A walk in the park with Mabel
PUBLISHED: 11:31 17 March 2015 | UPDATED: 11:31 17 March 2015
David Falk, manager of Suffolk County Council’s Brandon Country Park, ventures east to explore the managed surroundings of one of England’s finest town parks, discovering veteran trees, wildlife and making one or two new friends in the process . . .
“Do you like our corkscrew tree then?”
The voice comes from just behind me, catching me slightly by surprise. I’ve been looking through the lens of my camera trying to frame a picture of a 500-year-old twisted veteran sweet chestnut tree. I hadn’t noticed anyone standing beside me and turn to see a cheerful elderly man. He’s wrapped up against the winter air, his dog wandering around him.
“It’s two and half turns. Count them – one, two and another half.” I count with him. He’s right – the tree does indeed twist two and half times round.
“She’s there today,” the old man continues. Luckily I know what he’s referring to. “Head up the path and it’s the last fat tree on your left. Look straight up and she’s sitting right there.” The man continues chatting to me until a friend wandering up the path distracts him and he strolls off.
I’m exploring Christchurch Park, on the edge of Ipswich town centre. I entered the park through a curved red brick gateway, walking through iron gates, which frame the symmetry of Christchurch Mansion. Dating from the 16th century, the mansion is home to an impressive collection of Gainsboroughs and Constables, but back in the 12th century this was the site of an Augustinian monastery and a few remnants of that time still remain in the park.
I walk past the mansion and its well-kept garden of clipped lavender and yew, bay trees and imaginative sculptures. Further on is the flat outline of the Reg Driver Visitor Centre. Named after the first chairman of the Friends of Christchurch Park, the centre blends into the contours of the park.
Inside a team of friendly staff are full of information. They give me a leaflet – A Walk in the Park – tell me about the 500-year-old sweet chestnut and point out where to see Mabel.
Outside I have my brief encounter and following the man’s advice head uphill to the last tree on the left. From afar I see its bulbous trunk, bulging and folded with protrusions and growths. Nearing it, an “over-excited dog chases squirrels into trees. Its owner smiles at me.
“She’s up there, just in the top. I said good morning to her earlier and she hooted back at me!”
Others have also stopped to see Mabel. Walkers and joggers not breaking stride give a cursory glance. Everyone acknowledges her presence. A parent directs her toddler’s gaze.
“What’s Mabel?” the toddler asks.
Mabel is the park’s resident tawny owl. She sits, chest puffed out, filling a hole high up in the top of the tree. Eyes closed, oblivious to all around her, she’s a beautiful mix of caramels and whites. This is the 5th year she’s been seen in the park. I could watch her for ages.
But the walking leaflet keeps me moving. The next stop is the Cabman’s Shelter. In the late 1800s this was located in The Cornhill in the centre of town. The shelter offered protection to drivers of horse drawn carriages. From it a straight path called the Mayors’ Avenue heads from one side of the park to the other.
The park is simply beautiful, full of character and interest. The land flows and curves, bending shadows across expanses of grass. I cross a wide expanse of lawn peppered with ancient trees. People mill about in social harmony. In the distance I can see a children’s play area full of sounds of laughter. At the end of the avenue I come across a magical, carved wooden toad playing cards on a park bench.
Beyond the carved toad I enter an arboretum. Tropical looking monkey puzzle trees stand alongside sprawling Cedar of Lebanon, blue-tinted Atlas cedars and flowering cherries. Opposite the Ipswich School I admire the pale sandstone carving of the Brett Water Fountain. It’s impressive with its marble inlay, decoration of black pipework and brass taps. The fountain, donated in 1863 by a local benefactor concerned for children’s welfare, once provided water to those enjoying the arboretum.
I follow a meandering route past an Arts and Crafts shelter, tennis courts and a croquet lawn to the wilderness pond, once a source of water for Ipswich. Against the backdrop of trickling water, coots, ducks and geese paddle expectantly towards me. I stroll past exotic ferns, red dogwoods and corkscrew willows to a copper coloured beech hedge.
Beyond the hedge lies the Ipswich War Memorial, a white cenotaph with poppy wreaths decorating its base. Plaques record the names of over 1,500 servicemen who lost their lives in two world wars. A metal carving of soldier’s things has stained the lower plinth copper green. Nearby is a memorial to the Boer War, a lone soldier standing with head bowed.
History pervades this section of the park. Close by is a squat English yew. At 600 years old it dates all the way back to the days of the monastery. Leaning slightly, its base standing in a muddy pool of water, its limbs twist and turn. Close up I study its swirling heavy trunk. Green foliage tangles out of the bark like an unkempt beard.
Nearing the end of the walk and the Visitor Centre, I stop at the Round Pond, another remnant from the monastery. I watch as people stroll by, toddlers balance on scooters, parents push prams and joggers race past. I take a deep breath of fresh air and make my way out of the park, hoping to catch a final glimpse of Mabel.