A walk around Whitwell
PUBLISHED: 10:06 10 April 2017 | UPDATED: 10:06 10 April 2017
A misty walk around Whitwell clears to reveal the promise of spring for Liz Hamilton of Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England
I nearly gave up before I started. Fog shrouded the hills where I planned a four-mile circuit to photograph the next Campaign to Protect Rural England Herts walk of the month for this magazine. I set off anyway and soon left behind the Georgian and half-timbered buildings clustered along the River Mimram in Whitwell, seven miles south of Hitchin. I climbed steadily along a route which generations of Whitwellians must have taken on Sundays and feast days, since their parish church is a mile off, uphill in the tiny village of St Paul’s Walden. Strictly a hamlet, Whitwell is now much larger than its neighbouring ‘mother’ village.
Suddenly, out of the dense fog, came the unmistakable throaty croak of a raven, which then flapped into view. Older books tell you that ravens are confined to western Britain, but they have been spreading into the eastern counties and are now quite common in Hertfordshire. The largest members of the crow family, ravens are entirely black and have a distinctive slow flight on narrowish wings.
By early February many birds are already singing, and those in Walk Wood were no exception. Entering under the canopy I was greeted by loud bursts of drumming and the ‘tchick-tchick’ call of a great spotted woodpecker. They can be difficult to spot but a little further on I glimpsed two of these striking black, white and red birds, chasing one another around the tree trunks. Closer to me, other birds were busy among the shrubs of the woodland edge, including great tits with their distinctive ‘teacher-teacher’ call and blue-green, yellow, black and white plumage. These birds nest in tree holes but if you want to see them in the garden, they love nest boxes.
Beyond the wood I reached St Paul’s Walden, where in the churchyard of All Saints’ Church a monument commemorates Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who lived for much of her childhood at The Bury nearby. The church contains rare early 14th century glass, while the colourful chancel interior was remodelled in the 18th century and is a surprising addition to the otherwise largely medieval structure.
By the time I had crossed a series of pasture fields, and then walked a stretch of quiet lane, the fog had lifted a little. In Reynolds Wood among the single-trunked oak trees and multi-stemmed hornbeam and hazel underwood, bluebell leaves were emerging from the leaf litter. This welcome sign of new life was a reminder that in April and early May (the exact timing depending on the weather) woods like this will be full of the sweet scent of these vibrant flowers.
The woodland management practice of coppicing is centuries old with regular cutting of the underwood producing timber for many uses. It also allowed periodic bursts of light to reach the woodland floor, so that plants like primrose, violet, foxglove and wood anemone could thrive alongside bluebells. It was good to see coppicing still being carried out in Reynolds Wood, helping to conserve its floristic diversity and provide useful fuel.
We know from historical records that coppiced hornbeam was an important source of firewood, supplying London as well as Hertfordshire, until coal became the fuel of choice in the 19th century. Logs were used in their raw state but also commonly converted to charcoal, which was lighter with a higher calorific value and cheaper to transport.
In Reynolds Wood I spotted the unmistakeable salmon-pink breast of a male bullfinch, accompanied by his dull grey female, both with distinctive black heads. Bullfinch love flower buds on fruit trees and were once deliberately killed in orchards where they could devastate crops. Although making a comeback, they are quite shy birds, and a treat to see. As I left the wood a red kite, with its distinctive forked tail, put on a display of its agile flight. Later, a pair of buzzards, similar from afar to the kite, but with fan-shaped tails, soared above Whitwell. Like the raven both these birds of prey have recently become common again in the county after a long absence.
Before my descent back into Whitwell I admired sheets of snowdrops lining the drive to The Bury, and glimpsed the red-brick façade of the house in the distance. My walk, with its unpromising start, had exceeded my expectations, with some great birds seen and promises of the spring to come.
To download a full route and a map of this walk, Walk of the Month 2017 Walk 2, go to cpreherts.org.uk where you can also find out how CPRE works to protect Herts’ countryside.
Ordnance Survey Explorer map (1:25,000 scale) 193 also covers the walk described.