Originally published on jerwoodopenforest.org/journal
I meet Nikki Morgans, the Recreation & Community Ranger at Leigh Woods in the late afternoon. This woodland, just outside Bristol, was gifted to the National Trust in 1908 by George Wills, a tobacco magnate. The Forestry Commission bought an adjoining section of land in the 1940s, at the time described as ‘devastated woodland’ having been largely felled during World War II – this has since been restored and is now a beautiful forest with SSSI status.
I was drawn to this site because it’s got some unique and threatened species in it – several whitebeams that are endemic to the Avon Gorge, including the Bristol, Wilmott’s, and Houston’s whitebeams. It also includes an area named Paradise Bottom – a remnant of the Leigh Court garden designed by the famous landscape gardener Humphry Repton for Philip John Miles in the 1810s. Miles made a fortune from investing in ship building at the height of the slave trade. Paradise Bottom was a picturesque pleasure garden created to impress guests and lead to a vista of the river Avon. Another example of colonial exploitation and grand design in a landscape admired today.
Nikki takes me for a walk around Leigh Woods pointing out the veteran and monolith trees, ancient yews and small leaf lime, in between more recent plantings, and tells me about the management of the woods. This is known as PAWS (Plantation on Ancient Woodland) – and although timber is still the main source of income for these woods, as with many Forestry Commission sites of this kind, there’s a move away from clear felling – instead ensuring continual cover. They deliberately keep a tangled undergrowth – it’s good for wildlife and ensures there are trees of different ages ready to fill gaps as mature trees are felled. As we walk around I notice a lot of coppicing, which Nikki says is good for wildlife and produces a crop for local woodworkers. Trees make a tunnel over the path – an aerial walkway for dormice. We emerge into a more open section of the site where there’s a fantastic view over the Avon Gorge and Clifton suspension bridge. The cliff is where the whitebeams flourish – making their home on the perilous rocks.
Paradise Bottom has a very different character – following a valley towards the Avon, you can see some of the original 19th century plantings: impressive redwoods, the ubiquitous rhododendron, and the evergreen Fulham Oak. Deeper into the valley the woodland has been carefully designed in the Picturesque style to feel ‘natural’. The air is full of the scent of wild garlic and the evening sun slants through the lime leaves. Lovingly brought back from dereliction, Paradise Bottom is a reminder of how cultural ideas have shaped our understanding of nature.