Most people now accept the powerful positive effects on the human spirit, and body, of enjoying the countryside. For me personally I cannot imagine a life without daily contact with the green environment and recent events have brought in to sharp focus its calming effect on both my mind and body.
In the company of good friends I recently returned to two famous heaths, one of which I know intimately, Chobham Common, and the other, the Devils Punchbowl at Hindhead, less so despite the familiarity of having driven round it for decades. The contrasts between the two sites is worth noting both as to the differences in consequences of different owners and the level and type of public usage.
Most access to the Devils Punchbowl is via the owners, National Trust, car park for dog walkers and site seers whilst there seem to be many mountain bikers taking advantage of some well way marked trails. Unless you are a NT member there is a charge at the car park but this is a long established “destination” car park with a rather good cafe, loos, and the facility to do some fun crafts with kids and interpretation with the adults. Yes it was sunny, the car park was packed! In other words visitors know they are getting something more than “just countryside” for their money unlike visitors at Chobham Common who are largely regulars and not getting anything new or extra for the car parking charges imposed. Not surprisingly many visitors to Chobham Common are now using any alternative parking that is available free!
My brief rant for the day!
Back to therapy. Though I had driven round the Punchbowl many times on the old A3, and drunk many a cuppa at the cafe, I have never wandered much of the site other than close to said cafe. I have a vague recollection of helping with some work with the NT wardens but that was probably over 20 years ago. Always intended to have a look but probably wimped out at the thought of having to climb back up if I went down!
Our friends however guided us up the easy path up Gibbet Hill where the views are just glorious.
On the way up you pass a commemorative stone which if you don’t know the story I won’t spoil it by explaining too much, go and discover it yourself!
The views from this path are great all the way to the top
but really I should have paid more attention to the pony grazing on the heath to the other side of the path. Though many may still have some reservations about grazing heathlands that are open to the public, most issues can be minimised by using what appears to be a common sense approach. On the NT site it seems that the grazing animals have been excluded from the area of most public use, the path up Gibbet Hill and the path along the route of the old A3. Have to say that the fencing is for the large part well sited and now largely invisible behind gorse and scrub. If I was to get all professionally picky I would probably prefer a little more scrub removal from the Punchbowl but heathland management is often a subjective thing and maybe the site managers have a different vision!
If you have never been to the Devils Punchbowl but you have driven through the A3 tunnel, you really should make the time.
The old A3 followed the curve of the Punchbowl and was locally famous for the dramatic view (and for interminable traffic jams exacerbated by the traffic lights just round the bend). The opportunity to erase the road after construction of the tunnel was taken and to be honest its now almost impossible to imagine that a major trunk road has been replaced by a sandy path.
The whole place feels well managed with good sign posting and paths in generally good condition. I am not aware of staffing and funding levels for the place but I would be surprised if the cafe and parking charges make up more than a small part of the running costs of the whole site. More likely is that Agri Environment scheme grants combined with National Trust membership fees core fund the Hindhead Common complex, all of which is in stark contrast to the situation at Chobham Common.
Visiting my old haunt, with another friend a couple of days after the Punchbowl, it is clear that the continued Surrey County Council cuts to the grant made to Surrey Wildlife Trust and the long term reduction in site based staff is now clearly beginning to manifest itself as an appearance of neglect.
It is simply not possible to reduce a countywide workforce of 32 to 12 over 20 years without there being severe consequences. The subtlety of some of these consequences does not mean they are unimportant.
Heathlands have always been prone to both wildfires and acts of deliberate arson but with the lack of site based staff with detailed site knowledge (and some equipment) the risks of more frequent and more damaging fires has greatly increased.
Fire has often been used on heathland for centuries as a management tool, particularly to encourage a flush of grass for grazing animals, BUT was always during the autumn or winter when conditions were more favourable. Happily this approach fitted in with the needs of wildlife unlike spring wildfires that can be devastating for newly emerged reptiles and small mammals.
As always there is an opportunist in the natural world and the fires on Chobham Common appear to have encouraged Woodlarks to breed in much better numbers than previously. We saw several Woodlarks including young birds.
Snatches of song form tree tops and some odd contact calls (which were new to me) were frequently heard and I suspect the high altitude ethereal song will have to wait till early next year when their cycle starts again.
Chobham Common is still a beautiful and wondrous place with regulars like
and increasingly rare
Dartford Warblers are frankly all over the place! And difficult to catch with a small compact camera!
More unusual plants can be found if you know where to look
And insect life is beginning to crank up! Always something new.
Heaths and therapy, yes it works for me.