Fascinating history of a natural woodland gem

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AMBITIOUS plans to open up access to an attractive area on the outskirts of Morpeth have been unveiled by the Greater Morpeth Development Trust (GMDT).

The picturesque Bluebell Woods that run adjacent to the road from Morpeth to Pegswood have been a source of immense pleasure and enjoyment for generations of local people for hundreds of years because of their leafy woodland walks and stunning springtime carpets of bluebells.

As well as their natural beauty, the woodlands have a rich history with archaeologists being able to find traces of a Romano-British farmstead in the area from the fourth century. There is also evidence that it was being visited sporadically during the Mesolithic/Early Neolithic days.

GMDT is seeking to conserve and preserve the site over the next few years with an investment of £120,000 in improvements to overgrown and waterlogged footpaths, new amenities such as seats and benches, illustrative signage and interpretation panels alongside a woodland management and conservation programme drawn up by retired Newcastle University professor and Morpeth resident Alan Davison.

Funding has already been secured for the first phase of work with a £40,000 grant from Natural England and a further contribution of £20,000 from GMDT, a community-based organisation working in partnership to deliver a programme of economic and social benefits in and around Morpeth.

A feasibility study and mapping of the woodland, including its flora and fauna, and the first phase of improvements are scheduled to be completed by next spring.

Its Environment Director, Rod Mathieson, said: “This is such a tremendously exciting project. The Bluebell Woods are an absolute gem both ecologically and historically but access to the public has become difficult and perhaps uninviting because paths have become overgrown, waterlogged and in some cases, inaccessible.

“What we want to do is to encourage far greater use of what is such a wonderful amenity on the doorstep of Morpeth, by people of all ages and interests. There is so much that people don’t know about the woods – the wonderful walks, the industrial past and the part they have played in the social and recreational life of the town for hundreds of years.”

Records show that there was a racecourse in the area between 1730 and 1883 and that the natural amphitheatre of the woodlands at Easter Field was the setting for the famous Morpeth Olympic Games for part of its run.

It also has an industrial past, which began in 1731 when coal was first dug from a drift mine at Howburn.

Later a deep shaft was sunk in 1860 but flooding problems eventually caused the closure of the pit, with coal reserves mined from the nearby Morpeth Moor Colliery.

A clay pit, tile and brickworks began in 1739 and continued for generations, with many houses in Morpeth being built with bricks made at the works, and there was also a gasworks in the area as well as a County Pauper Lunatic Asylum that was opened on the former site of the racecourse in 1859.

Local residents and groups will be encouraged to become stakeholders and volunteers in the Bluebell Woods project as it develops. Some thinning and clearing of the woodlands may be undertaken along with new planting.

GMDT has a track record of managing environmental and amenity projects, including one that opened up access to the woodland running from the nearby Whorral Bank to the village of Bothal.

It will work on the Bluebell Woods initiative with partners including Northumberland County Council, Morpeth Town

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Council, Pegswood Parish Council, the Homes and Communities Association which is redeveloping the St George’s Hospital site, the NHS and Groundwork North East.

Mr Davison said the Wansbeck Valley is a magnificent corridor of woodland that originated as an oak forest some 6,000 years ago but has been altered by human intervention and management for the past 800 years.

Many of the native trees in the woods were felled centuries ago and replaced with non-native beech and conifers to supply carpenters and farmers with timber.

“Although few oaks are left, many of the herbaceous plants survive in huge numbers such as the bluebells, wood anemone, wood sorrel and garlic and altogether about a dozen of these ancient woodland species can still be found in Bluebell Woods,” he added.

“It is important that we protect them by providing a suitable habitat and preventing invasion by other aggressive species. An important part of the inventory we will be taking over the winter months will be to identify where ancient woodland species may be at risk, specific threats from aggressive species and where the environment can be improved for wildlife.”