Blue is the colour, where to see Norfolk bluebells
Few sights sum up the magic of springtime like a carpet of bluebells. And visitors to Foxley Wood — along with numerous other woodlands — will have plenty of chance to see the spectacle this month. RACHEL BANHAM and SIMON PARKIN report.
It is described by those who have witnessed it as a complete feast for all the senses – the scent of millions of bluebells complemented by swathes of their rich colour across the forest floor.
From today, visitors to Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Foxley Wood, between Dereham and Fakenham, will be able to see the spectacle as part of the Trust's Blankets of Bluebells events.
David North, education manager at Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said: 'Mid-April to early May is a very special time to visit ancient woodlands because the wildflower spectacular before the leaves form their canopy is at its very best then.'
Foxley Wood's wide rides, originally created to allow the movement of felled timber, make paths far into the wood. It is the largest area of ancient woodland now remaining in Norfolk and is thought to be about 6,000 years old.
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The wood is mentioned in the Domesday Book. In the past it was a hive of economic activity. Bark was stripped there for use in the tanning industry well into the 19th century. It exceptionally rich in flora, with more than 250 different species recorded.
David explained that as well as bluebells, Foxley is home to early purple orchid, wood anemone, wood sorrel and dog's mercury among others. 'These are all native wildflowers,' he said. 'They don't disperse very easily. Where you get a mix of them growing together that's a really good indication that you're dealing with an ancient woodland.'
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He added: 'Britain has some wonderful displays of bluebells and Foxley Wood is probably in the top 10 woods in the UK as a display of bluebells.
'The reason is that all these ancient woodland indicator plants, including the bluebells, they spread very, very slowly, and so it's had over 1,000 years for the bluebells to be fantastic.
'There are literally tens of millions of individual bluebell plants within the wood. It is a fantastic spectacle because it is an ancient woodland and hasn't been too disturbed. It's one of the very best bluebell woods in the whole of the UK - a real amazing colour spectacular.'
John Milton, NWT woods and heath reserves manager, said: 'We all love our bluebells, but what we don't realise is that we [the UK] hold about a third of the world's population of bluebell so we are significant on an international scale. One of the things that bluebell needs is high humidity so it only occurs relatively close to the sea. As a country we are surrounded by sea.'
Since becoming an NWT nature reserve in the late 1980s, management at Foxley Wood has concentrated on clearing the conifers and promoting the regeneration of hardwoods.
John said: 'Why that's relevant to bluebell is that different spring flowers have different strategies, but one of the things with bluebell is that it sends up its shoots very early on and by the time the full canopy is in full leaf the leaf part of the bluebell is already dying off. It's a very, very early spring plant that takes advantage of the lack of leaves in the canopy.
'The problem with conifers is that they cast continuous all year round shade and a species like bluebell would not fare very well under that continuous shade. Hence it was one of the priorities of the Trust when we first acquired the wood to convert it back to deciduous woodland.
'The Trust acquired the site just at the right time. A lot of the ground flora was suffering under the dense shade. But it's all come back.'
NWT has removed most of the conifer trees at Foxley Wood and re-established the traditional practice of coppicing. This involves cutting trees close to the ground in order to encourage new shoots to spring up around the edge of the stump.
John added: 'Because the bluebell is an early species – it grows very early in the spring – it can often survive quite happily in the old deciduous woodland without coppicing.
'Coppicing is particularly for the later spring species that would be growing once the canopy is in leaf, species like yellow archangel, wood avens – that sort of thing that comes through a bit later and if you didn't coppice the cover would be too dense for those to really flourish.'
John and David's enthusiasm for Foxley Wood and its bluebells is palpable. Through this month's NWT bluebell events, visitors can experience the display too. John said: 'The bluebells here are spectacular.
'The smell does really knock you back. I have a picture at home in my living room and it's a picture of Foxley Wood in bluebells, so that kind of says it all really.'
David said: 'Woodlands in the spring are just such amazing places. It's that combination of bird song and the colour of wild flowers and almost you kind of breathe in the special atmosphere of a woodland.
'It definitely just makes you simply feel good. A walk in the woodland in spring, for me, it just brings great joy. It's a complete feast for all the senses. It's a very rich and enriching experience.'
And NWT is not the only organisation celebrating the magic of bluebells. To take advantage of the blue bloom the National Trust is this year operating a bluebell watch which reveals when flowers are coming into bloom on its properties up and down the UK.
Ian Wright, garden advisor at the National Trust, whose woodlands at Blickling and Sheringham Park are two of the best places in Norfolk to see bluebells in all their glory, explains: 'England without bluebells? It would be like cancelling spring and going straight to summer. Can anything actually beat walking through a bluebell wood on a warm spring day with all your senses in total overdrive? But for the bluebell, that time of glory is the commutation of months of preparation, much of it going on unseen.
'The bluebell starts to grow in the late summer, hidden away underground, its clock ticking towards spring. The bluebell's sole aim is to set its flowers before other plants that are more temperature dependant can compete, and before the tree canopy above shades out the forest floor.'
Bluebells are slow to establish themselves, so finding large clumps of the flowers is a good indicator that you are in ancient woodland.
But despite being protected by law they are under threat, both from habitat loss, foreign rivals and unscrupulous collectors who dig up the bulbs to sell on for profit.
The Spanish bluebell began to invade and compete for space with our British native 250 years ago.
It poses a threat as the plant can interbreed with the UK flower.
Mr Wright explains: 'You would be mistaken if you thought this iconic plant of spring is untouchable. It faces real challenges in the form of climate change which may give other plants a chance to compete at the same time or even losing its unique identity by hybridising with its invasive Spanish cousin.
'But for all this, the bluebell remains one of our real champions of spring, so I urge you to make the effort to go and visit a wood near you, and stand still in awe at nature's sheer beauty.'
An easy way of telling a Spanish from an English bluebell is the English plant bares drooping flowers one side of the stem and is scented, while the Spanish bluebell is unscented and has flowers on all sides of the stem with a larger more open bell.
? NWT staff will be on hand at Foxley Wood tomorrow and Sunday for a Blankets of Bluebells Weekend from 11am until 3pm, admission is free. There is also a Carpets of Colour guided walk tomorrow, from 2pm to 3pm, places �2. Meanwhile on Sunday, from 6am-8am, there is a guided walk entitled Early Birds and Bluebells, places �4, �2 children. More details on 01603 625540 or at: www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk
? The National Trust Bluebell Watch can be found at: nationaltrust.org.uk/bluebellwatch
WHERE TO FIND BLUEBELLS
? Blickling — Blickling Hall has a five-mile waymarked estate walk and if you wander from the path in the Great Wood you'll come across plenty of wonderful displays of bluebells.
? Wayland Wood — Believed to be the site of the legend 'Babes in the Wood', this actively managed wild wood, near Watton, still instils a sense of history for which it is locally renowned. As well as bluebells, at the moment you'll see purple orchids, wood anemone and nightingales.
? Burlingham Woods — Owned and managed by Norfolk County Council, this wood, at North Burlingham sign-posted just off the A47, has several circular walks offering a glimpse of bluebells.
? Sheringham Park — National Trust landscape park and woodland garden designed in 1812 by Humphry Repton and one of his most outstanding achievements. The fine mature woodlands contain a large variety of rhododendrons and azaleas and spring bluebells.
? Bacton Wood — Two and a half miles northeast of North Walsham on the Happisburgh Road, this wood is managed by the Forestry Commission who have been thinning and felling of conifers to encouraged natural regeneration of the broadleaf species and plants such as bluebells.
? Fairhaven — Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden, at South Walsham, always has a beautiful pockets of bluebells that are easily accessible.
? Buckenham Woods — These woods, near Strumpshaw, are there for the public to enjoy the fauna and flora; and the bluebells will be in flower soon.
? Sisland Carr — Work has been ongoing to replace conifers with broadleaved trees at this wood, off the A146 near Chedgrave and Loddon, with the result that the bluebells have thrived.
? Woodland Memorial Park — This eco-burial site at Colney may seem like an unusual place to visit but its beautiful woodland and bluebells bloom every year.