroses which seem to be growing year on year. At the end of the lake nearest the car park the valley is a wonderful carpet of green and yellow where the new growth is generously carpeted with celandine.
A recent stroll around Sence Valley revealed beautiful patches of Marsh Marigolds dotted along the feeder streams and brought to mind previous visits to Carvers Rocks where these wonderful blooms usually put on a magnificent display at this time of year.
With the arrival of the warmer weather suddenly our lawns and verges start to grow - lush green grass springs up and out come the lawnmowers. No sooner have we started to admire the smooth green surface we've created than, horror or horrors, we see dandelions popping their smiling yellow faces up. Please don't reach for the weedkiller though - they are a great source of food for bees at this time of year and it is wonderful to see many roadside verges being allowed to grow and provide this kind of forage now. You've got to admire their resourcefulness too - cut them off with the lawnmower and they just grow back and pop up their flowers at a lower height! Just watch a big fat bumblebee enjoying the fruits of a dandelion bloom and you are bound to find yourself smiling.
I'm looking forward to enjoying carpets of blue soon, but currently wallowing in the yellow!
Oh isn't it lovely to finally see some warmer weather - a couple of times we've even caught a glimpse of the sun peeping through.
I'm back on the trail of the National Forest Noon Columns - for this months Ashby Life magazine I wrote up a shortened version of one of the Staunton Harold walks from the book which passes by the Melbourne Parklands Noon Column. If you want to give it a try you'll find it, along with the other Noon Column walks already published, online here.
Next on my list was the Mease and Sence Noon Column. The Mease and Sence Noon Column is situated within Grangewood (vaguely near to Overseal) which is a little confusing since there is another noon column which is actually situated within Sence Valley near Ibstock, but that is called the Leicestershire and South Derbyshire Noon Column! Strange, I know.
Anyway, back to Grangewood - it's a big area which includes many paths around new plantations, a large equestrian cross country course, some beautiful footpaths through older, more established, woodland and even a section of the National Forest Way. You can literally meander around for hours if you wish (and sometimes even if you don't wish as it's easy to become disorientated with so many paths to choose from).
The Noon Column is pretty well hidden, standing within a circle of grassland with trees on all sides - I kept getting tantalising glimpses of it through the branches before finding the path that allowed access. I loved the fact that this Noon Column is well within the woodland and requires exploring before you find it - quite different to the others. Well worth the trip and all of my meanderings around the area proved enjoyable even in the cold weather of Feb and March.
Four Noon Columns discovered now - just two to go and it's coming up to the perfect time of year to, hopefully, enjoy bluebells within the woodland at one of them.
This week it was time for our first annual visit to checkout the snowdrops at Dimminsdale and we were lucky enough to have a bit of brilliant sunshine to do it in.
If you love snowdrops (and who doesn't?) and haven't visited Dimminsdale Nature Reserve then I strongly urge you to go. There is something about turning the corner at the top of the hill to be greeted by a blanket of snowdrops nestled within this woodland setting that is really magical. You think you've seen them and then you continue up the path and keep discovering more - small clumps nestled under the rocks and swathes in little hillside clearings, they just keep coming.
If you know where to look (there is a wonderful sheltered spot just by some mossy rocks close to the pathway) you can usually see the first buds from around New Year, or even Christmas. After that it is simply a matter of time as the display slowly builds up, usually reaching a peak around the end of January/early February.
We usually visit several times over the snowdrop season - often between Christmas and New Year for that first glimpse that brightens us up during the dark days of midwinter, again during January to check on progress and then once or twice during February to wonder at the full glory of these magical little flowers.
It's often hard to know what to expect mid January - will there be much out, or will we still be searching for those early signs? Well I'm happy to report that we were well rewarded when we went this week - walking clockwise round the site from the entrance onto the road the clearing near the top of the hillside was a mass of snowdrops in full bloom. Further along the path there were quite a few more out but I'd say that they main area (just above where the path from Staunton Harold enters the reserve) will probably be another two or three weeks.
It was quiet when we went - we met just two other couples both of whom appeared to be out on rambles rather than just visiting for the snowdrops. You can be sure that as the weeks progress this will change - the number of visitors steadily increases as more snowdrops come out and at peak times you can pretty much guarantee to meet with quite a few visitors as you walk the circular path around past the laundry pool and up over the hill. First timers often ask 'Where will I find the snowdrops?' - the answer to which is just follow the path around, there is no way you will miss them! The doubt is caused by the fact that the displays are all along the top of the hillside and most people come into the reserve via the roadside entrance which is on the opposite side, at the bottom of the hill. As the path is circular it really doesn't matter which way round you follow it - you'll find them either way. If you do come in from Staunton Harold, via the National Forest Way, turn right as soon as you enter the reserve and you'll go straight up to what is usually the largest area at the height of the season.
For those who want to combine their snowdrop fix with a good walk you'll find a lovely circular walk in Walks for all in the Heart of the Forest which combines seeing the snowdrops with a walk over the Staunton Ridgeway - the walk starts and finishes by the Ferrers Centre at Staunton Harold so you can combine it with some refreshments, and perhaps a browse of the craft shops and garden centre, afterwards too.
The photo at the top of the page was taken this week, the one below is the main display fully out, taken a couple of years ago. You'll find directions to get to Dimminsdale by clicking here. The circular path around the reserve is steep in places and can be slippery - if you want to see the snowdrops but avoid the steep path then access is easier if you walk down the driveway from Staunton Harold and come into the reserve via the National Forest Way.
This world that we live in is hectic and one of the best things about getting out for a walk is feeling that busyness and stress fall away as we reconnect with the living world. Sometimes it's good to take some time out to just sit and be - it's amazing how your mind can work through things when it's given time and space. Places where you can 'just be' become very precious. I have a couple of such places within the National Forest - one of them is in under the great old oak within our own piece of woodland. A magic spot and one which I feel privileged to be guardian of - nature changes this space with the seasons and over time but it is a constant in my life,
My other special place however is within a site that belongs to someone else - Feanedock Wood in the Ashby Woulds. It's a very quiet spot normally but 2018 is going to be a big year for Feanedock Wood. People will be coming - lots of people. Changes will be made - big changes, I think. It's scary, I'm struggling with it. It is for a good reason (I think), but it's still scary!
So why is this place special and what is happening to it?
Way back in 2009 at the National Forest Wood Fair there was something called the 'One Oak Project'. It demonstrated how many different things can be made from just one oak tree and one of the beautiful articles made was a bench - the One Oak Bench. After the event this bench found a home within Feanedock Wood and I came across it while walking the dogs one day. It's tucked away under the trees and in the summer the vegetation grows up, it seems hidden and forgotten. Find it brought back happy memories - a sunny day at Beacon Hill discovering green woodworkers and basket weaving, browsing old tools and generally enjoying all things 'woodly'. Discovering the bench in such a wonderful, quiet, spot made it seem like it had been put there especially for me to visit whenever I wanted to relive those memories and visit it I have - many times over the years.
The National Forest Wood Fair ceased to be a while ago and for the last few years we've not really had any kind of event to celebrate the wonders of our forest but that's where the change comes in. On the 6th/7th/8th July 2018 there is to be a new event - Timber, a 3 day festival which is a joint venture between the National Forest Company and Wild Rumpus (a social enterprise specialising in producing large scale outdoor family events) - and it's all happening at Feanedock Wood. Now a 3 day festival celebrating the forest sounds fantastic so I was excited when I heard, but what of the One Oak Bench? Well I'm told that it is staying where it is so I guess I won't lose it, I'll just have to learn to share maybe.
Feanedock Wood will see changes I am sure to enable it to host such an event. We visited between Christmas and New Year and it was already evident that the meadow area was looking a lot more 'manicured' than usual for this time of year while the path through the older woodland seemed wider and a small clearing had been made part way along. Being more managed did mean that the paths were easier to walk on, it remained lovely and we still had the place to ourselves. It'll be interesting to see what the coming months bring in terms of changes to Feanedock - parking and access will have to be sorted I am sure and I wonder if that will bring long term benefits in terms of accessibility and paths?
What will Timber be like as a festival? The idea is certainly exciting and it will hopefully mean that more people get to enjoy the National Forest - I'll certainly be watching out for more news of the event and to see what happens at Feanedock over months ahead.
There is, I guess, a kind of poetry in the One Oak Bench, which was born out of an event, once again finding itself surrounded by people enjoying themselves and discovering the forest.
I've been holding off for as long as I could but this weekend I finally gave in and the tinsel, fairy lights and baubles came out - Christmas is officially 'almost here' in our house.
The last week has been somewhat challenging in terms of getting out and walking. The snow and then the icy conditions that followed did mean however that I rediscovered some of the simple joys of 'just round the corner' walks.
The Bath Grounds was beautiful in the snow as one would expect and the park at Westfields (just at the back of our house) was looking really pretty too with a fair number of snowmen keeping watch as we ambled through all wrapped up and with Snowtrax fitted (they're just the best thing for walking in icy conditions).
Anyway now that the big day is almost upon us I've been giving some thought to Christmas walks.
With most people having time off work over the festive season, plus that thing of having had far too much to eat, not to mention being shut up in the house with family members for possibly a fraction too long - it's that time when virtually everyone feels the need to get outside for a bit and stretch their legs. Of course this often includes those family members for whom a regular walks means once a year! So where to go? Here's my local guide for planning that Christmas walk:
Moira Furnace - Beautiful building plus the canal and the Lime Kilns, should impress family from out of the area. Loads of hard paths and plenty of benches so good for the not so young who need firm surfaces and somewhere to stop and enjoy the view.
Hicks Lodge - Perfect for youngsters who got a new bike for Christmas and want to pedal along. Good firm paths (though fairly hilly in places). Brilliant cafe to enjoy a coffee or hot chocolate afterwards.
Calke Abbey - Beautiful setting, choice of parking either within the park, at Ticknall Village Hall, or Calke Village. Expect it to be very busy especially on Boxing Day and New Years Day. The promise of a tunnel to explore is likely to grab the interest of even the most reluctant walker.
Dimminsdale Nature Reserve - If you are fed up with short days, long nights and winter in general then head to Dimminsdale. Climb the hill and keep your eyes open. I can guarantee that the first snowdrops will already be peeping out to fill your heart with joy at the promise that Spring is just around the corner.
If you need a bit of help planning your walk you'll find a selection of routes that include all of the above plus more in Walks for all in the Heart of the Forest. You can buy it at Ashby or Swadlincote Tourist Information Centres, at Hicks Lodge, or online. If you order online anytime up to 23rd and live in or around the Ashby area I'll pop it through your letterbox in time for Christmas.
Seasons greetings and Happy Walking in 2018.
Before the snow hit there were a few beautiful clear, cold, sunny days last week and we took advantage of one of these to explore Croxall Lakes - a spot in the National Forest that I'd never visited before.
Croxall Lakes is a small nature reserve situated very close to the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas. The rivers Trent, Mease and Tame all meet at this point and the site has 2 large lakes, wetlands and grassland. You will also find one of the National Forest Noon Columns there and it was this that we had gone to see - we discovered a lot more than we'd expected though!
Pulling in at the tiny car park we were greeted by the sight of brilliant sunshine lighting up the calm blue waters of a large lake. There is a fair size island in the middle of the lake and an expanse of open grassland at the car park end. A group of Canada geese were visible in the distance along with swans, ducks and other water birds. On the shoreline to our left was a large white bird that I'd never seen before - Mark immediately said 'Hey, have you seen the egret?'. Wow, I was impressed (both by his knowledge and the bird itself) - and even more so when a second one flew over and landed close by. They looked very much like herons (and had the same shoreline pose) but with beautiful pure white plumage - very elegant! It's not often that I don't have at least an inkling of what a bird might be so I had the feeling that these may be a bit special. We didn't really know just how lucky we'd been until we got home and did a little research.
Taking the path down to the noon column we saw a Fieldfare in the hedgerow near the railway embankment - our first sighting this winter. Down near the noon column is a really good bird hide and happily it was open so we could go in to see the birds out on the lake which included a great crested grebe - how I wished we'd thought to take the binoculars. We explored a little further, venturing under the railway arch to the eastern side of the site, before retracing our steps back to the car park.
It's only a short drive up the road from Croxall Lakes to Fradley Junction where we enjoyed lunch at the cafe by the waters of the Trent and Mersey Canal - a brilliant little outing!
So what about our egrets? Our first assumption was that they would be Little Egrets but having also seen a grey heron at the waters edge Mark commented that the egrets were surprisingly big - around the same size as the grey heron. On getting home we researched further and found that our 2 were most likely to have been Great White Egrets - this was further backed up by finding a bird watching site online that included reports of sightings of a Great White Egret at Croxall Lakes just the day before. A bit of research online tells us that sightings of Great White Egrets in the UK are more likely now than 25 years ago but they do still seem to be pretty special - I certainly feel very privileged!
A big thumbs up for Staffordshire Wildlife Trust who manage Croxall Lakes - it is a wonderful place that I'd highly recommend visiting. If you are taking your dog then you need to be aware that dogs are excluded from some parts of the site to protect the wildlife but this didn't stop us having a great time - you can still enjoy a walk up to the noon column, beside the shores of the lake and also access the bird hide even with your hound. It's not a huge site but great for a short stroll and some bird watching and you can easily combine it with a visit to the National Memorial Arboretum next door or, like we did, go on to Fradley Junction.
Well it's the 1st December so we just turned a page on the calendar but what does it really mean?
For us the calendar at home is a handy space to record appointments and reminders but our real calendar - the one that keeps us in touch with what is happening - is outside in our own little bit of the National Forest. This week we've seen ice across the pond and today it was hard frozen. We watched the 2 moorhens slipping and sliding across the ice on their huge feet as they made their way over to hoover up any bits dropped from the bird feeders. Above them usual visitors of blue tits, great tits and coal tits are now joined by gangs of long tailed tits and the occasional greater spotted woodpecker who will creep shyly up the willow before hanging off the bottom of the fat ball feeder. This is how we really know that winter is here.
Above is a picture of our pond. Just a couple of weeks ago this same view was noticeably greener - now the ash and willow are all bare and the golden brown leaves on the oaks are just hanging on. Its only really the hazel that still sport green leaves in our wood at the moment.
When you visit a spot regularly you get to know the trees, birds and plants well - you start to notice the changes in them as the years progress and these changes start to have meaning for you. Now it is the last leaves I am noticing but I know that soon it will be the first snowdrops coming up, the first frogspawn in the pond, the first sticky buds on the willow. These are my calendar, the events that I look forward to and which, for me, mark the passing of time.
Recently I came across an initiative run by the Woodland Trust called Natures Calendar. They are recording various species of plants, animals, birds, insects and fungi and the changes in them each year. Anyone can sign up to get involved - if you listen out for the first cuckoo, have a special spot where you go in search of bluebells each Spring or look forward to a particular patch of blackberries ripening then why not get involved?
We will be recording the changing of one of our young oaks through the seasons and over the years to add to their database. The project aims to help predict how wildlife will be affected as our climate changes but I think one great bonus to anyone taking part will be the reminder to take a moment out and just watch how the changing of the seasons is going on in a time frame all of its own no matter how busy our own calendars may be.
Wonderful walk at Hicks Lodge last week - I loved this birch with its golden leaves shining in the autumn sun. Wasn't sure if the 'Return to Centre' sign was telling me something deep and meaningful or simply saying it was time to visit Grounds Cafe for my daily cappuccino!
Brilliant news too - the lovely people at Grounds now have Walks for All in the Heart of the Forest. There is a copy available for you to browse while you are enjoying your refreshments and, if you want to buy it, then they have some for sale behind the counter.
You'll find 2 walks that start and finish at Hicks Lodge within the book plus plenty more from other local spots.
If you are looking for some good dog walks during the winter months Hicks Lodge gives you a few options.
Most popular with dog walkers is the simple loop around the main lake - just follow the trail around from the main car park. It can be fairly bracing and certainly blows away the cobwebs - if fact, before the Hicks Lodge days, this spot used to be known as 'The Windy Place' in our house!
My favourite for an 'everyday' walk is to cross over to the trails on the other side of the road and follow the first loop of the family trail around (as long as it isn't too wet you can vary this by including bits of the horse riding track too).
When we fancy a longer walk we again cross over the road, head out on the family trail, venture down the hill onto the second loop and then join the Wood Farm trail. This gives a good hours walk even at a fairly brisk pace and again you can make it longer or shorter by adding bits of the horse track too.
While the cycle centre side of the site is very popular you'll often find that the paths on the other side of the road are really quiet (especially if you can go weekdays). I love the little ponds over there too. And, of course, the icing on the cake (literally!) is the wonderful food at Grounds Cafe, plus dogs are welcome too :)
Two stunning days of early winter sunshine so time to do a bit of exploring in the forest.
Saturday morning saw us heading out to Billa Barra Nature Reserve - the site of one of the 6 noon columns that are sited within the National Forest.
I am very familiar with the noon columns at Sence Valley and Staunton Harold but had never got around to exploring any of the others. Then in September, when walking the Charity Link Leicestershire 3 Peaks Challenge we passed through Billa Barra Nature Reserve and lo and behold there was a noon column. By this time we were quite a few hours into the challenge and feeling a little the worse for wear - I think my walking buddies, Vanessa and Bernadette, thought that I'd completely lost the plot when I suddenly perked up and started shouting 'Look, Noon Column!'. Once I'd explained the whole noon column concept they got with the programme though and subsequently a plan was hatched for some of the 2018 Ashby Life walks to visit the various noon columns.
Saturdays outing was a preliminary visit to see the layout of the site, take some pictures, and have a stroll round to get a feel for the place. I was very impressed - there is a neat little car park and plenty of well kept paths to lead you around the site. The noon column is close to the car park and, of the 3 I've seen so far, this is my favourite - there is something very pleasing in the shape and look of it that I just love. The site is centred around a hill and has a mix of grassland, which was sporting quite a variety of fungi on Saturday plus areas of young trees and a lovely mature copse on the top of the summit. The area within the copse has interesting dips and rocks which we guessed were the signs of possible quarrying? The name Billa Barra is thought to indicate that there was once a barrow (or burial ground) there. We loved it - I'll be going back to plan and write up a short stroll around the site to share with readers of Ashby Life and What's Around in months to come. Meanwhile if anyone fancies a longer walk, Roots Community Singers did one which is now available as a download from their website.
On Sunday we went in search of a yurt. If you haven't come across yurts before then the best way I can describe them is as a sort of huge, and very attractive, tent, but much more luxurious! They have become quite popular for 'glamping'.
My partner Mark actually lived in a yurt for a period and I was keen to see one 'in the flesh (or canvas!)'. I knew that the Shuttlewood-Clarke Foundation had one within their woodland at Ulverscroft Manor so we headed back out towards Markfield. Sadly a lot of the site was closed and dogs weren't allowed on the woodland paths but I did manage a quick walk around part of the Yew Trail and found the yurt. It was covered over (for the winter I'm guessing) but a bit of pegged up cover allowed a view through the window into the interior - very tardis like, it looked much bigger on the inside than from the outside! Certainly a lovely space.
Summary - exploring is good! Two new places discovered, and loving the winter sunshine.
I just can't resist a footpath sign. The lure of that little arrow just says 'explore me' and sooner or later I just have to find out where it goes. Happily the National Forest is just full of paths. Public footpaths, permissive paths, tracks, trails and long distance paths - we've got the lot!