One of the unique things about Fingle Woods is the historical archive, the record of many years of human activity in this timeless Dartmoor valley. There are written records, stories handed down through generations, photographs and tangible features left on the ground. They all tell a fascinating story and link us to what has been going on here for centuries. The ancient warriors, the manorial landlords, coppice workers and forest managers have handed us the baton. We are now charged with recording our landscape conservation project for those who come after us.
One such artefact that has recently come to light is a black and white photograph taken from the houses at Clifford Bridge in the 1920s. It shows the “Clifford Valley” or Hall’s Cleave as we refer to it now, largely devoid of trees but for some scrub land, old worked coppice and a small early planting of conifers. But standing there in the centre of the picture is one magnificent oak. At the time of the photo, nearly a century ago, the tree was already a mature specimen, possibly around 180 years old.
Over the last century the most dramatic changes have taken place in the history of Fingle Woods as the valley slopes have become covered with species of conifers from around the world. Any remaining broadleaves were surrounded with evergreens and, putting on height at a slower rate, became cloaked and shaded by successive plantings of timber crops. When the restoration project began a little over two years ago, one of the first jobs for the volunteer work force was to clear some of the Douglas fir from around this ancient oak, revealing a hulking old trunk supporting some lifeless old limbs. Time in the dark had taken its toll. With a bit of extra sunlight and a slice of good fortune, this well-timed intervention was hoped to bring the old timer back to life and, after two years of care, the plan appears to be working. Green side shoots and leaves have been sprouting from both the trunk and the tired old branches. Bas Payne, a Fingle volunteer and neighbour of the woods said “It’s fascinating to see how much epicormic growth there is”. There is a sense of optimism among the new guardians of the trees.
These signs of life set the next phase of work in motion to reinvigorate the ancient oak. Towering over the precious tree was a western hemlock, a mere youngster at 90 years but already over 30 metres tall. This was the last remaining source of shade over the oak and called for the skills of a specialist tree surgeon to reduce its height and cut back its dense, shady branches. One July morning, local contractor Pete Newick scaled the conifer with ropes and a harness to dismantle the giant tree section by section until the sun could, once again, reach the recovering veteran of the Clifford Valley. The oak can now be sure of a new chapter in its story and will, for some time, provide a habitat for numerous insects, birds, fungi and lichens.
Veteran oaks and other broadleaves all around Fingle Woods are now being targeted for conservation and will hopefully provide the seed to start the restoration of wild woodland along the valley. From little acorns ….
Written by Matt Parkins
Images: Paul Moody