Today I witnessed the Big Society in action: hundreds of people, from all walks of life, joined together to express their feelings for a valued community asset. Families, children, teenagers, couples, dog walkers, mountain bikers, BMXers, runners, hikers, wheelchair users and horse riders. All coming together to stand up for a fantastic local (in fact regional) asset under threat, just like every other Forestry Commission wood in England is.
My closest Forestry Commission woodland, Chopwell Wood, is about two hours away by public transport. Upon arrival at Newcastle Central Station, the number 47 bus took me through the picturesque Derwent Valley, and 40 minutes later I found myself in the village of High Spen, home of Chopwell Wood.
High Spen is a pretty village enclosed by woodland and fields. The day was overcast and drizzly, but with a fresh energising wind. Every tree and post in the village has been festooned with yellow ribbons. I arrived in the wood to find a band playing and people arriving from all directions, and in all modes of transport – foot, bike, car, wheelchair and horse. Volunteers handed out yellow ribbons for people and animals to wear. I tied mine to my ponytail.
There was a real festival atmosphere at the rallying point. People and animals were relaxed and friendly. We were here to make a point, but we are confident our voices are being heard, if not yet listened to.
While waiting for things to kick off, I took a short wander around the woods. Classed as a heritage wood in the defra consultation, Chopwell is a mix of conifer plantation and broadleaf woodland. It is designated as a Plantation on Ancient Woodland Site (PAWS). This means it was ancient woodland before some oaf replaced it all with conifers, but it is now being restored. Surrounded by trees and with a multitude of paths to choose from, it’s hard to remember that Gateshead is only ten miles away.
There was no march, but plenty of people had come to speak at the rally. Disappointingly, no one from the Conservatives or Lib Dems was prepared to speak. Instead, Labour and Green Party politicians, representatives of interest groups, and local people spoke passionately about what this wood means to them and why they think Government plans are wrong.
I was most moved by the Forestry Commission representative. He talked about how the Forestry Commission creates and manages “multipurpose woodlands”. No other body can do this as well as they do. This really got me thinking: when I lived in Essex the local wood was managed by the Council as a multipurpose space. It contained a golf course, a trotting track for horse riders, cycle tracks, footpaths, and a nature reserve. Walkers could go anywhere, although the golf course was best avoided. Now I live in Durham. We have some great woodlands around the city, but few of them allow access beyond the designated footpaths and bridleways. In Chopwell, all users are catered for, and walkers have the freedom of the wood.
Halfway through the rally a red kite flew over us. That’s nothing special for Chopwell – the Derwent Valley is famous for its red kites. But it emphasises the importance of taking a landscape view. Each pocket of woodland or patch of open field has a part to play in the bigger picture. Somebody needs to be able to take this wider view and ensure that land is managed to suit its surroundings. Something the Forestry Commission and Natural England are able to do very well.
By two o’clock the rally was coming to an end. People started to disperse. Not just to their cars and home, but into the wood itself. This is truly a much loved, and much used, community asset. And the community gathered today with a message: we love this wood, but we want the professionals to manage it for us. We will if we have to, but the Forestry Commission can do it so much better than we can. Please don’t sell our wood.
This is the voice of the Big Society mobilised.
Time to go home, but not before another stroll along the forest tracks. Before I left to catch my bus, I tied my yellow ribbon to a lamppost at the forest entrance, as two red kites flew overhead in salute to a job well done.