In search of fairies and electric blue feathers
Autumn is upon us, and as trees and shrubs start to change colour, so too begins the gathering of apples, pumpkins and other crops. Woodland has its own harvesters preparing for the winter ahead and one such species is the jay.
Easily spotted by pale pink plumage and a panel of distinctive electric blue feathers on their black and white wings, it is now that these curious birds are most noticeable, and can be seen hopping around the ground, foraging for acorns and carefully burying them.
Storing acorns like this is called ‘caching’ and provides jays with much needed food in the winter. But as not all acorns will be found again and instead grow into oak trees, jays become the designers of new forests in the process. One new study claims jays might be responsible for planting more than half of the tree population in some areas.
I’ve decided to take my family on a little adventure to see if we can catch these architects of nature in action at Marl Hall Woods, just a stone’s throw from our home in the medieval walled town of Conwy.
This ancient semi-natural woodland’s prominent location on the edge of Llandudno Junction provides great views towards the Conwy Valley, Conwy castle and estuary and a range of historical features make it a particularly interesting, if not romantic place for a walk or picnic.
In spring and summer, it offers stunning displays of snowdrops, bluebells, pungent wild garlic and a carpet of colourful wildflowers on the grassland covered clifftops above. Right now, it is about to grace us with a dazzling spectacle of striking gold, red and brown of the changing autumn leaves.
The woods are named after the nearby Marle Hall, which in 1627 was purchased by Conwy-born John Williams, Archbishop of York and one of Britain’s most influential men, also connected to the walled town’s famous Plas Mawr. The hall suffered a fire in the mid-18th century and was restored again in the late 19th century. It also has a curious connection to Gwen ferch Ellis, the first person in Wales to be hanged as a witch.
Marle Hall is currently an Outdoor Education Centre for Warwickshire County Council, organising various woodland activities and maintaining an orienteering trail on site. Sadly, the council has recently announced the centre’s permanent closure as of October 2021. The grade II listed building has been a much enjoyed facility for over 50 years.
The woods are dominated by oak, ash, yew and elm, with shrubs including hazel, elder, spindle, spurge laurel and wild privet. Look out for the remnants of an 18th-century walled garden and a few of the exotic tree species that were planted at that time, including larch, horse-chestnut, Norway maple and lime, beech and sycamore. There is a well at the bottom of impressive limestone steps, known locally as Jacob’s Ladder.
A surfaced trail runs for the first 300 metres from the main entrance on Marl Lane, with parking and a wheelchair-accessible kissing gate, through the lower wood, allowing visitors of all abilities to access some of the best areas for spring flora on a short, straight walk.
There is a short circular walk which crosses the site and a path which runs down to the road by Marle Hall. Steps have been installed on the more difficult sections. The upper wood can be accessed from the public footpath via a stile and up a steep path with sections of stone and timber steps, and a more challenging terrain beyond that. Paths tend to be natural surfaces.
The woods are very popular with the locals, and we encountered many dog walkers along our walk. Our two little troopers enjoyed the exploration and feather hunt; the four-year-old was charmed by the plant and animal statues randomly dotted throughout and the magic of the evocatively named Fairy wood section. The one-year-old had to be carried in parts but loved the clear running space at the top.
The Woodland Trust has been restoring the wood since 1985, with help from our wonderful warden volunteer, Clifton Robinson.
Written by Eva Palencarova, Whittle Reporter Volunteer.