Harlow’s Great Outdoors

PUBLISHED: 17:02 10 January 2014 | UPDATED: 17:02 10 January 2014




Greater spotted woodpeckers, treecreepers and muntjac deer called Parndon Wood home for more than nine centuries before the town of Harlow was created and their human neighbours moved in. This atmospheric 54.2-acre patch of ancient woodland is covered with majestic oaks and hornbeams, coppiced to keep up Pardon’s traditional use for wood production, which is still carried on today, and to provide the ideal home for the many species of flora and fauna which thrive in this tranquil natural environment.

‘Parndon Wood really is a very special place,’ explains Lauren Hull, conservation centre manager for ECCO, the environmental charity which runs the reserve to the south of the town in conjunction with Harlow Council. ‘My favourite time of year is autumn. I love walking through the reserve in the morning and listening to the silence of the woodland. The only thing you can hear is the leaves under your feet and the birds in the trees. It’s perfect.’

There are only a handful of reserves of this kind across the country, where people of all ages can discover and understand woodland species and learn how to preserve their natural habitat. Pond-dipping, den-building, following the 1.5km nature trail and learning about the environment from the displays in the new conservation centre all help visitors to get in touch with nature at Parndon Wood, and free of charge too.

‘We are now open five-days-a-week and are offering more free activities for families throughout the year than ever before,’ says Lauren. ‘This gives even more people a chance to come here and experience their local, natural environment.’

There may have been a woodland on this site for nearly 1,000 years, but it was only in 1974 that Parndon was designated a Local Nature Reserve and a Special Site for Scientific Interest (SSSI) in recognition of its abundance of woodland species and its value as an educational resource. In 2008, Parndon Wood was the first open space in Harlow to be put forward for and awarded Keep Britain Tidy’s Green Flag status, denoting the country’s best parks and open spaces, and this is an honour it has retained for five successive years.

‘The Green Flag Award highlights that people in Harlow are benefiting from a green space of the highest quality,’ says leader of Harlow Council, Mark Wilkinson. ‘This award is seen as the gold standard for public spaces that are welcoming, safe and well maintained, and is a testament to the hard work of council officers and the many local volunteers who help maintain the reserve to this standard.’

Further recognition came at the end of 2013, when the woodland was named as one of the 2,200 sites in the UK to receive the Queen Elizabeth II Field – Fields in Trust status, as a permanent living legacy of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee as well as the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. This accolade will most importantly help to protect the space from future development and make sure that local people are able to use it for outdoor recreation for evermore.

‘For many residents, living in Harlow is like having the countryside on their doorstep,’ says Harlow Councillor Phil Waite, portfolio holder for environment. ‘Parndon Wood is our flagship nature reserve and a place the town is very proud of. It is vital to protect its character and make it an area where diversity thrives and where people can learn about wildlife and the environment around us, and at the same time improve their health and wellbeing.’

In a very successful arrangement, Parndon Wood is maintained by Harlow Council and local volunteers, with local organisation ECCO managing the conservation centre and running the many community activities.

More than 30 schools have visited the reserve over the past year to experience the natural environment at first-hand and to bring to life their studies of the environment as part of the national curriculum. They enjoy a day in the great outdoors, creating art for the woodland and making wildlife habitats and bird feeders to take back to their own schools.

There are special events for people of all ages on offer too though, whatever the time of year, including demonstrations of woodland crafts, painting and even woodcarving weekends, as well as discussion meetings on wildlife issues. Funding for the activities comes from ECCO’s weekly Green Lottery with 30% of the price of every ticket donated to the cost of conservation work. Volunteer conservation work parties carry out most of the essential upkeep of the woodland, such as trail clearing, coppicing, planting, clearing streams and ponds and general woodland maintenance.

‘Without Parndon, the richness we see in the area’s wildlife would certainly decrease,’ says Lauren. ‘This is a unique place for people to visit – one where they can find out about their natural environment and enjoy it.’

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