Now can you please help the folks on the hill?

Shrubs

Shrubs Wood in spring, bluebells and coppice… all now under threat

woodWye Park was a story of greed or, to use the exact term preferred by those in the business, ‘land banking’. Imperial College had acquired the Wye estate at a knockdown price. It planned to make a £100 million or more by selling the agricultural land as building plots, thereby coining huge profits simply through a change in use.

This is not an uncommon activity in today’s endangered countryside, and we would like to introduce you to an example on your very doorstep, at Shrubs Wood, forty two acres of beautiful ancient woodland which straddle the height of the Downs between Bodsham and Hassell Street, and are now in danger of being parceled up and sold for vast profits in a way which will destroy their unique character forever.

Shrubs Wood is ancient woodland, a shady green place of wonders that has barely changed in a thousand years or more. In its quiet corners you will find a scheduled Neolithic longbarrow listed with English Heritage, ancient coppiced hornbeam boundary trees and a Saxon demarcation ditch. Much of it is chestnut coppice where the regrowth stumps indicate several hundred years of coppicing activity. In spring it is a carpet of bluebells, anemones and occasional orchids. In summer wild flowers dot the beautiful meadows that sit at its heart like two green gems.

MapIt’s been a single piece of land for years, and only makes sense that way. Woodland is essentially uneconomic. Shrubs Wood has not been coppiced for more than a decade and is in dire need of care which it isn’t getting. A new owner who loved forestry would coppice it quickly, making a small profit, then wait another ten to fifteen years to do the same (coppicing, for those who don’t know, is an extraordinarily environmentally friendly activity which is actively encouraged by all naturalists and backed by government grants). It can never make any sense to divide a place of this kind. It would become unmanageable. But this is about growing fat profits now, not sustainable woodlands for generations to come. Click on the map on the right and you will discover what its new owners wish to do to this ancient woodland up the hill: carve it up and sell it to the highest bidder, then walk away and count their astonishing profits.

Coppice

Extensive coppice regrowth like this indicates centuries of forestry in Shrubs Wood

I have to reveal a personal interest here. My home borders on Shrubs Wood and, at the beginning of this year, its then owner, an expatriate who was looking for someone to take it over and, in his words, manage it properly, contacted me to ask if I was interested. I could, he said, match the price offered by another, outside buyer, £90,000, and it was mine. I didn’t have the money nor was I much in the market for a piece of beautiful woodland that, under normal circumstances, will never offer a financial return. It seemed to be overpriced; the going rate for woodland was no more than £2,000 an acre at best. I was also deeply involved in save-wye. So, after listening to him tell me he was happy the other buyer would care well for this precious piece of history, I passed. If only I’d known…

The ‘caring buyer’ turned out to be a business owned by a family called the Hantons who operate through different companies though their public presence is a website Woodlands.co.uk. If you take a look there, you will find it makes itself out to be a friendly, responsible agent selling woodland up and down the UK to people who normally wouldn’t buy it. The Hantons do this through the simple expedient of purchasing forestry at woodland prices then ripping them up into parcels and selling them on as ‘amenity land’ at a quite extraordinary markup.

Let me give you the figures. When the horror of the break-up of Shrubs became apparent, several local people got together, took a deep breath, and decided to dig deep into their pockets. There was no government money to bail out the village, no rich white knight to write a cheque. In the end this group contacted the Hantons and offered £140,000 of their own money for the lot, to preserve the wood as it is forever for the local community while giving these distant buyers in London a near-instant profit of £50,000 for no work whatsoever.

The Hantons said no.

These local people then breathed even more deeply and offered £165,000, raising the near-instant profit to £75,000, almost doubling the Hantons’ initial investment.

The Hantons said no, and nor, they said, were they interested in selling the entire wood either, only the artificial and highly damaging parcels they had invented out of nowhere. They still, for reasons which locals find deeply suspicious, wish to hang on to the paddocks at its heart, though they show no sign of any interest in using them for the agriculture for which they are intended.

CoffeeWho are the Hantons? They are a London family of some substance. You may have, inadvertently, bought a product associated with them at some stage, when you wished to do the right thing. The directors of Ownwood are Alastair and Margaret Hanton. Alastair Hanton is a former chairman and director of the Fairtrade Foundation and onetime deputy managing director of Girobank. He is a member of the Methodist Church who has been involved in a number of charities including Christian Aid and been an early advocate of ‘ethical investment’. You can read a recent article from the Financial Times about Fairtrade on the right.

We need your help and support. Here is what you can do.

  • We are looking at the registration of the entire wood as a village green, which would hamper or prevent altogether its break-up into portions for profit. If you have used Shrubs Wood regularly over the last twenty years for any leisure activity, whether it’s walking, taking the dog for a stroll, mushroom hunting or bird watching, we need to know. Please detail your usage of the wood in writing and send the letter to the chairman of Elmsted Parish Council: Will Thrupp, Bodsham Lodge Cottage, Bodsham, Ashford TN25 5JQ. Will is also happy to deal with your queries by e-mail (thrupp @ btopenworld.com, please remove the spaces around the @ sign).
  • There’s growing concern within Kent County Council and countryside organisations about this practice, which is rampant through the UK now. Write to your councillors and your MP asking them to bring in a law to prevent the break-up of precious woodland. Make sure, if there’s a wood near you, that you know if it is coming up for sale and can alert your neighbours if people like Woodlands.co.uk turn up. If you know anyone thinking of buying woodland plots like this, please tell them the truth: they are helping destroy something precious, and getting ripped off to buy something worthless in return.
  • Write to Margaret Hanton at Ownwood Ltd, 35 Giant Arches Road, London SE24 9HP, and ask her why, when Ownwood already has more than £1 million in capital and reserves, which grew by more than £200,000 from 2004 to 2005 alone, she needs to make yet more money by destroying our unique piece of woodland. And why, too, she thinks a near-instant profit of £75,000 on an investment of £90,000 just isn’t enough money to satisfy her needs.
  • Write to Alastair Hanton at the same address and ask him why someone who received an OBE for his work on supposedly ethical investments and fair trade wishes to make such obscene profits from destroying our environment through his greed. Has he, perhaps, scratched out Matthew 19:24 from his Bible? The verse that reads, ‘Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’
  • Visit Shrubs Wood and report to Kent County Council any obstructions you find on public footpaths and bridleways, any broken fences or damaged gates. These are the responsibility of Ownwood and at the moment they are being ignored. There are, of course, two great pubs in the vicinity, the Timber Batts and the Bowl in Hastingleigh, so you always have a good excuse.

HronbeamShrubs Wood has not yet appeared on the Woodlands.co.uk website, although it is many weeks since negotiations, such as they were, between the residents of Bodsham and its owners broke down. We sincerely hope they can be revived and brought to a mutually beneficial conclusion, one in which the Hantons walk away with an extraordinary profit from their brief land-banking venture in our countryside while we see an ancient and historic piece of woodland preserved and placed under caring, responsible ownership for public use in perpetuity.

Lovely vistas such as this hornbeam glade on the right deserve a better fate than to be bought and sold for nothing more than distant, obscene profit. I raised the preservation of the wood personally with Margaret Hanton, as she stood in my back garden surveying, with a very jaundiced eye, the ancient wonder she’d just bought. She gave me a cold stare and said I’d nothing to worry about. Most of the people who bought these plots were from town, and the novelty soon wore off. After a few years, she said, most of the woodland parcels they sold were forgotten. In other words, neglected, abandoned, their phoney profits stripped from them. Exactly what the ancient hornbeams and chestnut of Shrubs Wood do not need.

If this wood does go out onto the market, to be savagely divided for sale to gullible individuals who fail to understand the enormity of what is happening here, our tactics will change. I think you know them by now. There will be a campaign. There will be a website. And there will be printed material everywhere in our vicinity to ensure that all potential buyers thinking of unwittingly taking part in the destruction of this beautiful natural jewel know exactly what they are doing to the environment, and how much profit they are generating for the Hanton family for no work and no industry on their part whatsoever.

One thing we have learnt together these last nine months is this. We don’t like fighting but when we do fight by God we do it well. We need a little of your help now. We may need more of it later.

If the people in Woodlands.uk don’t understand what that means, we suggest they stay and read a little of what has happened here since December last year. Imperial College spent more than £1 million taking on the community of the Wye area and they lost. Do you really want to be next?

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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10 Responses to Now can you please help the folks on the hill?

  1. John Morris says:

    David
    We in Wye are here to help if we can as you did us.Go to Woodlands.co.uk/cornwall.htm.
    At the foot of the page ( for Cornwall) their statement reads”Maintaining the integrity of woodland is very important to us and so we want to make it quite clear that none of our woodlands or meadows have the potential for residential building development”
    Where have we heard similar statements to this before?

  2. David Hewson says:

    If you look at their ‘good guy’ credentials, John, you’ll find they are transparently cynical. Virtually all of the things they say they will covenant against would be banned under existing planning legislation — such as housing. The reality, as anyone in a woodland charity will tell you, is that they will sell for the highest price and then take not the slightest interest in what happens afterwards. If this does come to a full-blown campaign, the collection of stories about what actually happens in the wake of woodlands.co.uk’s departure will make very interesting reading indeed.

  3. Jenny Oram says:

    For those who are not too familiar with the boundary of Wye with Hinxhill Parish, it actually meanders all over the place and reaches way up into the hills, including part of Crundale Downs. It then dog-legs round Hassell Street and its most eastern border is actually the western border of Shrubs Wood. Indeed, a tiny sliver of the wood appears to lie within Wye with Hinxhill Parish. As Parish Clerk I have to know these things!

    So any threat to Shrubs Wood is not away ‘up on the hill’ but is on our very door-step. Indeed, it directly affects part of our own home territory.

  4. Ivan Warboys says:

    Count me in! It is a wood we have walked through twice in the last 12 months from Wye through to the Timber Batts. There does seem to be some discrepancy between the local Path finder map and the marked routes but may be my skills are no longer what they were! I will walk it again as soon as possible with my map and note book.

  5. Sarah says:

    There is a very good example of how woodland should be used up the hill in the other direction. Kings Wood is enjoyed by many people – some of whom travel miles to walk along the well kept paths or picnic amongst the shade of the trees. Anyone who has visited Kings Wood will be well aware of the benefit of such a place – acres of unspoilt beauty, trees, wild flowers, coppicing. Had this wood been parcelled up and sold in the manner planned for Shrubs Wood we would have lost one of the areas biggest attractions and one of the few places where our kids can enjoy unspoilt natural beauty. Whilst Shrubs wood is not currently maintained in such a way, it is still an important natural space within our fast disappearing countryside. At the turn of the century, the lady who lived in our cottage in Brook would walk there to collect mushrooms! I for one will be voicing my objections!

  6. Ben Moorhead says:

    David,
    Many ManyThanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention so clearly. Will Thrupp and I have set up a company that could be used to buy the wood.It’s called Shrubs Wood Limited.We’ve had some large pledges as David says but there is no way we should have to pay an exorbitant price for a wasting asset. Please note the people that are most useful to our cause are those that have used the wood for 20 years or more like Will and I. We would all give a declaration of our use and enjoyment for 20 years.
    Its a fantastic wood.My dog Alfie, like David’s dog Eddie, knows every inch of it.The bluebells are the best anywhere plus orchids and wonderful funghi and ancient boundaries.The Woodland Trust who visited said it was one of the oldest coppiced woods they had ever seen.
    Ben

  7. jonathan Scarlett says:

    Shrubs Wood has given me pleasure ever since we have lived in the area more than 30 years. It has had the advantage of being wilder in its unkempt state than many of the woodlands on the North downs so most of the time people can enjoy the beauties of ancient woodland without the sound of voices. The flora & fauna can be enjoyed any month of the year in perfect solitude. I am shocked at the possible future for this small piece of God’s unspoilt land. I will certainly write my bit.
    I met earlier this year a botanist on Wye Down while orchid hunting who told me that he & his wife came from Clerkenwell three or four times every year to Shrubs Wood to photograph the wonderful shapes, textures & colours which they found so unique. As with so many encounters between english folk we spoke for a long time and I regaled him with Imperial’s plans to rape our countryside for profit and we parted without exchanging names.
    On the day I met him he had already taken over 300 digital photographs of the orchids & butterflies including some fine examples of Adonisis & Dukes of B.
    We cannot allow our countryside to be squandered and we need support from all & sundry.

  8. Will Thrupp says:

    David,
    I think you have expressed all our fears brilliantly. If anyone who has used the wood regularly for more than 20 years could write a letter addressed to me as in the website we will try to get registration as village green.
    We would be most grateful as a community for this.
    Please also pass the message round.
    Will

  9. Jenny Powell says:

    Reading about Shrubbs Wood brought back many happy childhood memories of having picnics there in the summer holidays, as we lived in Brabourne.
    My youngest sister used to win the catogory of ‘A Bunch of Wild Flowers in a 2lb Jam Jar’ annually for several years at the Brabourne Village Fete, and many of the unusual wildflowers came from Shrubbs Wood. That was in the days when it seemed O.K. to pick wild flowers!!
    How anyone could sell off parcels of that lovely wood is beyind me, I shall certainly write.

  10. Jack Woodford says:

    Although any intended development of Shrubs Wood is not part of any ‘Vision’ but just commercial development, the effects would be far reaching,and just not more destruction of the our remaining countryside…increased road traffic, infrastructure,’the usual suspects’ etc.etc. As part of the Woods lie in the Parish of Wye and Hinxhill, then again it is in the interests of local residents, to take an interest in any planned development, and also the adjoining Parish’s, and neighbouring District and Borough Councils.This looks like an early question to put forward at our next Parish Forum, before any ‘behind closed door discussions’ take place.

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