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(Article by Joe Ennis. Photographs by Malcolm Lofthouse, Linda Taylor & Kevyn Wightman)
In early March I visited Bredhurst Wood, which has been designated Ancient Semi- Natural Woodland. I parked my car in Hurstwood Road, opposite the Bell Public House. I walked down the road, turned right just before the church and picked up a leaflet on the wood from the notice board erected by Bredhurst Wood Action Group (BWAG). From this point on, Hurstwood Road, which leads to and through the wood, is little more than a cart track. Yet it is shown, quite surprisingly, on John Speed’s Map of Kent of 1612. After a short distance, I stopped at a metal swing gate on my left. Ahead of me was Day Valley and, beyond it, a long, high ridge of chalk, upon which sits Bredhust and Monkdown Woods. I walked down Day Valley which, from spring onwards, sports an impressive display of chalk down land flowers. Growing on the steep slope on the left of the path just inside into Bredhurst Wood were yew trees and a mixture of standard and coppiced broad leafed trees. Most of the coppiced trees were those of hornbeam, ash and hazel, In years past, coppiced hornbeam wood was mainly made into charcoal (for drying hops and for heating the blacksmith’s forge), that of ash typically made into tool handles and that of hazel woven into wattle fencing. In the 1970s an abandoned, portable, metal kiln, used for making charcoal, could be seen on this spot. On my right, as I walked up the path, I passed the remains of an old boundary in the form of a ditch and bank. A line of massive, coppice beeches, which were probably planted in the 19th century, were growing on the bank.
I soon reached the plateau on the top of the ridge, which is covered in acres of coppiced chestnut trees, with some oak standards. It is thought that the chestnuts were planted from about 1800 onwards. The coppiced wood was used mainly for hop poles and fencing. Hop production peaked in the late 19th century and declined thereafter. Thus, when BWAG took over management of the wood in 2005, most of the coppiced chestnut trees had not been cut for over 40 years and were very overgrown. Since then, parts of the wood have been opened up by contractors and, more recently, by BWAG volunteers. The result has been that light has been let into these parts of the woods, allowing wild flowers such as bluebells, lesser celandines and wood anemones to prosper. An under-storey of plants such as bramble, bracken, honeysuckle, broom and holly has begun to develop in the earlier cleared areas. Dense bramble, in particular, will provide nesting sites for birds like blackcaps, dunnocks, blackbirds, chiff chaffs, wrens and robins. I continued along the footpath to Scragged Oak and, in due course, reached a valley on the opposite side of the wood. It is very steep, with steps down one side and an arduous climb up the other. The valley contains much the same species of coppiced and standard broad leaved trees as those in Day Valley. Worthy of mention, however, are a row of ancient, coppiced beech trees. One of them is particularly massive and impressive. It seems likely that these beeches were planted in the 19th century to serve both as boundary markers and as a source of wood, but became overgrown as a result of a subsequent lack of demand for the wood. Few plants can survive under the dense canopy of beech trees but, growing defiantly under one of them, was a clump of evergreen butcher’s broom, a classic indicator of ancient woodland. Photographs of the coppiced beeches can be seen on the BWAG website (www.bwag.org.uk) under ” Gallery” followed by “Notable Trees”.
I decided not to tackle the muddy, slippery slope looming up between me and Scragged Oak. I partly retraced my steps and headed for an ancient boundary consisting of a bank and ditch. (It runs a few yards SW of posts 5, 6 and 7 in the BWAG leaflet). Very old, pollarded hornbeams, acting as boundary markers, grow along the bank; it is very difficult to date them. Standard hornbeams, unlike oaks, for example, are not long lived, but their life can be extended for a considerable time by pollarding. Also growing on the bank are some standard oaks and beeches , apparently planted in the 19th century. The bank marks, in effect, two boundaries that sit one upon the other. Both were settled in Norman times. One is the boundary between Boxley parish and what was later to become Bredhurst parish. The other boundary is between Monkdown Wood (which was awarded, by the Crown, to the Cistercian monks of Boxley Abbey) and Bredhurst Wood. The fact that the ditch is on the Bredhurst Wood side (to keep animals out of Monkdown Wood) indicates that the bank and ditch were dug by the monks. As usual, I had thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Bredhurst Wood. I had seen and heard a common buzzard, mewing as it soared in the sky. I had heard the raucous calls of cock pheasants and jays, the echoing laugh of a green woodpecker and the warbling notes of a mistle thrush. I was too early to see the wood’s magnificent display of bluebells but I intend to join one of BWAG’s bluebell walks, followed by a cream tea, on Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th April at 2pm. Details and tickets can be obtained from Vanessa Jones on 07813 785940 or, by e mail, from firstname.lastname@example.org