A Woody Western Weald

Old Sweet Chestnut trees

Kipling, Blake, and Woolf all helped the Eastern Downs become known as the fairest and most famous landscape of Southern England. However, not everyone shared this view. Others complained about their bare, nakedness, and compared them to “the limbs and shoulders of plucked fowls”. Instead, they yearned for the Downs to be “clothed in trees”. Well, if these people wanted rounded Downs AND trees they should have visited the Western Weald! We have both in ample supply. In fact, the history of the Weald, western or otherwise, is all about trees. The term ‘weald’ is derived from the Old English for ‘woodland’. This makes trees our USP. So, why not indulge your inner tree-hugger with a tree-focussed visit to the Western Weald this spring. There are walks to explore, traditional crafts to support, events to enjoy and colossi of the tree world to marvel.

row of lime trees

Woodland wanders

The most striking aspect of the Western Weald is its variety of woodland: each with its own distinct feel and story. If you like your trees unkempt and gravity defying there are the wild, high beech and yew woods of The Hangers. These are just over the Sussex border near Petersfield. In stark contrast to the jumbled Hangers there are then the sandy, dense, yet orderly, sweet chestnut and conifer woodlands of the large estates. These are mostly working woods. where foresters, coppicers and charcoal burners all make a living. Different again are the eerily dark, sterile, and silent yew groves of Kingley Vale. This is the largest remaining yew forest in Europe. With the yew so closely connected to Celtic, pagan folklore, this woodland’s value is undeniably in the spiritual.

wild garlic woodland

The only way to discover any woodland is on foot. The simple process of putting one foot in front of the other gives us ample time to observe and understand how layers of geology, nature and history have shaped them. If the Western Weald is new to you, why not join a Rural Strides walk and me tell you the tale of our woodlands.

Big & little sticks

It is the Western Weald’s rich coppicing heritage that dynamic coppicer Rosie Rendell is helping support at The Maker’s Barn, Petworth. She describes the difference between forestry and coppicing as “big vs little sticks”. Rosie, and others like her, make a living cutting wood in the colder months, then using it to craft fences, hurdles etc in the warmer ones. Often working alone and in remote locations, these skilled people can be challenging to find. However, no more. The Makers Barn now provides a charming one-stop shop championing both tradition and skill.

The barn showcases beautifully crafted, coppiced products. However, through annual events like “Meet the Maker’, people can also get to know both the person and story behind what they are buying.  Down the line Rosie wants the barn to also become a centre for learning. This will be a mixture of educating people about the benefits of coppicing for wildlife and the rural economy, as well as helping secure the next generation of coppice workers and craftspeople. Why not visit the Maker’s Barn to help keep these traditional skills and way of life alive.

The makers barn

All the fun of the fair

Described as “a wood fair like no other”, West’s Wood Fair (from 21-23 June) is worth pencilling into your 2024 diary.  This annual event, attended by the “Sussex wood-eratti”, is held at West’s of East Dean (near Goodwood). This is the home of furniture maker brothers Peter and Gil West, whose family business goes back more than 200 years. Events on this year’s programme include chainsaw carving and races, the scrumpy stakes, pole climbing and axe throwing. These will be alongside a long list of exhibitors and local food and drink providers.

West's Wood Fair

Image: West’s Wood Fair

See the trees for the wood

To enjoy trees you don’t necessarily have to visit a wood or even see them in the prime of their life. Just as the worn bodies of elderly people tell the tale of a life well-lived, so wonky, hollow, and shrunken trees have witnessed unimaginable history.  Petworth Park is home to some of the country’s oldest and most vulnerable beeches, limes, and oaks. One even dates back to the Norman Conquest. You can walk the park tree trail following this easy to follow guide.

Other trees with a story include Cowdray’s Queen Elizabeth Oak (that’s the first, not second), Upper Farringdon’s 3000-year-old yew and the remains of Selborne’s veteran. This great yew was blown down in a storm in 1990. However, a cross-section of its trunk was preserved and labelled with the great events of history it lived through. This certainly provides pause for thought. Lastly, if you want to learn more about trees, look no further than West Dean Gardens. While the gardens are a delight, their extensive and well-labelled arboretum is a tree-lover’s dream. Not only are there many evergreens, which brighten any winter wander, but you are sure to meet a new tree or two for the first time. For me these were the California Nutmeg, Foxglove and Handkerchief trees as well as the wonderfully named Tree of Heaven. I hope it feels at home in tree paradise – the Western Weald.

Kingley Vale yew

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