Five get their hands dirty in the woods

The National Trust is hoping to attract families to help with voluntary conservation work at Ickworth Park.

Steven Russell

The National Trust is hoping to attract families to help with voluntary conservation work at Ickworth Park. Steven Russell press-ganged his brood to act as guinea-pigs and reported for action

OOOH, a gilt-edged invitation to slip behind the scenes at an imposing historic pile and experience things the public doesn't normally do . . . It doesn't take much to have me fantasising about the high life: butlers proffering glasses of the finest claret, cooks conjuring spreads fit for a lord, and maids running steaming-hot baths on demand. The reality, unfortunately, is that a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since a marquess of Bristol last entertained extravagantly at Ickworth House and was able to treat guests in the manner to which I'd love to become accustomed. The Georgian Italianate palace and grounds has long been in the guardianship of The National Trust. As a charity independent of Government, relying on income from members, donations and legacies - and money from commercial operations such as the hotel in Ickworth's East Wing - careful housekeeping is the watchword. In fact, it welcomes as much practical help as it can get. Which is where we come in. Wearing stout footwear, thick gardening gloves and a determined air. A willing (if not overly robust) volunteer work party to help keep this

18th Century parkland shipshape and (if you'll excuse the pun) Bristol fashion. In the Upstairs, Downstairs world of my imagination, it's a bit more Mrs Bridges than Lady Bellamy, but it promises to be fun.

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Basically, we're here to collect-up brash - short branches of Norway Spruce - during a morning with the foresters. (“We”, by the way, means me, wife Hilary, children Emily, 14, and Joshua, nine, and Trevor Child, a teacher friend who's come along for the ride at short notice without really knowing what he's letting himself in for. Actually, Trev's in his element; many moons ago, he and Hilary were students together, studying botany-type stuff at university, and know all the tree names. I know none. He also used to work in plant research before he swapped the lab for a classroom.)

Continuing the nature metaphor, we're essentially guinea-pigs here today. For next week, in a first for Ickworth, its foresters and gardeners will be welcoming families that have offered to help with wildlife conservation. During a day in the great outdoors, the volunteers are likely to find themselves raking the hay meadows, and building bat- and owl-boxes that will help create new habitats on the estate.

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Ickworth is home to eight or nine species of bat. There are lots in the vaults under the West Wing, in the church, and in a little icehouse. The boxes are likely to be put up in those last two areas.

Head gardener Sean Reid says: “There's always so much to do here at Ickworth. At the moment we're really busy cutting the hedges and wildflower meadows, which will then need raking up by hand. We couldn't do this without the help of our volunteers.”

In fact, The National Trust wouldn't be what it is without the army of committed folk who already devote their time to act as room wardens, caf� staff and in other vital roles. The East of England has more than 4,000 volunteers, who last year gave over 229,000 hours to help properties stay open and make the visiting experience enjoyable. The charity is always keen to encourage new people, especially those with children, to come along and join the party - hence the latest parkland initiative.

“It's about trying to encourage families to volunteer with the trust as a family, so to speak,” explains head gardener Dee Gathorne-Hardy of next Wednesday's first wildlife volunteering day.

“We've never done it before. We've had children's events - woodland rambles and things like that - but we've never really had children volunteering for the trust. The whole idea is just about trying to get more families involved with what the trust is doing.”

Do the foresters generally need more help?

“We do - especially on a job like this” - picking up decent branches of evergreen and loading them onto a tractor trailer. “Because we're such a small department, we're by necessity quite mechanised. We felled these trees with chainsaws, which is obviously limited to us doing it, but work like this, where you basically just need lots of hands, is ideal for volunteers.”

The Ickworth estate covers 1,800 or so acres, about 650 of which are woodland. And there are only four foresters. We'd best stop nattering, then, and start shifting the piles of conifer.

The great thing about conservation work is that you know it makes a difference - in this case, on more than one level. Most immediately, the branches we're sorting out will be used the following day at a summer event where children are making teepee-style dens or shelters with natural materials.

The larger trunks cut down by the foresters, meanwhile, feed a wood-chip boiler providing hot water and heat for The National Trust's regional office at nearby Westley Bottom.

Thirdly, the practice of thinning - cutting down some of the spruces - is in itself good for the wood as it allows healthier specimens to thrive rather than be strangled, effectively.

Thinning is something that should have happened here every five to 10 years, but it's been done perhaps once, maybe twice. As a result, there's a big difference between trees; some are thick and tall, others thin and weedy in comparison.

Dee explains this woodland of Norway Spruce, covering just over a hectare, was planted in the 1960s as a crop, to be harvested in 40 years and the timber sold by the estate.

“But the price of softwood dropped and imports from eastern Europe, and places like that, which could do it a lot cheaper, meant it was not cost-effective to thin. So it was left for a long time.”

The Norway Spruce might make a nice Christmas tree for Trafalgar Square, but it's not native to the UK and isn't of great value to wildlife. Thinning will help make the area more productive.

“Ultimately, what we want to encourage is for the broad-leaf species - oak, ash - to come in here. They (the estate) did plant some before, but because the wood was never really thinned, they struggled to establish themselves, because they got overshadowed by the more dominant Norway Spruce. What we want is a broad-leaf wood with maybe a little bit of conifer left in as variety.”

Joshua breaks off from his lifting to ask Dee “Is yours a good job?”

“I love the job, yeah. Fantastic,” replies the head forester, who's been at Ickworth for 12 years. “I love being outdoors and working with trees.”

Is there much admin, wonders Emily. “Actually, I do do quite a lot of paperwork, Surprisingly enough, I spend quite a lot of time in meetings,” he smiles. There are forestry priorities to decide upon and policy to formulate.

“There are two main aspects to this job. One is presenting the estate to visitors - we do work in the parkland as well, and there are waymarked routes - and the other aspect is woodland management: essentially, what we're doing now.”

Actually, we're done. The final two loads are tied down and the tractors and trailers squeeze between rows of trees to trundle out of the wood.

We reckon the working party has earned its picnic lunch - which, for once, I can enjoy without guilt. My physique is fast resembling that of hapless mechanic Minty in EastEnders - “cuddly” is a polite euphemism - but this morning's efforts will have burned off a fair few calories. Toss me the crisps, someone, please.

It's possible the family conservation volunteers' day on August 19 will be fully booked by now, but checking with Ray Willshire - email - will give the latest picture. And doubtless similar events will be staged if this initial venture goes to plan.

The Ickworth File

Ickworth represents the late 18th Century dream of Frederick Augustus Hervey, the eccentric 4th Earl of Bristol and also an art-loving bishop, who hankered after an Italianate palace within an English landscape

The outside of the dominating central rotunda was almost finished when he died in 1803, but inside it remained an empty shell

Son Frederick William Hervey, who became the 1st Marquess of Bristol, metaphorically picked up the pieces

He didn't need huge galleries for works of art, so in 1821 commissioned architect John Field to revamp the East Wing as living accommodation

The West Wing was built simply to give the house a balanced look, and stayed empty

The 1,800 acres of parkland were partly created by Capability Brown

The house came to The National Trust in 1956 in lieu of death duties

The arrangement also included paintings, china, silver and Regency furniture

The charity has relatively recently brought new life to parts of the building: the East Wing is now The Ickworth Hotel and the West Wing has a visitor reception area, a restaurant and shop, and facilities for conferences, banquets and weddings

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