Up the woods

Discover these ancient natural wonders – in a man-made landscape

Dappled sunlight on carpets of wild garlic; writhing branches dripping with lichen; a peppery smell of decaying plant matter underfoot; the distant rat-a-tat of a woodpecker. The wonders of ancient woodland are so familiar to us, yet there is so little of it left in Britain; covering less than two per cent of our landmass today.

Any woodland continuously wooded for over 400 years is classed as ancient; a complex and biologically diverse ecosystem that evolved over centuries. They are fascinating places abundant with wild flowers, fauna and fungi; steeped in history and folklore. The canals adjoin these ancient woodlands – or were built through them – in a few very special places.

Lea Wood, Derbyshire (Cromford Canal)

In the verdant Lower Derwent Valley, nestled on the slopes above Cromford Canal you'll find Lea Wood. It’s a historic nature haven teeming with wild flowers and precious winged things, such as pied fly-catchers and lesser spotted woodpeckers. The woodland was once part of the estate of the Nightingale family, where Florence spent her summers. The Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, who took over the site in 2013, run guided bluebell walks in spring.

Skipton Castle Woods, North Yorkshire (Leeds & Liverpool Canal)

This woodland once provided firewood, timber and a plentiful supply of venison for the medieval castle it surrounds and these days it's a joy to wander among the towering ash, oak, chestnut and rowan trees and spring carpets of bluebells and wild garlic. The standing dead trees and rock fissures make it a real haven for bats, particularly long-eared, pipistrelle and Natterer's bat. You may even spot a roe deer gracefully treading among the orchids.

Sidney Wood, Sussex (Wey & Arun Canal)

The Wey & Arun Canal was a Victorian waterway that linked London with the south coast, transporting coal, chalk and timber. It lay derelict until 1970 when enthusiasts formed the Wey & Arun Canal Trust, who are restoring a section of the waterway near Loxwood. Along a currently disused section you'll find Sidney Woods, an ancient oak woodland abundant with bird fauna, such as the long-eared owl, lesser spotted woodpecker and nightingale. Keep your eyes peeled for the whitish petals of the elusive Greater Butterfly-orchid in June or July.

The Punchbowl, Monmouthshire (Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal)

When the mighty Blorenge looms overhead as you walk along the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, look up and you'll see The Punchbowl nestled on its eastern slope. This glacial cwm (Welsh for valley) is one of the highest-altitude ancient semi-natural woodlands in Britain and surrounds a manmade lake. Keep your binoculars handy for green woodpeckers and bats, and of course, for stunning views of the Brecon Beacons, Sugar Loaf and The Skirrid.

Perivale Wood, London (Grand Union Canal)
Bet you never thought you could step off the Central Line in West London and enter 27 acres of ancient woodland? Perivale Wood sits on the banks of the Grand Union Canal and is thought to be one of the oldest nature reserves in Britain. For conservation reasons it's only open to the public once a year, on the last Sunday in April at the peak of bluebell season, and for other open air events. Otherwise if you become a member of the Selbourne Society (who manage the site) you can borrow a key to enter the woodland at your leisure. 

Abigail Whyte

Last date edited: 22 January 2015

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