Cromer is going wild!

This notice from my daily constitutional shows that a small corner of a park, wedged between a childrens’ playground and the bowls club, is being allowed to let its hair down.

I suspect that this will lead to a bit of moaning, as the first stages of rewilding are rather scruffy, consisting of infestations of triffids stinging nettles and brambles, before the ground settles down into what we scientific types call ‘climax’ vegetation.





In fact, one doesn’t have to walk very far from this notice to see rewilding in its more advanced stages.

This picture (left) shows a sward of grass and other weedy plants (goose grass, cow parsley and so on) with tall young conifers in the background. If left to its own devices long enough this will turn into something like this…







… a sylvan glade of mature, deciduous trees such as beech and oak.

All it takes is time – but not as much time as you’d think.

These two pictures were taken in a patch of land only a few acres in extent that sits almost unnoticed between a council estate, a farmer’s field, a go-karting track and a country lane. When you’re in the woods it seems a lot bigger – especially when the trees are in leaf. Over the past year or so I’ve followed the progress of the wood, starting with snowdrops, then bluebells, then horse-parsley or alexanders (a kind of green umbellifer that grows well near the coast), then proper cow parsley and a riot of speedwell and red campion and ferns and goodness knows what (don’t shoot me, I’m not a botanist), leading to foxgloves and so on and so forth: in the autumn, sloes and brambles yield their bounty, and mushrooms sprout beneath, all under a canopy of beech, oak, sycamore, holly and pine of very all ages. Roe deer and muntjacs are a common sight, passing silently between the trees. Woodpeckers rattle away above my head, while jays and magpies and .. er … other birds flit between the trunks (I’m not an ornithologist, either).

You’d think it had been there for, like, ever.

You’d be wrong.

For a brief period at the end of the nineteenth century, Cromer was a tourist magnet, served by not just one but two yes two count ’em TWO railway lines, and this woodland was a writhing mass of lines and railway-related impedimenta where the lines crossed. One line led to a terminus at Cromer High: another sidled off eastwards to Overstrand (much more fashionable than Cromer, still has houses designed by Lutyens). Cromer High station no longer exists. Overstrand station, likewise, has been consigned to history. Today’s railway station, once called Cromer Beach, and now just called Cromer, is some way to the west. In the 1960s Dr Beeching made his infamous cuts — and, what with one thing and another, the land has gone back to nature. In less than a single human lifetime.

It might come as a surprise, given the often well-advertised hand-wringing about the state of the environment, that the UK has more woodland now than at any time since the Middle Ages. Back at the time of the Domesday Book, some 15% of England was forested, declining to around 8% in the 17th Century. In 1905 – the first date when definite records started to be kept — only 5.2% of England (681,000 hectares) was forested. By 2018, the area had almost doubled, to 10% (1,241,000 hectares). The figures for the whole of the UK are more startling still — from 4.7% (1,140,000 hectares) in 1905, to 13.1% (3,173,000) in 2018. And all this given that the population of the UK was just 38 million in 1901, and, as of today, it’s 68,214,575. Not quite a doubling, whereas the area of woodland has almost tripled over approximately the same period. So, contrary to what one might believe, the growth rate of woodland over the past century or so has outstripped that of the human population.

To be sure, some of this forest will be diversity-poor conifer plantation; there is precious little woodland that one could call ‘ancient’; and all woodland in the UK, these days, requires a certain amount of management. But once one adds up all the seemingly neglected wedges of woods that clothe what once groaned under the fires of industry and the clank of the locomotive, it comes to a bucolic lot.

The benefits are manifold. In 2017 alone, the UK’s woods removed enough air pollution to save the health service almost a billion pounds. Over the same period, the UK’s woodlands soaked up 18.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to 4% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. And they do this without any fuss, all the while allowing me and my dogs a restful and healthful refuge during our daily walks.

I have come to value our woods during the past year or so. So have many other people. Our woods are a resource that should be treasured.

About Henry Gee

Henry Gee is an author, editor and recovering palaeontologist, who lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets, inasmuch as which the contents of this blog and any comments therein do not reflect the opinions of anyone but myself, as they don't know where they've been.
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