Exactly one year ago my Englishman and I went for a walk. Like today it was a beautiful spring morning, cool but gloriously sunny and the corona crisis was still unimaginable. We were in the countryside south of London. The walk took us across fields and meadows with picture-perfect views of rolling hills covered in the fresh green of spring.
After a while we approached a forest and the ground seemed to have a blue shimmer. But the colour was so unfitting for the surroundings, my brain dismissed it on the grounds of improbability. Then I saw them: bluebells, thousands and thousands of blue flowers covering the entire forest floor. It was like the trees had been put on a deep-blue high pile carpet of vast proportions.
We had found a bluebell wood. The first time I encountered one I wondered who had planted all the flowers. Quickly I was told their occurrence was natural. I found that hard to believe. Years later I realised the truth is somewhere in-between. Bluebells are indeed native to western Europe but without massive human intervention they do not naturally occur in such enormous quantities in one place.
Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are spring flowering bulbs. They form a delicate stem with 5-12 deep violet-blue bells attached. Bluebells are quite particular about their growing conditions. They need just the right amount of light and shade. The ground under the porous canopy of a young deciduous wood is perfect. Mature forests are too dark, even in spring before the trees grow leaves.
This is where ‘coppicing’ comes in. It’s a forest management technique where every few years almost all trees are cut down to ground level. Several thin stems re-grow from each tree stump until they are cut again. The result is a perpetually young forest – the perfect habitat for bluebells.
On that sunny spring day last year my Englishman and I were standing in a coppiced wood. Unlike what one is used to in an ordinary deciduous forest, it seemed strangely lit. Spotlights of sunshine pushed through the canopy and illuminated the tiny bluebells on the ground.
As we walked on the vegetation suddenly changed completely, or rather, all of a sudden there are very little of it. We had come out of the forest into an area of tree stumps. It looked disturbingly like environmental destruction of the most brutal kind. But, surprisingly, coppicing creates a variety of habitats and therefore coppiced woods are extraordinarily divers places. Now we noticed that a little further on there was an area where thin shoots were emerging from the coppiced trees, beyond there was a patch of more mature shoots, almost small trees. Our walk had turned into something like an educational trail for coppicing. Later we found a sign that explained this forest was managed in a 14-year cycle, cutting small sections every year to constantly provide a maximum range of habitats.
For everyone outside the British Isles finding a bluebell forest by accident seems improbable to say the least. In the South East of England it is not. Here the ancient technique of coppicing is still practised today, although more by environmental charities than commercial wood growers.
A beautiful side effect of these conservation efforts is the highest concentration of bluebell woods in the world. So in Kent and Sussex it’s not that difficult to accidentally find one. When it happens, it feels like waking up on a winter morning and finding the familiar world obscured by a layer of snow, magic!