Tag Archives: countryside

Heading for a hillfort

For the last 15 years Solsbury Hill has been part of my life. Looming large in the distance it can be seen from my garden every time I leave the house. Sometimes it can be shrouded in mist and other times it glows in the warmth of the evening sunshine. It’s a view that I never tire of and it always feels so reassuring when I look across to this site of a former hillfort.

IMG_0221

Solsbury Hill in the distance on a sunny day

Standing on the summit of Solsbury you see why it made such a great place to set up home. Over hundreds of years it was a hillfort and you can follow its outline as you walk around, with views across to the Westbury Whitehorse and the rolling Wiltshire countryside to the east and the city of Bath to the west. I’ll often hear the sound of the skylark, a dot in the cloudless sky, or if I’m lucky catch its ascent from ground level.

And now this much loved hillfort is part of a new atlas that for the first time captures all 4,147 hillforts dotted across the landscape of the U.K and Ireland. Over the last 5 years researchers based at the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, on this Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, have been working to collate a wealth of data about these amazing places. Citizen scientists have also been helping to collect information for this treasure chest of an online resource.

Curiosity driven research projects like this can only enrich our understanding of history and having all of this exciting data in one portable place will help people to digitally connect with those story of hillforts where they live.

The beauty of this research project is that it showcases the whole range of hillforts that can be found in the countryside like pearls on a necklace. It takes you beyond the really well-known and much visited sites and demonstrates how fundamental these places have been to the story of these islands over hundreds of years. Scrolling across the map you get a sense of the density of hillforts in some places, that you’d expect, and how they have played such an important part in our national story.

Each hillfort catalogued in this atlas will have its very own story. Clambering over a hillfort you get a deep sense of connection with the people that lived there transporting you back in time. You start to take in the landscape that our ancestors would have seen, imagining a very different view with woodland dominating the horizon. Hillforts were built with a focus on defence and as you enter one you can see the careful thought that went into the access points.

Hambledon Hill in Dorset, which is now owned by the National Trust, was one of the last occupied hillforts in the UK – with a group called the Clubmen living there during the English civil war in the 17th century. The size and complexity of this place is mind boggling. Now it’s lightly grazed by cattle and home to countless wild flowers and fluttering butterflies.

Though this atlas is all about the celebration of hillforts there are also many challenges for them. Any hillfort situated on the coast is at risk of vanishing into the sea as our coastline begins to slowly erode. And some have also suffered at the hands of the plough over many centuries. For me this atlas is a clarion call for us all to visit these atmospheric places rich in history and wildlife; and we also need to champion them and care for them, so that future generations can immerse themselves in history.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Two feet good…the joy of wandering

Every month has its designation and now that we’re in the month of May its National Walking Month. Any initiative or campaign to encourage more people to walk is a good thing in my book.

For some people walking has an image problem. Think walking, think hikers, with all the latest kit, striding off into the countryside. We shouldn’t forget that its the people that have rambled the land for generations that helped open up our green and pleasant land for everyone and the mass trespass to Kinder Scout in the Peak District ultimately led to our network of wonderful National Parks.

I like to think of walking as the stuff of life. If I don’t have a daily wander it doesn’t feel like I’ve connected with the world around me. Yes you can see it in the narrow confine of how many steps that you’ve walked today but there is something plain nice about walking the streets of the place that you work or live.

Back at the start of April I began a new job. One of the first things that I did was to work out a few walking routes of different lengths. And as part of this detective work there was the real bonus of a footpath neighbouring the railway, nearby the office, which is a nature rich urban corridor – full of wildlife. As spring arrived so did the birdsong, trees bursting into leaf and the sight of butterflies on the wing.

We should all try and get walking more. Just set off from where you live and walk. See where it takes you. I can bet that you’ll find out so much more about the place where you call home. The pace is just right too, to take things in and to notice the buildings, the green spaces and the sounds that just flash by or you miss when driving past.

Walking is also a great time to think. Try to resist the urge to plug those headphones in and just let the soundscape inspire you. You can use a walk in the morning to plan your day or in the evening to download your day.

I still love a long distance walk (I’m in the midst of trying to complete the classic Cotswold Way with friends) but a ramble through some woods with my family or the walk to the station in the morning is just as rewarding. We’re made to walk and hopefully May will tempt a few more people to see that walking in good your body, soul and mind.

A very British revolution: the creation of the National Parks

Seventy years ago Clement Attlee became Prime Minister. In the aftermath of the six long years of the Second World War the UK needed a new settlement fit for the future that could rebuild the morale and infrastructure of the country. As we all know the welfare state was born and this is now seen as one of the great reforming Governments that transformed people’s lives.

One of the less well known, but equally important aspects of six years of a very British revolution, was the huge strides that were made in opening up access to the countryside and beginning to create a system of protecting the wildlife that calls the British Isles home.

In 1949 a truly radical piece of legislation became law – the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. It set a framework to establish the great National Parks of England and Wales, began the journey towards creating Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and addressed the needs of a network of public rights of way.

Two years later the Peak District became the first National Park and fifty-eight long years later the South Downs became the last of the original list of twelve to join the ranks of great national natural assets.

The journey towards this momentous passage of legislation was a long one. As the towns and cities of the industrial north and London expanded there was a recognition that we needed to protect our most treasured landscapes. Many of these special places were off limits because of private ownership. It was the mass trespass on to Kinder Scout (in Derbyshire) in 1932 that set in train a domino effect which led to the Attlee Government giving the full weight of the law to protecting our rights to enjoy these special places.

Seven decades on and it feels like the National Park movement is under huge strain. Its coffers are increasingly bare, i.e., it’s having to do the same or more with much less resource and staff, and the new Government has a taste for deregulation and a weakening of planning legislation.

The National Parks of England and Wales are our great natural lungs: places where you can go to play or just take a moment to get off the treadmill of life. Millions of us travel to them every year. I grew up spending many a happy day on Dartmoor – its bleak and unforgiving beauty engrained on my memory bank. I live in Bath surrounded by the Cotswold AONB and that wonderful escarpment.

When we think of the welfare state and that safety net for people in the UK we should include the consequences of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. This is about our well-being and ability to spend time enjoying and being part of a wild landscape. Yes these places have been shaped by human activity and continue to be so but they provide a place to connect with nature and we need them now more than ever.

Wild Things: reconnecting kids and nature

This is a longer posting than normal as it appeared in the November/December issue of The Bath and Wiltshire Parent magazine.

“Seeing thirty kids running wild is a wonderful sight. They are all in their element, rosy cheeked with almost limitless sources of energy; running, climbing, hiding and making. This was the scene at a birthday party in the hidden world of Mike’s Meadow, a parcel of land attached to Batheaston Primary School. Used as a place for the Forest School it can be hired out and one of the departing parents neatly summed up the experience – ‘this was the best party that my son has ever been too’.

Kids have a special connection with the outdoors, giving them a real sense of freedom and allowing their imagination to run wild. Hearing their laughter and the noise of them excitedly running about collecting conkers or rolling down a hill is pretty special. It’s giving them the experiences that will help equip them for the journey of life.

However, the pull of the outdoors has more competition that a generation ago. This was confirmed by an RSPB survey that showed that only one in five children has a connection with nature. The reasons that this change has happened pretty quickly are complex from the rise of screen time to more traffic on the roads.

It feels like change is in the air and that Bath and Wiltshire is at the heart of this movement for reconnecting kids with nature. More schools than ever before are running Forest Schools (they have exploded in popularity in a couple of years), outdoor clubs during school holidays are really popular and den building events sell-out almost as quickly as tickets for Glastonbury.

Steve Sutherland set up Hidden Woods three years ago hoping to recreate the experiences that he had in his childhood for today’s kids. Set across 80 acres of ancient woodland it’s a place that kids can roam free, get muddy knees and get that little bit close to nature.

Steve explains: “There’s a growing awareness of the importance of unstructured outdoor play on children’s development. Whilst the research suggests that today’s children spend much less time doing so than their grandparents did, our experience at Hidden Woods is that they’re always stimulated by the environment and instinctively know how to entertain themselves away from all the screens and modern day distractions.

“We regularly observe the benefits that such rich child-led experiences deliver – greater self-confidence, improved communication and physical skills to name but a few. It’s a real privilege to be facilitating and sharing such powerful experiences in our wonderful natural playground.”

Parents always want what is best for their children and the evidence is stacking up that time spent outdoors and in nature is a key way to help kids grow.

Teachers, GP’s, play experts, local authorities and politicians are also seeing the wider benefits of outdoor time for children.

Time playing outdoors can improve children’s physical activity rates fourfold compared to playing formal sport. Playing in green space helps to reduce children’s blood pressure and enhance their physical development, a counter to the more sedentary lifestyle associated with screen time. Perhaps the most compelling stat is then three-quarters of children feels happiest when playing outside, helping them to connect with the natural environment and sleep well after all of that fresh air.

Teacher Sally Searby runs the weekly wild and muddy club and organises forest schools at St Stephen’s Primary School in Bath. These hugely popular outdoors sessions help kids experience den building, climbing trees and making fires in a safe environment – giving them skills that will last a lifetime.

Sally Searby explains: ‘Forest Schools are all about exploring and experiencing the natural world through practical activities. The activities that take place build on a child’s innate motivation and positive attitude to learning, offering them the opportunities to take risks, make choices and initiate learning for themselves.”

It’s not just formal learning where change is happening. Bath and North East Somerset is one of two councils in the UK to adopt the risk-benefit approach to play. This new model is about looking at both the risks and benefits. Jeremy Dymond, who has over-seen work on play in the city, says: “Children have a natural tendency to explore, have fun and take risks. This is a part of growing up and something we all want to encourage safely. Safety should not equal boring.”

The council has designed a toolkit to help people working with children to make play fun and exciting and weigh up the benefits of being active, creative, out in nature, and the improved health and wellbeing that this would offer, set against the real, yet reasonably low risks of playing outdoors.

Luckington Community School in Wiltshire has recently revived its playground with three beautiful tepees surrounded by wildflowers, creating a magical place for children’s imagination to run wild. Schools across the county are being supporting by the County Council as part of its Outdoor Play Project – showing how local authorities, with the support of local communities, can make a huge difference.

Conservation charities are also upping their game. The Avon Wildlife Trust and National Trust are both part of the Wild Network, a movement of over 1,500 organisations committed to reconnecting kids to nature and outdoor play.

Locally the Bath Skyline, much of which is managed by the National Trust, now has a fantastic natural play trail which is proving a huge hit with families. It allows kids (and parents too) to have a go at clambering, climbing and building in the woods.

I’m glad that my children have the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. Seeing their faces as they watch a spider in its web or their huge appetite for collecting conkers brings a smile to my face. They love being outdoors, like all children do, having the chance to explore, the chance to engage in imaginative play and the chance to see nature close up; and it’s helped me see the world anew from their viewpoint.

So, why not give your kids the gift of wild time this Christmas. The experience of being outdoors will create an experience that will stay with them for life and there is something magical about being in the natural world with your children whether collecting treasure on a walk or finding a river to play pooh sticks.”

In praise of nature reserves

Sixteen miles south west of Bath is Folly Farm. Managed brilliantly by Avon Wildlife Trust this nature reserve symbolises why nature reserves should be celebrated.

With such a large catchment Folly Farm is the ideal place to immerse yourself in nature. Visit in the spring and see a carpet of bluebells and come back in the summer for meadows teeming with butterflies and other insects.

These natural oases allow you to get close up with wildlife. They fire your imagination and you don’t need to be an expert to appreciate a dragonfly or buzzards circling above. That is their beauty: you can’t help but see nature in it’s natural environment.

Nature reserves need to be about people and nature. The challenge is to make them as accessible as possible and that we shout about them so that more people can enjoy these wildlife havens.

The reality of changing land use has meant that nature reserves have taken on a real significance. Once common habitats and species have seen their spaces and ranges shrink.

But they are not about preserving nature in some kind of sepia image. They are about creating a place where nature can thrive and people can take time to see the wonderful wildlife of these beautiful islands.

The language of a nature reserve can seem off putting, almost like putting up a barrier saying ‘no people’. But without people these special places become museums not places that pulsate with the beauty, chaos and serenity of nature.

So go on: find your local nature reserve. Check it out and let’s show our love for nature conservation the places that connect people and places.