Saturday 19 November 2016

Autumn (and a Hermit) in an Old Forest

Mother and fawn
I like November. I like the beautiful, bright days of this month, sometimes with a frosty start, where the sun catches the red, copper and gold of the leaves. I always think that the beginning and middle of November are autumn while the end of the month is winter. And I don't mind early winter, because it's still a bit of a novelty (although this feeling doesn't last long - by mid December I'm looking forward to spring!)

On sunny days in November, I'm usually in a 'make the most of the outdoors' mood. I like to enjoy the autumn colours while they last - and so when I can, I squeeze in a woodland walk. I did this recently when I walked through Writtle Forest, which isn't far from where I live. Writtle forest is made up of different areas of ancient woodland - and a good description of it comes from the late academic and writer on the British countryside, Oliver Rackham:

' Writtle Forest is a wild and lovely place. Nearly everything one sees there is of the fourteenth century or earlier: the great assart surrounded by hornbeam springs and alder slades: the heathland. Pollard oaks, and woodbanks.'

I'd also add to this description the lovely sight of fallow deer because there are so many here, and it's wonderful coming across them...

In the Middle Ages, Writtle Forest had its own hermit. This was actually a job created for someone by the king; it seems it was the 'fashion' (so to speak) to place a hermit in a forest in this part of the country (Hainault Forest had one as well). In Writtle, Henry II (1133-1189) gave the job to a solitary Cluniac monk - later increased to two monks. Their main purpose was to pray for the soul of the king and for the souls of departed kings, and they were given a small farm (a hermitage), and an income.

I looked for a trace of the hermitage, but I couldn't see anything. From the maps, it appears it stood where there is now a small meadow. There's another 'lost' building around here, too - King John's hunting lodge. Sadly, there's also little trace of this here today.

Writtle Forest has a claim to fame as the birthplace of Robert the Bruce....but which Robert the Bruce remains a dispute among historians. Some maintain it was the famous King of Scotland, while others believe it was his father (Robert the Bruce or Robert de Brus, sixth lord of Annandale, born 1243) who had an estate here.

I love walking through all woodland in November, but there is something special about walking through an ancient forest. The old trees, with their thick, gnarled trunks, have so much character.

And I don't suppose it was a bad job being a hermit here either, all those years ago.

Friday 11 November 2016

Stow Maries Aerodrome: A Place of War (1916) and Wildlife (2016)

A few miles away from where I live, an aerodrome from the Great War is being conserved. From 1916 until the end of the war, the men and women of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force) were based here, but in 1919 the squadron moved to Biggin Hill in Kent. After this time, the site - a few huts in a field - remained empty and in the following years the buildings were used to store farm equipment. The site was never developed and neither was the land around it - and the buildings fell into decay. Today, the recent conservation work has given the site some activity once again and it's beginning to look as it did a hundred years ago. No other near-complete Great War aerodrome exists in England.

As well as being a place of history and of commemoration, the aerodrome has become a place for wildlife. In fact, wildlife is encouraged here. So the empty huts and the surrounding fields of rough grassland and scrub land, have become the homes and hunting grounds of barn owls, tawny owls, and little owls, song birds and hares. There are also water voles at the pond on the site.

I've been there two or three times now and each time I've looked for the owls. But I haven't had any luck with them.  I was told by the volunteers on one of my visits that the little owls had been peeking out from their ruined building the previous day for TV presenter Chris Packham to photograph. I watched the building for a while, sitting outside the officers' mess (or cafe) with my mug of tea, but the owls didn't appear for me. I really needed some food to lure them out (or perhaps I just wasn't famous enough for them!)

But if I haven't seen much of the wildlife on my visit, there's plenty of history to see here. Not all the huts have been conserved yet, but many have. These include the squadron offices (housing the museum), the blacksmith's forge, the ambulance hut and the aircraft hangers.

The duties of 37 Squadron included defending London from aerial attack (from Zeppelins). In such a country area, the sound of these early planes flying to and from the site must have had quite an impact on local folk. Even today it's quiet here, and any noise from the vintage aircraft (when they fly) is very noticeable. Tragically, ten servicemen from 37 Squadron did lose their lives in the war. At least one lost his life in an accident close to the site when his aircraft crashed. All the deaths must have hit the community hard -  I imagine the pilots would have been known in the villages, drinking in the local pubs and attending the local church.

Remember the Tower poppies of a couple of years ago? Ten have been donated to the aerodrome by the bell ringers of a local church for the ten servicemen who lost their lives.

There are different events held here throughout the year - and these include a service here on Remembrance Sunday...

Stow Maries Aerodrome is a place I'll look forward to returning to. Hopefully I might even see the owls at last! But I'd also like to see how the conservation work is progressing and to learn more about the stories of the people who were based here.

For more info, I've included a link to the aerodrome website here.