Brighton, East Sussex

Woodland which has grown up on the site of former allotments on a steep sided valley has become the focus of an inspiring project involving people from an adjacent housing estate in the City of Brighton, which is also home to the national elm collection and an award-winning wood recycling project.

Craven Vale Woodland

For decades people living on the Craven Vale housing estate watched an area of largely self seeded sycamore woodland slowly grow up over an allotment site that has gradually been abandoned during the 1960s.  The steepness of the valley side and the thin soils it supported meant that the area had become less attractive for growing food.   In recent years, local people have  come to recognise the value of this semi-wild woodland which is situated just a mile or so from the centre of the city.

In 2010, with the aid of a Big Lottery Grant and the local authority park ranger, the Craven Vale Community Association began a project to improve access to the land and increase its natural value.   A new management plan has been prepared for the woodland and identifies four main areas, including hazel coppice, an area where natural regeneration will be encouraged, an area of open glades to encourage downland butterflies and wildflowers, and a newly planted orchard which hosts old Sussex apple varieties grafted onto vigorous rootstock.    

Over the past two years local people have been busy making the plan a reality.  As well as clearing brambles, paths have been opened up and an open air gym has been created.  A perilously steep path known by locals as Jacobs Ladder which marks one boundary of the site has been made more safe with the addition of steps made from recycled wood.   Noticeboards have been erected using old oak salvaged from the derelict West Pier and illustrations of local birds have been provided by a student at the local art college.  A new hedge has been planted along another boundary which incorporates lizard ‘laybys’ to provide habitats for a once-common species in the area. 

Recycled wood that has been used in the project has not had to travel far.  Just a mile or so from Craven Vale is the Brighton and Hove Wood Recycling project, an award winning social enterprise that collects waste wood from local builders and busineses and gives it new life.  And the newly planted trees have been supplied by the local ‘Special Branch Nursery’ and the Brighton Permaculture Trust which has been promoting the planting of fruit trees across the city, including in school grounds.  The Trust runs an annual ‘scrumping’ initiative which enables it to make juices, jams, and chutneys for sale at fundraising events.  As the scope of their activities grows, the Trust now hopes to run an exchange project between Sussex and Normandy to share fruit tree culture. 

The extensive open spaces in Craven Vale housing estate itself have also benefitted from the planting of traditional apple trees.  It is now a public estate orchard in the making, a kind of  extensive community orchard.   Plans to establish a ‘friends of Craven Woods’ group are well advanced and aim to increase the involvement of local people in looking after the area and appreciating its benefits.

Elm Tree Capital

The lower boundary of the Craven Vale woodland is marked by a row of elm trees planted about 125 years ago when the land formed part of an estate known as Pratts Land.  These trees are a small clue to the not widely known fact that the City of Brighton and Hove hosts the national elm collection.  It is the largest and most diverse collection of elm trees remaining in England, and possibly the world.

The elm trees of Brighton started to become established in the nineteenth century when local leaders recognised their resistance to salty winds which frequently affect the area.  Around 150 years on it is estimated that there are around 19,000 elm trees across the city.  They require constant care and attention to ensure their continued protection from Dutch elm disease which has devastated landscapes across southern England since the 1950s.   While every year some elm trees succomb to the disease, resistant varieties are planted to replace them so that Brighton can maintain its international reputation as the elm tree capital of the world.

Websites: Craven Vale | Wood Recycling | Elm Tree Capital



Community rangers care for special places



Nature in the inner city