The story behind the tree carvings in a Preston wood
- Credit: Kirsty Thompson
You’re in a for a few surprises in a magical string of woodlands around Fulwood.
Dotted around Fulwood, sometimes almost hidden behind quiet residential streets, the golf course and even the industrial and commercial developments to the north are leafy patches like Asda Wood – found behind the superstore, one of the smallest at three acres; and Clough Copse an acre larger. But there are also sizeable stretches like Fernyhalgh, Highgate, Midgery and Mason’s Wood. One can provide a short stroll; several together make a hike. Barring the council-run Highgate all those named are managed by the Woodland Trust.
‘Mason’s Wood is a beautiful ancient woodland which comprises mainly mature mixed broadleaf woodland,’ says Colin Riley, Site Manager for North England at the Trust. ‘It’s one of the Woodland Trust’s top 10 bluebell woods in the UK, with a very impressive display of wildflowers in the spring.
‘Only 2.5 per cent of UK land area is ancient woodland, which shows just how important protecting sites like Mason’s Wood is,’ he adds. ‘These are very delicate habitats, in some cases hundreds of years old. We need the public to join us in helping to continue to protect these environments.’
Nature helps preserve some of the land from development, Savick Brook and other streams cutting deep into the earth - much of Mason’s Wood for example is a mini-gorge too steep for construction, but perfect for a pathway that feels worlds away from the city it graces.
If left alone nature would, however, render the woodlands inaccessible to humans, something The Friends of Highgate Wood was formed to address. ‘When we started the wood was totally overgrown, only a rough path was left, and in the summer the grass was six feet high and made walking dangerous,’ says Damian Gilkes, the organisation’s chairperson.
‘There was also a problem with some minor drug dealing and I thought that anti-social behaviour happens where no social behaviour is happening.’
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Some 17 people attended the first AGM in 2012 and before lockdown they had 70 participants; currently they number 220. Group members regularly help control Himalayan balsam, have trained to use scythes to keep the meadow area healthy, clear litter, and in cooperation with the council and Lancashire Environmental Fund have improved access in a jointly-funded £40,000 project.
You needn’t join an organisation to make a difference, though, as retiree Janet Stocks demonstrates through her own regular litter-picking forays at the other end of the woodland network. ‘In a way it’s selfish, I like it to look good where I walk around Midgery Lane.’
Since lockdown began the problem has changed, but not improved. ‘When the offices closed there stopped being so much food packaging and coffee cups, but I now pick up ten or more masks every time,’ she says.
The dumped fridges and bikes that The Friends of Highgate Wood and Janet occasionally have to report definitely don’t enhance the environment, whereas the crafted pieces made by The Mason’s Wood Carver and left in one corner of the woodland generally win smiles and appreciation. For personal reasons he is ‘keeping it Banksy’ – or ‘Trunksy’ as one friend suggested.
Seeking a creative outlet when lockdown hit his day-job, the carver started making small-scale pieces at home, leaving some half-hidden in tree-roots.
‘There are still a few of those left, but a lot of the kids like them and theft is the sincerest form of flattery, in this case anyway. Once I felt confident enough and saw some sections of trunk left by the tree surgeons – I won’t mess with any healthy trees – for insect hotels, I got a hammer and chisel and made the piece that people online decided should be called Mason.’
He has since added Treebeard, and others, along with more of the chess-piece-sized ones, never using stain or varnish so insects can still make use of the timber.
The carver’s love for the woods began when he played in them as a child. Tom Gerrard, founder of The Woodland School and a forest school practitioner, licences the use of Highgate Wood from the council to introduce new generations of children – and adults – to the outdoor life. He and his associates organise activities like cooking over a wood fire, treasure hunts, plant-identification, climbing, and crafts using natural resources – like painting using mud.
‘The idea is to encourage children to work independently of us and their parents, to build skills and confidence within the environment and to respect it,’ he explains. ‘We do some events for companies, but mainly work with toddlers and pre-school children, including working with a couple of nurseries pre-lockdown.’
Such resources must be treasured. As Colin Riley of the Woodland Trust says: ‘Getting active outside is a great way to improve your family’s fitness, and throughout lockdown we saw a real increase in the number of people coming to enjoy our woods as part of their daily exercise.
‘Being around trees and wildlife can boost your mood and reduce stress, and we would encourage people to continue visiting local woodlands as the country opens up, but ask they do so responsibly by following the Countryside Code.’