The woodland heart of Hardy country

Thorncombe Wood at dawn
Thorncombe Wood at dawn. Photo by Ian Metcalfe

A captivating little parcel of mixed woodland and heath around the picture postcard pretty hamlet of Higher Bockhampton – known the world over as the birthplace of Thomas Hardy – Thorncombe Wood Local Nature Reserve receives at least 60,000 visitors a year many of which may still be missing out.

That’s according to Dorset Council ranger Claire Platten whose job it is, in part, to reach out to the community to take greater advantage of its charming 26 hectares.

‘At the height of the summer while the Visitor Centre is open we operate at near full capacity,’ she says, ‘but it is still a source of some amazement that more people don’t come here in the evening. From springtime until the autumn there’s time after work to come here and enjoy the woods and the heath as the birds go to sleep and the owls wake up. The light is so beautiful and the quietness is amazing.’

Being a Local Nature Reserve rather than the more restrictive designation applied to Sites of Special Scientific Interest means that visitors to Thorncombe Wood can enjoy far greater freedom to explore. There are several signed and guided routes though the reserve which is crossed by a Roman road as the wood gives way to Black Heath and Rushy Pond, mentioned in Hardy’s short story The Withered Arm, but dog walkers, evening strollers, playing children, Hardy pilgrims and all others in between are welcome to stray from those paths and find the quiet spots, the hidden areas, the places just beyond that invite the imagination to run and just might reveal some of the reserve’s rarer nature. 

‘I love the fact that someone can come here with their dog and with a little time and some exploring get to know their way around pretty well; or another visitor from the other side of the world can come in search of Thomas Hardy and discover the wonderful walk through the woods to the cottage as a kind of bonus. Two visitors can have two very different experiences in the same space.’

After a successful trial run in the spring, it is hoped the Lost Words Trail will return this autumn. Inspired by Robert Macfarlane’s book of spell poems written in response to common words from the natural world that are falling out of use with children – such as Catkin, Fern and Bramble – the trail guides younger visitors to waymarkers identifying places where some of the flora and fauna that have become ‘lost words’ can be found.

‘The response was very encouraging from parents as well as children. It’s very clear to me that what people expect from the countryside today is very different to what it was even fifteen years ago. People expect there to be signs, a toilet, rubbish bins, somewhere to put dog mess and a café. They like their experience to be structured and tend not to be so confident when they’re left to their own devices. I’m constantly surprised, even now, when I hear someone ask if there’s anything for children to do here – it’s a wood!

‘Our first job here was to create an experiential pathway through the woods to the Hardy cottage so people can get a sense of nature rather than just walk up the lane, as impressive as that is for those who don’t know what it is to walk into a beautiful hamlet like Higher Bockhampton.’

Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre opened four years ago and is run as a partnership between Dorset Council, that owns it along with the woodland, heath and car park, and the National Trust, which owns Hardy’s Cottage. Two Dorset Council rangers – Claire who is part-time and her full-time colleague Kath Clay – manage the nature reserve with its rich diversity of deciduous and evergreen trees, including a significant stand of sweet chestnut.

‘It’s quite rare in Dorset to have a population of sweet chestnut that is open to explore,’ says Claire. ‘In the autumn they turn a magnificent vibrant orange – one of two colours that define Thorncombe Wood, the other being blue for the bluebells that are so stunning in the spring. 

‘We planted oak saplings last year to replace lost oaks and hope to plant more. We’ve got some standing deadwood as well – our monoliths – two coppice stands and a couple of ancient woodland indicators in wood anemone and wood sorrel, so we know there has been woodland here for a very long time. 

‘We tap into a wealth of local volunteer expertise – Dorset Fungus Group lead fungi forays in the autumn and have found some very rare fungus here; Dorset Bat Group record and our bat population and Dorset Mammal Group keep an eye on our dormice. The neighbouring Duddle Estate is privately owned but has a project to repopulate the sand lizard and we have a long-term aim to reclaim heathland adjacent so the population can expand. Only last year we had our first record of a smooth snake on the reserve, that is very exciting, and Kath is hoping to catch sight of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker that has been heard at work.’

Thorncombe Wood is increasingly accessible with ‘Trampers’ all-terrain mobility scooters available, the Stepping Into Nature initiatives for older people and volunteer groups that include people with different needs from children in danger of exclusion to adults in recovery and some for whom simply getting to the nature reserve is a triumph in itself.

Black Heath looking towards Thorncombe Wood. Photo by Kath Clay

‘There are so many benefits to wellbeing in being outdoors,’ says Claire. ‘In my opinion none of us gets outside as much as we should, me included, so we’re getting creative. Our ‘Park and Stride’ walkabouts encourage people to park their cars elsewhere and walk to us, or visit us on the way to or from Kingston Maurward or Max Gate. 

‘Last year at the height of summer it was so hot on the beach and we posted on social media to remind people they didn’t have to sweat it out on the beach they could come here and get cool under the canopy in the woods. Its success shows how useful social media can be.’

It also enables visitors to ask the rangers questions about things they’ve seen, such as…

‘We always get a few who are surprised to see grass snakes swimming across the ponds, but they feed on the newts in the ponds so it’s perfectly normal to see a grass snake with a newt in its mouth.’ 

• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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