Like the rest of the UK, I have spent the last few weeks at home with my family. I continue to work from home Monday to Friday, working in software development I am one of the lucky ones who’s job can be done entirely online. But I also need to leave the house at least once a day.
I used to find it difficult, finding the time to go out into nature, breathing the fresh air and feeling the quite peace of the landscape embrace me. A solution to that was to get a dog, one that needed a lot of exercise and would force me out of the house everyday to walk it. So, almost three years ago now, Ambrose entered my life. A very active, obedient, intelligent and loyal German Wirehair Pointer.
Finding places to take him for a walk has highlighted more than ever to me, the industrialisation of the area in which I live. For the last couple of years I found and walked day to day in the same few locations in and around my area. Living in the centre of town, the most local “Green space” to me is a couple of large fields wedged between housing estates, and made up on one side by a grassed over landfill site. The place has an air of toxicity too it that I find it hard to get past. Never the less, Ambrose and I have walked there many times, as it is better and closer than the playing field attached to the nearby housing estate.
Other than this space, my options have been limited. A short drive to a park or wood usually. Ashfield has several to offer. Brierley forest park, which is an ex-mine. Silver Hill, which is also…an ex mine, but now a managed predominantly pine woodland. Slightly further afield is the managed pine woodland of Thieves and Harlow wood. What I mean by managed woodland is that every so often, you turn up for a walk only to find a huge logging operation in progress. Pile after pile of pine tree trunks stacked nine feet high. Paths devastated by heavy machinery, and turned into impassable rivers of mud for months at a time. Until all the logs are taken away, new limestone is thrown down to “repair” the paths that are now three times as wide as they were before, and entire rows of trees are removed creating gaps through what was once thick pine forests. Don’t get me wrong, there is evidence of the age of this land in the mature mycology and prevalence of all kinds of mushrooms in the autumn, but there is no doubt left in ones mind that these woodlands belong to the human world of industry. Finding a mature unspoilt natural local spot seems impossible. So imagine my surprise when I found such a place, right on my door step.
I have spoken about the Ashfields Estate in Sutton-In-Ashfield when I have discussed the River Idle that runs through Sutton. The river first rises on the Ashfields estate, but in living memory, the estate was not there, and the entire area was known as the Weeds.
I did not grow up in Sutton, but many people who did have fond memories of playing here as children. And the Idle is not the only river to start here. The Weeds is said to have extended into an area know as the Roods, and then on to the Dumbles. Dumble is a local word found mostly in the North and East Midlands and means a hollow, a wooded valley or a deep cut water course.
The Ashfields Estate is bound on the south side by the A38. Beyond that I was aware there was farmland, and I had spotted footpaths and a few trees on maps and when using Google Earth, but it did not seem like there was much there, and it was difficult to get to. You can’t just just pull up on the A38, jump out and go exploring.
The current UK lockdown has afforded me the opportunity to finally explore this area (only walk local and all that), and I have to say, it was a genuine lesson in Druidry I was not expecting.
I have grown accustomed to managed plantations, mowed verges, and maintained parks. The wild seems distant and far off. Deeper into Derbyshire and beyond. And it is all the more stark to find it so in contrast to the Ashfields estate through which it must be accessed.
Sutton-In-Ashfield is on a hill right in the middle of England. The rivers Idle, Maun and Meden all rise on the north and west of this hill and flow off in a North-West direction. To the East we have Nunn Brook which gathers it’s waters from the hills of Huthwaite (including the landfill site) and flows East, becoming Normanton Brook, then Alfreton Brook before joining the river Amber and then the Derwent. And further North, there is the River Doe Lea, much of which gathers from Silver Hill before flowing off North to Hardwick.
The river Idle is not the only river to begin in the land once known as the Weeds. Slightly to the south, just over the A38 a stream begins to form that flows Southwards down into the area known as the Dumbles. This feeds Maghole Brook at Pinxton before going on to feed the River Erewash.
As soon as you cross over the A38 using the bridge next to available car from the Ashfields Estate and turn right the lesson begins. The area is known as Sutton Meadows, and immediately upon entering to the right is a large meadow, dominated by an Oak and an Ash tree. As though symbolising that a lesson was about to begin. Ash of course is where Ashfield gets it’s name from, and since ancient times both trees have been an important feature in the local landscape.
Ash trees are a symbol of transformation, magic, magical growth and change. Oak is a symbol of wisdom, strength, a doorway to the mysteries and the other world. Together these two trees form a potent symbol of transformative learning, an educational journey. And here they stood, like sentinels guarding and foretelling the path ahead.
Oak is also very much a symbol of endurance. And my, how this tree has endured. Endurance embodied. As Oak trees get older, they can begin to hollow out. In this case someone has thought it a good idea to light a fire in this hollow trunk (multiple times), and the fire has spread up the trunk and into the limbs of the tree, where more holes with fire damage can be seen. Yet…Somehow…this tree lives on. Enduring the crass violence of local teenagers to once again put out new leaves this year. If Oak is a symbol of endurance, this tree is how it earned that reputation!
Moving beyond the Medow filled with cowslips and other edible flowers and you come into a small plantation of young trees, but as you head more to the left you come to the beginnings of a small stream with a path going down the side.
It is like entering another world. A forgotten pocket of the fairy domain, wedged between 2 farms. A corner of wilderness tucked away, in the heart of Ashfield. Quiet. Peaceful. A world away form the roads, industrial units and retail complexes, though surrounded on all sides by them.
The age and wild nature is immediately apparent. There has clearly been Victorian work done on the water way that has been maintained, but the inaccessibility of the place seems to have allowed it to age in a way most do not. The age of the trees wrapped in thick, thick Ivy. The range of mosses growing on the fallen trees which have been left to rot and develop new mini ecosystems. The sheer diversity of the flora. The place looks like a year round wild food larder! Looking past the wild garlic growing absolutely everywhere, there are also Lesser Calendines, Primroses, Yellow Dead Nettles, Dog Violets, Clover, Plantaine, Wood Anemones, Sorrels, Dandelions…And the Hawthorn flowers will be out now too. In the Summer, I have no doubt there will be plenty of fruit here, with Blackberry (bramble), Apple, Sloe (Blackthorn) and Cherry trees all present. And in the Autumn the environment will support a multitude of mushrooms. There are plenty of Birch Polypours about and at the very least there was plenty of dead Elder for Jelly Ears to grow on after a little more rain. And when the seasonal mushrooms do come later in the year, they will no doubt be joined by the Hazel, Beech and Chestnut nuts.
Just as you are taking all of this in the path turns to the right and you step out into a huge grove of Beech trees. The ground littered with the shells of nuts from last Autumn.
Turning to the left takes you back to the stream, where you can follow it for a couple of miles, all the way to Maghole Brook. And with each crossing of the stream and turn of the path the place gets wilder and wilder until the Ivy around the trees is as thick as my leg, and the valley walls grow deeper and steeper.
What has really struck me is that this place has been on my door step for almost a decade, and I have never found it before. And it’s not like I don’t go out walking! It is just not especially easy to access, though clearly well used. The Dumbles is a really good example of a well established natural British habitat. An abundance of life of all kinds, without the regimented tree placement and long straight ditches that characterise most of the parks and forests around Ashfield today.
Yet very soon, this ancient undisturbed environment will change forever. The planned route for the new HS2 high speed rail line goes directly past the Dumbles and through Maghole Brook.
Ashfield has changed considerably in the last 30 years alone. Becoming ever more industrialised and built upon, until only small pockets of genuine nature remain. Instead we are directed to use sterile country parks or mono-crop pine plantations, and told that these are nature. Genuinely natural places with rich bio-diversity are becoming fewer. But they are so important in the wider fight against climate change. Not only that, but as Druids we look to nature for it’s teachings. And it is in places like this where so many of natures lessons can be witnessed first hand. Lessons you simply do not see in the country parks. So it will be a very sad day when the workforce and heavy machinery come to rip a hole right though this beautiful and magical spot.