Living on the southern edge of Wakefield, we’re lucky to have hundreds of acres of wonderful country walks on our doorstep: an almost unbroken stretch from Newmillerdam Country Park all the way down to Woolley Park – and lying in between, a Site of Special Scientific Interest called Seckar Wood, the eastern half of which has changed very little since at least 1480. It’s fascinating to explore this beautiful landscape of forest, heath and natural springs dating back at least to the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, although Seckar feels a lot more primeval than medieval - now that the land is no longer used for common grazing, it’s trying hard to revert to a solid birch and oak wood (typically the first tree species to re-colonise land after an Ice Age or clearance by humans) as the picture above left shows.
For more than 300 years, Seckar Wood formed part of the Wentworth estate, owned by a prominent mining and land-owning family who lived nearby at Woolley Hall; then in 1923 it was bought by Warner Gothard Jnr, a pioneering photographer whose family owned photographic studios in Wakefield, Barnsley, Dewsbury and Leeds, and gifted to the people of Wakefield and Barnsley when he died a childless bachelor.
Starting our walk along the main track through the Shroggs Hill plantation, Hubcap and I saw plenty of evidence of the systematic work being done by Wakefield Council and the Friends of Seckar Wood to flail away the scrub of tree saplings, brambles and bracken. This is allowing areas of heathland to regenerate, increasing biodiversity with the growth of heather, gorse and furze, and supporting all the insects that live on them, as you can see in the picture below left. Then as we progressed to the eastern end of the site, I was thrilled to come upon a pond (see below text) surrounded by a dense thicket of horsetails, the modern descendants of those giant reeds which blanketed vast areas of the planet a hundred million years ago – a marvellous spectacle which really made my day, especially as Hubcap recently found a chunk of fossil horsetail at Beckside!
Adjacent to that is a walled pond built by Warner Gothard as a swimming pool in the 1930s, now home to water birds, dragonflies and newts; and beside it his poignantly unfinished summer-house (below) – its construction was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, and Warner’s death in 1940. Less welcome to see was the great infestation of Himalayan balsam in that area; we pulled some up as we made our way back via the remains of the brick pump-house, (built in the 1920s with the aim of supplying spring water to Crigglestone village, although this was never achieved due to complications with local mine workings), and hope to join the Friends group for one of their balsam-busting sessions on Sunday 8th July or Saturday 4th August to tackle more of this pretty but pernicious invader. It was great to discover such an amazing reserve of flora and fauna so close to home – and if you would like to get involved with the conservation of this very special site, check out the Friends’ Facebook page. They have monthly meetings to carry out various tasks, including scrub control during the autumn-winter and balsam control in summer, starting at 10.30 am for 2 – 3 hours, and meeting at the lay-by on Gallows Lane; there are also a couple of places left on their Scythe Training session on 9th June – contact [email protected] for bookings or further information. Perhaps we'll see you there!
SeckarWood: home to stoats, weasels, green woodpeckers, roe deer, 170 species of fungi including fly agaric, one of the most ancient plant species on earth, and an unexpected tree-sprite!
Ever since I launched Herstory, one of my most popular lectures has always been A History of Chocolate (which I’ll be delivering again next month for a group in Doncaster). Over the years I’ve tweaked and amended it many times, and now I’m about to add another chapter. Alas, it makes a sad ending to an otherwise cheerful and often humorous story: the adulteration of my perennial favourite sweet treat with one of the food industry’s most pernicious products, palm oil. Chocolate has always been a highly-processed indulgence, although in its early days it was quite pure, consisting solely of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and milk fat/milk solids; and some brands (like Lindt and Green & Black’s organic range) still are.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for the vast majority of ‘bulk’ confectionery, including many sweets I’ve enjoyed since my childhood such as Mars Bars, Yorkie Bars and Toffee Crisp. In recent years, palm oil has sneaked stealthily into all these, and many more best-sellers, as a cheap alternative to other vegetable fats and cocoa butter, the most expensive; it’s also present in a wide range of associated products like mass-produced chocolate-coated cakes and biscuits.
You may ask, ‘So what?’ Well, apart from the difference in flavour and texture, (some brands taste unpleasantly greasy to me), palm oil is extremely controversial. Scientists can’t agree whether or not it’s harmful to human health, especially in the quantities we now consume it. But beyond dispute is that’s it’s harmful to the planet – increasing demand means that vast areas of rainforest are being felled and replaced with sterile mono-culture oil-palm plantations, destroying the habitat of many other plants and animals like the orang-utan and Sumatran rhino.
I bet our great Quaker families like Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry are turning in their graves to see what their delicious, wholesome foodstuffs have degenerated into over the past 150 years. So I certainly won’t be buying or eating any more palm-oil-contaminated ‘junk’ chocolate – and I’ll certainly be telling audiences at future History of Chocolate talks the reason why!