Sunday, February 26, 2012

Midsummer murders

BEFORE: Bluebells on Midsummer Hill

Last April I took some photographs of the magnificent bluebell woods on Midsummer Hill, an iron age hillfort in the southern stretch of the Malvern Hills. These magnificent old woods of mixed native trees are one of the best sites I know for the uniquely English phenomenon of "bluebell carpets", as the mature and unspoilt woods provide a perfect habitat for the flowers to thrive. The magical sensation of these glowing undulations of blue has to be experienced to be believed – to be surrounded by an ocean of azure (and occasionally white) wild blossoms with the spring sun rippling through the new leaves was one of the most moving things I experienced in 2011. Little did I realise at the time that it would be the last time the bluebells would flower in the Midsummer woods.

Soil Disturbance and Brash Fires on Midsummer Hill Hillfort
AFTER: Is this really how you "conserve" a Scheduled Ancient Monument? Tyre-track damage all over the 2,400-year-old ramparts. (Photo by Creda's Hill)

Why anybody would condone such an act of vandalism is difficult to fathom, but there are of course reasons why this devastation is considered appropriate, even "necessary". Midsummer Hill is in the care of the Malvern Hills Conservators, a publicly funded body whose job is to conserve the Malvern Hills (yes, there's a clue in the name). Inevitably there are conflicts of interest in their work. Midsummer Hill is a scheduled ancient monument, the entire top of the hill being occupied by a large iron age hillfort, and it's important that the archaeological integrity of the site be maintained. Parts of the ancient ramparts are wooded to varying degrees, and there are concerns that tree roots may be damaging or disturbing the ground beneath the earthworks. The site is also a designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and so consideration has to be given to the rare birds, butterflies and wildflowers which thrive in the very special Malvern habitat. The Conservators have explained that the work to clear "scrub" from the site has been approved in consultation with various respected bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage and is considered necessary.

Another reason they want to do this work is to improve visibility of the hillfort and increase the amount of open grassland for the public to enjoy. And the clearance is supposedly limited to scrub. "The most valuable trees for wildlife including beech, hawthorns and field maples are being left."

Well something has gone horribly wrong. Mature trees, including the distinctive twisty "faery" hawthorns and large ash trees of more than three feet diameter have been felled. The bluebell woods have been slashed and burned. The hillside is pocked with scorched patches. The ancient ramparts, in the interests of being protected from "tree-root damage", have been rutted and churned up with tyre-tracks from the heavy equipment used by the contractors.

April 2011

Tractor Ruts on Midsummer Hill Hillfort

February 2012
(photo by Creda's Hill)

It's hard to know exactly what is happening here. The felling work has been contracted to a commercial firm, who are making a godawful mess. Whether they are doing so within the terms of their contract or whether they are taking shameful liberties is not clear. Either way, the responsibility lies with the Malvern Hills Conservators to ensure that the work is being carried out properly and sensitively.

There also appears to be a discrepancy between what was authorised and what is actually happening. The damage already covers an area substantially beyond the planned limits.

Map of Midsummer Hillfort. The areas outlined in blue show the areas of proposed "scrub clearance". The area marked in orange shows the current extent of the damage. (Map from the Save the Malvern Hills from the 'Conservators' campaign page.)

Anyone who has visited Midsummer Hill will be in no doubt that it's a very special place. The size of the hillfort is enormous, and it's a split-level job, so large you can't really see it all in one go (with or without the trees). The upper part sits on the crest of the Malvern ridge where its rocky backbone pokes through the thin, grassless soil, and the wind blasts unstoppably. If you can manage to stand up in it you can get a spectacular panoramic view across the fields of Worcestershire and the green undulations of Herefordshire, as well as along the rippling spine of the Malverns. The lower section of the hillfort, a short way down the wooded slopes, is a beautiful greensward burgeoning with tiny flowers. It features a curious and unidentified "pillow mound", which looks like a long barrow but probably isn't. The fort in its heyday (about 390 BC) supported a very large community, who lived in wattle and daub houses and had a very self-contained village within the revetted double-ramparts. A spring which still flows through the bluebell woods provided them with a plentiful supply of water.

The lower section of the hillfort. To the right of the walking couple is the mysterious pillow mound.

Today the fort is an important nature reserve where wildflowers, birds and rare butterflies make every walk here an absolute delight at any time of the year.

Native British bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, growing within the ramparts of Midsummer Hill.

So much for the archaeological and wildlife treasures. Midsummer Hill is also a place where the veil is thin and resonant with ancient spirits. No pagan soul could fail to be enthralled by the dance of Oak and Ash and Thorn through the tappetting woods, and those who are attuned to Faery will find the gates here are wide open.

No doubt within a season or two the damaged land will be green once again and wildflowers (albeit not bluebells) will spring up on the ramparts, providing food plants for butterflies and joy for passing humans. But none of that excuses the horrible devastation of such a precious and dearly loved woodland or the insensitive and clumsy way the work has been carried out. For those of us who consider Midsummer Hill to be a special and sacred place, the loss of the magical woods is an irreparable scar.

Please help local people and other friends of the Malverns to fight back against these ravages, even if only by helping to share and support their Facebook page. It's not too late to stop other parts of the hill from being desecrated.

My thanks to Creda's Hill for making their photographs of the devastation available on a Creative Commons licence.