History of Towerhouse Wood

History of Towerhouse Wood

Less than 1 km to the north of Nailsea, set on the side of a south-facing hill, this piece of ancient woodland (ST475719) occupying about 6 hectares (16.5 acres), was purchased in 1992 by the Woodland Trust with financial assistance from The Countryside Commission, Nailsea Town Council, and Wraxall and Failand Parish Council and with generous donations contributed by local residents. It is now a part of the ‘Forest of Avon’, the Community Forest that surrounds Nailsea, and it is a Bristol Avon County Site of Wildlife Conservation Importance. Parts of the Wood are in private ownership and several areas have been fenced.

Moorend Spout nature reserve is not far to the west in the valley of the Land Yeo The history of that site is given in ‘History of Moorend Spout Nature Reserve’ by Terry Smith.

Adjacent to the wood in the field to the south are the remains of a Mesolithic camp (ST475718) (G), first excavated in 1956 (Proc. Som. Arch. Soc. 104, 106), and more recently by the Archaeology Department of the University of Bristol, revealing many worked flints. This was a transit camp, used by our ancestors about 6000 years ago, then subsisting on fish and wild fowl. A flint arrowhead has also been found in the river nearby.

The 15th Century Tower House giving the Wood its name, is at Birdcombe Court (C). This house was owned by a dissolute youth who spent much time in ‘gaming’ in the tower. An Iron Age bronze torque was found in the vicinity (ST479719) in the 19th Century. Not far to the south are the remains of a Roman-Period villa (ST479716). This featured under-floor heating and a mosaic floor (Proc. Som. Arch. Soc. 105, 37) but which were vandalised in the 19th century.

bluebells in Towerhouse wood
Bluebells are abundant in the Spring

The wood is well known for its veteran oaks about 400 to 500 years old, one of which collapsed in the year 2000, probably due to the water-saturated soil that could no longer hold the weight of the leaning trunk. Other trees include the small-leaved lime, which is an indicator of ancient woodland. In the northeast corner is a coast redwood, and other North American trees have been planted to the north of the main footpath. Another feature of the wood are the carpets of spring flowers; bluebells, wood anemones, wild garlic and orchids. Four different species of bat are found in these woods and 36 species of birds have been identified.

The woodland was managed by coppicing until the beginning of the 20th Century, and this management process is being re-introduced on a small scale by the Woodland Trust. This wood is well worth a visit, especially in the springtime, and is easily accessible by public footpaths that cross it. Many of the trees have been coppiced in the past, most notably the hazel in the woodland and the Small-leaved Lime near the entrance to the wood. These coppiced trees are characterised by the multiple branches regenerated from the base of the remaining trunk. The two volunteer wardens are in the houses labelled A and B on the map. Home A, now called The Covey’ was occupied by Jenny Gladstone who later moved to Norfolk. This was then sold to Piers Partridge (hence the name!). It is now occupied by Rachel Manley (since 2018) who organises outdoor activities for school children. (www.wildwood-adventures.co.uk).

Wood anemone
Wood anemone

The main entrance for the Wood is from Towerhouse Lane. Alternatively the public footpaths leading from Riverway (W2), from Greenfield Crescent (W1), or from Jacklands Bridge on the Clevedon Road (T14 or T16) pass through the Wood. The entrance for W2 is across a stile erected in memory of Freda Henry (D) who donated money to help in the purchase of this Wood.

This ancient woodland designated as a Site of County Wide Importance was purchased by the Woodland Trust in 1992 with financial assistance from Tickenham Parish council, The Countryside Commission and Nailsea Town Council. The balance of the purchase price was generously contributed by local residents. It is now part of the Forest of Avon, the Community Forest that surrounds Bristol.

Woodland – In general the Wood has little management and it remains a ‘wildwood’. At intervals of 15 to 20 years small parts of the wood are coppiced, leaving some of the cut wood to encourage invertebrates and fungi. In the past much of the coppiced wood was used for making sheep hurdles. The stumps remaining in the ground form shoots that eventually restore the tree cover. In this way, the wood can maintain a greater diversity of wildlife and support native mammals such as Dormice.

It has been important to control aggressive aliens like Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), Philadelphus coronarius and Box Honeysuckle Lonicera nitida, mainly growing to the north and west. For the past five years many working parties have removed large amounts of these aliens. The Rhododendron ponticum near to the northern perimeter of the wood can be invasive and need to be regularly cut.

Remains of the ancient Oak tree which have been converted into a seat.
Remains of the ancient Oak tree which have been converted into a seat.

Covering an area of 16½ acres, it includes many well-established Ash, Oak, Field Maple, Beech, Wych Elm and Birch trees. There are some large old Ash coppice stools and ancient pollarded Oaks on the southern boundary. The undergrowth is mainly Hazel, Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Holly and Spindle. Close to the northeast entrance is a Small-leaved Lime tree, a good indicator of ancient woodland, and set further back to the north of this entrance is a Coast Redwood. The spring line at the southern boundary of the wood gives marshy areas of Alder carr and good quality rhynes and ponds.

Bubbles in the pond in the SW corner of the wood.
Bubbles in the pond in the SW corner of the wood.

Geology – In the north, the Wood is situated on Carboniferous limestone, and to the south on Mercian Mudstone. The pond in the south-west corner of the Wood (ST 475 719) shows intense bubbling. Work in association with British Gas showed that this is due to air containing 8% carbon dioxide.

For a full account of the investigation of this gas see ‘the Natural History of Nailsea, by Terry Smith in ‘The Hydrology of Nailsea’.

The mechanism for the production of these gases is unknown (see Pennant 28, 21), but it may be related to the presence of hot rocks (see ‘The Natural History of Nailsea’, Terry Smith; and here ). This may not be surprising in view of the hot springs that are found at Bath and also in Hotwells Road in Bristol. Although 2ºC may seem to be a small differential, The Environment Agency (EA) say that in this area any water emerging as a spring with a temperature in excess of 10ºC is likely to be of geothermal origin. The temperature of the water emerging from the spring was about 12ºC. Measurements were made by Sarah Davies of the EA. The results therefore seem to be in agreement with a ‘hot rock’ hypothesis for the production of the bubbles (See Pennant 28, p.20). Eventually it may be possible to harness this energy for local heating projects. (see also www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=28186. )

The wood is situated on a south facing hillside, with Carboniferous Limestone (Clifton Down Limestone) above, and Triassic Mercian Mudstone below. A fault line is marked on the geological survey map at a position very close to the pond. Coal deposits are confined to the south of this fault.

Since the pond was in close proximity to the Nailsea coal measures, it seemed possible that this gas was derived from methane. Samples of the gas were collected on 16th March 1997 and sent for analysis by British Gas. This showed nitrogen 73.48%; oxygen 18.37%; carbon dioxide 8.15%. The ratio of nitrogen to oxygen was very similar to that of air (78.08% nitrogen and 20.95% oxygen), but the concentration of CO2 was significantly greater than that normally found in air (0.033%). The possibility of sample leakage was unlikely, and if it did occur, would presumably lead to the gas showing a greater similarity in composition to that of air, and would therefore not account for the enhanced CO2.

Himalayan Balsam flowers. This is an invasive plant (but much loved by bees!) which has become established in the area to the south of Stonehenge Lane
Himalayan Balsam flowers. This is an invasive plant (but much loved by bees!) which has become established in the area to the
south of Stonehenge Lane

One possible hypothesis is that the gas is compressed during the flow of water through one or more caverns in the hillside, and is released when the water rises to the surface. This should imply that the gas production would depend on an erratic flow of water, and would show as diminished gas production when the water flow decreases. However this does not appear to happen in this pond, since the gas flow appears to be independent of the water level.

Another possible explanation might arise if water flowing by gravity in an underground passage were to become heated, and was unable to re-equilibrate on rising to the surface. The gas expelled would in theory then contain a greater proportion of CO2.

The enhanced CO2 might be explained by the bacterial decomposition of vegetation in the soil. The pond itself was almost devoid of growing plants, being shaded by trees. The rate of CO2 production amounted to about 17 kg per year per square metre. There did not appear to be sufficient organic matter in the basin of the pond to provide this; nor would this theory account for the nitrogen and oxygen in the gas. It is possible that two mechanisms are operating, one for the latter gases and another for the CO2.

Roe Deer in the Wood (photograph by Vanessa Palmer) Deer can reduce the ability of coppiced trees to regenerate by eating young shoots.
Roe Deer in the Wood (photograph by Vanessa Palmer)
Deer can reduce the ability of coppiced trees to regenerate by eating young shoots.

However if the CO2 is produced by bacterial oxidation, it might seem strange that the oxygen / nitrogen ratio is not significantly lower than that of air, the calculated oxygen depletion being only 1.5%, which is insufficient to account for the enhanced CO2.

Flora – The woodland is carpeted with Ramsons (Wild Garlic), Bluebells and white Wood Anemones in April and May, and there are several Early Purple Orchids. These plants flower before the canopy of tree leaves close in to darken the forest. Dog’s Mercury, Wood Melick, Bugle, Arum, Pignut, Spurge Laurel, Violets and Primroses are also found on the woodland floor, while in the wetter places to the south is Hemlock Water Dropwort. Several kinds of fern can be found – Hart’s Tongue, the Soft Shield Fern and Bracken. The rotting wood provides a large number of fungi in the autumn, but the black balls of King Alfred’s cakes growing on dead Ash wood can be seen throughout the year.

The Veteran Oaks – One of the four ancient Oak pollards on the lower path collapsed in October 2000, the ring count indicating that it would be up to 400 years old. This was called ‘The Polo Tree’ (F), after a hole in one of the branches and this name is now carved into the cut trunk. Below this may be found a seat constructed from the timber, where it is possible to see across the neighbouring fields. Another of the Oaks has long nails driven at intervals into the trunk, used by generations of children as climbing footholds.

Two Sleepy Dormice (Photo by Gill Brown who is licensed to handle them.) The presence of these delightful creatures was established in the Wood by Gill Brown.
Two Sleepy Dormice (Photo by Gill Brown who is licensed to handle them.)
The presence of these delightful creatures was established in the Wood by Gill Brown.
Mike Woodley fastening one of our owl boxes to an oak tree 2007
Mike Woodley fastening one of our owl boxes to an oak tree 2007

History – Just beyond the southern boundary of the wood is a Mesolithic site (ST475718), occupied 6000 to 12 000 years ago, which was excavated in 1956, and has evidence of flint working (Proc. Som. Arch. Soc., 104, 106) (G). A little further to the east (ST 479719) an Iron Age bronze torque was found in the 19th century. Closer to Nailsea to the south (ST 479716) are the remains of a Roman villa, vandalised progressively, but mainly in the 19th century, with some stones being incorporated into local buildings. This villa which had a mosaic floor and a hypocaust, was last investigated in 1961 (Proc. Som. Arch. Soc., 105, 37). Just outside the west boundary of the wood is a disused lime kiln (NSC 03092) (E; Marked on a map dated 1769 now in the City Museum)’

To the south of this, the Tickenham / Wraxall parish boundary is marked by a ditch which runs North / South, across the main public footpath (W9).

Animals – At least four kinds of bat fly in this wood. The two species of the common Pipistrelle have been detected, distinguished by the frequency of their ultrasonic call, together with Noctules. Daubenton’s bats skim the water of the Trout Farm to the west of the wood in their search for insects. There is a small colony of dormice in the Wood, now encouraged by the introduction of boxes, while Foxes and Badgers are well established here.

Jeffery Boswall leading one of many dawn chorus walks. Taken in July 2005
Jeffery Boswall leading one of many dawn chorus walks.
Taken in July 2005

Many of our native song birds flourish in these woods, together with Tree Creepers, Goldcrests, Woodpeckers and Owls. The distinctive call of Buzzards is often heard above the Wood and they are sometimes seen on the open fields.
The sunny glades are a good place to see butterflies, like the Speckled Wood, while a variety of dragonflies and damselflies breed in the valley of the Land Yeo to the south.

Jeffery Boswall, the BBC wildlife producer, lived in Stoney Steep not far away. He was always very encouraging in our endeavours to preserve the Wood.

Boulders – In 2003, a stolen car was deliberately rolled down Stonehenge Lane by vandals from where it fell over the embankment of the footpath. It was stopped by the trees at the bottom of the slope, adjacent to the lower footpath and it remained there as an eyesore close to the lower footpath. With financial assistance from North Somerset Council, the car was winched back and removed. In order to prevent this kind of incident in the future we decided that boulders should be placed at the end of the Lane, Seven of these limestone boulders (about one tonne each) were donated by Shipham quarries, conveyed by Stowells and repositioned by Les Frappell using a bulldozer. The public footpath was not blocked as gaps were left for pedestrians to walk between the boulders. As well as preventing access of any further vehicles these boulder are now used as seats by walkers ascending the steep climb up the footpath. At one time a clearing at the southern edge was used for illicit drug and drinking parties. The woodland to the west had been owned by Charles Spilsbury who lived in Stonehenge House. His children donated it to Nailsea Town Council in 2005.

Remains of the pipe ducting water from Birdcombe valley to the Nailsea Brewery. ST 475 717 (H)
Remains of the pipe ducting water from Birdcombe valley to the Nailsea Brewery.
ST 475 717 (H)

The Land Yeo – The Trout Farm at Jacklands Bridge on the Clevedon Road was established by Harry Waygood in 1990 (see www.spotfish.co.uk/fishery/jacklands) (I). It is now owned and managed by Caroline Eastwood. The lake is a great attraction for angling enthusiasts, being well-stocked in a variety of fish species although there is competition with herons and otters! The cafe provides a welcome resting place for visitors to the Wood, with home-made cakes and local produce also on sale.

About the middle of the 19th century water from the Land Yeo was used by the brewery in Nailsea, sited in the position of Heath Road and Friendship Road. This was pumped from Knightswood Spring (about 100m south of Freda Henry’s stile) to a large cistern about 25 m to the west of the old Friendship Inn. The water was pumped using power from a water wheel immersed in the Land Yeo. When the flow of river water was insufficient to operate the pump, power was provided by a small steam engine. The delivery pipe may still be seen close to Knightswood Spring, and the course of the pipe was marked on contemporary maps. (see ‘The Hydrology of Nailsea’ )

Ty trail www.tysculpturetrail.co.uk/index.php

‘The Ty Sculpture Trail is a collection of 14 stone carvings of animals that live in and around this ancient woodland and celebrates the life of Ty Partridge who grew up in a house on the corner of the wood. Ty, who spent much of his free time playing, exploring and making dens here, died from leukaemia, aged 21 and the Trail is the inspiration of his Dad Piers, helped by Phil Carter, whose son was a close friend.’

Please

  1. Do not pick the wild flowers
  2. Keep to the established paths
  3. Do not disturb the wildlife
  4. Keep dogs under control and clear up after them
  5. If alone, maintain telephone communication
  6. Report any diseased or damaged trees to the Woodland Trust
  7. Take your rubbish home
  8. Do not cycle or ride horses
  9. Do not camp or light fires

Terry Smith 10/09/2018

For further information – contact the Woodland Trust England@woodlandtrust.org.uk t. 01476 581111 www.woodlandtrust.org.uk or Terry Smith.
The management of the Wood is supervised by Joe Middleton. (Woodland Trust – Site manager for the South West)
I am grateful to many people for correcting my errors and making suggestions for further additional facts.

Especially –

  • Gill Brown
  • Caroline Eastwood
  • Rachel Manley
  • Joe Middleton
  • Vanessa Palmer
  • Ruth Pitchers
  • Chris Smith
  • Sarah Spilsbury
  • Mike Woodley
  • Many others have contributed to the preservation of this piece of ancient woodland.
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