The Bluebells of Chalet Wood (April 2021)

Many people are making their annual visits to Chalet Wood in Wanstead Park at the moment, to see the bluebells.

These have become quite an attraction, and even people other than us locals are travelling to see them now. It would be interesting to know how the visitor numbers may have increased over the years.

wp bluebells flowers 070421 0011artIt was a good few years ago that I began suggesting to the then Wren Conservation Group – now the Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group – that it might be an idea to delineate route-ways through Chalet Wood to try to encourage people not to trample on the plants. Even before the flowers were showing – and probably more so – casual walkers, and five-school-days-a-week youngsters, would unwittingly trample the emerging leaves. Trampling can cause as much damage to native bluebells as picking can. And picking isn’t much use anyway, because the flowers will have wilted into a thrown-down mess before the park gates are reached.

wp bluebells notice 090323 90354artThe response to delineated ways through the wood was mostly one of horror from most group members, as well as from the Conservators of Epping Forest when the suggestion was made to them. After all, the wood should retain its natural aspect, shouldn’t it – and be free-to-roam? I was not so sure of the natural aspect issue. For years, every winter before the first bluebells were hesitatingly pushing through and watching out for boots, members of the Wren Group would go into the woods and clear up fallen wood-litter, and particularly attempt to remove brambles. A lot of work went into enhancing the possibilities for the bluebells to increase their area, and to be seen by people. So it was hardly a natural aspect. And as for the free-to-roam? Well, my suggestion was not for great iron railings or barbed-wire fences, but simple log-edgings – not high, easily stepped over if one was inclined, but mainly acting as a psychological barrier.

wp bluebells pre logs 090425 0255artAround 2007 I made a couple of temporary encapsulated notices and pinned them to posts at the main entrances to the wood. These explained how valuable the bluebells were. By April 2009 the Conservators had put up their own ones, complete with the proper logo.

It took years before any path-deliniation happened – some aspects of Epping Forest management can be somewhat reticent to accept ideas from outside their own circles – but in early 2014 a load of mixed-diameter lengths of timber – newly cut from clearance further up in the Forest – was delivered to Chalet Wood, and mainly Jill and Alan James and myself set about using pyramid-and henge-building techniques, effort and whatever muscle we had, to move some of these into place. Some we were just able to pick-up-and-put, others needed levers; it was a mixed load.

wp bluebells logs 140224 01169artI think that there has been a fresh supply of logs in more recent years, and I understand the Wren Group have reinstated some of the old ones over the years. I am still surprised that there has never been an attempt to ‘pin’ them in place, with simple wooden place-holders; they often get moved, or roll out of position – or are deliberately moved to create the ‘shelters’ that are always being constructed in the wood.

The degree of casual and unintentional trampling has – I believe – been greatly reduced, and in the main people keep to the paths. But there are always some that like to get in close for the ‘professional’ photograph, or lay in the bluebells to look at the sky and smell the smell. And the dogs running around, of course. But it is the shelters that are the biggest damage-doers. It isn’t just the area the shelter takes up, but the removal of path edging and the dragging and trampling that takes place constructing them. It’s a difficult one. These ‘Forest School’ and ‘survival skills’ activities – and pure play – all need somewhere to be. I just wonder if Chalet Wood is the best place?

wp bluebells shelters 190414 00238artThere is another problem, too. The whole reason that the bluebell wood is so beautiful is that they are native ‘English’ bluebells. These are Hyacinthoides non-scripta, and although certainly not confined to England, they are our common native one – and very different from the Scottish Bluebell, which is what in England is more often called a Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). Those, though, are not the problem. It is the Spanish Bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica that is. These are the luxurious bluebells that you are likely to see in gardens – and garden centres. They are not native, and as well as being luxurious, they are big and invasive. And they hybridise with the English ones – and eventually outbreed them. A friend recently said to me that he had a load of bluebells that he’d turfed out of his garden, and should he plant them in Wanstead Park? I hope that I persuaded him not to!

I looked at Chalet Wood the other day, and along that western edge of Chalet Wood and its English bluebells were ranks of Spanish ones, waiting to take over. It is illegal to uproot wildflowers or to take them from grounds without the owners permission, but these need to be uprooted (or up-bulbed) and destroyed. Otherwise, gradually, creepingly, we won’t have the lovely delicate Hyacinthoides non-scripta anymore, just a load of gaudy hybrids. People will still come to see them, and doubtless say how lovely they look, and ‘what a show’, but there will be something missing.

Paul Ferris 28th April 2021