Report of the IWNHAS Looking at the Countryside Group visit to Golden Hill Country Park – 16 Oct 2019

On Wednesday 16th October IWNHAS Access group visited Golden Hill for a walk around the site with Gift To Nature Countryside Ranger, Nick Webb.

Eight members of the group arrived for the walk on a day that had reasonable weather in what has been quite a wet period. This is an interesting time to visit as Gift to Nature are currently working on an improvement project for the park having secured a Lottery Heritage Grant earlier in the year. The project is titled ‘Golden Celebrations for Golden Hill’ as it coincides with the 50th anniversary of the country park and the 150th anniversary of the fort itself.
The walk started by looking at the new community orchard area to the left of the fort entrance. Here there is a bench with a large apple tree and the ‘Mountbatten’ beech. Gift To Nature assisted by volunteers from the Sainsbury’s store in Newport have been clearing this area of brambles, dead and poor quality hawthorn in order to make space and light for a small orchard. The volunteers have started the planting with six apple trees to include Discovery, cox’s Orange Pippin and Sunset. The area around will be managed as a wildflower meadow similar to the orchard planting at Merstone Station with a mown path through. This will provide a community asset and provide a welcome to visitors to the park. Lord Mountbatten brought the beech tree from the Broadlands nursery in Romsey and planted it in 1970 at the opening of the park and in memory of ‘Palmerston’s Follies’ as many of the forts from the 1860s have become to be known. They were considered follies because they were never needed for the defence of the coast from what at the time was an expected French invasion.
Moving on from the entrance, we circumnavigated the fort itself stopping at various points of interest. The Fort was built between 1863 and 1872. This is an impressive six sided, brick structure with original accommodation for 128 soldiers on two floors. Guns were mounted on the roof and in part it was intended to defend the coastal forts on the west of the Island from landward attack from the south and east. At the same time the soldiers stationed at the fort would be used to reinforce the coastal forts in the area such as Fort Victoria, Fort Albert, Fort Warden and the Needles Battery.
From here we moved to the eastern viewpoint that allows excellent views to Yarmouth and the Solent, together with glimpses of the lower Yar estuary with Mill Copse and Yarmouth Mill beyond. You can also see what was St Andrew’s Church and is now a private residence. This church was originally built in 1903 as an infant school for the Norton Green area. At the time is was built to allow a duel use as a church and in 1913 it was re-dedicated and re-opened as such following extension works. The church was adopted by the fort and soldiers would attend services there.
Moving around the park we discussed the management of the grassland and scrub areas. The site would be difficult to graze so the grassland areas are cut in the autumn every year. This is important to prevent the spread of the extensive scrub on the site with vigorous growth from dogwood, blackthorn and brambles. Where scrub has been cleared these areas quickly revert to grassland if cut regularly with a mixture of flowering plants. The group where shown several areas where this has happened. Areas of scrub within the park are good nesting habitat for lesser whitethroat and black cap and parts are periodically coppiced to rejuvenate and stimulate vigorous new growth. Whilst walking around several fungi where spotted on the open areas including shaggy ink cap, wax cap and dog sick slime mould (Nice!)
Following on from the scrub and grassland areas we moved into the secondary woodland to look at the three ponds. Two of these were cleared of scrub and willow a few years ago now and at the time hand dug to deepen to allow them to hold water for longer into the summer months. Work will continue in the winter to re-coppice the scrub around to allow more light to maintain the bankside growth and herb margins. In this area you can also spot white admiral butterflies in the summer as there is a good stock of the food plant, honeysuckle in the area.
On the way back to the car park the group were shown some of the woodland paths which have been and continue to be widened to create pleasant, sunny woodland rides with an abundance of ground flora and associated insects. The paths have also been surfaced to allow year round access. The final path into the car park is a fairly recent addition from around 2014 when at the time the Learning Zone home educated group assisted with its creation. The path was cut through thick blackthorn scrub, its route widened and surfaced. As a result early purple and bee orchids have been recorded in the long grass and vegetation to the sides which are managed as a woodland ride and is a hotspot for summer butterflies.
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