Today I visited Stour Woods with a friend. Originally we were due to go to Hyde Hall, but she was scheduled to drive down the A12 twice this week already, and couldn't face doing it a third time. I said not to worry and I'd think of another garden closer to home, but nothing sprang to mind. There was not a single Yellow Book garden opening today in Essex or Suffolk. Then the Systems Administrator suggested we go garden visiting in Norfolk, so I was going to get my fix of gardens anyway. Suddenly the answer came to me. Go and look at a woodland instead.
I like woods at all times of the year, unless the wind is blowing too hard, when it seems only sensible not to go and hang around underneath all those trees when you don't have to. And early May is fabulous, with the new leaves just opening all bright green and hopeful. The bluebells have gone an intense dark shade of blue, and the curled fronds of ferns are uncoiling. I love the way that as you move through a wood the areas of bluebells, or wood anemones, or particular kinds of fern, abruptly stop or start again as they find local conditions to their liking, or not.
Stour Woods is next door to Copperas Wood on the south bank of the Stour. The railway line to Harwich also runs next to the river, with the Essex Way sandwiched between the two. There are only a limited number of points where you can cross the railway, and we never found one until we were quite a long way down Copperas Wood, instead taking a path between the two woods along the edge of the fields. The farmers are already making silage.
The RSPB and the Woodland Trust have been doing a lot of coppicing, and it was good to see the coppice stools successfully sprouting fresh growth. The increasing number of deer in the countryside can make active coppice management very difficult, if not impossible, if they browse the emerging new growth. One way of keeping the deer off is to pile the brushwood around the cut stools, and we had to backtrack at one point when our path vanished into a sea of recently cut trunks and branches. If you did not know what was going on and how coppicing works you could get quite upset, thinking that the wood was being destroyed, when in fact coppicing extends the life of the tree. Trees can be adept at extending their own lives too, and the Woodland Trust does not keep Stour Wood too tidy so you can see examples of trees that have toppled in a storm sending up new vertical trunks from their upended root plates and along the length of their prone trunks.
We walked for two hours, except for the time we spent sitting on a bench looking at the river, which my friend put at ten minutes and I thought might have been fifteen. Anyway, it was a good stretch. In all that time we saw six other people and six dogs. It seems a sad waste, to have so much natural beauty and the potential for fresh air and exercise going unused right on people's doorsteps. And it is free. We stopped in Mistley on the way home for coffee and enjoyed another view out over the Stour, complete with swans, for just over a fiver for two people including the tip. Country life is great on a sunny day.