Discover Surrey's centenary wood tribute to World War One
PUBLISHED: 05:11 08 December 2014 | UPDATED: 11:38 12 August 2015
With the centenary of World War One being marked across the country this year, the biggest memorial to the nation's heroes is still to come. Viv Micklefield takes to the trails of Epsom's Langley Vale, where plans are afoot to create a vast new woodland as a permanent tribute
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2014
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As England’s most densely wooded county, Surrey is well-known for its beautiful ancient woodlands – but now it is about to add a vast new swathe of forest to its landscape.
In the coming months, some 200,000 broadleaf trees will be planted over 640 acres of countryside around Langley Vale as a permanent tribute to those who lost their lives during the First World War. One of four such forests being planted by the Woodland Trust, the other three being in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, this tract of rolling countryside, sandwiched between the M25 and Epsom Downs, already has surviving pockets of ancient woodland. Now this newly created stretch of native forest will unite them once again.
“It’s a big scheme here,” says the Trust’s regional development officer, John Brown, as we climb steadily uphill towards the south-east corner of what will soon be Langley Vale Wood. “In fact, it’s over half the total value of the nationwide project.
“With the land purchased earlier this year, a £9m fund-raising campaign is gaining ground and the first of the new trees will be planted imminently, with schools, community groups and individuals encouraged to get involved.”
Gazing upwards through a canopy of oak, sweet chestnut, hornbeam and beech, it’s certainly a humbling experience when you think that similar species have grown in this area for hundreds of years. While in some parts of our county, the intervening centuries have witnessed momentous change, the unique eco-system beneath these historic roots has remained largely undisturbed since the last Ice Age.
Indeed, before work can start, it’s important to understand as much as possible about what’s already here, explains John, a former forester.
“Seasonal variations at Langley Vale will be monitored; current bird species, as well as bats and badgers, will be counted; and areas where carpets of wild flowers bloom, such as bluebells and yellow archangel, will be protected,” he explains. “The existing tree stock influences the planting so everything will remain natural to the area.
“In the short-term, the open land will continue to be farmed, but being clay and containing lots of flint and chalk, this is not prime quality. So the plan is to gradually reduce the current agricultural use over the next four years.”
As we crest a ridge and look down towards Little Hurst Wood, it takes only a small leap of the imagination for fellow observer and local resident Steve Pagham to foresee the benefits. “So much of the farmland is currently inaccessible and the thought of everyone being able to enjoy these views is fantastic,” says Steve. “My family has been living near here for several years and the wildlife in these parts is great; it can only get better.”
In time, it’s expected that tens of thousands of visitors will discover the site, so facilities such as car parking are being considered. And John is keen to reassure walkers, horse riders and cyclists that as part of its ongoing management of the established public rights of way, the Trust will be adding extra routes. As we retrace our footsteps, he explains: “By following the contours of the land, we will be extending the existing belts of woodland, and expect the final site to be 60% trees and the remainder open ground. We usually reckon on it taking 12 years before the landscape really starts to change, but we shall plant so that the existing valley areas and views are retained.”
And as the trees begin to stand tall and proud, so the new wood will become a poignant reminder of the area’s military connections. “Being a First World War project, this is all about bringing together local stories rooted in the local area,” says the Trust’s historical researcher, Paddy Byrne, who’s been piecing together events at nearby Woodcote Park Estate. During 1914, Epsom became a major recruiting centre with four new battalions of the Royal Fusiliers formed from volunteers. Many were billeted in local homes and within six months over 20,000 men were preparing to leave for the Front. With the estate later becoming a convalescent home for Canadian servicemen, the echoes of conflict resounded for many years to come.
Sense of optimism
Today, we might be less than a mile from one of the busiest motorways in the country and 40 minutes from central London, but there’s the thrill of spotting a buzzard circling high above our heads. And it’s hoped that before long the rare tree sparrow, the whitethroat and wren, as well as the daylight loving little owl, will all become residents here too.
A summer open day, hosted by the site’s manager, Simon Bateman, provided a preview of what’s on the horizon and confirmed the Trust’s flagship project is on track. “We were thrilled so many people attended; it was a pleasure to finally introduce some of the plans and features of Langley Vale itself,” says Simon. “One of many such events over the coming years, it will be exciting to see how the site is due to transform.”
Meanwhile, as the base of the Eastern Ridges approach and the racecourse’s grandstand roof winks in the sunlight, there’s a real sense of optimism in the air. For John, planting native trees redresses the balance of nature; for Steve, the next generation has a chance to enjoy our stunning countryside; while for Paddy, a fitting memorial to those who served so bravely is about to become a reality. This new wood promises to enrich everyone’s lives in some way.
• For more information and details of how to get involved in planting your own lasting tribute, call 01476 581111 or visit woodlandtrust.org
The UK’s new Centenary Woods
England: Langley Vale, Surrey
Wales: Ffos Las, Carmarthenshire
Scotland: The Pentland Hills, Edinburgh
Northern Ireland: Faughan Valley, County Londonderry
• For more details of all these sites, visit woodlandtrust.org
Remembering our heroes...
The Centenary Wood will commemorate the many lives lost during the Great War – such as Epsom’s Eric Meredith.
The 19-year-old apprentice hardware merchant joined the Public Schools Brigade as a private and first saw action in France during November 1915.
Less than a year later, as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 32nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers, he died aged just 20 leading his platoon during the Battle of the Somme in October 1916.
Eric is one of 265 heroes listed on Epsom’s Ashley Road war memorial, and is also remembered at Epsom College.
4 more of Surrey’s ancient woods...
Guaranteed to dazzle in their autumn colours, use the grid references to track down these wonderful woods...
Ashtead Common: Managed by the City of London Corporation, this 494-acre nature reserve and ancient woodland common contains over 2,000 oaks. TQ178599
Glover’s Wood, Charlwood: Currently one of the largest broadleaf areas in the Surrey Weald, the Woodland Trust also manages this 64-acre site. TQ227406
Hatchlands Park, East Clandon: Alongside rolling parkland, this 420-acre National Trust estate features enchanting trails beneath ancient woodland canopies with one oak tree reputedly 500 years old. TQ063516
Staffhurst Wood, Tatsfield: A delightful 96 acres of oak, ash and beech with areas of hornbeam and hazel coppice managed by the Surrey Wildlife Trust. TQ414485