Singing The Blues

16th March 2012

Harrow Heritage Trust has been awarded £38,400 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore Bluebell Heath, an area of open space within Stanmore Common. Jill Glenn finds out more.

In the 1970s, local historian Ronald S Brown produced a fascinating series of pamphlets called Histories of Harrow Weald Highways, and in Volume Five – From Stanmore Common to Chandos Country – he observed­ how fortunate the residents of Harrow were to be bordering on the protected Green Belt land to the north of Stanmore Hill. Stanmore Common, he wrote, ‘is one of those gems which has survived the onslaught of 20th century developers.’

Brown painted a vivid picture of the area’s wild and violent past. The history of the Common can be traced back beyond the birth of Christ, to the time when the Romans marched this way to engage with the British chieftain Cassivellaunus, somewhere near St Albans. The Romans settled… but then the Saxons came warmongering, destroying the town of Sullonicae on the side of Brockley Hill and scattering debris across acres of the Common.

Centuries later it was no calmer. ‘Medieval hunters pursued game’, Brown wrote, ‘and highwaymen lurked in the shadows to rob unsuspecting travellers.’ Having escaped the very real threat of the 19th century Land Enclosure Acts (when over 200 acres of Great Stanmore were lost to local people), under the control of Harrow Council the Common is protected to this day.
It is also cherished, and its significance as a natural history habitat has been further acknowledged by the Heritage Lottery Fund award, which will allow the restoration of an area of flower-rich heathland that has been invaded by woodland over the last twenty years.

Heathland used to be widespread in London but is now rare – and thus all the more valuable – and it is vital to maintain and assist it. In the remnants of heath on Stanmore Common the purple flowers of gorse mix with the bright yellow of tormentil and the blue of devil's-bit scabious. Furthermore there is also a distinct community of insects, spiders and birds associated with heathland that is not found elsewhere. Birds known to breed here, for example, include all three woodpeckers (green, great spotted and lesser spotted) plus tawny owl, tree creeper, nuthatch and whitethroat.

Twenty years ago, Bluebell Heath, which lies towards the north of the Common, was a single open area of grassland and wild flowers. The scrub and woodland that has invaded it since has turned it into a series of isolated glades with something of a wilderness aspect; you wouldn’t be surprised to see one of Cassivellaunus’s men emerging from the trees. The grant will be used to restore a small part of the extensive heath that existed here in the early 19th century, by removing secondary growth and distributing locally collected seed to revitalise the acid-rich grassland. It will open the landscape out to connect it with nearby New Heath, an area that was restored a few years ago. The existing mature trees (mostly oak and Scot’s Pine) will keep their positions in an open parkland setting.

In addition to biodiversity and natural heritage projects, the Heritage Lottery Fund is keen to support projects that meet a wide range of learning, conservation and participation criteria. As a result, the Bluebell Heath project is not only about the land, but also about opportunities for volunteers. Participants can be trained in ecological and land management skills, specifically in botanical surveying, pesticide spraying and chain saw use – the last two to an industry accredited level.

Long term there will be guided walks across the heath, and volunteers will use locally collected objects such as mammal skulls and snake skins, shed naturally, to illustrate the history and ecology of the site. A nature trail will also allow visitors to explore independently. A display explaining the project will tour Harrow to profile these wonderful open spaces.
Project manager Stephen Bolsover is thrilled to have received the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund. “With their help,” he says, “we will restore a beautiful heath to both raise the spirits of the human visitors and support a wealth of rare plants and animals”.

To discover more about the sites, volunteer help, find out about
the training opportunities or request leaflets, email admin@harrowncf.org
or visit www.harrowncf.org or telephone 020 8933 2823.

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