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Hatfield Forest, Essex, UK

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Situated on the Hertfordshire/Essex border, just a stone's throw from Stanstead Airport, Hatfield Forest is a relic from a bygone age.

Created in Medieval times, it's a rare example of a small Royal Forest1, that survives relatively unscathed. There are still deer, cattle, coppiced and pollarded woodlands (see below), scrub grassland and fen all packed into 1049 acres. It is one of seven National Nature Reserves in the county and is also an SSSI - Site of Special Scientific Interest.

In the 18th Century, two lakes were added, as was a grotto, known as the Shell House because the outside is completely covered with sea shells. On the two side walls these are worked into a star pattern and over the front door is a bird of prey design. (Given that sea shells are probably not the ideal art medium, it seems a little cruel to point out that the bird of prey bears a strong resemblance to an alarmed chicken.) Unfortunately, due to its poor state of repair, the interior is not open to the public.

The area was given to the National Trust in 1924.

Fauna and Flora

The tree population largely consists of native broadleaf trees including hornbeams, oak, field maple, ash, crabapple and hawthorn, with a few more recently planted conifers. Lichens, fungi and beetles thrive in the rotting wood. Oxlips and hellebores are among over 400 species of plant recorded. Fallow and muntjak deer roam freely, but they are shy and will only be spotted by the quiet explorer. A herd of beef cattle graze quietly on the grassland between the trees. Among the many species of bird for the bird watcher to see are nightingales and woodpeckers. The obligatory mallard ducks and Canada geese inhabit the lake area, ready to rob you of your picnic given half a chance.

Coppicing and Pollarding

Many of the old trees in the forest are coppiced or pollarded. These are old techniques used to harvest wood without killing the tree. The main shoot is cut off, forcing the tree to create many side shoots and branches which are harvested anything between ten and 40 years later, depending on the species of tree and the intended use of the wood. After harvesting, the tree will shoot again, keeping a sustained growth/harvest cycle. Coppiced wood is cut just above the ground; pollarding is similar but the tree is cut higher up, leaving the shoots out of reach of grazing animals. Some of the old pollards in Hatfield Forest are 600 years old.

The Modern Forest

Stanstead Airport dominates the area somewhat, although the noise of aircraft taking off only three miles away frequently shatters the peace. In December 1999, Hatfield Forest hit the news headlines when a Korean Air 747 crashed in an adjacent farmer's field, killing all four crew and scattering debris over a large part of the forest. The forest had to be closed for over two months while air crash investigation teams scoured the area. At the time of writing, there is still a small area fenced off.

The forest is open all year round from dawn to dusk. In the summer there is a charge for car parking. The café has fairly limited opening times, but does do a good range of reasonably priced snacks. Further up-to-date details can be obtained from The National Trust.

From the main entrance, a tarmac road winds up to the lake and shell house - the café and toilets are adjacent, as is a small car park with disabled parking. All the other paths and tracks are unmade and not well suited to pushchairs or wheelchairs.

The forest has plenty of footpaths and wide, grassy rides to suit a range of walking, although after wet weather the clay soil can get particularly sticky. There is a disused railway nearby that has been converted into a bridlepath which can easily be combined with the forest for those wanting a longer walk. For the really ambitious, the Three Forests Way is one of Essex's long-distance footpaths. It links Hatfield Forest with Epping and Hainault forests, in a 60-mile long circular route.

Horse riding is limited to members of the local riding club. Coarse fishing is permissible in the main lake on a day ticket basis. Cycling is allowed, except by the lake.

How to Get There

Hatfield forest is about a mile and a half from the village of Takeley and is well signposted from the A120. Junction 8 from the M11 is nearby. The nearest train station is in Bishops Stortford, about four miles away.

1The term Royal Forest doesn't necessarily mean the area was wooded, simply that it was Royal hunting ground.

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