Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The saga of Grove Wood Jan 2008 - Feb 2009

Grove Wood is in a Conservation Area which means that you must first apply for permission to fell trees over a certain size. But in January 2008 the new landowner, Mr. Houshang Jafari-Najafabadfi, flattened a large area of woodland opposite River View. People contacted the Bristol City Council (BCC) and other agencies and Council Officers were sent to stop the works. However, the damage had been done and where there were previously dozens of trees there was now a wasteland. The hillside had also been stripped of soil and the whole lot was piled up against the remaining trees to form a bank or 'bund' along the public footpath next to the river.

Believing that BCC would prosecute the owner and force him to replant what he'd cut down people were hopeful that the damage would eventually be put right. However, despite a public outcry, BCC decided that all of the trees that were felled were either 'dead, dying or dangerous' or too small and so the landowner was effectively given retrospective permission to fell the trees. Local people measured the diameters of the trees that were felled and found abundant evidence, that can still be seen today, that large healthy trees were actually felled.

Protected species such as kingfishers and otters had been regularly using the riverbank in Grove Wood. After the clearance otters disappeared but kingfishers took advantage of the extra cover afforded by the bund and started to build nest sites along the river. It was at this time that Snuff Mills Action Group (SMAG) was formed and Grove Wood soon became on of its top priorities.

In May 2008 a large white shipping container was planted in the wood. Once again no planning permission was sought by the owner and BCC again decided that this wasn’t illegal as they deemed it ‘permitted development’ because it was a ‘temporary’ structure to be used while work was carried out in the woods. The container is still there 10 months later and it has only been used for two very brief periods. BCC is now looking into exactly what ‘temporary’ means.

In June 2008 there was a period when wildlife was disturbed by workmen strimming away undergrowth next to sensitive breeding areas and along the riverbank. Smoke from fires hung over the valley for several days and this caused many residents to make complaints to the Council. One of the results of all this disturbance was that the kingfishers abandoned their nest in Grove Wood. Meanwhile, the landowner had put in an application to fell 27 large trees on the edge of the wood next to Blackberry Hill.

The landowner also tried to block access to the upper footpath that leads to Laundry Field. To begin with he placed plastic orange road barriers across the path, but these were removed by walkers almost immediately. This path has been used for generations as of right and SMAG is trying to get the footpath registered as a Public Right Of Way to preserve access. This seemed all the more urgent when the landowner had loads of metal fence panels erected along the edge of the lower footpath to block access to the rest of the woods. The fence was vandalised after just a few days and was left lying across the footpath, causing a hazard to walkers. BCC were approached about this but nothing was done until SMAG members removed the damaged panels from the footpath and stacked them behind the shipping container.

There was then a period of calm and the woods fell silent again. However, the otters took nearly a year to return and the kingfishers did not manage to nest successfully after all the disturbances.

After a hard-fought campaign with public protests and over 118 formal complaints from the public, BCC finally applied a blanket Tree Preservation Order (TPO) to the whole of Grove Wood in October 2008. This means that if any tree is damaged or felled, regardless of its size, the perpetrator can be prosecuted and heavily fined. The TPO is currently in force but it seems the owner is objecting to it. BCC will consider his objection, but people are left wondering why the owner would mind a TPO being placed on his woodland if he had no intention of removing trees or building on the land as he has frequently stated.

The Environment Agency (EA) had requested that the bund be removed as they considered it created a flood risk. However, the bund has actually become a haven for protected wildlife and so the EA were persuaded to take a more pragmatic approach to this and the bund will not now be removed - at least until this year's bird breeding season is over.

In January 2009, almost a year to the day after the original clear felling, the owner once again reappeared with his workmen and re-erected the fencing opposite River View to try to block access to the upper footpath. To prevent it from falling they hauled logs from the bund and dropped them haphazardly against the base of the fence. Nevertheless the fence has now partly collapsed as it did before. Complaints have once again been made about the unsightly appearance of the fencing and the container and of course the otters have disappeared again.

Addendum: The owner has since re-erected the fallen fencing and added circular and triangular arrangements of more fence panels to prevent it from collasping so that there are now many more panels in the woods and along the footpath. However, members of the public have once again removed the panels blocking the upper path and walkers, ramblers, joggers, etc are using it once more.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Snuff Mills history

Snuff Mills is the woodland and grassland between the car park at River View and the little 'Halfpenny' bridge that crosses the river to Oldbury Court. This land was never really part of the Oldbury Court Estate. It has a long history of quarrying for building stone dating back to at least the 1600s. While quarrying was important, much of the area was also used for growing timber and the land next to the river was used as a paddock for grazing animals. This area was known as 'The Hams' for many years and many older people often refer to going for a walk along 'The Hams' when they go for a walk in Snuff Mills.

There were at least two water mills between Halfpenny Bridge and River View. They were used for grinding corn, snuff and also cutting building stone. Snuff was ground at Witherlays Mill from about 1790 to 1843. This Mill no longer exists but you can see where it was in the lumps and bumps in the ground just before Halfpenny Bridge. This Mill was also the home of the legendary 'Snuffy Jack' who is thought to still haunt the valley. The Snuff Mill we know today was called Whitwood Mill and used for grinding corn and then cutting stone. It was excavated by the Avon Industrial Buildings Trust in the 1980s and restored thanks to the hard work of local historian, John Bartlett.

Bristol Corporation bought 'Stapleton Glen', now Snuff Mills, as a park for all Bristolians in 1926. The woodland was still recovering from being felled during the First World War to support the war effort. While the woodland started to grow back, the mills were all demolished and a bandstand built where Snuff Mill used to be. The old quarry that had formed a deep lake above what is now the car park was filled in during the 1950s and the slope planted with trees. Before this happened, the lake was a popular if rather dangerous place to go for a swim.

The gardens were kept by the first ranger, Ben Smith. They became a much-loved feature of the valley and were kept beautiful for nearly fifty years. The Council also improved the footpaths and gradually Snuff Mills became one of the most popular places to go for a walk in Bristol.

However, as budgets to manage Bristol's parks and open spaces were cut back during the last twenty years, the garden was planted with low maintenance perennial plants, paths were not resurfaced as often as necessary and benches were not replaced. The toilets were also voted the worst in the UK in a BBC TV programme a few years ago.

Snuff Mills Action Group was formed in March 2008 to support the Council in its efforts to put more resources in to Snuff Mills. The Group plans to work on the garden to return it to its former glory and increase the variety of trees in the woodland to improve it for wildlife. With an Action Group to care for it, we hope that Snuff Mills and the rest of the Frome Valley will be as fantastic to visit as Blaise Castle has become.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Grove Wood history

Grove Wood is about 17 acres of natural woodland on the other side of the River Frome from Snuff Mills park. It is a huge area of woodland, covering the side of the valley from Blackberry Hill to 'Laundry Lane' - the track that leads to Oldbury Court from Halfpenny Bridge.

Before 2008 Grove Wood was a peaceful place. The lower path was quite difficult to use and most people used the upper footpath to avoid the muddy patches and the fallen trees. In spring the woods smelled of wild garlic and it was quite a dark woodland because of the dense tree canopy. It was a place for nature and one of Bristol's special, less well-known places

The old tithe map from the early 1800s shows that much of the land was 'coppice' or a 'grove' and this helps to confirm that much of Grove Wood is an ancient one, making it especially important for wildlife. In the 1880s the land was given to the City of Bristol, with certain covenants, and subsequently passed on to the NHS. In 2000 it was sold to a consortium of people who set up ‘Frome Valley Conservation Ltd’. This company had the apparent intention of keeping the woods as a nature reserve. Shares were sold and many people bought them believing that this would secure the land for ever.

Frome Valley Conservation did not manage the woods. Only a set of steps were built next to the drain that runs down from the Hospital. Snuff Mills is well known for being alive with birds and animals, but the river next to Grove Wood is special because it was less frequented by humans, making it a safe haven for very rare otters, kingfishers, bats and other creatures that dislike being disturbed.

In November 2007 Frome Valley Conservation Ltd was wound up. This was announced in the London Gazette and none of the shareholders were informed or offered a refund for the shares they had bought. Instead two local charities were sent cheques. It seems that both the Avon Wildlife Trust and the Wallace and Grommet Appeal sent them back, most likely because of the way in which the shareholders were treated.

The 17 acres of land we know as Grove Wood was then put up for auction in December 2007. Bristol City Council (BCC) were contacted by several local people who were concerned about what would happen and they were told that the Council would be purchasing the woods. Indeed BCC did try to raise the funds for this but were slightly too late and had to pull out of the auction at the last minute. This left a local resident and one Mr Houshang Jafari-Najafabadfi in the bidding.

Mr Jafari won the bidding at the auction and officially took ownership on 23rd of January 2008.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Blog under reconstruction

We've decided to freshen up this blog for the Spring.

Please visit again soon.

If you have any queries about Snuff Mills Action Group, please email us.