The end of May and beginning of June is a bit of a quiet time with regards to wildlife spectacles. The dawn chorus is still in full swing and, thankfully if you’re not one of those early birds and prefer your cosy bed as I do, so is the dusk chorus albeit not as loud as the crack-of-dawn one. So this hiatus makes it a good time to get to grips with trees – no, not hugging them but seeing and appreciating the different types we have in this country. A great place to go is Breakheart Quarry near Dursley as there’s a fabulous range of trees growing there, it’s very family friendly and the flat footpath circumnavigating the site may even be suitable for people with restricted mobility.
The site is a lovely mix of habitats with open rockface and the remains of a quarry, semi-ancient natural woodland and some grassland. It seems the site has existed since before 1883, and maps issued between this time and 1903 definitely show it as a quarry with a lime kiln added sometime before 1924. It’s use is uncertain until the late 1950s when the Central Electricity Generating Board leased it until 2000 quarrying stone from there and also pressure testing equipment (blowing it up, basically). In 2009, a community trust set up by local people took on the task of caring for the site and developing it as a focal point for local people to enjoy being in the countryside, learn about wildlife, and to restore the area to its former natural glory. There is now a little visitor and education centre, a type of mini-assault course with nets and obstacles built out of tree trunks, a small car-parking area and just recently installed, a set of children’s swings.
A map at the entrance shows the route of a circular footpath which takes you around an enjoyable tour of most of the site. All along the way, you’re walking alongside woodland so you can get the chance to see many different kinds of trees. A short distance from the entrance is a wild cherry – look out for large, lanceolate leaves (like an oval shape but with points at both ends) and groups of small, green cherries turning red.
The site also boasts a wild service tree (http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/species/wild-service-tree) – this is a rare tree whose presence indicates a wood is ancient, and is also a member of the Rose family (surprising but true). Its fruits need freezing before they become edible and in olden days, they were given to children as sweets (despite the current publicity encouraging parents to reduce children’s sugar intake, I wouldn’t recommend it!). Another usual tree growing here is the spindle tree (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euonymus_europaeus) – its flowers have bright pink petals and in autumn, these open up to reveal bright orange seeds. I really like this colour combo and wonder if it inspired some of Mary Quant’s colour schemes in the 1960s. The wood is very hard and can be cut to a sharp point. In past times, this hardness meant it was ideal for making into spindles and was used in spinning (perhaps the very spindle that sent Sleeping Beauty off into that deep slumber?!).
Other trees growing on the site include English Elm (but just as saplings as the Dutch Elm disease beetle invades them once they’re over 20 years old), oak, guelder rose, dog rose, wild privet, goat, grey and white willow, ash, hazel, beech, elder – as you can tell, a pretty comprehensive range of UK trees. Growing amongst the trees, you’ll spot hart’s tongue ferns (named after the old word for deer – hart) looking wonderfully glossy at this time of year and glade with other frilly ferns.
Because of all the trees, the place is alive with birdsong and is just overall a lovely, peaceful place to spend a bit of time. There’s a calendar of events and certain times when the visitor centre is open (see http://www.breakheart.org.uk/ for details), and a good place for children to run around. As it’s an enclosed, relatively small site, there’s not too much chance of loosing the children in the woods (or is that ‘famous last words’?!). One of the highlights of my visit yesterday evening, was finding a female glow-worm walking across the path – exciting! So my friend and I made a mental note to return in mid-July to see if she’s got friends and if there’s a good light show.
When to visit: any time of year really, there’ll always be something to see and it’s a great place to have a stroll and relax.
Location: Near Stinchcombe Hill and golf club. OS Explorer map 167 SO 748976. Drive into Dursley’s town centre and past the library, following that road to the right past the Old Spot pub and on as it climbs steeply up the hill (follow signs to Stinchcombe Golf Club). At the T-junction at the top of the hill, turn left and drive mile or so, passing the right turn to Waterley Bottom, and the entrance to the Quarry is on the right hand side with large metal gates.
How much time to allow: a gentle stroll around the footpath will take about half an hour.
Terrain: the footpath is flat all the way round and is a sturdy surface. Prams could easily be pushed around it, and someone with restricted mobility may be able to manage to walk along the path. It might even be possible to push wheelchair around, though it would be a bit bumpy (note – only when the main entrance gates are open as at other times, entry to the site is by a kissing gate which isn’t wide enough for a wheelchair).
Facilities and opening times: there’s a small visitor centre open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (it’s manned by volunteers) which sells ice-creams, drinks plus has a coin-operated snack machine. Main gates are open 10.30am – 5pm, Fridays – Sundays + Bank Holidays and school holidays. There are toilets. BBQs are OK at a charge of £5.
Directions: The interpretation board at the entrance has a site map showing the circular footpath route. Head off to the left and follow the footpath. It meets a T-junction: turn left to walk through woodland to a couple of stiles which take you out into the neighbouring fields, or turn right to continue on the footpath and to reach the visitor centre on your left hand side. At this point, a narrow path to your right through the trees leads to the mini-assault course (and it really is mini). The footpath continues past the visitor centre and takes you around the edge of the quarry where you can get a good look down (it’s only small and shallow).