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Wood Anemone

Wood Anemone

Woodlands play such an important part in the history, landscape and psyche of Britain. The British government discovered this last year when it proposed to sell off forestry land to raise money in these cash strapped times. It quickly backed down when a significant number of people campaigned to save our trees. It seemed that the proposed sell off triggered a realisation that our woodlands are integral to our heritage.

Spring is one of the best times to appreciate our native, deciduous woodland. Woodland flowers make the most of the spring light that enters through the trees before leaves unfurl and the tree canopy excludes most sunlight. I’m lucky enough to live near some beautiful ancient woodland which looks at its best over the next month or so. One of my favourite walks is in the Wye Valley running along Offa’s Dyke, the old boundary between England and Wales. There is a stretch of woodland here that is very old and forms one of the most important areas for woodland conservation in Britain. English Nature credits it the same importance as the Caledonian pinewoods and the oceanic oakwoods of western Britain.

Bluebells

Early Flowering Bluebells

Two weekends ago we made a trip there to see the carpets of wood anemones. These are the first of the woodland flowers to cover the woodland floor, followed by wild garlic which fills the air with a pungent garlicky smell and the stunning sight of masses of bluebells. We were delighted to see the white starry flowers of the wood anemones which light up the woodland but completely surprised to see the first bluebells open since it was only the middle of March. The unseasonably mild spring had obviously encouraged them from their dormancy earlier than usual. I always think of bluebells as a May flower but maybe with our changing climate they’ll become associated more with April.

Hardcastle Crags

Hardcastle Crags, West Yorkshire

Not content with one spring woodland walk, whilst visiting family, we made a trip to Hardcastle Crags about a mile outside the Pennine town of Hebden Bridge, in West Yorkshire. The woodland, owned by the National Trust, is one of my favourite places in the UK. A classic woodland walk from the car-park follows the river Hebden Water up through the craggy, densely wooded valley to Gibson Mill, now a visitor centre but once a cotton mill built in 1800. Paths continue up the valley past waterfalls and finally you emerge on top of the Pennine moorland. The ‘crags’ refer to the stacks of millstone grit which you can see half way up the steeply side gorge.

Hardcastle Crags is a great place to spot wildlife with us seeing nuthatches, treecreepers, dippers, grey wagtails and mating toads. It’s also home to the northern hairy wood ant. We did see huge numbers of large ants, I can’t say I noticed them being particularly hairy, but apparently it’s their eyebrows that are hairy, one for the magnifying glass I think. They live in huge anthills which can reach 6ft high and are made from pine needles which you can see dotted through the woodland.

Bright Green Larch Needles

I love these bright green larch needles

I love this place so much because it has such a magical feel. Moss covered rocks and branches, ferns, shafts of sunlight streaming down through the newly emerging leaf canopy and glistening on the water. The only sound being the flowing water and birdsong. Wood anemones were in flower here, too and there were the very first bluebells starting to open, a little later than at home but still early for the time of year.

It’s fascinating to think such a peaceful beautiful place was the setting for one of the first cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution, with water from the river providing power for the mill. The mill used to employ 20 or so people in the 19th century, who lived in purpose built cottages next to the mill. In recent years it has become a pioneer for sustainability, as the National Trust has restored the mill complex so that it is self sufficient in power, water and waste treatment and is now the perfect place to stop for a cup of tea and a slice of tasty cake after all that walking and fresh air.

Unfurling leaves

Unfurling leaves

Set in a stunning part of the UK I can heartily recommend a visit to Hardcastle Crags if you’re passing through the area or staying for a bit longer. For more information on the local area visit Hebden Bridge’s HebWeb

For more information about Hardcastle Crags visit the National Trust. The Woodland Trust has some excellent tree facts and details of woodland around the country that you can visit. So if you’re thinking of something to do this Easter and we’re not all knee deep in snow and shivering then why not give your local woodland a visit.

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