Dear Readers, you might think that a wood that has been in existence for more than a thousand years would be well able to look after itself, but in fact such spaces are often in need of both management and protection. Fifteen years ago, Coldfall Wood was far from being the biodiverse, much-loved urban woodland that it is today. I met Linda Alliston and Ann Bronkhorst, long-time members of the Friends of Coldfall Wood, in Ann’s cosy kitchen. How had things changed?
“The Wood was full of burnt-out cars”, said Linda. “People would drive in across the Playing Fields and leave all these wrecks. Youngsters would ride their motorbikes through the Wood and buzz the dog-walkers and the mums with their prams. It was a terrible mess and it made me angry to see it”.
It was not, however, the state of the Wood that was the initial impetus to action.
Muswell Hill Playing Fields today
“Word got out on the rumour mill that someone was planning to turn the Playing Fields into a Golf Driving Range”, Linda said.
I remember a Driving Range close to where I used to live. The floodlights were on until late at night, and the whole place was surrounded by an enormous chain link fence. It was an ecological desert.
“Can you imagine the impact on the bats and the other wildlife?” asked Ann.
“So, a group of us dog-walkers and some of the regular footballers who used the playing fields got together, and spoke to the council to try to prevent it”, said Linda.
This was an excellent example of ‘nipping things in the bud’. The council decided not to sell the Fields when they recognised the strength of local feeling, and so, as nothing formal had been set into motion, that was the end of that. Flushed with success, the Friends of Muswell Hill Playing Fields and Coldfall Wood was born.
Once the threat of the Driving Range was seen off, Haringey Council set about securing the Fields so that the cars and motorbikes couldn’t access them. However, this still left the problem of the existing dumped vehicles.
“We took truck-load after truck-load of debris out”, said Linda. “We could not believe how much there was.”
Once the wood felt a little less wild and dangerous, more people felt safe about using it. But there were still several problems.
An uncoppiced area of the wood
One was that the Hornbeam trees, which from medieval times would have been cut down regularly to make charcoal and wheel axles, had been neglected for years. The process of cutting them back, called coppicing, means that the Hornbeams don’t grow so tall and dense, and a greater variety of plants can grow. This in turn attracts more insects and birds. As it was, most of the wood was dark, gloomy and overgrown. Some management was in order.
“We were lucky to get a grant via the Lottery in 2006 to renovate the Wood”, explained Ann. “The funding was secured with Haringey’s help, and they project-managed the restoration work.”
The partnership with Haringey was a fertile one, literally. The coppicing work undertaken opened up the wood and a whole range of plants appeared. Seeds that have been buried for many years can germinate once given a little warmth and sunlight. More species of plant means more opportunities for insects and other woodland creatures. It is exciting to see new and unusual plants peeping shyly through, including Heath Groundsel, unknown elsewhere in the Borough.
In 2013, more funding was identified, again with the assistance of Haringey Council. It was decided to cut another coppice. A local woodsman, Iain Loasby, undertook the work, and used a heavy horse to take the wood out. It was a wonderful sight, which attracted a lot of local interest, even though it all took place in cold, wet January and February in order to avoid the nesting season.
The area coppiced in 2013
The coppiced area looks a little stark, with the magnificent Oak trees standing amongst what looks like a wilderness of brambles and tree stumps. But looks can deceive. Again, a wide range of plants are bursting into life. Wrens sing from the wood stacks, and I cannot wait until spring to see what plants have emerged from their long sleep.
“The thing I’m most proud of, though, is the rejuvenation of the stream”, said Linda. “For years, we went from pillar to post between the council, Thames Water and the Environment Agency, but finally we got it sorted out”.
Linda handed me a newspaper clipping, showing the stream that runs through the Wood. The article describes it as an ‘open sewer’.
“It used to absolutely stink”, said Linda. “It was polluted and dangerous”.
Following a survey by Thames Water, it turned out that some of the houses that surround the wood had been victims of ‘cowboy builders’. Their plumbing had been set up so that their household waste went directly into the stream. Couple that with run-off from the roads, and you have a recipe for a very unpleasant health-hazard.
“Of course, most people didn’t even know that they were dumping their sewage into the stream, so they were horrified”, said Linda. Once the problem was identified, it was simply a case of sorting out the pipework. But there were still other sources of pollution.
“In 2006 we used some of our funding to plant a reed-bed, to help to filter out some of the run-off from the main road”, said Linda. The reeds form an interesting habitat in their own right, and I must admit to checking them for Bearded Tits every time I pass. No luck so far, but who knows? And it is certainly a fine resting place for dragonflies.
The Reed Bed. No Bearded Tits yet…..
Today, I can vouch for the crystal-clear waters of the stream, and the complete lack of smell.
In 2012 the Fields were granted Queen Elizabeth II Playing Fields status, which gives them protection in perpetuity. And in 2013, the Woods were designated as a Nature Reserve, which should mean that they are free from the threat of development. However, the Friends remain vigilant: they meet ten times a year to discuss what’s going on, and to plan events that will help more local people enjoy and appreciate the wonder of this little piece of ancient woodland and common ground that was so nearly ruined.
What advice, I asked, would you give to anyone who wants to protect or improve a piece of local green space?
“ You need to be persistent”, said Linda, “And I personally don’t think that shouting at people does any good. After all, the people who work for the council are human beings too. It’s much better to build relationships, so that you work together”.
“And it’s good to make links with other community organisations”, said Ann. “The Woodland Trust and the Forestry Commission are both good sources of support and information. The Haringey branch of the Trust for Nature Conservation have done lots of very useful work in the wood too. And it’s also important to share information with other Friends groups. You can talk about what you’re doing, how you’re involving other local people. You can pick up excellent ideas, and make links with other people”.
“And the local press”, said Linda. “They’re always in need of copy, and can be your best friends if there’s an issue that you want to highlight or to publicise”
“You have to accept that the group itself will ebb and flow”, said Ann. “Sometimes there will be lots of people, sometimes not so many. But I do think that if there was a threat to the Wood, people would mobilise. It means a lot to a lot of people”.
For me, it was clear that a small group of people, if motivated enough, can make a huge difference to the quality of an area. What a loss it would have been if the Driving Range had been built, and if the wood had continued to be a focus for anti-social behaviour, making it feel dangerous for everyone else. As it is, it is still a wild area, but one which can accommodate everyone from children to dog walkers to runners to slightly scruffy, middle-aged women with binoculars around their necks. I am eternally grateful for the hard work and persistence of the Friends of Muswell Hill Playing Fields and Coldfall Wood. They are true friends to these green spaces, and have helped to protect the plants and animals that regard them as home, and to ensure that future generations of humans can walk amongst the trees, take a long, deep breath and feel themselves gently relax.
The Friends of Muswell Hill Playing Fields and Coldfall Wood meet on the first Tuesday of the month at 7.30 pm at Coldfall Primary school. Their next event is a Winter Tree walk with Iain Loasby, the woodman who did the most recent coppicing. For more information, have a look at the Coldfall Wood website here.