Last Saturday, I dressed in layers, rode the 144 bus to Muswell Hill in my adopted borough of Haringey and followed local woodsman Iain Loasby on a journey through the history of ancient Coldfall Wood.
My arboreal adventure had begun…
London may not be the first place you’d expect to find ancient woods or indeed to meet resident woodsmen. In fact, the city is one of the greenest in the world and has retained many pockets of woodland as it has expanded into the neighbouring countryside.
These woods provide plenty of work for Iain, a former computer programmer who took to the woods with his billhook one day after his wife bought him a book on woodcutting.
Coldfall Wood is one of Haringey’s four remaining ancient woods – ancient meaning that the land has been continuously wooded for the last four hundred years. Iain explained that if old maps show that an area was woodland in 1600, then the chances are it has been woodland for much longer than that – perhaps even right back to prehistoric times.
There are other signs that point to the wood’s venerable roots that you don’t have to check on a map. One is the presence of certain plant species, such as bluebells and wood anemones (I’ll have to return in spring to spot these) and another, somewhat surprisingly, is the absence of any truly ancient trees.
You see, throughout its history, Coldfall Wood, like most ancient woods, has been managed by man. The wood is predominately oak and hornbeam, and in the past the oaks would have been felled for timber and the hornbeams coppiced for firewood and charcoal. And that’s where the name originates – Coldfall, from coal-fall.
Then in the 1930s, there wasn’t so much call for charcoal anymore what with the advent of electricity, and so the management of the wood ceased. Half of the wood was cleared to make way for housing and the remaining half grew dark and dense, depleted of light and wildlife. Without the cycle of felling and coppicing, the standard trees were all the same age, which meant that when they died, so too would the wood.
But then in the 1990s, thanks to the Friends of Coldfall Wood; The Conservation Volunteers; Haringey Council, and local woodsmen like Iain, coppicing began again. The practice, which has been going on for hundreds of years, involves cutting young trees back to the stump, which encourages them to regenerate from multiple stems.
Iain led me between light and shade, from recently coppiced to non-coppiced areas. In the former, where the tree canopy has opened up, the forest floor was lush and tangled with brambles. Apparently, in spring and summertime, it is a smorgasbord of wildflowers and grasses. I would like to see that. A total of 140 species were counted in the wood after the last coppicing session, where not so long ago just 20 clung on.
Elsewhere in the wood, the ground was bare, muddy and strewn with fallen leaves. Although the hornbeam leaves had rotted away months ago, the oak leaves were still defying decay in late January due to their high tannin content.
A little stream winds through the wood. It was one of the first places to be coppiced again and now its banks abound with goat willow.
Iain told me that these trees surprised everyone when they first appeared. The seeds must have been biding their time, stored away in the seed bank deep down in the earth, waiting for their time in the sun once more…
Goat willow is called the buzzing tree because its blossoms are an early, much sort after source of nectar for butterflies and bees; I guess, that’s one more reason to return in spring.