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15 June 2009 Anthony Mills

Some years ago the Community Partnerships Officer, Meike Weiser suggested we apply for Awards for All Heritage Lottery funding, not least to continue the program of resurfacing of paths on our rooty and/or steeply sloping site.  From this the Foxley Woodland Day was born, a way to let the community, you, know what we were doing in our small corner of Surrey.  We planned demonstrations of both charcoaling and working horse logging in the wood and on the back of the open day our application was approved in September 2008, and we have one year in which to spend it!

I don’t think any of the happy band of 4 or 5 volunteers who turned out once a month for a bit of therapeutic path clearing or woodland edge management had any idea of what this might ultimately involve….

A charcoal kiln meant coppicing – something we had not yet started as the area we were planning to coppice produced complications.  What do we replant? What to do with all the other wood we could not turn to charcoal, there being no ready market for gnarled and twisty 50 years overstood hazel.  Bonfire disposal was not a practical or environmentally justifiable solution.

An open day meant exhibitors, which meant finding an exhibition area.  Then there were risk assessments and insurance certificates, gazebo’s, tables, publicity materials, the list seemed endless.  [A tip for anyone planning something similar, enrolling exhibitors as temporary members of the Friends so as to include them in your insurance and risk assessment saves a lot of problems].

Now publicity materials could mean a small flyer, or a stint on the radio, but being who we are this rapidly morphed into a major revision exercise of our 13 page Nature Trail Guide booklet and the accompanying 28 page Information Pack.  This further reminded us that the Nature Trail waymarker posts needed replacing before the day as they were all crucial for the planned guided walks!  

Getting closer to the day, the 4 days work that Croydon BTCV had planned to contribute towards replacing the trail posts and site preparation had to be cancelled.  Thus we had to down pens and pick up shovels.  Spending those last days moving concrete, posts and tools, by sack barrow, around the rooty and sloping paths in the wood it felt like we would never get to the open day.  It was a measure of how tired and embattled we felt that it didn’t occur to us until after the job was done that we could have unlocked the gate and driven the stuff in.

Finally having produced, printed and hand delivered 3000 flyers; hired the ‘right’ number of toilets; and survived meeting after meeting, draft document after draft, Gantt charts and balance sheets [that’s what comes of having senior project managers, bank managers, accountants, civil service administrators, international company directors and teachers for volunteers] the big day finally dawned…

It was sunny but not blazing hot, with a few clouds, the best for attracting people out to such events.  The Working Horse Trust put on a tremendous display, finding the challenge of moving stuff from 8 pick-up points to 5 drop-offs a lot more interesting than the usual display work.  Seeing these horses working in the wood – our wood – was a revelation.  They worked lumpy twisted logs around lumpy twisted paths; responded to simple instruction and looked at each obstacle before moving, or cast questioning glances at the handler.

We also sold all the charcoal produced as well as firewood, and took orders for more.  The day stimulated a great deal of interest, questions, discussion about the whole ethos and ecological justification of the coppicing and traditional woodland management cycle for wood products.  

The key fact is that the wood is ASNW, has always been woodland for hundreds of years according to all the old maps and records, and yet there are virtually no trees more than 150 years old in the wood.  So it must have been cropped, harvested, managed, used as it hasn’t been for at least 50 years.  The restoration of that cycle, even if only in small areas is intended to reinvigorate the more diverse woodland flora and fauna that is associated with it and the reason such management is valued.

At the other end of the site in the Recreation ground and field all the exhibitors seemed very pleased with the attendance and sales, and at the same time that it was not too large-scale an event; retaining the feel and atmosphere of a small village fete.  The Scouts provided the barbeque, the WI the cakes.  There was local honey and woodturning and a number of other interesting displays and stalls, including two of the major partners in conservation on the site, British Trust for Conservation Volunteers and Downlands Countryside Management Project / Old Surrey Downs.  

From our own tent we sold quite a few of the Nature Trail & Info Packs at £5 the pair, and the Bird, and Nature Trail guided walks were well attended.  I was particularly gratified on the following day, when we were clearing up, to see a pair of families whom I had assisted with the tree id quiz booklet on the day.  They were revisiting the wood to reinforce the lessons of the previous day.  Conscientious parents at a time when fewer and fewer know, or pass on, the knowledge of our native flora that was assumed a generation or two ago.

Many of the visitors, the exhibitors, the council officials and their councillors told us how pleased they were with how it went.  Lots of local people said that they hadn’t even known the place existed, let alone what went on there or why we [the Friends] work there.  And there were a number of questions along the lines of ‘’when is it to be next year?’’.  

Whether or not we do it all again next year we will continue to manage the wood.  However, we are looking for additional funding, considering obtaining and using micro-kilns every workday  [ie oil-drum size], hoping that new volunteers generated by the event will allow us to do the extra work, and most of all enjoying the huge buzz that came from involving, even if only briefly, so many more local people in their woodland.  

When there's just 3 or 4 of you struggling to make any impression at all on a cold and miserable winters day, the memory of this event and the prospect of another contributes enormously to making it all worthwhile.  The co-operative and voluntary efforts of all those who took part reminds us of the glue that holds our communities together, working for common purposes, and that is it's affirming and celebratory value to us all.

Foxley Woodland Day