Hidden tiger, crouching bluetits

Image of Bluetits fighting via Creative Commons
via Creative Commons

Don’t be fooled by their sweet exterior, a dumpling of blue-green and yellow bobbing from hedge to feeder to fence and then back again like tiny feathered globes. When blue tits arrive in your garden they arrive with a vengeance, all needle-slash of claw and lethal-weapon beaks and their fierce reputation has followed them across time and literature.

Blue tits [Latin name: Parus caeruleus] are not the star turn from a Hallmark card sent to us by Mother Nature. They might look as if they have just returned from a stint as cast extras in a Disney film, swirling around the head of a princess, tweeting words of love but in reality they are aggressive, furious balls of spitting ire and possessiveness. George Orwell knew this when he depicted the forensically precise beak work of this tiny creature as it gorges itself upon the feeders that householders hang up to attract it:

A blue-tit darts with a flash of wings, to feed
Where the coconut hangs on the pear tree over the well;
He digs at the meat like a tiny pickaxe tapping
With his needle-sharp beak as he clings to the swinging shell.

(Summer Like)

In the UK, blue tits start scouting for a nesting site in January and once they have chosen one, will defend it until they start nest-building in March and April.  The competition for a mate is fierce, their alpha male courting an avian Tarantella for human onlookers, their calls scolding and full of fury. Once paired, copulation happens to a soundtrack of high pitched notes, similar to the begging call a female blue tit may make when a male blue tit enters the nest with freshly killed food. She will time the laying of her eggs so that they hatch just as the caterpillars on which they feed their nestlings are hatching and the babies emerge looking uncannily like miniature versions of the actor Tommy Lee Jones: all cross, feathered brows set above dark and irate eyes.

The adults brook no competition during the breeding season although later in the year they often move and feed in protective flocks, looping from one place to another in short bursts of flight. I had to remove a garden mirror after it ended up smeared with blue tit blood as a lonely male bird set out to attack and drive off his [rival] reflection and battered his own head half to bits in the attempt. They possess sturdy, well defined head markings with a dark blue-black eyestripe and a skull cap of brighter blue, set against their white cheeks and forehead which, in the case of my star crossed lover, darkened with blood as he wheeled and slew into the glass of the mirror.

His aggression shouldn’t have been a surprise to me after reading, years ago, about European great tits who enter bat caves and peck hibernating bats to death: “The Great Titmouse will attack small and weakly birds, splitting their skulls with its powerful beak in order to get at their brains; and it has even been known to serve a bat in this manner” reported Howard Saunders back in 1899 but seeing such a tiny bird driven to death by its own desire to mate was disturbing, even knowing their capabilities.

Blue tit by Nick J Stone /Flickr
Blue tit by Nick J Stone /Flickr

DH Lawrence was no stranger to this titan of the ornithological world and in ‘Two Blue Birds’ their pugilistic nature serves as handy metaphor for the swirling resentment and occasional outbreak of aggressive rivalry between the protagonist and the two women who unhealthily compete for his attention. Mrs Gee and her secretary rival are both dressed in cobalt blue silk, overly obvious maybe although that “blest blue bird of happiness” as Mrs Gee first calls him is soon engaged in a battle royal with another, at their feet:

“And as she was being blest, appeared another blue bird–that is, another blue-tit–and began to wrestle with the first blue-tit. A couple of blue birds of happiness, having a fight over it! Well, I’m blest!

She was more or less out of sight of the human preoccupied pair. But ‘he’ was disturbed by the fighting blue birds, whose little feathers began to float loose.

“Get out!” he said to them mildly, waving a dark-yellow handkerchief at them. “Fight your little fight, and settle your private affairs elsewhere, my dear little gentlemen.”

…”Aren’t they extraordinarily vicious little beasts?” said he.

“Extraordinarily!” she re-echoed, stooping and picking up a little breast-feather. “Extraordinarily! See how the feathers fly!”

And she got the feather on the tip of her finger, and looked at it. Then she looked at the secretary, then she looked at him. She had a queer, were-wolf expression between her brows.”

Talking about blue tits and their reputation for aggression on twitter, I heard about a local bird ringer called Helen Bristol who has been subjected to the wrath of the tit family when going about her bird protection duties:

“We catch the birds in a fine mesh net ( mist net) and generally will check the nets every ½ hour and sooner if the weather is cold /hot/a bit blowy/drizzly,” Helen said. “At this time of year the tits go around in mixed flocks – most usually Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Long Tailed Tits and if you’re lucky Marsh Tits, although where I ring, the Bearded tits don’t join the gang. You can imagine this gang all feeding on or going towards feeders and the catch can be large, 25+ in one go.” 

Instantly you can see the potential for aggressive behaviour because of competition for food and the proximity of bird species in a smaller space, as Helen explains:

“Inevitably several get caught close together and that’s when the pecking starts. Generally it’s the Greats and Blues that hack into each other. Usually they’ll go for the eyes – not a pretty sight- which is why I initially take a look at the net to see which birds are close together, very tangled or too near the ground. Those birds come out first and are put into individual bags, before being taken back to the ringing station for processing.”

The tits obviously can’t kill with one blow to the back of a human’s neck but they seem to know how else to cause maximum irritation to a creature many times their size:

“The Greats and the Blues also attack the ringer, usually pecking away at your cold hands and causing a lot of language. You know what it’s like when you have a sore bit down the side of a nail? They seem to home in on that. I often get home with little peck marks all over my hands. I find it amazing that such small birds can cause such pain. At an owl sanctuary recently I was “bitten” by a tame petting Eagle Owl but that didn’t even bruise. It was a friendly “please stop”. The only other birds who peck/bite are woodpeckers and some sea birds such as gulls.”


Aggression from other tits isn’t the only challenge these tiny birds face either. They have to deal with a form of brood parasitism which has seen blue tits and great tits engaged in a potentially bloody war about home invasion and who parents who. This happens when the great tit [Parus Major] fails to find an ideal place to lay its eggs and simply invades the nests of the smaller blue tit, who are half the size of these invaders. Being much smaller, the blue tit often capitulates, deciding to abandon their nest and fly away which, at least, protects them from being pecked to death or incurring severe injuries. Interestingly, the blue tit seems to have evolved a way of salvaging something from its loss with scientists reporting incidences of the bird re-entering nests taken over by great tits, and laying their own eggs in it, in the manner of a cuckoo. The resulting chicks temporarily assume the identity of their foster parents, recognising great tit calls as their own and behaving in species congruent ways. Known as sexual misimprinting, it tends to cease upon fledging and the adult blue tits birds revert back to their species specific behaviour.

The same doesn’t apply though, to great tits raised by blue tits. These tend to remain imprinted upon their blue tit foster parents, even trying to mate with other blue tits when adult. So why do blue tits not remain imprinted then? It has been postulated that perhaps blue tits lead a riskier and more rackety life than great tits and their smaller size [in comparison to a great tit, that is] means they have much to lose should they try to compete with other sexually mature great tits for food and a mate. So they go back to their own kind which is especially critical come the time when they need to raise their own brood.

A nest full of baby birds is a place full of conflict and competition: the needs of the adults have to be balanced against the needs of each chick and the brood as a whole. The parent birds are in competition with their own chicks for food and ensuring that their energy needs are met is a finely tuned thing. This is where humans come in handy, in providing supplementary feeding for birds throughout the winter hunger gap and when birds are nest building and hatching their eggs. A bird that meets the spring, well fed with fat reserves like a butterball turkey is more likely to be a winner in the mate stakes and will certainly have more energy to spend on wooing rather than desperately trying to build its strength up as natural food sources regenerate. Comely female blue tits probably aren’t terribly impressed by a bird more interested in a suet ball than the gentle curve of their saffron- yellow breasts.

So help all birds this coming winter by keeping them fed and remember that not all feeding areas are created equal in the eyes of smaller birds such as the tits. Larger bird feeders and bird tables tend to attract bigger, more voracious birds who are able to fend off tits easily and consume food faster, making it trickier for other birds to eat enough food to maintain body weight and causing them to expend precious energy fighting for their share. If your bird table has hooks to hang nut feeders, shells and fat balls from, alongside a large flat table top for larger birds to eat off, members of the tit family don’t tend to come off very well. Despite their supple, dexterous bodies and beaks, they can end up crowded out.

Birds from the tit family are aerial acrobats, able to feed upside down, contort themselves into the tiniest of spaces to extract food (watch a blue tit or coal tit feed from hanging coconut shells and you’ll see what I mean) and semi hover in the air to peck at nut feeders. So hang up feeders that only the tits can reach, filled with peanuts, fat, niger seeds and sunflower hearts. Hang them at different levels and, if you have a large enough garden, in different areas to discourage avian tit fights over food which waste even more calories and energy during a cold winter. These feeders may well attract goldfinches too but the blue tit can more than easily hold its own against them, giving you your own version of Hidden Tiger, Crouching Bluetit in the garden this winter and spring.


Nick Stone writes Invisible Works
Thank you to Andrew MacDonald and Helen Bristol.

Autumnal wooded walks in East Anglia


Alison Uttley knew a thing or two about woods and many of her characters are creatures of them. From Susan in The Country Child who lived among the wooded scrabbly crags of the Peak District to the Little Grey Rabbit who was, to me, the perfect anima of those woodland trees, when Uttley said “there are many lovely small things- leaves and rain” she must surely have been thinking of the British woods in the Autumn.

Woodlands are magical places all year round but as Summer relaxes its hold and we slip into Autumn, they become ever more so, guardians of an imagination forged by the tales of childhood: remember The Forbidden Forest, Hundred Acre Wood and the acres of spike dark pine trees which inhabited the imaginations of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen? From the barcode trunks of pines in Breckland forests to the twisted moss-cloaked limbs of old oaks, trees are a gateway into a shared history and collective subconscious. Trees cloaked our little islands and provided us with the means to be safe, warm and fed and in turn they nourished a rich cultural heritage where specific stories, legends and songs told their local tale.

The Woodland Trust is desperately trying to save over 613 ancient woodlands across the UK, many of them at risk from development, pollution and the effects of viruses which attack specific trees and plants and increasingly at risk are the 256 threatened wildlife species who rely on them to develop and thrive. Over the last 10 years, over 100 of these woodlands have been lost and it is even more imperative that we familiarise ourselves with our local woodlands and the only way to do this is to use them regularly- and join one of the many conservation groups dedicated to protect and promote them for generations to come.

So this Autumn and the coming Winter, join some wildlife organisations, download their wildlife spotting guides then put on your boots and walk. Learn about the local dialect and the names for the things you will see and encourage your children to make up words for the things they see too, in the best tradition of our ancestors who were far more imaginative with words than we seem to be. Only through a workaday familiarity will be protect our East Anglian landscapes and allow them to grow in a dynamic fashion in harmony with the humans who, all too often in the past, have threatened their existence by holding too tight to the myth of the pastoral idyll which seeks to both preserve in aspic and alienate through idealisation.


Here are some of The Millers Tales favourite woodlands across East Anglia. Some have facilities such as toilets, places to eat and drink and run regular events designed to educate and entertain such as bird ringing demonstrations, coppicing workdays, bug hunting and night walks to spot bats. Others are simply woods, a place to walk, sit and contemplate, a busy place for other creatures but hopefully less so for us; they offer us the chance to stop and watch and listen.

Arger Fen seen from a nearby hillside.
Arger Fen seen from a nearby hillside.

Arger Fen, which lies on the borders of South Suffolk and Essex, near Little Cornard,  is a small fragment of the wild wood that once covered Suffolk over a thousand years ago and the history of those who lived nearby is writ large upon it. The woods retain a sense of timelessness; apart from the conservation signs there is very little to remind you of the modern world and much to transport you away from it. Arger Fen protects species of plants and animals that you might not encounter very often; ancient stands of wild cherry (Prunus Avium) fuzzed with blossoms in the Spring, stag beetles, the hazel dormouse and barbastelle bats. Famous for its English bluebells which thickly carpet the slopes and glades, visitors can avoid trampling on them by using the boardwalks which also cross marshy areas and streams although stepping on them is at times unavoidable. Packed earth steps are cut into the banks at the heart of the wood, making this a woodland unsuitable for wheelchairs and flimsy buggies and there are no toilets nearby. The nearby villages of Bures, Henny and Assington all have lovely country pubs for a post walk repast.

Bacton Woods by Evelyn Simak : Geograph.org
Bacton Woods by Evelyn Simak : Geograph.org

Bacton Woods is basically a safari park for trees with over thirty species found in this beautiful woodland, close to Witton in North Norfolk on the Happisburgh road. The original woodland included Sessile Oaks and two of these, which are thought to be over 200 years old, still remain and the whole site was originally heathland before planting which is why you will see plenty of clumps of old gorse and broom. Keeping them company are Scots and Corsican pine, western hemlock, Douglas fir and larch alongside other broadleafs such as hazels, rowans and ash; bluebells, sorrell and dogs mercury carpet the woodland floor with seasonal foliage and blooms, making this a sensory pleasure at all heights.

Bacton Wood is more proactive with regards to entertainment: visitors can enjoy orienteering along three waymarked routes; ride or walk several trails which possess broad paths, bounded by natural leafy archways: this is the place to bring toddlers who enjoy Autumn leaf kicking. The blue trail runs along variable tracks with occasional benches and walkers will be able to identify many woodlandtree species from the beech avenues, ‘short’ pines planted for seed collection and towering wellingtonia trees. The medium ability red trail runs along variable tracks with occasional benches to rest on,  passing through a conifer plantation and mixed woodland, a beech avenue and recently planted woodland where a ‘grandparent’ Oak lies and, finally, past the pond. The yellow trail (1.3miles) runs along well made tracks with frequent benches. From a clockwise approach it gradually loses height as it passes conifer and mixed woodland to the pond and then on to the ‘grandparent’ oak tree. This is followed by a 200m incline to a level walk past the wellingtonia trees, mixed woodland and an area recently cleared to encourage native broadleaf woodland.

Organised events include conservation work and children’s activities such as nature spotting walks and entry is free for under 3s (unless otherwise stated). The woods also have some decent mountain biking trails which include free drops from 7ft high to smaller, safer ones for beginners. Dirt jumps will allow freestylers to try out their tricks and these jumps are 6-7 feet high. Picnic areas are also provided and carparking facilities (about two and a half miles north of North Walsham) including disabled bays are provided. The nearest public toilets are in North Walsham town centre or on the B1159 at Walcott.

Beautiful Felbrigg colours by Dodo Matush
Beautiful Felbrigg colours by Dodo Matush

Lions Mouth at Felbrigg Hall is run by the National Trust and offers the Hall with all its amenities, parkland, lakeside walks and a  520-acre (2.1 km2) Great Wood which shelters the house. Of especial note is the well-known “Lions Mouth”, a beauty spot which can be reached from the main road A148 and is popular with walkers and ramblers.

Home to beech trees which may well prove to be the furthest north they can exist on this type of acid soil, rare fungi and lichens and (the fabulously named) slender lemon slug, the area is an ecological wonder-  parts of Felbrigg have SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status. This is the place to be in the early morning when the mists are slow to burn off, when plovers, lapwings and barn owls screech, rise and fall, clamour and call to each other.

Birds aren’t the only creature on the wing though: eight species of bat have been recorded here, including woodland mammals such as Natterer’s bat and the rare Barbestelle. Felbrigg Lake is a good place to head for at dusk to see bat activity as they swoop through the clouds of midges and gnats which skein just above the surface of the water. Check out the mysterious Icehouse, hibernation site for many of the Felbrigg bats.

There are many marked walks available (see the NT website)  including 3 easy circular dog friendly options which encircle the Hall and old deer park. Two of the walks pass along wide, push and wheelchair accessible tracks and one takes you through the “Victory V” wood.  Planted  in 1946, it was designed to be seen as a “V” from the air. Felbrigg Hall organises a raft of events for all the family, marking popular calendar dates such as Halloween and Christmas. Booking ahead is advised.

Longthorpe Woods by Woodland Trust

Londonthorpe Wood and the Belton Estate, Lincolnshire– Here’s a handy clue as to the age of a woodland: If there is evidence of wood anemone and enchanter’s nightshade, the woodland is a venerable one. Londonthorpe has a healthy population of both, dating back to more ancient woodlands among its newer oak and ash saplings (planted in three phases from 1993-95) and also boasts trees planted back in 1856, in memory of the Crimean War. More intriguing are the ghost sightings spoken of by locals and visitors: a headless coachman whose stagecoach rattles its way along Five Gates Lane and estate entrance; the chilling feeling that apparently creeps along the spines of visitors to Belmont Tower which can be found close by. One visitor to the woods reported “a huge red handprint firmly on his neck and a choking sensation. The handprint remained for half an hour.”

The village name  derives from the Old Scandinavian, lundr+thorp, meaning an “outlying farmstead or hamlet by a grove and groves aplenty we have here alongside a range of habitats from mature woodland to a pond, separated by roadways. Grassy paths wander circuitously through open meadows with a healthy population of Spring and Summer wildflowers and  there is also a wide range of species that call it home, including woodpeckers and grass snakes. The site lies on the edge of Grantham and the National Trust’s Belton Park, the Woodland Trust property and surrounding farmland. The new planting consists of mixed, mostly native, broadleaved species with ash and oak and the site contains many veteran trees – remnants of older parkland planting and the old hedgerows that transect the planting site.

Belton Estate has dramatically wide woodland paths with sweeping vistas- one of them culminates in Belmont Tower itself. The Belton Estate is rich in wildlife and covers about 1,350 acres (750 acres of which is designated deer park and includes a mysterious site of a deserted medieval village called Towthorpe. The ruins are close to the Lion Gates and towards the River Witham.  Keen eyes will spot the signs of earthworks and evidence of the ridges and furrows associated with medieval farming methods.

Long Melford Country Park
Long Melford Country Park

Long Melford Country Park– Formerly known locally as Rodbridge Corner Picnic Place, this little pocket of woodland, open grass and former gravel pit waterways borders the River Stour on its western and southern boundaries as the river wends its way from the village of Long Melford and onto Sudbury. Close to Clare and Cavendish and the town of Sudbury with its beautiful water meadows, the park is a lovely place to spend a few hours or explore as you walk the various river routes of South Suffolk. Formerly called Rodbridge Corner Picnic Grounds, this is my old stamping grounds, easily walked with youngsters and providing swiftly changing landscapes.

Established in 1967 from gravel pits used to construct the WW2 airfields that dot the local region, the park is well used for walking, angling and is home to many white poplar trees which shade the riverpath. The ponds are rich in aquatic insect life, dragonflies and damselflies, Roach, Bream, Tench and Pike, and make good breeding sites for Coot, Little Grebe, Moorhen and Mute Swan. Well established rabbit warrens pepper the earthbanks and dips in the terrain caused by the former excavations. Bring binoculars because you may well see otters and kingfishers dipping in and out of the muddy banks which are thickly lined with bullrushes and clumps of waterlillies. The river paths can get muddy after it has rained but most of the park is accessible if a little bumpy underfoot for wheeled visitors. There are two areas of grassland, with the southern area allowed to grow naturally, crossed by mown paths, picnic tables and chairs and a toilet.

Hainault Country Park by the Woodland Trust.org
Hainault Country Park by the Woodland Trust.org

Hainault Forest Country Park– Having retained its Green Flag Status for 2015/16 from Keep Britain Tidy, this large woodland space which lies just outside the Romford stretches was one a haven for vagabonds and n’er do wells and also provided shelter for fugitives from London’s plague filled streets. Nowadays, the park is a haven for families and the only creatures hiding in the trees are creepy crawlies such as giant spiders and a grim reaper, which are all to be found hiding in the mile long monster trail. At dusk, the coppiced hornbeams cast spooky shapes for those of you seeking some Autumnal and Halloween fun (the park is dominated by veteran hornbeams – around 12,000 of them) and there’s an adventure play trail too. This is beautifully designed with climbing posts and rope bridges, adventure play towers and a circular swing in the shape of a spiders web (perfect for children who have disabilities) plus woodland trails with site specific sculpture and wildlife information to spark their imagination and help them become fully engaged with their surroundings.

And that’s not all. There’s a boating lake and Foxburrow Farm, an all weather animal petting area with badger faced sheep, nubian goats and mangalitza pigs among the many attractions. Guided walks, segways and orienteering are also on offer plus a land train which takes passengers on a scenic 15 minute ride departing from the zoo and travelling around the lake and surrounding areas. The route is not fixed and varies year round according to the weather. The park has toilet and changing facilities, carparking and plenty of places to picnic.

Nowton Park
Nowton Park

Nowton Park, West Suffolk– A woodland park in the grand Victorian style, this was once the grounds of a large home and is now managed by St Edmundsbury Council who fund a wide range of nature related activities for all the family. Located on the outskirts of the town (there’s a bus service which stops nearby), the park has a cafe, changing facilities and toilets plus a small adventure playground but the real fun is to be found in its various habitats from open flower studded meadow to bluebell and harebell edged woodland walks. Scramble over logs, join in with bat walks and nighttime stargazing and look out for the wild and wacky trees planted by the Victorians:  a lightning struck Douglas fir; a catalpa (Indian bean tree) that appears to be consuming a fence; yews that spin and twist and finally, the giants of the tree world- the redwoods.

In addition, felled tree trunks have been left in situ for children to swarm over and ape the Enid Blyton-esque childhood antics that modern life sometimes deprives them of. The east and west arboretum and folly woodland walk has been newly landscaped with sinuous bark litter covered walkways curving around specimen plants, camellia, Cedars of Lebanon and a flint and stone tumbled folly. There’s also a folly and pond  planted with a Japanese feel- willows, specimen trees and bushes, airy, light with the branches traced against a more visible sky.

Tyrells Wood, Norfolk- is a well used broadleaf wood, quiet and off the beaten track (it runs parallel to the A140 to the west and Ansons Lane to the east) and dating back to the ancient woodland site at its centre. The Boscus de Grischave can be found in records dating back to 1251, is indeed thought to date back to the Ice Age, and it is home to veteran hornbeams which have been pollarded into fat twisted trunks and the elderly relics of coppiced hazels.

Tyrrells Wood is arguably at its best in the Autumn where a roundabout route takes walkers past oaks which once provided the great and good of Norfolk with the finest of timber, birch and ash, and yellow field maples turned butter gold by the warm days and cold nights. Rowan berries and haws light up the brush, glowing as red as the eyes of the woodland creatures whose gaze are caught in the beams of torches at nightfall. The silver patched trunks of the birches shimmer in  the gloaming, their lemon tinted leaves strafed and spinning from gusts of wind which appear to swirl out of nowhere. There’s no way markings or facilities as such: this is a place to savour as is.

Entrance to Priestly Wood by Roger Jones / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Entrance to Priestly Wood by Roger Jones / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Priestley Wood, Suffolk is a dream of a place for eagle eyed plant spotters with more than 130 species recorded here, making it an important SSSI. Located in the parish of Barking in the Gipping Valley, there are over 24 miles of public footpaths in the vicinity and the ancient woodlands of Bonny Wood, Priestley Wood, Swingens Wood, Park Wood and Ditch Wood provide a timeless natural habitat for flora and fauna. Priestely Wood is now owned by the Woodland Trust and we are allowed to wander its many paths. Part of Bonny Wood is owned by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust with paths open to the public.

Deep in these woods, grows a lonely wild pear, miles away from the only other one which exists in the country and you’ll find several varieties of wild orchids cowled away in the undergrowth alongside ramps in the Spring, the broad leaved helleborine, foamy blossoms of anthriscus and carpets of woodruffs with their proudly Tudor leaf-ruff. Their names are testimony to folklore, quirk, legend, and utility, in the case of the pignut. Barren strawberries, the bulbous buttercup, yellow pimpernel and creeping buttercup are all names to recite to your children and make them laugh. Tell them that harebells (campanula) are sometimes known as fairies’ thimbles and were thought to shelter fairies who were at the beck and call of witches and wished to have no more of this.

The tree cover is mixed broadleaf: a hotchpotch of ash, cherry, oak, hawthorn and hazel with a few small leaved limes and hornbeams lurking behind their more common neighbours. Nightingales surf the sky here, high above the surrounding fields, we are in the farming heartland of the Gipping Valley proper, close to Stowmarket which is home to the Museum of East Anglian Life with its insightful documentation of the people who have made this part of the country their home. Autumn is dramatically beautiful, the best time of year to come here in my opinion but Spring is no slouch either: Priestley Woods are one of the best places in England to see the bluebells so make sure you bookend the year with visits to this magical and simple place. Parking is not the easiest, there’s no public toilets.

Old Woods (image courtesy of the Woodland Trust
Old Woods (image courtesy of the Woodland Trust

Old Wood Norfolk– gives lie to the erroneous belief that Norfolk is flat which anyone who has cycled towards the Northern coastal areas of this county will laugh mirthlessly at. In Old Wood, undulating and marked pathways lope over ridges and slopes, suddenly raising the game (and youjr heartbeat) with their sudden and unexpected inclines. We’re just outside Sheringham and the land here is in a hurry to get to the North Sea, reaching its third highest point in this county, some 96 metres (314ft) above sea level. Take time out here to enjoy the views northwards across the tree line towards Sheringham and the North Sea beyond and gaze at a landscape which is slightly different from inland woods with its sandy heathland, acid soils which support a springy grass covering much beloved by the adders and slow worms which bask here on warmer days. There’s predominately coniferous woodland here- Douglas fir and Corsican pine- but the Woodland Trust intends to restore the site back to mixed broadleaf and heathland. Free parking is provided, some 500 metres away.

Pigneys Wood by Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Pigneys Wood by Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Pigneys Wood, Norfolk might be small but it is mighty, having been recently purchased in 1993 and since then, this little wood a few miles from North Walsham has been extensively redeveloped. The site is a remarkably diverse blend of mature and new mixed woodland and some low lying wet grassland. Some 20,000 trees of 40 different species have been planted alongside other features such as a renovated barn, reed beds, and information boards on wild flowers, butterflies, trees and birds.

Despite its small size, Pigneys Wood is remarkably diverse, supporting a wide variety of trees, including a ‘listed’ 450 year old oak and its water features make it attractive to visiting children alongside the fauna that make their home here. There is a ‘scrape’, a shallow pond, which attracts migratory and wading birds and a dipping platform for children has been created alongside an interactive tree identification trail and guide. Dawn and dusk visitors stand a good chance of bumping into deer and barn owls can be watched as they swoop low over the open grassland. and a bird hide is under construction.  There’s designated walks bordered by native hedgerows and provision for wheelchair access alongside plenty of viewing points where you can sit and enjoy the view or use the picnic facilities of which there are three. Dog walking is permitted throughout the wood but between March 1st and July 31st there are designated areas where dogs are not allowed unless on a lead.

Pathway into Pretty Corner Woods,
Pathway into Pretty Corner Woods, Geograph.org

Pretty Corner Woods, Norfolk is a Green Flag award winning site, jointly run by the Woodland Trust and the NNDC countryside team. With a lovely tea rooms and garden surrounded by a pretty wood to walk in, and despite its obvious popularity with tourists and locals, the woods manage to maintain a sense of tranquility rare in the busier months of the tourist season.Upper Sheringham in North Norfolk was first established in 1926, originating as a wooden pavilion. Originally a wooden pavilion, the tea room scores bonus points for its wood burning stove, dog friendly grounds and both indoor and outdoor.

Autumn sees the woods ablaze with colour, competing with the sensitively planted gardens surrounding the tea gardens and dipping ponds. You’ll see bats, butterflies and buzzards; hear woodpeckers before you see them and see barn owls before you hear this most silent of birds. The woods and heathlands are thick with red campion, dogs mercury and wood sorrel and deer are often spotted nibbling the seedheads from the tall grasses. Country Rangers organise a myriad of events (booking advised in the busier months) and alongside summer festivals, you’ll have the chance to participate in woodland crafts such as bodging and archery. This Autumn, the site is trying to raise awareness of the plight of the bee with a craft sale in its shop.

There is free car parking and a picnic area if you prefer to bring your own food. There is a bus stop situated next to the woods with good links to Sheringham and the surrounding area.

The Walks in Kings Lynn- Image from http://www.fieldsintrust.org/The-Walks
The Walks in Kings Lynn- Image from http://www.fieldsintrust.org/The-Walks

The Walks, Kings Lynn in Norfolk  might not be a woodland in the strictest, most romanticised of senses, but having been originally conceived as an urban space somewhat different to the grand Victorian park, the Walks still works well as a promenade for locals and a green lung away from the hustle of central Kings Lynn. It is the only surviving 18th century town walk in Norfolk and provides historians with a fascinating insight into changing fashions in urban planning and forms a vital part of Kings Lynn’s social record over its two centuries of development and revision. It’s a wonderful place as it stands, injecting Autumn deep into the concrete and brick of urban Kings Lynn.

The Walks entrance
The Walks entrance

Built originally upon a central historic spine earthworking and identified, by Norfolk Landscape Archaeology, as ‘part of one of the most complete systems of earthwork town defences in eastern England’, the earthwork mounds, banks and watercourses imbue what would otherwise have been a flat site with a softly undulating form. These gentle ascents are home to shrubberies and plantations (‘Seven Sisters’, seven trees planted in a circle in 1760), a medieval pilgrims trail, and a tree lined walk with semi-circular seating areas. The trees are regal, all 800 of them, offering a sturdy and venerable home to squirrels, woodpeckers and a myriad of creatures. They shed leaves in their thousands, piles of rust, gold and orange to kick up, collect and take home. The highest point of the Walks is the Grade 1 listed Red Mount which houses a unique 15th century chapel and provides visitors with elevated view points of the landscape from the structure itself and from the mound which partially surrounds it. The Red Mount houses a unique 15th century chapel. The landscape itself is Grade 2 and has been preserved via a 3.4m restoration project with a cafe, play and games area having been created.

Bulls Wood, Cockfield has guilder rose berries aplenty
Bulls Wood, Cockfield has guilder rose berries aplenty

So tranquil and hidden that encountering other people here tends to come as a surprise, Bulls Wood near Cockfield in West Suffolk are a bit of a local secret. Park up on the concrete concourse at Palmers Farm next to the woods and enter a wood which is one of the last pieces of the ancient Cockfield woods which were referred to in the Hundred Rolls of 1279.

Especially beautiful in Spring, this is also a place to come in Autumn for a subtle show of colour and change as the tres shed their leaves and reveal their essential selves. Spring sees rare oxlips carpet parts of the woodland floor and the Early-purple orchid is also plentiful here alongside the spurge-laurel, wood anemone and herb-paris which tend not to be associated as strongly with ancient woodlands. There’s Autumn birdsong too: tawny owls swoop low through glades denuded of leaves, long tailed tits loop through the air and treecreepers and chiffchaffs make the woods their home. The traditional method of coppicing encourages wildlife and local volunteers take charge of this. Trees local to the woods include ash, hazel and field maple while the oaks are normally left to mature into standard trees. Dogs on leads are welcome.

Wayland Woods by Ashley Dace
Wayland Woods by Ashley Dace

Wayland Wood in Norfolk is reputed to be the site of The Babes in the Wood legend and is the not so silent keeper of a tale which inspires both sadness and sheer horror in all who hear it. The wood is no silent witness either:  this is one of the more densely planted, wilder Norfolk woods, said to be haunted by the souls of the young abandoned brother and sister whose ghostly cries for help are echoed by the creatures who make the woods their home. The darkness is literal too because this is not only one of the counties largest woods, it has also been intensively coppicedsince the 10th century and its thick cover is a result of the traditional woodland management techniques which have heightened its ability to support such diversity of flora and fauna, making it a SSSI. These woods are a survivor of the great forest that once covered much of England, dating back to the last Ice Age and the nearby Thompson Common is renowned for its pingos, a series of 300 shallow pools which provide a home for water beetles and dragonflies. These circular ponds were created during the Ice Age when water beneath the surface froze to form lenses of ice, pushing the soil upwards. Starting in nearby Stow Beddon, the Great Eastern Pingo Trail is an eight-mile walk that encompasses this phenomena and many other local sights.

Walk here and enjoy a splendid mixture of tree species: hazel, oak, downy birch, bird-cherry, sallow, ash, hornbeam and field maple alongside over 125 species of flowering plants. The ground is thick with bluebells, water avens, yellow archangel and wood anemone, whilst the early purple orchid is happily established here alongside the rare yellow star of Bethlehem. As you’d expect, the air is filled with the sounds of woodland birds including breeding nuthatch, bud stripping bullfinches, and the marsh tit and the bird cherry trees grow freely here, providing a home to the only naturalised Golden Pheasant population. Over 25o types of moth are on the wing come dusk, one of the best times to walk here if you bring a torch to light your way although the crepuscular gloom does bring home the sadness of a tale which saw two infants left for dead in the woods because of the usual motives of money, ownership and avarice.

Dunwich Woodlands
Dunwich Woodlands

The woods at Dunwich, Suffolk is undergoing a process of rewilding which will see it transformed back into indigenous coastal healthlands and the existing conifer plantatiions removed. However, it is still a strikingly rich mosaic of woodland, heathland and wooded pastures which abuts a romantically desolate coastline designated as an AONB. Grazed by wild Dartmoor ponies, there are numerous walks and trails past hedgerows bursting with life and the heavy honeyed scent of gorse from the heathland which edge the approach roads to the village. Gentle climbs offer sweeping views of Dunwich and the sea where the majority of the ancient village lies, having succumbed to sea storms centuries ago.

Dartmoor ponies grazing the open areas, Dunwich Forest is being transformed From a conifer plantation into a rich mosaic of woodpasture, wet woodland and heathland. Radar gate on Sandlings walk entrance, all other kissing gates motorised wheel chair/buggy accessible. Some rides may be difficult for non-motorised wheel chairs, particularly in wet weather/winter.

Dunwich tree canopy
Dunwich tree canopy

From the beach car park this route heads inland along leafy bridleways and through the woods of Dunwich Forest. Although much of the planted stock in this area is coniferous, giving a background of consistent pine, it is a walk with infinite variety as the hedgerows and deciduous glades constantly change with the seasons. During spring and early summer the swathes of gorse add an extra dimension with their vibrant yellow flowers and sweet aroma. On the return section of the route there are a couple of gentle climbs that ultimately lead to great views over Dunwich and toward the sea. Summer is also a great time to make sure you visit the garden of The Ship at Dunwich as it is home to England’s oldest fig tree – believed to be over 600 years old – and it looks magnificent in full leaf.

Footpath towards Bonny Wood
Footpath towards Bonny Wood, Geograph.org

The ancient coppiced landscape of Bonny Woods near Needham Market can be traced back as far as 1251 and is part of the Barking Tyewoods which are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Although the Suffolk Wildlife Trust states the woods are at their best in the Spring when wood anemone, woodruff and herb-paris bloom, Bonny Woods are still beautiful in the Autumn and Winter when it reveals its historic bone structure and the shape of the trees tell a story of land management.  The woods have been variously owned by Elizabeth the First (1561) who purchased them from the Bishop of Ely and sold on by James the First in 1611.

Badger live here and at certain times of the year, you will be amused by the mating displays of woodcock as they strut and mince about at dusk. Mowing, coppicing and raking by the SWT keep sunny rides open and locals enjoy walking dogs here although they must be on leads. Park in Barking Tye Village Hall car park .The woods do not have disabled access.

The Kings Forest surrounds Lackford Lakes
The Kings Forest surrounds Lackford Lakes

Lackford Lakes, in West Suffolk is one of The Millers Tale’s favourite places to walk in because of the diversity of habitats it offers and extensive programme of family events. Abutting West Stow Anglo Saxon Village, the SWT managed reserve has been established on flooded gravel pits which feed a labrinyth of reed beds and marshes, lakes, waterways and wooded areas adjacent to the remarkable Brecklands landscapes. An Autumn walk here will reveal tree lines ablaze with colour, a fiery backdrop to lakes which are home to cormorants, grebe, egrets, swans and Egyptian geese among many many species. Come in the hour before dusk and watch the cormorants prepare to roost in the trees which grow on little islands in the largest lake. Silhouetted against the sun, they extend their wings to warm them before night removes the heat from the sky and look, for all the world, like a Japanese painting.

Lackford at dusk
Lackford at dusk

Other birds including shoveler, lapwing, goosander, bittern and goldeneye depend on the lakes during the autumn and winter months. The broadleaf and coniferous trees that make up the Kings Forest are a distant echo of the small wooded walks which wend their way from bird hide to bird hide, with stands of birch, hazel, blackthorn and oak. The paths wend their way alongside meadows and the scrubby Brecks with their small scale mosaics of sedums, lichens and mosses. Kingfishers and otters fish and live here along the small streams, ponds and reedbeds and the bird hides provide daily opportunities to watch them- ask rangers for advice as to the best times and places or check the whiteboard in the education centre entryway where visitors record their sightings. Dipping ponds are kept for kids to use with rangers to guide and explain and the education centre offers tea, cakes, a close up view of bird feeders and the nest cams.

A large part of the reserve is accessible to buggies and wheelchairs and the hides are ramped.

North Cove from the Suffolk Wildlife Trust
North Cove from the Suffolk Wildlife Trust

North Cove between Beccles and Lowestoft offers a relaxing walk amid mixed wetland habitats: grazing marsh, wet woodland and pools nestled along the Waveney Valley. The ponds, dykes and meadows are important habitats for marsh ferns, bog pimpernel and golden saxifrage whilst the mature woodland is home to birds such as the warbler, siskin, redpoll and all three types of woodpecker. Woodcock nest and feed in the scrub and young carr and sparrow-hawk hunt here their swift swooping flight low to the ground and ascending flight clear against tall and wide Suffolk skies.

If you like dragonflies, this is the place for you and late summer will find grass snakes and common lizards soaking up the last of the suns heat before late Autumn and Winter sees them retreating. Cattle graze here and provide and important management service, keeping scrub at manageable levels. The Beccles Bird Society co maintains the site alongside the SWT which gives some idea of its avian importance. The woods form part of  Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Suffolk Broads Living Landscape which is a project intending to develop a rich landscape of wetland habitat from Lowestoft to Beccles. This will be home to a host of unique Broadland species such the rare Norfolk Hawker dragonfly.