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Gobions Annual Report 1998

by Michael Jonas

Folly Arch from Gobions Wood
Folly Arch from Gobions Wood
Report Contents
Household User Survey
Out Heritage Lottery Fund bid
The environment and the public
Ragwort and butterflies
Leach Fields
The future of the Trust

We welcome the many new Friends who first gave a donation towards the work of the Trust during 1998 and we thank them and our many continuing supporters. 1998 for us was dominated by surveys - of butterflies, fungi and people (the order of importance will depend on your viewpoint of course). Summaries of the results of the surveys are appended to this report and I will discuss the background to the surveys and their relevance.

Household and User Survey

Our last report mentioned our plans to apply for funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund, about which I will write more later. One of the questions asked is about the long-term future of the Trust - which got us thinking pretty hard. We decided that before we could plan ahead, we needed to look back and see if our past management had been successful: hence our decision to implement the survey of local residents and users. We decided firstly that, in order to maximise its value, the survey should be carried out by independent professionals and, as you now know, we approached the University of Hertfordshire and, in particular, Dr Avice Hall of the Environmental Sciences department, who in turn recommended to us a mature student in Environmental Sciences, Paul Chapman. Paul had the backing of all appropriate departments in the University. He advised on the questions we should ask and their format, in order to elicit from the public the detailed information we required and to make the results meaningful in the context of similar national surveys. Our thanks are due to the University for their invaluable guidance and for enabling us to undertake a highly professional survey at a cost within our means as a small local charity.

We are also indebted to National Westminster Bank (NatWest) who gave permission for Iain Aitken to copy the more than 13,000 sides of paper required. Envelopes were delivered, mostly by Mike Brazier, to every household in the area, over 2,200.

Our thanks of course are also due to you, the Friends, as well as to the other residents and users, who took the time to complete the household survey forms and to answer Paul’s questions during his survey of users of Gobions. On 10th December, Paul presented to us the analysis of his findings, which are summarised in the attachment to this report.

Our Heritage Lottery Fund bid

Thanks again to Iain Aitken, we were able to make informal contact with a lottery application assessor, who kindly visited the Wood in July with Dr Stewart Harding, who is advisor to the Heritage Lottery Fund on historic landscapes and gardens. They were amazed and delighted to find the bones of a Charles Bridgeman garden still recognisable, as it seems that most of his work elsewhere has been overlaid by Victorian gardeners.

We always thought that Gubbins (as it was in the 18th century) had great historic value, but Stewart’s opinion is that the site is of national importance.

The advisors then said that for an application to be successful our plans would have to be presented by a professional land-use consultant, 75% of whose fees could be paid for by the Fund. The Trustees have subsequently interviewed three firms, shown them our lands and discussed the range of elements that could form part of our application. We have delayed inviting them to submit their outline proposals, from which we will make our final selection, until we could send them the results of our opinion survey.

Our last newsletter touched upon our proposals for the Lottery bid, but our thoughts are now becoming more focused, following our meetings with Dr Harding and the three consultants.

One of the essential procedures is a thorough archaeological survey to see which unseen features of Bridgeman’s garden can be rediscovered, such as the grotto and the ice house, and indeed any pre-18th century remains.

As a starting point, we used the 1780 account of a walk through the garden. This walk left Gubbins House, which was situated behind where the houses on the south side of The Grove now stand, to arrive at a ‘ring’ of trees. The walk continued alongside a water feature which still exists as an overgrown and silted pond behind No. 28 Mymms Drive. Our plan is to reopen a path from here into the east end of the Wood and to refurbish this pond, coppicing the hawthorn to open the pond to view and to sunlight. This path would be made suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs. A new footbridge over the stream would be needed to replace one shown on an early Ordnance Survey plan.

We would also like to refurbish the bridge in the centre of the Wood. This was built in about 1840 by Robert Gaussen, who bought the Gobions estate in 1836 and extended the avenue from the Folly Arch to his house, Brookmans, on the site of the present golf club.

We hope also to rebuild the facade of the small Greek-style temple, which stood at the end of the canal as a focal point of that vista, and to define the extent of the bowling green.

All the proposed restoration work would be confined to the east of the avenue, which runs north-south from the Folly Arch. To the west of that line, our work can now be confined to maintaining the existing paths and continuing with our regeneration of the woodland by clearing scrub, thinning sycamore and replanting.

The environment and the public

There is always a balance to be drawn between protecting the environment and giving access to the public so that it can be enjoyed. If visitors were to wander at will throughout the wood and fields, many of the spring flowers for which our lands are rightly admired would be trampled underfoot. Some areas become muddy when walked and, in avoiding these areas, walkers create further muddy areas, and so it can spread. Our policy has always been to encourage visitors to accept a limited, but comprehensive, network of paths, which we endeavour to maintain to the advantage of both walkers and path-side plants.

A recent example of our work was the installation of some wooden steps and a ramped path and handrail over a steep and narrow section of the south-side path crossed by tree roots. We have received much praise and, indeed, unsolicited donations of 135 towards the cost. On the other hand, some people found this work quite intrusive and enjoyed the challenge of walking this section in its natural state.


There are other conflicts in nature. Gobions Wood is one of the best sites in Hertfordshire for fungi, but because some fungi are poisonous for humans to eat and perhaps also because they seem to appear overnight, they receive a bad press, as do nocturnal animals like bats and badgers. Many fungi thrive on dead wood and, perhaps for this reason, when they appear on living trees it is assumed that they are harmful to the tree, when they are in fact just ‘doing their own thing’ and playing a vital role in the ecosystem. So please enjoy the surprising range of shapes and colours of our fungi, and as an introduction to them, we attach an extract from a recent article by Alan Outen, the County fungi recorder. 
Survey of Fungi
Fungi illustrations

Ragwort and butterflies

A plant that has recently received a bad press is ragwort. It grows abundantly in Leach Fields to a height of two to three feet, topped with clusters of small daisy-like yellow flowers. It is poisonous to horses when cut with hay and there have been calls for it to be ‘eradicated’. That is a word that is not in the vocabulary of conservationists. Biodiversity to them is all-important. In fact, ragwort when young can be grazed by sheep with no harm and is avoided by horses when it is growing. However, like all things in nature, it’s not all bad. Apart from its welcome summer colour, it is an important food plant, in particular for our rare White-letter Hairstreak butterfly (Strymondidia w-album) and the cinnabar moth (Callimorpha jacobaeae) a day moth whose caterpillars feed on this ‘poisonous’ plant. Again, we try to take a balanced view and, as we need to take a hay crop from Leach Fields for conservation reasons, we pull out the ragwort in the sections to be cut, but leave margins elsewhere for the insects.

The Oxford Book of Insects (revised in 1979) says the White-letter Hairstreak is "locally plentiful over most of southern England and Wales in July and August", but the environment has changed since then. The White-letter Hairstreak lays its eggs on elm trees and with the advent of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s so began their decline. We are lucky to have some wych-elm along the south side of the Leach Fields, next to the ragwort on which they feed and in the process help to pollinate. If we look after the trees and other plants, the insects and birds will look after themselves.

The Cinnabar moth is largely nocturnal, but commonly seen by day. Triangular in shape, its wings are black with scarlet edges. It is often confused at a glance with the Burnets family of day moths, which are generally black winged with scarlet spots in various patterns.

The Cinnabar caterpillars are striped black and yellow: those bright colours are a warning to predators of their unpleasant taste, while other caterpillars rely on camouflage to avoid predation. The poisons in the caterpillars are sometimes derived from toxins in their food plants and stored with little or no alteration. The Burnets moths contain cyanide derived from its food plants, in particular from members of the pea family.

However, for every ploy in nature, it seems there is a counter ploy and some spiders and beetles can produce antidotes to their otherwise poisonous prey. So a natural balance of interdependence exists and, when we interfere with any part of the ecosystem, we cannot foresee all the long-term effects it may have.
Survey of Butterflies
Butterfly Illustrations

Leach Fields

We are pleased to report that we have recently renewed the lease on Leach Fields, for a further ten years. We hope, of course, one day to purchase the freehold and have written to the owners proposing this. Leach Fields are such an important asset, both visually throughout the year and environmentally, as they are unimproved grassland, which is now rare in Hertfordshire.

The loss of unimproved grassland, i.e. uncultivated land, is one of the main reasons for the decline of the barn owl. Apart from hosting so many of our wild flowers, this is the habitat of small mammals, in particular voles, a main food source for barn owls and kestrels. The unattended motorway verges offer a similar habitat and you will have noticed how frequently you see kestrels hovering alongside the roads watching for their prey. Barn owls have also tried to exploit this man-made niche, but, sadly, the burden of their kill condemns them to a low flight trajectory, making them vulnerable to being hit by the fast motorway traffic.

The future of the Trust

Another result of our longer term thinking has been about the future management of the Trust.

Over the past 13 years, the Trust has survived through the dedication of the Trustees and our faithful volunteers and the generosity of local donors. As the average age of the Trustees has reached the wrong side of 57, it is time to expand the management base and, as a first step, we have appointed Iain Aitken as a Trustee.

Iain has been a regular member of our work party for some years now and, as well as bringing new energy into the work force, we have the benefit of the knowledge he learnt on a three-year evening course in conservation and environmental studies.

Iain's day job is at NatWest head office, managing computer implementation projects.

My wife, Linda, is working harder than ever with our daughter’s jewellery business and has had to give up all the valuable work she did as Honorary Secretary to the Trust. This included writing the newsletters, which were always so interesting. We are therefore urgently seeking a new Hon. Sec., preferably someone with access to word processing on a computer, to help with the office administration. The degree of involvement can be tailored to suit the individual, but a few hours here and there would certainly help to keep things running smoothly. Please don’t hesitate to call me for more information, without fear of obligation.

Should our lottery bid be successful and we decide to proceed as outlined, that would need a more full time management input. To this end, we have had preliminary talks with Groundwork Hertfordshire, an environmental charity who work with community groups to enhance the environment. This seemed to me a natural choice, as, for the past three years, I have worked for them and seen at first hand their strengths. Nationally, Groundwork consists of 40 or so independently managed organisations spread throughout the country. Groundwork Hertfordshire are stationed close at hand, on the A414 near Mill Green and employ an implementation team of 3 or 4 and a community team of 4 or 5, who actively consult with local organisations to help them achieve their environmental projects. They are backed by the landscape design team with whom I work. We are currently working on a series of cycling routes, such as the Alban Way and a new footpath along the New River from Ware into north London. So they have wide experience of projects with a large community involvement. Groundwork are also an approved body in respect of the new Landfill Tax and, as such, are empowered to act as an agent collecting the tax from landfill operators and distributing it to environmental projects approved by ENTRUST, a government monitoring group.

It is possible that lottery and landfill money could provide a salary for a warden, who would carry out day-to-day maintenance and environmental monitoring work and organise things for the weekend volunteer work parties. Having a warden was always part of our original plan, but the promised local authority funding never materialised.

We should also like to reprint our history of the Gobions estate, having sold out the first print run. This could be revised with more information following the archaeological survey. Our other hopes for lottery money are to fund the construction of a storage building to house all our machines, tools and materials needed for our regular maintenance work. At present, these are kept at Brook House, but that cannot continue for ever, so looking ahead we do need a convenient permanent home for them.

Talking of work, I am, as usual, indebted to my fellow trustees and our faithful workparty volunteers, who turn out regularly on Sunday mornings, come rain or shine. There is always plenty to do: at present we are again in the replanting season. As usual, we are planting a hundred new trees and as many hedge plants. We are always delighted to see new faces on Sundays, so, if you ever feel the urge to join us occasionally for a few hours and a pint or two afterwards, just call me on 01707-656531. It’s really very rewarding and we usually find something to have a good laugh about, whatever the task. Hope to see you! Best wishes for 1999.

Michael Jonas.


Membership of The Friends of Gobions Woodland Trust is 5 per annum or 20 for five years for individuals and 7.50 or 30 for five years for families. Cheques should be made payable to ‘Gobions Woodland Trust’ and sent to either; Brook House, Bluebridge Road, Brookmans Park, Herts, AL9 7SX or 15 Moffats Lane, Brookmans Park, Herts, AL9 7RX.

Patron: The Marchioness of Salisbury
Trustees: Iain Aitken, Jerry Golland, Michael Jonas and Bernard Spatz

Other sections of the Gobions Woodland Trust Friends' Report 1998 Report 1998
Survey of Fungi
Illustrations of Fungi
Survey of Butterflies
Illustrations of Butterflies
Survey of Householders and Users

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