Tortworth Forest Centre is a 20 acre woodland with a rich and fascinating history that has become overgrown over the last decade. It forms part of the arboretum of Tortworth Court and was a wonder of its day, considered in the 1890s to be one of the top arboreta in the country. Its collection of over 300 rare and champion trees hosts an amazing ecosystem of birds, bats, butterflies and other insects.
The new owner of the Forest Centre, Angus Hanton is keen to encourage groups to learn about and use woodlands. Last year, Angus asked me if I wanted to take on the significant task of restoring this part of the arboretum sustainably, with the aim of opening it up to community use; from there the Tortworth Forest Centre was born.
The Centre aims to restore this part of a unique arboretum and create a vibrant outdoor learning centre to nurture the next generation of wildlife enthusiasts and to encourage audiences to learn new skills and engage with conservation. I hope to make this area available to a variety of different groups who might not otherwise have access to such a space.
The project has been set up as a Community Interest Company as it meant I could seek philanthropic funding for community work and restoration of the woodlands, and the company was founded in April this year. Since then I have been meeting with various charities and community groups who are interested in using the space for their charitable work, as well as beginning the long journey of restoring the woodland.
I am extremely fortunate to have the support of the renowned dendrologist, Tony Titchen, who was commissioned to survey the trees of the entire arboretum back in 2002 by the then owners, HM Prison Leyhill. Within our area, Tony identified the 21 most interesting and significant trees which he codified into a detailed descriptive list, which, with the help of volunteers, I am photographing through the seasons for the website.
Tony is now working on a new survey of the oaks: his research from historical documents suggests that Tortworth Forest Centre and surrounding areas of the arboretum may contain up to 30 different species of oak, one of the most varied collections in the UK. To support this work I have organised volunteer working parties to clear pathways through the dense undergrowth to all the important trees to enable ongoing surveys and conservation work.
I am incredibly grateful to receive a donation from the Avon Gardens Trust which has enabled me to purchase good quality tools for our volunteer conservation days. Once a month up to twenty volunteers join me to begin the long process of restoration – to date we have made remarkable progress into the bramble and rhododendron but there is a great deal more to be done.
Volunteers range from local residents through people interested in conservation, to individuals referred from Addiction Rehabilitation Centres to improve their self-esteem and give them an opportunity to gain new skills.
I have secured additional funding for these conservation days from the Nineveh Charitable Trust, an environmental organisation based in Kent, which will pay for one year’s worth of monthly conservation days at the arboretum.
Future plans include obtaining funding to run woodland management internships to be offered to long term unemployed adults or those recovering from addiction. We hope that this internship would result in a nationally recognised qualification and lead to further study or paid employment.