When you’re taking children out for a walk it sometimes helps to have a destination or focal point to aim for to encourage them away from their Lego, iPad or whatever other housebound activity they’re occupied by. In the case of Mardley Heath, one of our local woodlands, the highlight is a large beech tree with a magnificent tangle of exposed roots creating the perfect natural climbing frame above ground, and a cave-like hideout below.
Mardley Heath is a nature reserve located midway between Knebworth and Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire (about half an hour north of London). Used for fuel collection and grazing livestock back in the Middle Ages and more recently as a gravel quarry in the mid 20th century, its 37 hectares have been successfully returned back to a natural state. The reserve now comprises woodland, heathland and small seasonal stretches of water. The gravel extractions have left the area with some fantastic undulations and together with the network of pathways there’s enough interest to fuel everyone’s imagination and enjoyment.
If biking is your thing, Mardley Heath is perfect. Children and adults alike love zooming down hills and over little jumps and bridges that a few industrious visitors have created. My kids enjoyed “summitting” some of the steeper slopes. The Heath is also popular with dog walkers and I’m pleased to say that the owners seem to be excellent scooper-uppers!
The endless paths, which disappear into the undergrowth, are satisfyingly muddy after heavy rain, I’m afraid this isn’t buggy territory. Watching my kids running off to explore, I’m reminded of my own childhood and the excitement I felt in such environments.
There’s a wide variety of trees to identify whilst walking through the reserve; silver birch, sweet chestnut, oak and beech are all easy to spot and there’s plenty more besides to test young nature detectives. Our last visit was on a breezy winter’s morning when the beech trees creaked spookily overhead. We haven’t visited in spring yet but the telltale green shoots we spotted in early February suggest the floor will soon be covered by bluebells.
So, to find the beech tree, or “monster tree” as my children have decided it shall be called, cross the road from the reserve’s car park and head to the right along the path bordered by a wooden balcony overlooking one of the former gravel pits. There are various paths which lead down into the forest away from the road. Take one of these and continue in a generally southwesterly direction (or just directly away from the car park if that’s a more straight forward way to navigate).
The monster tree can be found on a ridge overlooking a beautiful stretch of beech trees with a dense carpet of their leaves on the ground (if you’re there in autumn or winter that is, otherwise you’ll see a magnificent canopy of beech leaves above you!). If you reach the southern boundary of the reserve, check the map by one of the gates for your location, the tree is located between the entrances at Hangman’s Lane and Dolesbury Drive. If you were feeling particularly lazy, you could park here and approach the tree from this end of the reserve but it’s more rewarding to spend a bit of time wandering through the forest looking for it.
Location: Mardley Heath has a car park on Heath Road, reached via the B197, just off the A1M (don’t let the proximity or the hum of the motorway put you off). The car park postcode is AL6 0TP.
Find out more: the Woodland Trust and Welwyn council have more information on Mardley Heath.
Where to eat nearby: we’ve had enjoyable Sunday roasts at the White Horse in Burnham Green and tasty pub grub at the Horns (a cheaper option) in Bulls Green near Datchworth.
Have you visited Mardley Heath? Or do you have a similarly magical forest near you? Let me know in the comments below.