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  • Writer's pictureOur Green Warrington

In Woodlands we Trust

Why we need the Lumb Brook Valley area - and how Warrington Borough Council's Local Plan places it under threat.

There is an area in Warrington of real, natural beauty that you may not have heard about. Or you might have visited parts of it without being aware of the wider landscape it shares under a collective name. The area has brooks, streams, ponds, farms, horses, cattle and vibrant green and yellow fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. It has hedgerows, plants, flowers, and miles of pathways that take you away from the noise of traffic and everyday life. Reported are over thirty species of birds, including woodpeckers, nuthatches and warblers, various species of bat, foxes and butterflies.

The ponds, brooks and other water habitats provide a home for a variety of wildlife that you may not see elsewhere. It gifts you views of a picturesque countryside sloping gently northwards towards a distant St Elphin’s Spire, not close enough to touch but sufficient to connect our rural life with our town. But most importantly, and beautifully, it is home to not one, but four magnificent ancient woodland areas along with younger woods, a pine wood, a covert and a beautiful shelter belt of trees.

This area is known as the wonderful Lumb Brook Valley.

Don’t take our word for it. The Lumb Brook Valley has been listed as one of the top ten woodland areas in the UK in the BBC’s Wildlife magazine, The Independent,, and others. The Woodland Trust describes it as “a delightful site with several distinctive woodland areas”. It also gets a special mention in the book, 50 Gems of Cheshire: The History and Heritage of the Most Iconic Places by Mike Appleton. He writes,

“Sometimes gems appear by word of mouth, recommendation or just pure luck. After researching autumnal places to visit, up popped an article from Wanderlust about great regions to visit as the leaves turn. Its article “Go for gold: Where to see Britain’s best autumn colours” listed eight spots and Lumb Brook was one of them.

According to Cheshire Wildlife Trust, the Forestry Commission and The Woodland Trust, Cheshire is one of the least wooded counties in England with less than 5% woodland cover. The Woodland Trust reports that “Lumb Brook Valley is designated as Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland (ASNW), which comprises less than 2% of land cover in the UK. Therefore this area of ASNW provides local people a unique opportunity with a very rare habitat. It also provides an ecologically rich habitat in an increasingly urbanised area and is designated as a Local Wildlife Site.”

When woods are referred to as “Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland” it refers to woods containing mainly native trees and shrubs that have not obviously been “planted”; they are likely to be there as a result of natural regeneration. The Ancient part means that there has been continuous woodland there since at least 1600, although in the case of the Lumb Brook Valley, parts of it may have been there for a thousand years.

So where is this landscape of loveliness?

Glad you asked. To fully appreciate the Lumb Brook Valley it’s essential that you experience the interconnectedness of the woodlands in this area and how they are protected and enhanced by their surrounding landscape. And there is no better way to do this than by taking a walk through them all. To do this you should start a little way away from Lumb Brook Valley, as though you were a bird circling overhead, surveying the area, before gently gliding earthwards to your landing place.

Where would you begin the walk, then?

You could do worse than finding yourself on the cobbles next to St Wilfred’s church on Church Lane in Grappenhall Village and then walking to Grappenhall Bridge, a lovely stone affair that sits astride the Bridgewater Canal. You could go onto the bridge and watch the narrowboats and barges pass by for a few moments.

From the bridge retrace your steps back to the cobbles and take a path on the right of the bridge called Canal Side. After a few minutes you turn right and walk down a narrow path encased in foliage and which crosses a tiny stream called Morris Brook. This path will take you to Grappenhall Wood. The trees at Grappenhall Wood are youngsters in comparison with those in the woodlands you will see later - they were planted in 1998 and 1999 as part of the Woodland Trust’s Millennium Project and include oak, ash, silver birch, wild cherry, rowan, common alder, hazel and hawthorn. There is also a small pond there. The trees and landscape here perhaps do not match the beauty of the ancient woodland you will encounter later but the planting of new woods and forests is essential to help sustain our natural environment and should be encouraged and appreciated. All woods are good woods. So let’s call Grappenhall Wood the hors d’oeuvres of your woodland walk.

When you have finished meandering through this fledgling forest you will find yourself at Broad Lane, a quiet and picturesque country road that runs to Grappenhall Village. Here you will find a 360 degree spread of verdant fields, ancient oaks and stunning woods.

On Broad Lane walk towards Grappenhall Village until you see a tiny road called Hall Lane on your left. Walk along Hall Lane and you will eventually reach a kissing gate, which you pass through. On your left you will see a beautiful shaded area of woodland and a tranquil pond. You can wander down to the pond’s edge, feeling the gentle squish of fallen leaves and twigs underfoot.

From here turn back and take the path opposite the pond at the point of the kissing gate. Stroll along a lovely wide footpath, shaded by a gorgeous green canopy of tall trees. When you finally reach the end of this path you will find yourself on a manmade paved walkway. Turn left and head up the walkway until you see a gate on your right with a sign that reads Grappenhall Heys. This is Beech Wood. Go through the gate and you will find yourself on a broad natural boulevard edged with towering trees, woody sculptures, bramble and bluebells. The wood contains mature beech, horse chestnut, oak, birch, pine and hazel, hawthorn, and rowan. If you follow this path you will come to a set of wooden steps and a boardwalk that surrounds another lovely pond, larger than the last. There is then a sturdy wooden bridge to cross before you continue your journey through the woods.

Your synapses may be temporarily disrupted as you encounter the posh but incongruous housing development that has been built next to the site, its red brick boxes and gleam of shiny cars leaching through the trees as you make your way along this section of your walk. Keep walking.

The pathway will eventually veer to the left. This section of the walk is Parrs Wood, a beautiful “shelter belt” of Corsican and Scots pine, oak, beech, and horse chestnut. While the housing blights views on your left, on the right there are open fields and farmland; glimpses of gorgeous green and yellow that allow natural light to support the woods and keep its habitat viable.

You eventually reach the end of the woods and once through the gate you will find yourself on Lumb Brook Road. You are now in the heart of the Lumb Brook Valley. The sloping nature of the landscape here is such that if you gaze to your right you will be rewarded with stunning views of the countryside all the way to a distant town centre.

This really is a spectacular vantage point and you may want to pause a while and take in the scenery. That's fine. When you're ready you can turn left and walk up Lumb Brook Road away from the direction of the town centre towards Grappenhall Heys Walled Garden.

Hardly any traffic passes and as you observe cows chewing in a field, a farm and white horses / ponies you feel as though you couldn’t be further away from the noise and stress of urban life. Yet Bridge Foot is only fifteen minutes’ cycling away.

If you cross Lumb Brook Road just past the farm and turn back towards town you will find on your left and right a landscape that would have inspired Constable: fields of wheat, ancient oaks, the dark green frill of hedgerows and woodland, the vast skies.

Enjoy this area of natural beauty as you head downhill on Lumb Brook Road in the direction of town. In a few minutes you will reach an entrance to the lovely Lumb Brook Millenium Green.

The Millennium Green was created alongside Lumb Brook as an open green space for benefit of the residents of the Cobbs Estate and the wider general public. This is a wonderful example of local democracy in action – the Green exists only because of the tenacity of local residents and volunteers in lobbying for a natural, beautiful place for the community to enjoy. It forms an important part of the Lumb Brook Valley with its connection to The Dingle, Fords Rough, Dood’s Brook, Parrs Wood, Beech Wood, Grappenhall Wood, Pewterspear woods and the Bridgewater Canal at Stockton Lane. After much planning and fund raising it was opened to the public in 2000.

Once you enter the Millennium Green take the path to the left and pass benches and picnic tables, with a lovely view of the approaching woodland in front of you. Within the Green is an apple orchard, maturing trees and wide open grassland. You could stop and rest here - there's plenty of seating. At the end of the pathway across the Green you will see a smaller, natural path in front of you that takes you into the woods. Follow the path as it wends and weaves through the trees, slightly uphill, with Lumb Brook on your right and open fields on your left, visible through the woods.

You will shortly reach another gate and a road to cross. You have reached Witherwin Avenue and the woody deliciousness of The Dingle. The Dingle begins on the opposite side of the road. There is an underpass that will lead you into the woods.

The woodland at The Dingle is classed as Ancient Semi Natural Woodland and includes oak, beech, pine, silver birch and sycamore. There is also wild cherry, ash, rowan, willow, maple, hazel and hawthorn growing here. It really is an extraordinary walk; an ancient landscape with its hundreds of years old trees, its shady, natural tunnels and its pathways that lace their way through the woodland.

Follow the path through leafy glades, pause and enjoy the quiet streams and take in the flora filled ravine on your left. You follow this path until you reach a wide, open area, edged with ancient trees and foliage. There will be a wide wooden bridge just ahead of you to the right.

Cross the wooden bridge and continue through The Dingle. Here you will see a stream on your left and sandstone outcrops on your right. The pathway eventually leads you upwards to an A Frame gate and now you have reached Dingle Lane. Turn left out of the A Frame gate onto Dingle Lane and head towards another metal gate that will appear ahead of you on your right.

You have now reached the feast of senses and ancient woodlands that is Fords Rough and Dood’s Brook. Go through the gate.

According to the Woodland Trust, this section of the Lumb Brook valley contains the most significant section of Ancient Semi Natural Woodland. It contains mature and semi-mature oak, ash, sycamore, wild cherry, alder, rowan and birch, on the ground there are bluebells, lesser celandine, wood anemone and mosses, liverworts and ferns. When you walk through these woods it’s easy to see why trees, woodland and forests have inspired so many poets, composers and authors. From Shakespeare to Lewis to Wilde, there is something magical, other worldly to them – perhaps in part because here you are not touched by time; you could be at any point in history and your surroundings would be the same.

Continue your woodland wandering, across small wooden bridges and undulating pathways until finally you reach Dood’s Lane, another quiet lane that edges stunning countryside.

To end your walk a delightful dessert could be Julia’s Wood, just adjacent to Fords Rough and Green Lane. Julia’s Wood is named after the late wife of David Ashall, who donated the land to The Woodland Trust. It was then planted with beautiful mixed broadleaf trees, in keeping with the ancient woodland next door.

We have now reached the end of our Lumb Brook Valley tour. From here you could retrace your steps through Fords Rough and take the pathways of The Dingle back to Witherwin Avenue, back to Millennium Green and then from Lumb Brook Road walk along the lovely Stockton Lane, which touches the Bridgewater Canal on one side and offers magnificently clear views of fields and hedgerows all the way up to Parrs Wood on the other. Parrs Wood provides an important green buffer to the housing development behind it. Walking along Stockton Lane with its spectacular rural landscape and enormous trees and scenery that would not be out of place in Provence is a real treat.

You can also pause at sections of the canal, perhaps waving to those on the barges and narrowboats you saw earlier today as they return home. The Bridgewater Canal is acknowledged by Warrington Borough Council as a critical waterway that forms part of the borough's green infrastructure. Wildlife spotted there includes herons, the song thrush, white throat and mute swans and kingfishers.

At the end of Stockton Lane you turn right and walk along Church Lane until you are back at the cobbles next to St Wilfred’s Church in Grappenhall. Perhaps you could have a well earned drink at the Ram's Head or the Parr Arms.

Or maybe from Lumb Brook Road you will continue to Latchford, a fifteen minute walk away, or walk a little further and reach Thelwall. You may prefer to walk into Stockton Heath from Dingle Lane; in fifteen minutes' walk you could find yourself watching the canal boats pull up while having a pint at The London Bridge. Or perhaps you will walk into Appleton, or Dudlow’s Green, or Wright’s Green, or Stretton.

This is the thing with the Lumb Brook Valley – it is accessible on foot from so many areas in Warrington. It is around a fifteen minute cycle ride from Warrington town centre to Lumb Brook Road and the beautiful countryside it offers its visitors: rural, open landscape with farms, fields, cows, ancient woodland, ponds and the wildlife that exists in this delicate ecosystem. And all of these woodland sites are closely linked and walkable from one to the other, making it easy for the public to enjoy. It is a rare town that has such interconnected natural beauty on its doorstep. The very welcomed Warrington Cycle Map we all received recently shows which natural green spaces can be reached within a two mile radius of the town centre. Lumb Brook Valley is one of them.

The Threat

Each of these beautiful woods you have visited today are managed by The Woodland Trust, a charity committed to protecting native woods, trees and their wildlife for the future. And each of these beautiful woods you have visited today is going to be impacted by Warrington Borough Council's Local Plan. Why? Because Warrington Borough Council's Local Plan for the "garden suburb" in South Warrington includes large parcels of land that will mean the woodlands are blocked in on all sides by mass housing developments, effectively cutting them off from their supporting habitat. You may have noticed on your walk that while one side of the woods you walked through was open countryside, the other side of the woods was lined with housing estates. From Grappenhall Heys to Lumb Brook to The Dingle to Fords Rough, only one side has open countryside, the other is housing. Here is an image of the current woodlands - you can see that each of the woodlands already has housing developments abutting it. The building of hundreds of new houses has already been approved at Grappenhall Heys so that more of the woodland at Beech Wood and Parrs Wood will be encroached upon. Grappenhall Wood is to be incorporated into the council's plan for a 'Country Park'.

As you will see from the graphic that forms part of the Local Plan for South Warrington below, there is mass housing planned on the remaining open side of these woods. If this happens these ancient woodlands will be choked by urban development.

By building at the planned sites labelled B1, B3, B4 and B5 the woods will be starved of open countryside and the habitat that supports them.

More than 1,000 irreplaceable ancient woods have been threatened by development in the UK over the last ten years – this doesn’t necessarily mean that the trees will be felled and bulldozed over, but that the threat of chemical pollution, disturbance from machinery, fragmentation as the result of the destruction of adjacent semi-natural habitats, the introduction of non-native plants, the reduction of natural side light, change in soil and hydrology, noise pollution that will drive away the wildlife, car fumes, brick and cement dust, food reduction from nearby fields and hedgerows and the overall traumatic effect of building mass housing estates on a fragile ecosystem is potentially devastating. Aren't we supposed to be protecting our environment in the 21st century?

Much of the woodland in the Lumb Brook Valley has been there for hundreds of years – and it has perhaps thrived for this long because it has been allowed to breathe and grow in its open, natural surroundings. The lush farmland and fields of Lumb Brook Valley form part of its habitat and supports life in the woods – so to plan to cover the area with housing estates that will suffocate the woodlands on all sides; boxing them in to a tight corridor and choking it with urban development seems like desecration; it is illogical. Irresponsible.

Trees and woodland are essential for our environment and to help fight climate change. According to The Woodland Trust, "Trees are the ultimate carbon capture and storage machines. Like great carbon sinks, woods and forests absorb atmospheric carbon and lock it up for centuries. They do this through photosynthesis. The entire woodland ecosystem plays a huge role in locking up carbon, including the living wood, roots, leaves, deadwood, surrounding soils and its associated vegetation. 400+ tonnes carbon per hectare is how much a young wood with mixed native species can lock up in trees, roots and soil. And trees do more than just capture carbon. They also fight the cruel effects of a changing climate. They can help prevent flooding, reduce city temperature, reduce pollution and keep soil nutrient-rich.

A letter from The Woodland Trust dated 29 September 2017 to Warrington Borough Council sets out their response to the Local Plan. It's worth quoting some of it in this blog. The Trust writes,

"The proposed preferred development option would result in development sited directly adjacent to two Woodland Trust-owned sites Lumb Brook Valley and Grappenhall Heys. A proposed country park would also incorporate the Woodland Trust’s Grappenhall Wood site. Due to potential adverse impacts on the aforementioned sites the Woodland Trust objects to this Preferred Development Option.

Lumb Brook Valley is designated as Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland (ASNW) on Natural England’s Ancient Woodland Inventory. As such, the following Planning Policy applies: National Planning Policy Framework, Paragraph 118, states that "planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.

Natural England’s standing advice for Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees states: “Trees and woodland classed as ‘ancient’ or ‘veteran’ are irreplaceable. Ancient woodland takes hundreds of years to establish and is considered important for its wildlife, soils, recreation, cultural value, history and contribution to landscapes."

The close proximity of a large residential development to our site could have numerous adverse impacts on the health of our sites. Currently the areas in which development options are being proposed act as a protective buffer and area of undeveloped and natural habitat adjacent to both Lumb Brook Valley and Grappenhall Heys. By replacing this natural area with a residential development there will be a dramatic change in the intensity of the land use. This will expose these sites to a variety of outside influences, also known as ‘edge effects’, which may have impact negatively on both of these sites. The current options proposed will result in both sites being completely surrounded by housing.

We believe that the inclusion of Lumb Brook Valley as Strategic Green Space is inappropriate, and that the Council should find other alternatives to fulfil their green space obligations. Furthermore, the conversion of our site Grappenhall Woods into a country park, without consulting the Trust or receiving permission is improper, and the plans should be altered to remove our site from a plan of this nature."

The Woodland Trust makes suggestions about a buffer zone of up to 50 metres from the edge of the ancient woodland to help prevent irreversible damage to the Lumb Brook Valley. But to be frank, even if were established that there was no option but to build housing on green belt in the future there shouldn't be a need for a "buffer zone" to protect thousand year old woodland. For a council that boasts of Warrington's sizeable green belt it seems extraordinary that it would remove or threaten that part of it that supports the biodiversity of our precious woods. If the desire is to use green belt and if such space is so abundant why build mass housing and infrastructure on tracts of land that are directly adjacent to rare ancient woodlands?

It is not reassuring to read the following, which is taken from the Homes and Communities Agency report in conjunction with Warrington Borough Council's "Call for Sites" in South Warrington in 2016.

“There are numerous ponds within the existing farmland with several linear woodlands, coverts and tree clumps. Some of these semi-natural woodlands would serve to function as advanced landscaping and entrance features for future development plots

One Mrs C de Vil, eyeing a litter of adorable black and white puppies comes to mind.

As well as the objection from the Woodland Trust, Natural England also raised queries of Warrington Borough Council during the Local Plan consultation period and asked where the policy was for protecting and enhancing our ancient woodlands. To date there is no such policy.

The National Planning Policy Framework stipulates that

"Plans should...take a strategic approach to maintaining and enhancing networks of habitats and green infrastructure; and plan for the enhancement of natural capital at a catchment or landscape scale across local authority boundaries."

The Lumb Brook Valley woodlands and their supporting landscape form part of Warrington's vital green infrastructure. Despite this, there is no reference to to the woodlands in the Local Plan's Green Infrastructure strategy.

And it isn't just the environmental impact of allowing mass housing to be built on these sites, it's the destruction of the sense of openness and the loss of the nature and character of the landscape. There is a significant psychological difference between walking through a curated passage of trees blocked on all sides by mass housing developments and walking through woodlands in a beautiful countryside setting.

While North Warrington has unfairly taken the brunt of mass housing over the years, interestingly it does have the majority of sites recorded in the Local Plan as being of ecological importance and which therefore must be protected. This includes Risley Moss, Woolston Eyes, Paddington Meadows, Rixton Clay Pits, Sankey Valley and to the extent that it sits north of the Manchester Ship Canal - Moore Nature Reserve. Most of the local wildlife sites are also located in North Warrington. In the Local Plan "The Dingle" is classified as one of three "Regionally Important Geological Sites (RIGs)" in Warrington but no specific reference is made in the Local Plan to protecting both it and its nearby habitat.

If the Local Plan is implemented and the housing planned for South Warrington proceeds then the ancient woodlands and their surroundings in the Lumb Brook Valley will be subsumed into mass urban development and the distinctiveness and character of the area will be changed forever.

There are undoubtedly some tough decisions to be made by the council, but the fate of the Lumb Brook Valley shouldn't be one of them.

It's easy. Don't build there.

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