Woodchester Park, Nympsfield, Gloucestershire
PUBLISHED: 12:09 16 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013
Woodchester Park is emerging from its conifer-clad gloom to present new vistas to visitors - and it's free and open every day of the year....
Not so long ago Woodchester Park was a dark and haunted place, a deep, meandering, tree-cloaked valley where none dared venture after nightfall save the occasional poacher. Indeed, no-one was allowed inside the 500-acre park's boundaries at all, except on the rare occasions when the celebrated mansion was opened to the public.
Today, thanks to the National Trust, Woodchester is beginning to emerge from the gloom. The vistas designed into the valley by those who landscaped it in the 17th century are being opened up once more, to the great benefit of the wildlife - and of human visitors.
The work began in 1994 when the Trust purchased most of the park, after protracted discussions about its future with stakeholders and with the help of a grant from Stroud District Council, which still owns the mansion. Fifteen years on the Trust is about to publish a new plan for the coming 10 years, designed to set out a vision for the park's future and indicate how it can be secured.
"Our work here so far has mainly involved clearing the more recently wooded areas and constructing paths to enable people to explore the estate" says the Trust's warden, Michelle Oliver, who looks after Woodchester with the help of volunteers. "We are slowly returning the lower slopes to pasture and open parkland, as they were originally. Bit by bit, the old views are coming back - we are beginning to glimpse what Woodchester must once have been like."
Before the clearance work began, you would have been unwise to try to navigate your way through the park without a map, a compass and a pack of emergency rations (even if you had been allowed to try it in the first place). The woods had been managed mainly for forestry for the previous 40 years, and all those trees, including many tall non-native conifers, would have made it hard to get your bearings along the twists and turns of the valley. Now clearly waymarked routes have been laid, setting out from the Trust car park just off the B4066 at the western end of the estate. There's a choice of three, from 1.7 miles up to the full seven-mile valley tour.
First to be cleared was Home Mead, the area of parkland to the right as you walk into the estate on the way down to the mansion. Herds of Welsh Black cattle and flocks of Jacob, Herdwick and Welsh Black Mountain sheep are now grazed here and in other open areas to keep the pasture in good shape. Home Mead has special importance as a feeding area for the colony of rare greater horeshoe bats which roost in the mansion in summer - they feed on insects, and particularly seem to relish the dung beetles which emerge from cowpats left by the grazing cattle. Conservation work has increased the colony to more than 200 individuals, making it nationally important.
There is an even larger colony of lesser horseshoe bats, as well as several commoner species such as the Daubenton's bat, which may be seen flitting across the waters of the lakes at dusk.
Michelle is able to draw on the considerable knowledge and expertise of her Head Warden, Dave Armstrong, who came to Woodchester as Project Officer when the Trust acquired the estate.
"We have very little left in the way of documentation to tell us how the park looked originally, but we do have one or two old maps and engravings which give us glimpses" says Dave. "Where we have cleared areas we have managed to open up some wonderful views across the lakes, so we're beginning to see it again as King George III must have done when he stayed here as the guest of the Ducie family in 1788.
"We don't intend to try to take the estate back to the way it was at some previous point in history - that would be quite unrealistic. We simply want to return the lower slopes to open parkland as they were, to everyone's benefit - and particularly that of the wildlife."
There was once an elaborate landscaped garden behind the original Georgian mansion (rebuilt in Victorian times but left unfinished, and never occupied). Historic documents show that there was a temple here, and recent scrub clearance has revealed that it overlooked a terraced Italian-style garden with two ornamental ponds. Earlier still, Woodchester is thought to have had a water garden laid out around a length of canal.
Water has always been the focus of the park. Woodchester's chain of five deep, dark lakes forms the focus for a rich community of wildlife in addition to the bats. The waters are busy with wildfowl at all seasons, with many coots, moorhens, mallard, mandarin and tufted duck. Large numbers of badgers, roe deer and muntjac live on the estate, along with countless small mammals and songbirds. The rare long-eared owl is found in the woods, as well as the familiar tawny. It seems the local herons approve of what the Trust has been doing - a heronry has recently appeared in the woods.
The newly-cleared sunlit glades are allowing insect populations to expand and many butterfly and moth species may be seen in summer - you might glimpse the brilliant tawny-gold of the silver-washed fritillary. There are wonderful displays of woodland flowers in spring, including wood anemone, primroses, solomon's seal and several orchid species.
The new plan is being drawn up as part of a 'high-level stewardship campaign' in partnership with Natural England, whose expertise will help the Trust to manage the park to the best advantage of its wildlife. Public views will of course be sought. As with all managed countryside areas, there are varied interests and considerations to be taken into account. Decisions will need to be made about the level of visitor facilities required - while many countryside visitors appreciate plenty of interpretive information and expect well-laid tracks and steps, others prefer their wild places kept as wild as possible.
Now is the ideal time to help yourself to a walk through the Woodchester estate - you'll be enjoying views this spring that haven't been available for generations.
*Woodchester Park is served by a National Trust car park (free to members) - turn off the B4066 towards Nympsfield and it's 100 yards up on the left. The park is now open all year (daytime only), with free access.