Take a walk on the wild side and find links with Uckfield’s aristocratic past as we reveal some of the town’s hidden secrets.
Your guide is ecologist Martyn Stenning, who is closely involved in helping manage the town’s nature reserves. He reveals where you might see a cormorant, why there are so many pine trees around the town and why the Christmas holly is more than decoration.
There are four nature reserves in Uckfield which you can visit, plus an area of ancient woodland. They are: West Park Local Nature Reserve, Hempstead Meadows Local Nature Reserve, Lake Wood (off the minor road to Piltdown), The Millennium Green at Ridgewood, Boothland Wood (near the Victoria Pleasure Ground)
Martyn Stenning says:
Uckfield is a wonderful place to be in winter and a great place to spend Christmas because it still has this Victorian landscape that was formed by the aristocrats of Uckfield.
There were the Streatfeilds on the west of the town and the Nevills on the east. They planted out their estates with all sorts of native as well as exotic plants.
In Uckfield we have many types of conifer tree, particularly Sequoiadenron gigantium (Wellingtonia, Monterrey pine, black Corsican pines and Scots pines.
These can be found all around the housing estates, in between the houses. You will also see them in the woodlands and around the lakes where you will also find our only native woodland evergreen broad-leaved tree-holly.
Holly is known as the holy tree and it is brought into churches and homes at Christmas time because it is supposed to bring good luck and blessings to the house.
Lake Wood and West Park have many holly trees which in most years are richly adorned with berries.
During the winter holly is a refuge for birds wanting a safe place to roost. It is also a place where birds can find food. The berries it produces are a rich form of food, especially for the native thrushes, which include the robin.
It also will attract visiting thrushes from Scandinavia such as redwings and fieldfares and, if you are lucky, there is a non-thrush which likes the holly berry – the waxwing which has been seen in Uckfield in recent years.
The other plants normally associated with winter and Christmas are ivy and yew. Both produce berries. Ivy is also supposed to bring good luck and good cheer at Christmas.
Yew trees look superb in the winter because they have big red “berries” on them. They are not really berries at all, although similar, they are really cones.
Scots Pine is the only native conifer that produces a true cone.
Cones and pine logs are also very much part of the tradition of Christmas. We have Scots pine trees growing in Lakewood and West Park where cones can be collected to put on the winter fires to make them smell rich in pine aroma. They burn quite well.
Lake Wood and West Park used to be part of the Streatfeilds’ estate. They landscaped their estate under the influence of Capability Brown, planting exotic trees as well as native ones and creating the lake by damming what is called a ghyll valley with a clay dam.
The lake will occasionally freeze over and they built an ice house which was the first type of refrigerator. A big pit was dug in sandstone with a roof and just a door opening.
In the winter estate workers used to collect ice from the lake and wheelbarrow it through a tunnel under the Rocks road and fill the icehouse.
It would remain as ice for most of the year. That is where they would put their game to keep it fresh their venison, pheasants, hares etc. The ice house is not open to the public but it still exists in the grounds of Buckswood Grange.
Lakewood is owned by the Woodland Trust and you can walk through at any time of day. We only ask you respect it as private property with public access. Fishing is not allowed because it is a nature reserve.
The other traditional activity that happens during the winter is coppicing. We do hazel coppicing in Lake Wood.
In former times, hazel would be cut to ground level and the poles would have been used to make hurdles for herding sheep and also for wattle and daub, building houses.
We use them these days for bean poles, pea sticks and other garden structures for climbing plants.
Coppicing is something that also happens at Boothland Wood. This is an ancient woodland which had not been managed for about 50 years and the town council obtained a grant from the Forestry Commission to reinstate the coppicing.
For the last few years you will have seen people coppicing the hornbeam and hazel. These will soon produce new vigorous growth. After coppicing, in the spring, the light is able to hit the forest floor and this is very important to bringing on flowers such as bluebells and wood anemones and that is why woods in Sussex are adorned with these wonderful flowers.
At the Millennium Green you have open countryside. It is a wonderful place to go in the winter when there is a covering of snow because it is open and bright.
One of the legacies of the Nevills is Lime Tree Avenue, which is owned privately by about 20 people. It is the avenue which used to lead up to the manor house which no longer exists. Instead we have the Manor Park housing estate.
The trees are being maintained by volunteers with donations of money and kind from local businesses and organisations.
This management group called Lime Aid has formed a management plan for Lime Tree Avenue and holds winter task days which local people are invited to take part in to help maintain these outdoor features of the Uckfield area.
When you go out walking at Christmas time it is not unusual when it is cold to see animals which in the summer would normally confine their activities to the night.
You are likely to see foxes, not only in the woods but also in the town itself.
In the High Street I frequently see sparrow-hawks hunting, especially the feral pigeons which live above the shops.
We also have, which many people do not realise, migratory trout which go up the River Uck to breed in the upper reaches.
If you look over the High Street bridge you may see these trout or chub and other fish.
If you wander around the outskirts of Uckfield you are almost certain to see a deer in the twilight. They do tend to remain nocturnal but deer are becoming increasingly bold. They visit Lake Wood, West Park occasionally and almost certainly visit the Millennium Green.
They have been photographed in Hempstead Meadows, which if you look at the map of Uckfield you will see it is in the middle of the town, although you would not think that if you walk there. It feels remote.
Also, the quiet observer will see badgers, stoats, weasels and, of course, many types of birds.
Snipe can occasionally be seen at Hempstead Meadows and in the fields beyond Lake Wood. Hares are also a possibility on the hills around Uckfield and we wonder if, because of its richness in fish maybe, just maybe, we may get otters back in the River Uck and Lake Wood.
Lake Wood is rich in fish – eels, pike, perch and many others. One of the reasons you do not get many wild game birds on the lake is because they seem to sense there are very large pike under the water.
But I have seen visits by herons, cormorants and other wading birds such as sandpipers, the occasional visit by Canada geese, and once, even a swan. If you wish to be involved with any of these sites, please contact Martyn Stenning: 01825 762893.
* This article first appeared in Uckfield Chamber of Commerce’s Festive Fantasies brochure to promote Late Night Shopping 2009.