‘There’s an open day at Bradfield Woods’ Jim had circulated in an email and so on a Sunday predicted to be a gloomy if not a rainy autumn day, we set off for deepest Suffolk. We found a small car park; twenty cars would have filled it, fronting the Bradfield woods reception building and entrance to the Suffolk Woodland Trust site. As luck would have it, the local Green Woodworking group were also having their monthly meeting on the same day. The group members were in the process of setting up in a medieval looking encampment of wooden frames clad with corrugated steel roofing.
A cheery welcoming bunch, they were un-phased by our questions and pleased to share their techniques and proudly showed us their produce. Lots of ideas here to try, reproductions of spoons seen in museums around the world, Eskimo Inuit, Mary Rose, Vaasa, styles as distinctive as they sound but all well suited to green wood work and a patient hand. Lumps of uninspiring wood were hand carved into bowls of magnificent forms. Stools, chisels handles, clothes pegs, a myriad of wooden wares to inspire the novice. Whilst touring the small circle the central feature, the wood burning camp cooker, was started. The oil drum base had a brick lined feeder hearth and a six foot chimney which took the smoke above the roof. With this burning the whole area really began to come alive. The arrangement gave off sufficient heat not only to cook the group’s communal soup, sausages and tea but also throw out warmth to the workers around.
As we watched the fire catch and the embers produce that glow only a wood fire can, the rain started. The patter of the rain on the steel roof only increased the feeling of wanting to stay forever watching the craftsman work, the cold and rain outside contrasting with the heat and smell of fried onions and boiling tea inside. But as with all good things we were disturbed from our reveries by the call to the Trust centre. Richard the site manager was to give a short talk and walk through the site.
Richard, who had worked at the Trust for 35 years, was full of enthusiasm for his work, always a good sign. The small group assembled and as we set off the rain eased, the gods were with us. ‘If any of you want to drop out along the way there will be a couple of places where you will be easily within range of the centre’, he stated early on and my brain logged this as I will always wimp out at the earliest opportunity.
So we followed Richard into the woods and he talked ad-lib as we meandered about the site, its history, the species, of vegetation it contained, its wildlife and how it was all managed. Bradfield woods are ancient coppiced woods with ‘coppice stools’ recorded to be over 1000 years old. Composed mainly of Elm and Ash, with some Spindle, Aspen, Oak, Lime and Beech and other species as the soil below changed from swampy clay to well drained chalk. The wildlife reflected the habitat and Richard told of Red Poll and Siskin, colonies of Dormice, and the three species of deer, Roe, Muntjac and Fallow. We were shown the nibbled tree saplings where deer had grazed and the higher places on more established trees where they rubbed the velvet from their antlers. When he began to talk of the vegetation, the list was endless and amongst other things I recall there was Pendulous Sedge and ‘Old Mans beard’, the wild Clematis. Some species needed controlling, some that needed protecting and assistance. Naturally the biggest worry was the Ash die back, ‘Chalara fraxinea’. When you have 1000 year old Ash stools, a fungal disease that targets them is bound to be a concern. They have an ongoing study of the effects and penetration of the disease and are hopeful that the older stronger trees will resist the onslaught.
Richard described his carving out of ‘rides’ through the woodland and then in alternate years cutting out scallops as the undergrowth came back. This way there was a constant portion of the woodland providing the right habitat for all its varieties and wildlife. The result was a pleasant lush green wood that even Robin and his Merry Men would enjoy. As we returned to the centre some two and a half hours later we were all better able to appreciate the work being carried out by the Suffolk Trust. Richard had proved a knowledgeable host and the hours seemed to vanish, as were the Green woodworkers who were packing up their tools and now empty pans. Bradfield Woods is a delightful centre with enthusiastic staff and well worth a visit, especially if you are interested in woodland preservation and maintenance. Because it is small by comparison to my more familiar Wimpole site, it was easier to see what is being done. With a site the size of Wimpole, Simon and his team are stretched thinly over hundreds of acres and it is sometimes difficult to see the result of carving a ‘Ride’ or cutting back ‘Snow berry’ infestations. It needs real dedication to protect wildlife when you rarely see it and to formulate and implement plans for woodlands that span decades rather than just seasons. For me, the biggest positive to come out of my visit to Bradfield, was a better appreciation of the work we do at Wimpole. A huge thank you to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust for a wonderful day.