Living in Surrey - The Friends of Littleheath Woods

PUBLISHED: 11:23 03 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:44 20 February 2013

Described as 'Croydon's best kept secret', Littleheath Woods is a 25.3 hectare patch of woodland, surrounded entirely by suburban housing in Selsdon, just south of central Croydon, and maintained by the Friends – a local conservation group

The Friends of Littleheath Woods

by Alan Lindsay

Described as Croydons best kept secret, Littleheath Woods is a 25.3 hectare patch of woodland, surrounded entirely by suburban housing in Selsdon, just south of central Croydon. The woods are owned by Croydon council, but are maintained by the Friends a local conservation group.

The secret tag is particularly apt in my case. I live nearby and had never known about this delightful place, while often walking in the larger Selsdon Woods, just a mile or so away.

My first visit was on a sunny day in late November 2009. Approaching via an alley between two houses in Foxearth Road, I found myself on a path covered by a carpet of fallen leaves. Even on this autumn day there was plenty of colour yellows and browns of the leaves, the red berries of the holly and the dark greens of the shrubs. All changing from light to shade as the wind rocked the high branches.

I came across a small pond, no doubt home to frogs, alongside one path. The water added to the strong sense of calm.

Chestnuts lay about the paths, bursting out of the brown, prickly pods that had fallen from the sweet chestnut trees; I carefully picked some to roast later. Strangely shaped collections of fungi grew around many of the trees - tasty mushrooms or poisonous toadstools?

At intervals along the paths were benches made from tree trunks; other man-made interventions consisted of discrete signs marking pathways. At some points, the paths opened up to small fields of grass, dotted with molehills; there were more tree-trunk benches around the edges. Brambles and other bushes were in abundance, not over grown; yet at the same time not appearing to have been pruned in the way that a gardener would prune. The woods had a feel of nature being given a gentle nudge in the right direction a little help from its friends.

The Friends of Littleheath Woods begin

Littleheath Woods were first dedicated as a public open space in 1932 and were maintained by woodsmen employed the two councils who were responsible for them. From the end of the war they became overgrown and neglected; this was exacerbated by the great storm of 1987. In 1995, a group of local people formed The Friends of Littleheath Woods, with the aim of clearing and rejuvenating the woods. The group is comprised of a wide variety of people, men and women from a range of occupations and a number of retired people.

The friends are affiliated to the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers and supported by Croydon Council, who cover the cost of insurance and training courses in subjects like first aid and chain-saw certification. While large-scale jobs, such as the felling of large trees, are undertaken by specialists contracted by the council, the bulk of the maintenance and improvement work is carried out by the Friends themselves.

Funds are raised from a small annual subscription and by the sale of logs and coppiced products. These pay for the tools and materials used by the FOLW working parties.

I asked Chris Hyde, the FOLW work party co-ordinator, what kind of tasks the group carried out. She told me that these included pond clearance, path restoration, removal of alien species, construction of benches and bird boxes, the planting of new trees and litter picks. The clearance of the ground, together with the cutting back of some tree branches allows more light to get through; encouraging woodland plants such as blue bells to thrive. Another task recently carried out, and I suspect a backbreaking one, was the improvement of drainage on some of the paths by digging soak-aways.

Alien species introduced to Surrey

Alien species are those plants that are not indigenous to the woods, often having seeded themselves from local gardens. Sadly, the cause of much of the spread is the dumping of garden waste in the woods by a small minority of unscrupulous householders. Worse still, there have been past incidents of dumping all kinds of household waste, including black sacks of rubbish, television sets, bed-frames etc., all of which are cleared by Chris work parties.

The Friends efforts have created a thriving habitat for wild-life. A survey carried out in 2008 recorded 69 varieties of wild flowers and 22 species of birds. Badgers have set up home in the woods Chris work parties know the locations of the sets and take care not to disturb them and species of birds rarely seen in the London area including the lesser spotted woodpecker. There is also a colony of bats living in the woods.

Once a season, the friends host a guided walk in the woods. These take in veteran trees, spring flowers, woodland fruits and of course the bats. So, why not get off that sofa, put on a pair of walking shoes and head for Littleheath Woods? You wont come away disappointed.

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