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Welwyn Garden City


A Hertfordshire Wood - Sherrards Park Wood - Welwyn Garden City

Author: W. R. Hughes, M.A.

First published: 1936 by Regional Survey and Museum Committee
of the Welwyn Garden City Educational Association

Format: Paperback 8½" by 5½" with 33 pages
 


(click image to enlarge)
 
 


Foreword

This booklet is an invitation, an introduction, and a plea. It invites you to come to our ancient woodland in Welwyn Garden City; it introduces you to some of its stones, trees, flowers and the creatures that live among its green leaves and grasses; and it pleads with you to see that nothing that hurts or destroys should enter here. We do not wish to be shamed at last by the epitaph, "Here was once a lovely wood."

It is hoped that the booklet will find its way into most of the homes in the Garden City and the district round it. If any profit is made on sales, it will be used to provide nesting boxes and seats, or for the protection of the woods.

The Regional Survey Committee hopes to receive from time to time, as a result of this publication, offers of help and notes on the wild life of the wood. These should be addressed to the Secretary, 21 Elmwood, Welwyn Garden City. [written in 1936]

We are indebted to the following Garden Citizens for the photographic illustrations: Mr. John Chear, F.R.P.S., (pp. 11, 13, 21, 26), Mr. A. E. Hick (pp. 23, 24, 29), The Lisa Studio, Welwyn Garden City (pp. 9, 19), Mr. C. J. Ashworth (p. 2) and Mr. A. C. Auker (cover). All the pictures were made in the wood - save that of the hedgehog, which had wandered into a neighbouring garden. The air photograph on p. 6 is by Aerofilms Ltd., and was kindly lent by Welwyn Garden City Ltd.

W. R. HUGHES. (May, 1936)
 

 
 

The Reddings Fir-wood
 
Photo: C. J. Ashworth
 
(click image to enlarge)

 
 

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow

A. E. HOUSMAN (died April 30th 1936)
 

 

 

 


SHERRARDS PARK WOOD

The most striking natural feature of that corner of rural England which the late Sir Ebenezer Howard chose as the site of the second Garden City was a large tract of native woodland. It crowned the estate, occupying the highest land between the two river valleys - those of the Lea and its tributary the Mimram - which bound the Garden City on the south and the north. At the "six want way"* junction of bridle paths, the wood rose to its highest point- 412 feet above the sea level, and it is natural to find now near this spot the reservoir from which the whole new town is supplied with water.

*"Want" or "wants" is used in this way in Eastern England to indicate places where paths meet; etymologically the word is probably connected with "wend".

The woods were part of the Panshanger estates of Lord Desborough, and formed the southern portion of the demesne of the Manor of Digswell. From the manor house near the old church of Digswell, the southward view is bounded by the woods on the skyline, crowning a steep semi-circular ridge.

Here, in 1920, all was peaceful. The woods were preserved and parts of them retained the natural features of the immemorially ancient oakwoods of Hertfordshire. But a heavy blow had recently fallen upon their solitudes. During the latter stages of the Great War, wooden camp buildings appeared, from which groups of German prisoners issued daily, and scores of the ancestral oaks were soon lying on the ground, minor casualties in the tragedy of war. As soon as the Garden City Company obtained possession the remaining timber was reprieved, and fortunately the mature trees are still standing over a large part of the woods. In some ways the clearing has added a new beauty of variety. We have now not only the shady and solemn oak wood, but also the sunny open spaces covered with bracken and young trees, mostly silver birch. Other parts are planted with young firs, and some of the cleared portions became in a year or two an almost impenetrable thicket of hornbeam coppice.

I well remember my first walk through the woods - in the spring of 1921. The more open spaces were carpeted with primrose and violet and the chorus of spring bird-song filled the air. This was certainly one of the attractions that brought me and my family to the new town. Since then we have enjoyed the woods afresh each spring, and at other seasons also. We have watched the wild flowers diminish, and seen some other signs of destruction and untidiness. But the great wood remains a wood, full of varied life and interest. Though the thoughtless may carry off blossom and root up the flowering plant, to take home an oak-tree is still beyond their power !
 

 
 

"The Marriage of town and country" - Ebenezer Howard

Air view showing large part of Sherrards Wood
and part of residential area of Welwyn Garden City.


Photo: Aerofilms Ltd

(click image to enlarge)

 
 


The Garden City Company has, most wisely and naturally, announced its intention of preserving a large part of the wood as permanent open space. The rest, however, has been planned for residential development and much strong feeling has been expressed that this development would be of such an extent and nature as to destroy, to a very large extent, the characteristics of the area as an extensive natural woodland of varied type. The Urban District Council has suggested a limitation of building to the areas shown in shading on the map at the end of this booklet, thus preserving the main central wood as an unbroken whole. I do not wish to discuss this matter in detail, but on behalf of the Regional Survey Committee and those who have special interest in the study of nature, I am bound to express the most earnest desire that we may see the Council's suggestion carried out. But whatever the ultimate area of the woods may be, the main problem remains - how far is it possible to preserve the natural characteristics of such a woodland as it becomes more used by an increasing local population. The objects of this booklet are to describe some of the special features of interest of the wood, to appeal to every Garden Citizen and visitor to act as a voluntary guardian of its beauties and to make some specific suggestions for safeguarding and increasing them. The widespread provision of food and nesting places for birds in the gardens of the Garden City is evidence of a love for living creatures which we may hope to see extended to the preservation of all forms of life in the great "common garden" of the town - Sherrards Park Wood.

Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird's throat ?
Come hither, come hither, come hither !

SHAKESPEARE
 

 

 

 


HISTORY OF THE WOOD

It is not to be expected that the wood should have a recorded history. We can, however, take note that there is evidence that mankind was living on or near the site somewhere about three or four thousand years ago, for I have picked up dozens of flint flakes in different parts of it - particularly towards its eastern boundary - and a few implements, which may be seen in the local regional museum. Among these is a good "celt" or axe-head, about five inches long, several "scrapers" and some small blades. These were all from the surface layer of soil and belong to the neolithic or early bronze ages. No palæeoliths have so far been found. The woods are crossed by banks and trenches in a number of directions, and although their directions are sometimes puzzling, it is probable that they are all boundary lines, of different dates, and not evidence of human occupation. At one spot (marked "A" on the map) I found a single fragment of ancient pottery and a little trenching in this neighbourhood, where several banks meet, might produce evidence of Celtic occupation.
 

 
 

Neolithic Flint Implements found in Sherrards Wood

Left: "Scraper"
Centre: "Celt", or Axe-head, 5 inches long
Right: Blade


Photo: Studio Lisa

(click image to enlarge)

 
 


The wood is mentioned, by inference, in Domesday book, as part of the manor woodlands that provided mast sufficient for a hundred and fifty Digswell swine. Digswell at that day was apparently as important a village centre as Hatfield or Welwyn. There is written record of a wood in this neighbourhood dating back to the year 1285. In that year Lawrence de St. Michael was Lord of the Manor of Digswell, and as such he obtained a licence "after inquisition ad quod damnum, to stop a way in his wood of Slirigge, Co. Hertford, which leads from the town of Dykeneswell to Hatfeld Bishop, and to hold the same for ever, provided that he construct another way on his own ground without his said wood on the east side, of the same length and breadth and running into the said wood to Hatfield" [Cal. Pat. 1281-92. p.214]. As Lawrence held also at that time the manor of Ludwick (Hatfield Hyde) his estates must have been fairly extensive, and we cannot with certainty identify "Slirigge" with "Sherrards Park". Nor are the names quite similar enough to suggest a connection. The origin of our wood's name invites discussion. In some eighteenth century maps it appears as "Sherwood", but in the tithe apportionment map of a hundred years ago it bears its present name of Sherrards Park Wood. In common speech this is often shortened to Sherrards Wood. Now "Sherwood" and "Sherrard" are sufficiently alike to suggest that one is a corruption of the other. I have always thought it probable that "Sherrard" was the corrupt secondary form, so that to add "Park" or "Wood" is really redundant. The "Park" may have been added in the 18th century by someone who thought it gave a touch of lordliness ! I have lately come across a piece of evidence which points the same way. In 1848 the Rev. R. H. Webb, rector of the neighbouring parish of Essendon, published the first "Flora of Hertfordshire". He gives particulars of the localities in which the various plants had been observed in Hertfordshire, and the name of Sherrards Park Wood occurs frequently. But in one place - in the preface, where he is mentioning the swallow-holes - he calls it "Sherwood's" Park Wood. This surely indicates that he had slipped back into an older form of the name that still survived in popular use, and that "Sherrard" was originally "Sherwood".

I had written the above paragraph before receiving an answer to an enquiry on the subject which I had addressed to Professor Allen Mawer, who with his colleagues of the English Place-name Society, is preparing a volume on the place-names of Hertfordshire. I leave it as written, partly as a warning to amateur philologists ! For I have just received the awaited answer, which proves me wrong, and shows that "Sherwood" is the corruption of "Sherrards" and not vice versa. Three additional early references to the wood have been found. The first, date 1270, gives the form "Scheregge" [Feet of Fines 1270]; and the other two, of 1287, read "in bosco suo de Shirigge" and "Sheregge in Dycheneswell" (Digswell) [Assize Rolls 325. m26]. The meaning of the name is given as "bright ridge", and Professor Mawer adds the note that the normal development into a modern form would have given us "Sheredge" - the substitution of ds for dg can be paralleled in other instances. The ridge is certainly there, and for the "scirt", or "bright", I can only suggest a reference to the white chalk that comes to the surface along the Templewood ridge.

The boundary between Digswell and Hatfield ecclesiastical parishes (which is also the boundary between the Parliamentary divisions of Hitchin and St. Albans) runs along the older southern boundary of the wood (north of the larch wood), and the boundary between Digswell and Welwyn parishes goes through the N. W. of the wood - and also right through Digswell Place House on its borders, which was formally the rectory house of Digswell.
 

 
 

The Larchwood in Winter

Photo: John Chear

(click image to enlarge)

 
 


Certain parts of the wood bear special names. Temple Wood, the north-east spur, has no known connection with any temple; the ruined brick erection, mostly underground, which it contains, was an ice-house, used for storing ice from the lake at Digswell House for summer use. Monks Walk - the fine avenue of old limes which leads from the wood down to the manor house garden - is also, almost certainly, merely a fanciful name. The sections named New Wood and Conduit Field explain themselves. They are both shown as clear of trees in the Digswell Tithe map, and a walk through them confirms this at once, for the trees now standing there are all comparatively young. The well that collected water for the conduit, which took it to a reservoir at the bottom of the hill and thence by pipe to Digswell House, may be found in a ruinous condition in the middle of this part of the wood. In Conduit Field there remained a small, nearly circular, piece of wood, known as Roundabout Wood. The rest of the field was never planted again, but has gradually grown to its present size within living memory.

The fir wood, mainly of larch, which now forms the southern part of our Wood, adjoining the railway, is known as "Reddings plantation", named after the largest of the fields that once covered this site. "Reddings", which occurs in other places more often in the form "riddings", means a site that has been cleared or "rid" of its trees. This is a very popular part of the woods for children and old people and includes the large hollow or "dell", which has often been used for concerts or Shakespearean plays. The plantation was made in 1901-1903, by the last Lord Cowper of Panshanger, shortly before his death. The main reason was the difficulty and danger of haulage over the level crossing, and the land was also of poor quality for cultivation. This was almost the first area which Lord Cowper allowed to be planted with soft wood. He always kept Sherrards Wood in his own hands and the rides and waggon-ways were maintained in perfect condition.

The whole of that part of the wood which lies to the west of the railway is known as Brocks Wood. This is now partly open and partly covered by small trees and coppice, and is a favourite part for bird-lovers. It is, however, except for the slopes above the railway, scheduled on the town plan for future building. The name is probably descriptive of the wood as a residence of badgers, since "brock" is the Old English name for that animal. Maybe he is still there ! (See page 22 [The Beasts of the Wood]).

The Hatfield tithe map of 1838 gives us the names of detached parts of the wood along its southern border. These were Mobs Burrow Wood and Densley Barrow Wood, near where Brockswood Lane now runs, and on the site of the "Campus" we find in succession Pightle Wood, Lord's Wood, Grey Pightie Wood and Pear Tree Wood. A tracing of this map, which shows all the old field-names, which have been so freely used in naming the roads and closes in the Garden City, may be seen in the local museum. Pightie, by the way, is a word that is found on very many such maps; it is an old word for a small field or enclosure.

There is one old cottage standing within the boundary of the wood. It is the timber-framed brick cottage in Brocks Wood fronting the North Road and Ayot Green. It seems highly probable that this is the cottage whose building is recorded in the rolls of Welwyn manor, of which the rectors of Welwyn have been lords since the days of Edward the Confessor. In 1723 the Lord of the Manor gave a piece of his waste to Henry Bethell and Mary his wife to build a cottage. The site was "scituatum super orientalem partem viae regis prope le Brickwall . . . . erga Lemsford Mills" - situated on the east side of the King's highway near "the Brickwall", towards Lemsford Mills. "The Brickwall" may refer to the Brocket boundary wall itself but more probably refers to the Brickwall farm and Angel posting Inn, which stood a little further down the road. The domestic well of this establishment may still be seen on the golf course. This old cottage was formerly the turnpike keeper's house, and old people of the district can still remember seeing the woman pike-keeper running out to stop riders from dodging the gate by going round Ayot Green.
 

 
 

Bullfinch on Nest

Photo: John Chear

(click image to enlarge)

 
     

 

 


NATURAL FEATURES AND GEOLOGY OF THE WOOD

It has already been pointed out that the wood occupies high ground between two eastward-flowing rivers. The scarp slope is towards the north, where there is a rapid drop of about sixty feet. Towards the south the ground dips more gently, and here we notice the beginnings of three shallow valleys, which are continued on through the Garden City estate - two of them down the golf links, and the third along the line of Valley Road. After rainy weather, the head lengths of these valleys contain lively streams of water, which run through miniature gorges for days on end. The lower parts of the valleys are, however, always dry. This is because the surface streams sink into the earth through "swallow-holes" or "swallets", such as occur on a larger scale at Hatfield Rectory and at "Water-End" near North Mimms. Of our three swallow-holes one, the smallest, is in the wooded hollow on the golf links. The other two, more striking in their operation, are both within the wood. One is a large circular hollow on the line taken by the water main from the reservoir. The other is a pit by the side of the Luton branch single-track railway which runs through the woods, going through a deep cutting as it approaches the Great North Road. This hollow gave the fence-makers of the railway property some trouble. In taking the fence over the dip, they built it more than double the usual height; but even so, it is often covered by water, which collects here to a depth of about twenty feet in rainy periods. Under the whole of our region stretches the great chalk-bed of the London basin; and into the chalk our surface streams find their way, down channels which they have made through the overlying beds. The chalk is our inexhaustible reservoir of pure water, saturated, in this district, up to within about fifty feet below the valley level. The water in the bore-holes of our pumping station at Digswell, actually stands as high to-day as when the continuous pumping started thirteen years ago.

The chalk comes to the surface in some places, noticeably in Temple Wood, where it was at one time quarried. But usually it is covered by beds of clays, sands and gravels. Most of our clays and gravels are glacial deposits of comparatively recent date, and have brought to us alien stones from the midlands and the far north. A bed of brick-earth in the wood has provided material from which many Garden City houses have been built, and a second deposit, on its borders, the source of the bricks used in building the great Welwyn viaduct, is now being worked again.

It is the higher levels of the wood, however, which are the most interesting to the geologist, for these form part of what is well-known in the geological literature of the London region as "the Ayot outlier". The brick-pits at Ayot have conveniently provided sections for at least seventy years past. This top ground is one of a group of isolated heights whose surface strata correspond with those of the Eocene deposits which stretch from Hatfield and Essendon towards London. It is clear that there was once continuity between these similar beds, roughly on the 400 ft. level, but an erosion has taken place along the course of a shallow valley, about 200 ft. high running N.E. and S.W. Many geologists believe that this was the original course of the river Thames, journeying towards the Wash. The Eocene beds, thus remaining on our hill-top, consist here of London clay overlying the so-called "Reading beds" of sand, clay and gravel. The London clay was a marine deposit and yields shark's teeth and various fossils. The Reading beds were the source of the frequently-found local blocks of "Hertfordshire pudding stone" - a conglomerate of flint pebbles concreted together by a natural silica cement. A number of large pieces of pudding stone, some of them curiously smoothed, were found in excavating the reservoirs in the wood. These are preserved in the local museum, where may also be seen parts of two ancient hand millstones, or "querns", of this material, found in the Garden City.

The details of the distribution of London clay, Reading beds and glacial deposits in and about Sherrards Wood, as given in the official geological survey-map, are certainly inaccurate. Mr. E. C. Martin, who made an able detailed geological survey of the district for the Regional Survey Committee, draws special attention to the interesting local problems involved . He poses the question, for example, whether Sherrards Park Wood does not contain examples of the "pebble gravel" which is a widely-studied variety of gravel, hitherto supposed to occur only to the south of the Lea. The gravel in the small pit near the golf links "contains abundant quartz pebbles - some up to five or six inches in diameter, but mostly small - a few Lydian stones and numerous flint pebbles. There were also one or two pieces of Hertfordshire conglomerate lying on the floor of the pit, but the far-travelled material of the glacial gravel, except possibly pebbles of Bunter quartzite, appears to be absent. It is certainly a 'Pebbly Gravel' very similar to the "Pebble Gravel". We hope that other local geologists may resume this study and give us a more accurate map of what underlies the wood.

For him the woods were a home and gave him the key
Of knowledge, thirst for their treasures in herbs and flowers.
The secrets held by the creatures nearer than we
To earth he sought, and the link of their life with ours.

GEORGE MEREDITH
 

 

 

 


THE TREES AND FLOWERS OF THE WOOD

We all enjoy at first sight the changing beauties of the trees and flowers in the wood; to study them in detail would be a labour of years. Some time ago the Regional Survey Committee began a botanical survey of the wood, but found it rather too difficult a job to complete. A previous survey, extending over several years, was made by Dr. E. J. Salisbury, the well-known scientist, assisted by various friends. This was part of a general survey of the oak woods of Hertfordshire, and the results may be found in the Journal of Geology; Sherrards Park Wood is especially dealt with in the number for March 1918, and in the following notes I am drawing chiefly on this source. In sending a copy of this Journal to the Garden City Company in 1920, Dr. Salisbury wrote, "I do not know if it will be possible to retain what remains of the wood in its present condition. It would form a very interesting and suitable nature reserve if left untouched, and would be an added attraction to the district. I hope you will do all you can to preserve it from being 'improved', especially by the planting of conifers. If you find it necessary to plant, I hope you will use Quercus sessiliflora and not Q. robur, so that the natural character is retained."

All modern biology is "ecological", which means that the trees and plants are not studied as separate individuals, but as members of a local community, influencing each others' life and growth in all kinds of ways. So we have various types of tree, bush, and ground-plant association in our wood, depending on soil, moisture, shadiness and the dominant types of growth in each vegetative layer.

Our wood is described scientifically as of the "Quercus sessiliflora - Carpinus" type, which means that its typical trees are Durmast oaks as dominant, with hornbeams, as smaller trees or coppice-growth, beneath them. There are two main types of British oak, which dispute for the title of the original "old British oak". The commoner is Quercus Robur, but in our wood almost every tree is of the less common variety known as sessiliflora or "sitting blossom", because the easiest way to distinguish it is to note that its fruit or acorns have practically no stalks, while on the common oaks they grow, usually two or three together, on a fairly long stalk. With the leaves, the case is reversed, for those of the robur have practically no stalks, while our Durmast oaks - to use their English name - have stalked leaves. Dr. Salisbury, after examining many oak-woods, comes to the conclusion that the Durmast oak thrives better than its competitor on soils that are not chalky and that are deficient in mineral salts.

Our second typical tree, the hornbeam, is unknown to many people. It is an undistinguished tree, overshadowed by its noble companions, growing something like an elm, but with leaves like a non-glossy beech. Its trunk is usually of noticeably irregular section, and is composed of one of the closest and hardest of British woods.

The fir plantations, mainly larch, with admixture of Scotch fir and spruce, form quite a different kind of wood, and we have also mixed woodland, containing all the common British trees. The most frequent are birch - in various hybrids - silver birch, ash, sycamore, and hawthorn. Beeches are rare, but there are two or three magnificent specimens on the chalky ground at the foot of Temple wood. The wild cherry trees, though not so numerous as in other local woods, are well grown and a fine feature in spring-time.

The alien rhododendrons cover two considerable areas. Other trees to be found include maple, holly, mountain ash, elm, wych elm, Spanish chestnut, hazel, elder, wayfaring tree, guelder rose, and blackthorn.
 

 
 

"Our Wood"

Photo: Studio Lisa

(click image to enlarge)

 
 


When we look below the trees, among the shrubs and larger plants, we find a diversity of societies. Some areas are bare. Others, particularly on the higher levels, are dominated by bracken, or by bramble. As we go down the slope to moister ground, we find first sheets of the humble dog's mercury, and lower still stretches covered by lesser celandine, sometimes with patches of the dainty little moschatel. The bracken keeps the ground almost entirely in its own possession, but among the brambles we find much honeysuckle - deadly to young trees - and smaller plants. We may notice also minor areas which are occupied or dominated by one particular plant. In some parts it is the hyacinth or bluebell-growing here upon unusually pebbly ground. In others it is ground ivy, bugle or wood sage, and in one section the ling has taken possession. The anemone is not frequent.

Our next study would be that of the ground flora in detail. We should find different groups in the darker parts of this wood, in and about the footpaths, or under the bordering hedges. In this type of Hertfordshire wood, Dr. Salisbury enumerates 269 species of vascular plants, of which 48 represent trees and shrubs and 221 are small plants. As our wood contains other types than the standard oak-hornbeam, it is probable that we have within its borders rather more than this number of plants. It is hopeless therefore to try to give a list here, and I can only suggest that readers search for themselves, and when they find a new flower - refrain from picking it !

Already, before the Garden City brought a new population to its borders, the lilies of the valley, which used to grow in the middle of the wood, had vanished; and since we came, the flowers of the wood have shown melancholy diminution. The foxgloves, which used to grow in fine colonies, have been reduced to a few straggling plants in hidden corners; the white violets have also practically disappeared; the primroses, once so thick on the ground, are now few and far between. The sheets of blue-bell leaves are still there, but we never see the full glory of the blue sea of blossom, for day by day the flowers are picked off, still in bud. This is a sad story; yet we hope, that by educative effort, the course of spoliation may be checked and even reversed. Meanwhile, the woods will not be without flowers, for there are innumerable plants that survive to bloom, because of their vigour and their commonness. We think of the wood pimpernel, the rose-bay willow-herb, the mulleins, the St. John's Wort, bugle, ground-ivy, and violet, enchanter's nightshade, woodruff, speedwell, and other humble and persistent friends, and our spirits rise again. In spite of our efforts to appropriate what should be common and enduring delights for the temporary adornment of our mantelpieces, prodigal nature insists on decorating the woods for us anew.

Among the rarer flowers are the orchids. A few specimens of the early purple orchid still flower every year, and the fly orchid has been found in one spot, and the broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis) in another. Just outside the wood, on what is now the golf-course, the bee orchid used to grow very freely, and it still appears in smaller numbers on neighbouring sites. We have found one plant of the great bell-flower and one bush - over six feet high - of the bella donna, or deadly nightshade. From the records of the early county Flora it appears that this plant was formerly fairly common in the district, but no doubt it was hunted out and destroyed because of its dangerous properties.

Coming down to lower and humbler forms of vegetation, we find that the mosses in our wood are more varied and numerous than in woods of the common oak. About fifty varieties of moss have been noted and about thirty liverworts and thirty-five lichens. Anyone who has walked through the woods in damp autumn weather will not need to be told that the fungi are extraordinarily numerous and diverse. A scientific search through the wood has brought to light somewhere about 450 species.

If any individual or group wants a scientific hobby, why not use Sherrards Wood as a happy hunting ground ?
 

 
 

Amanita Rubescens. "The Blusher"

One of more than 400 Varieties of fungus
found in Sherrards Wood.


Photo: John Chear

(click image to enlarge)

 
     

 

 


THE BEASTS OF THE WOOD

We have already seen that one part of the wood indicates by its name that it was formerly a haunt of the night-wandering badger. It is interesting to know that during the last year a badger has been seen in this region again. Possibly he is the carrier of an unbroken family history, but the small earth to which he was traced shows no sign of family occupation, and he was probably an old dog-badger seeking new hunting grounds.

During the earlier days of the Garden City a fox had its earth in an outlier of the wood, and residents who knew the secret could go and watch the lively youngsters playing at its mouth. Another earth is still in occupation just outside the boundary of the wood in another direction. Hares, of course, prefer the open country, and may still be seen zig-zagging about on the Garden City's fields; the little brown creatures who dash for their burrows in the sandy patches of the woodland as we stroll through it, are the ubiquitous rabbits. Sometimes we may catch sight also of their deadly foe, a weasel or a stoat, snaking its restless way through the undergrowth. The smaller fry, shrews and mice, voles and moles, are there in plenty, but the only other four-footed animal which the casual stroller is likely to see is a modern, and not very welcome, importation, the grey squirrel. These have been numerous in the wood for years past and their "dreys" or nurseries, are to be seen in many trees. I have never seen more than three squirrels together, but have been told that as many as eleven have been counted in one tree. Their total number, however, does not seem to increase rapidly, possibly because they are shot as vermin by neighbouring farmers and land-owners. They are accused, not only of destroying birds' eggs and young, but also of exterminating the native red squirrels. These were regular inhabitants of the Wood until a few years ago; the last local red-coat reported was found, over a year ago, inside a house in High Oaks Road. It had apparently come in for a drink, during a hot summer night, and met its death by drowning.

The most renowned of our woodland beasts are foreigners. For the first year or two the early settlers in the Garden City repeated to each other a rumour that "there are deer in the woods", without knowing whether it was true or false. But by degrees these shy creatures, who usually lie closely hidden during most of the day, seem to have become rather less shy, and are frequently seen crossing a glade or, in the early morning, even in the gardens of houses in the town. They are Himalayan muntjaks - or barking deer, hornless animals about the size of a mastiff. It is known that they breed with us, for, in the depth of last winter, a baby muntjak was seen with its mother, and, in a neighbouring garden, two youngsters took nightly refuge under the straw covering of a rhubarb patch. I understand that these deer are now established in a number of woods in the countryside; they were probably originally wanderers from Woburn Park or other private Zoo. They have sharp little tusks and can defend themselves against dogs.
 

 
 

A Sherrardian Hedgehog

Photo: A. E. Hick

(click image to enlarge)

 
 


Another animal that is commoner in our area than is usually thought is the hedgehog. Families haunt many gardens in the town, and rustlings in the undergrowth of the woods, in late evening hours, are often evidence of a hedgehog on the hunt.

It may be added that we have no record of snakes having been observed in our wood. No doubt there are blindworms; I have seen one dug out of a trench, not far from the wood, in a state of hibernation.
 

 
 

Elephant Hawk Moth

Photo: A. E. Hick

(click image to enlarge)

 
 


The most numerous of the living creatures in the wood are of course the "creeping things innumerable", little noted and little loved. Beetles, wood-lice, centipedes and their friends hurry out of our sight wherever we turn over a stone or a piece of dead wood. The smaller creatures we don't see at all; it is said that over two thousand varieties of insects and their parasites find their means of life from the oak trees, and patient observation has discovered the marvellous and complex life stories of many of them.

Then there are the butterflies and moths, with their larvae, another rich field of study. We are forced into attention when we discover the grotesque larva of a hawk-moth, or when the armies of tortrix viridana in some seasons denude the oaks of their first leafage and make them do their springtide work over again. The butterflies, from the orange-tip in spring onwards, are everybody's darlings. The pearl-bordered fritillary is one of the less common varieties that haunts our woodland bracken.

A special study of the snails in Sherrards Wood was made some years ago by Dr. A. E. Boycott, F.R.S. In the oak-hornbeam wood he found only two species (Helix rotundata and Arion hortensis), while under the beech trees below Temple wood no fewer that eighteen varieties were found. The number of beetles and spiders showed a similar difference.

Music of England ! - ever woodland tree
Passing the quiet wind-borne notes along,
Till suddenly enters a wild ecstasy
From little feathered balls of quivering song.
 
 

 

 


THE BIRDS OF THE WOOD

 

 
 

The Willow-warbler in Sherrards Wood

Above: Mother bird over the nest.
Middle: The domed nest, on the ground.
Below: Two of the fledglings.


Photo: John Chear

(click image to enlarge)

 
 


Sherrards Park Wood, with its variety of trees and undergrowth is a great place for bird-lovers. It is unfortunate that the most populous parts - the more open spaces with rough herbage and thick cover-bushes beloved of the smaller birds - are just those that are threatened with building development. But, given protection and encouragement, a great variety of birds should always make their homes in or about the wood. The birds, unlike the beasts, announce themselves to us, not only by flying overhead or along the track-side, but chiefly by their varied cries and songs. One may walk through the woods and see little; but the ear has reported twenty different songsters, and is always alert to capture the notes of a new friend.

To begin with an old story, Sherrards Wood is one of the places in England in which the golden oriole has tried to breed. An old man in a neighbouring village, himself a great bird-lover, once told me how, with a young under-keeper of the wood, he had watched a pair of orioles building their nest here. Unfortunately, before an egg was laid, the head keeper shot the hen bird - and then asked the indignant bird-lover to stuff it !

The most blatant birds of the wood are the jays. There are too many of them; not merely because their voices are harsh, for on the other hand their feathers are gay; and not merely because they raid the peas and fruit from Garden City gardens while the owners are still abed; but chiefly because there is no doubt that they attack the eggs and young of smaller birds. It is difficult to say whether the grey squirrels and jays between them have diminished the average number of small birds in the area, or not. Perhaps for the time being they may be given the benefit of the doubt.

The next most noticeable of the all-year-round residents in the wood is perhaps the nuthatch, advertising its presence in winter by hammering nuts open in some crevice of an oak tree, and in the spring by its loud repeated whistle. The smaller trunk-and-bough-hunter, the tree-creeper, is also common. Tawny owls and little owls frequent the wood and their residence would be assured if suitable nesting places were provided. Woodpeckers - green and spotted - are again good advertisers of their presence and cannot be overlooked.

From the end of March onwards the woods and hedges fill up with the summer migrants. First the chiff-chaff - we have usually three or four pairs - then a crowd of willow warblers, most delicate musicians, whose strain we should miss more than any other - followed by blackcap, garden-warbler, cuckoo, whitethroat, turtle-dove, tree-pipit and fly catcher. Three of the summer birds are of special interest. First the nightingale, bird of legend and poetry. We always have several songsters in the wood, but dread that the "tidying-up" of wild bushes by order-loving townsmen may eventually drive them further afield. Then the night-jars, birds of the queer song and queer habits, a pair of which return to us most years and often breed in the wood - laying two eggs on the bare ground and trusting to protective colouring to avoid notice. And lastly the wood-wrens, reputed to be shy birds of the tree-tops, but with us singing freely and fearlessly on the lowest branches of the larches. I have already noted five pairs this year, and watched one building its nest.

Nor must our commoner friends be forgotten - blackbirds, thrushes and mistle-thrushes, the backbone of the morning, chorus; the homely robin, wren and dunnock, that sing the year round; the army of tits, with its five varieties of feathering and fifty varieties of note; and that other army of finches, for chaffinch, greenfinch, bullfinch, goldfinch and hawfinch have all nested in the wood; the yellow hammer with golden bonnet and the little wren with the golden crest, whose thin song is heard among the larches.

Even so, the list is not exhausted; there are the more casual visitors, such as wryneck, grasshopper warbler and lesser redpoll, and there are no doubt other birds which have not yet been noted. The Regional Survey Committee is always glad to hear of personal observations that may add to the register of birds, beasts or flowers.
 

 
 

The Nightjar in Sherrards Wood. (1933)

Above: Two eggs, laid on bare ground.
Below: Young Nightjar from one of the eggs.


Photo: A. E. Hick

(click image to enlarge)

 
     

 

 


THE PRESERVATION OF THE WOOD

I do not wish here to discuss the controversial question of the amount of the wood that is to be preserved as open space available to the public, but to deal with the equally important question of how the natural features, vegetation and animal life of the wood may be preserved in the face of its growing use by the inhabitants of a growing town. It is evident that the wood can never again have those complete charms of solitude and freshness that a remote woodland owns, but it would be a great achievement if by a combined effort, the people of the new town were able to preserve for ever a natural wood at their doors, preventing it from becoming either an untidy, littered wilderness, or a formal "urban amenity". The Garden City, in the imagination of its founder, was to unite the interests and attractions of town and country. It has become amply clear already that to move a townsman into a Garden City is not enough to give him the country interests; but by a definite educational effort the next generation may be made more "nature-conscious", and we hope that the woods will always be there as a means of such education and as a proof of its success.

In speaking of this second meaning of the "preservation" of a wood, I am bound to point out that the two aims are related; the smaller the area of the wood, the more difficult in every way will it be to preserve its natural characteristics and charms, and its flora and fauna. I must therefore reiterate the strong desire of our Committee that the Council's effort for the preservation of the area of the wood, as shown on the accompanying map, may be successful.

The wood is threatened by three forms of damage - wilful misuse, thoughtless or ignorant conduct and mistaken treatment by the authority in charge. Let us take these in turn and make some suggestions as to how they may be prevented or minimised.

Wilful damage is very rare, and is confined to minor slashings and breakages by occasional groups of undisciplined lads. But injury by thoughtlessness or selfishness is unfortunately commoner. Besides the flower-picking already mentioned, we notice such things as the uprooting of ferns and plants, the breaking of branches off flowering trees, the unnecessary trampling over bracken or flower-patch, the scattering of litter on the ground, the use of air guns, the taking of birds' eggs, and the loosing of dogs to hunt through the wood. It sounds a formidable list, but the total damage is not so great as one might expect, and the general standard of conduct is really good and is improving.

It is clear, however, that some supervision and patrolling in a regular way would be a great assistance to-day and will become absolutely essential to-morrow. Some years ago the Garden City Company provided an officer whose special duty it was to act as a ranger in the woods, but now have only a part-time watchman. What is required is not a man with a stick, a policeman whose main aim is to chase and threaten the careless and the mischievous, but a Warden of the Woods, a full-time officer who shall have a real knowledge and love of the wood and of its wild life, and who will be able to interest visitors, especially children, in one special feature after another - our chief adviser and educational officer and custos sylvarum. Some price will have to be paid for the care of the wood and, it will be worth while to seek out the best-qualified man for such a post and to pay him well. It would be the most effective step towards the carrying out of the idea of a "nature reserve" for the town. We have so many "town" officers and directors; cannot we find the place and means for one "countryside" officer at least ?

Such a man would need general sympathy and assistance. Already many residents do what they can, by personal friendly word, to check the despoiling of the wood. Could we not have here an application of the system that is already in operation in many rural districts, by which suitable and responsible people undertake voluntary duty as "countryside wardens", and are supplied with badges which carry a certain amount of moral authority. Sherrards Wood is not the only part of the Garden City and its district which should benefit from the services of such voluntary helpers. A directing head of such service would also be able to help very directly in that general education of youngsters in love of nature and respect for life and beauty, which is already in effective operation in most schools, scout and guide troops and other young folk's organisations. Our Regional Survey Committee has done something in this direction already both among young and old, and this booklet is a modest contribution to the same end; but a great field for extension is open.

The questions of ownership, control, supervision and public access are wrapped up together. The Garden City Company has foreseen possible difficulties in granting unrestricted access and has proposed to keep the ownership, in order to retain power to preserve the woods for local use; one knows what damage can be done by motoring picnic parties, or companies of flower-gatherers from London or elsewhere. The Council, looking upon the area as the main parkland of the town, will probably be inclined to press for full public ownership and control. A third possibility, which has much to recommend it, is that the woods should be handed over to either the National Trust, or to a special local Trust, whose business it would be, with the help of a grant from public funds, to preserve them for ever as a nature reserve and public open space. These two descriptions may by incompatible; uninterrupted public use by large numbers might in the end leave us with something very much less than a Hertfordshire wood. I should therefore give the Trust powers to close parts of the woods in turn for a period - even a year or two at a time - in order to give flowers and shrubs a chance to re-establish themselves and birds to build undisturbed. It might also be possible to reserve a minor part of the wood permanently as a bird and flower sanctuary, though this has its own difficulties. Under the leadership of the Wood Warden, we could all help, by voluntary funds, to provide suitable nesting boxes for large and small birds, and to sow or plant again in the woods some of its native flowers that have become rare or have disappeared altogether. In time Welwyn Garden City might justify its name in a new fashion and become famous as the town with the unique wild-wood-garden.

The problem of litter is fortunately a diminishing one, though still sufficiently annoying. We have provided a few litter receptacles, but a better pattern is needed, and more of them. An occasional "pin-stick parade" through the woods, by scouts or others, especially after bank-holiday, would be effective and educative. Other ways in which ordinary citizens might help are in the provision of well-designed seats and the composition and writing of beautiful and striking notices and advices to be set up at all entrances to the woods.

The final danger to which the wood is open is that of unskilled or unimaginative treatment. The surveyors of Town Councils are not necessarily foresters and naturalists, and Committees sometimes order a crime against nature without being aware of it. I have had a nightmare vision of our wood "municipalised" in the future - all the undergrowth tidily cleared away; roads and asphalt paths made in all directions, with weedless grass verges; refreshment chalets at strategic points; and a nice space cleared for an "amusement park", in order that visitors to the woods may have something to see and to do !

The Garden City Company has, from year to year, done a good deal of clearing of those parts of the wood that consisted of thick coppice and young trees. This is quite right from the point of view of good forestry, and of future use. But it is quite evident that other points of view were not sufficiently taken into account. A Wood Warden would have directed such work so that clearing would not be complete and ruthless; patches of thicker growth would have been left here and there for "landscape" effect, and to allow of a variety of undergrowth and of suitable cover for birds. The Warden would know where his nightingales nested and where special clumps of guelder rose were growing and would be careful to cut round and not through these patches.

The price of beauty, as of liberty, is eternal vigilance. Sherrards Wood stands to-day, a green and beautiful inheritance, made lovely by the hands of nature and of time. We receive it and rejoice in it; let us hand it down to our children, not diminished and deflowered, but enriched and beautified by our friendly care.

 
     

 

     
 

Sharrardspark Woods map

(click image to enlarge)

 
 
  For another map of the woods click here.

 
     

 

     
 
William Ravenscroft Hughes
 

Image from The Book of Welwyn, Richard R. Busby, 1976, Barracuda Books Limited. The caption from that book reads: Urban District Council Chairman 1936-37; Founder Welwyn and District Regional Survey Association; 'Rambler' of Welwyn Times. My notes on that book can be viewed here. See also an article on one of Mr Hughes's rambles in Welwyn Times of May 30th, 1929 which can be viewed here.