I am currently reading Oliver Rackham’s ‘History of the Countryside’ – the seminal text on the landscape I’ve known all my life. I was lucky enough to hear Dr Rackham speak back in 2014, before his sad passing the following year, and the enthusiasm he brought to the conference is apparent in every page of this otherwise weighty tome. Whilst learning much about how the British landscape came to be, I am treating it as something of a tourist guide to compile a wishlist of exceptional and illustrative locations. One such is Staverton Park and I was pleasantly surprised to find that a Biodiversity Seminar I was attending was just a few miles away, providing the perfect excuse to see for myself! With a quote like this, how could one resist?
“Sometimes a park still has its original trees. The supreme example is Staverton Park (near Woodbridge, Suffolk), a famous and awesome place of Tolkienesque wonder and beauty. The mighty and bizarre shapes of oaks of unknown age rise out of a sea of tall bracken, or else are mysteriously surrounded by rings of yet mightier hollies.”
Staverton is a place which seems to have a special effect on those who visit – from casual walkers to woodland ecologists, you can appreciate it on many levels. Rackham’s account of the site is one amongst many – Peterken wrote extensively on the history and vegetation of the woodland (you can read it for free on the FSC website here) and Nick Sibbett produced a quite extraordinary survey of the individual trees which make up this exceptional arboreal congregation for Natural England. Exploring the crossover between the ecological and the cultural – Sara Maitland includes it as one of the chapters in her Gossip from the Forest – an exploration of the connections between woodland and folklore. It has formed the focus of Guardian Country Diaries and there are some lovely blog posts from the likes of Frames of Reference, Crossways Farm and Down the Forest Path.
Whilst guided walks do occur from time to time, the park is in private ownership but a path meanders through The Thicks to the south and then edges the eastern periphery of the parkland.
From the Woodbridge Road, just before Butley, a footpath takes you into the woods. The finger sign points directly towards a mighty oak – just a flavour of things to come! A short path winds you through the bracken, and past a few more giants, and then you’re into The Thicks! This part of the park was fenced from the remainder in the early 19th century and was left fairly unmanaged. It’s modern name was first recorded some 60 years later in 1881 as the canopy closed to form the dense woodland you can see today.
The path is vague, meandering and dissipating between mighty oaks – in places, they settle contentedly in the middle of the path causing the way to wend around it, whilst in others the oaks loom across your way, making you duck and divert.
But despite the imposing, watching presence of the oaks, this is really the realm of the holly which is the most abundant tree in The Thicks. One of these hollys is thought to be the tallest in Britain at a towering 22.5m high!
Some grow from old coppice stools, sending an array of trunks skywards, whilst others grow twinned with older, larger oaks, the angle of their growth aiming for gaps in the canopy beyond their associates. The ground beneath the living trunks is littered with the bodies of their fallen – branches and boles lie as deadwood across the woodland floor, providing abundant opportunities for invertebrates which has evolved to rely upon such deadwood which is increasingly hard to find in our modern woodlands.
Peterken presents evidence which indicates that the site might have been continuously wooded since the wildwood era. Whilst there is no woodland in the country which is not influenced by human management or exploitation, he argues that this might be closest to the primeval, natural condition than most other woods in lowland Britain. The effect of walking The Thicks is of wandering between ancient beings, but the deviations from natural condition are quickly apparent. The oaks are predominantly pollarded – a historic practise of cutting the trees above browsing height to allow a sustainable harvest of the new growth. This extends their life and facilitates the gnarled, huge boles but is far from a natural occurrence on the scale seen in The Thicks. The ground flora too is surprisingly poor, lacking many of the ancient woodland indicator species. This is presumably a result of the intervening parkland years when the trees were open grown and the land grazed or heath beneath. Then there is the composition of the stand – according to Rackham’s analysis, Suffolk is deep within the limewood province, where small-leaved lime would have been the dominant tree species before the wildwood was cleared. Whilst Peterken makes no assertion that this woodland is akin to the wildwood which was once to be found upon the same soil, it is worth considering how far even a woodland with such an ancient feeling as this is departed from the wildwood we once had.
Walking out of the dark oppressive vegetation of The Thicks, the scene switches. Suddenly the oaks are free from the evergreen accompaniments of the holly and are strewn majestically across the parkland with only bracken beneath. Any one of these trees would make you stop and stare if you stumbled across them, but en masse they form an army, like walking through a coven of witches or a gathering of the ents.
Wandering down the sandy track which etches the line between ancient parkland and modern farmland, birch begins to join the scene, its youthful white bark serving to throw into relief the massive presence of the oaks they grow amongst.
Nick Sibbett’s immense survey numbered the living oaks at 2,899, and more standing dead trees besides!
Some of the oaks in the park have a Diamater at Breast Height (DBH) of over 7m although many specimens are much smaller than this. The precise age of these oaks isn’t known – there was a myth that the trees were planted in the early 1500’s by the monks of Butley Abbey. Some are indeed over 400 years old but there are a wide range of different aged trees across the park.
My first visit was at dusk, and the second at dawn the next day as the sun rose to the east. My time amongst this ancient assemblage was short lived, but I hope to be back in spring or summer to spend more time in this magical place.