So, where's the largest new native forest in England? An 850 acre wood created from open fields. A twelve year plan to transform farmscape into forest. Somewhere in the Pennines maybe, or deep in the West Country? Not at all. In fact it's just north of St Albans, less than ten miles outside Greater London. It's Heartwood Forest. And it isn't quite ready yet.
Heartwood Forest is an attempt to create a broadleaved woodland in the Hertfordshire Green Belt. It's the brainchild of the Woodland Trust, a conservation charity with projects nationwide. Heartwood is their largest project, due for completion in the early 2020s. They found a mostly featureless expanse north of the village of Sandridge, with a few patches of existing woodland within, and bought up the fields round about. They're now gradually turning over those fields to tree cover, planting saplings over the winter months with the help of volunteers. If you want to see a lot of leaves, go somewhere else. But to see nature in transition, amid attractive rolling countryside, there's no time like now.
Heartwood's not been planted with easy public transport access in mind. A couple of bus routes run up the middle, but not that frequently, and positively rarely on Sundays. The Midland mainline runs up the western edge of the forest but there's no station particularly near. Instead this is very much a venue for car drivers, which is fair enough because most people in this part of Hertfordshire have cars. But I had to walk, having missed the last bus for two hours, which involved a three and a half mile trudge from St Albans station. It wasn't the most alluring of journeys, alas, but the village of Sandridge at the far end was pleasant enough. It boasts a 12th century church, and three decent-looking village pubs, and also has takeaway leaflets featuring maps of the forest, which is more than the actual forest does.
The thing you most notice as you turn off the main road towards Heartwood Forest's car park is the lack of forest. The adjacent slopes are in fact covered with trees but they're very small, planted last year I think, and barely poking up above the long grass. The other thing you'll notice are the slow cars, their drivers adhering faithfully to the 10mph speed limit, most likely with a dog peering up from the back seat. Heartwood's very much a place for canine exercise, especially (but not exclusively) the paths closest to the car park. And if you come in summer expect to see the wildflowermeadows ablaze, with echoes visible even into November.
It's quite easy to get quite lost quite quickly, even with a map. One area of open common looks much like another, and the paths aren't especially well signposted, indeed barely at all. One tip is to try to follow the waymarked trail, which tours the site via numbered points of interest, although some of the information therein is already out of date. One board says you'll probably have to look hard to see the trees, whereas in this area they've grown up since and are nearly two metres tall. Elsewhere an entire hillside looks like commonland, until you spot the tiny oaks spaced lightly across the contours.
Four pockets of ancient woodland remain - that's defined as woodland over 400 years old. Langley Wood is the nearest to the car park, and the best for wandering about in. It can take a while to find a way inside - the forestry managers have been busy creating bramble and bracken barriers along much of the perimeter. In six months time expect carpets of bluebells. But at this time of year there's much leaf cover to stomp around in, and a fair number of broken branches as a result of last week's storm. Indeed the skyline's highly unusual for November, with most trees still fully green thanks to the mild weather, and any leaves turned brown, red or gold ripped off already by the wind.
Heartwood isn't yet an ideal shape for rambling, not while some fields are sealed off prior to planting, and not with a large private farm located awkwardly centrally. But it does connect to an existing open space to the north, that's NomanslandCommon, an established and locally-loved slice of green. It's also the place where my parents first met, so I extended my walk to make a pilgrimage to this very special site. There was just a hint here of what Heartwood Forest might look like once it's matured, a swathe of deciduous woodland where folk might stroll and enjoy and meet. The next tree-planting day's in a fortnight's time, that's Sunday 17th - please bring a spade. Come visit Heartwood then, or soon, or much later, depending.