PLACES: Getting away from it all at Dunwich
PUBLISHED: 13:01 19 August 2014
Dunwich Heath and its beautiful beach are popular escapes for many of us, especially in August when the heather is in full bloom. Even the National Trust team who look after this precious landscape have their very own stories, writes Jeremy Owen
Alison Joseph is beaming from ear to ear. Just 18 months ago she was working for a multi-national corporation in the heart of London, managing its European real estate operations.
Her days were spent surrounded by glass and steel, rubbing shoulders with bustling commuters on the underground and working in a highly commercial culture.
Then one day she decided to swap it all for a different kind of working environment – and escaped to the precious Suffolk landscape that is Dunwich Heath.
“It was a great experience working right in the heart of London but I always wanted to do something that gave me a deeper sense of satisfaction,” says Alison, the National Trust’s visitor experience manager. “My old office was only a stroll away from London Bridge, Buckingham Palace, The Globe Theatre and all the other famous landmarks, so it has been quite a change moving to Dunwich. But I love the remote, calming atmosphere here. It is such a special place.”
It has been a great start to the summer season at Dunwich Heath, with some high-profile visitors already – including BBC Springwatch. Alison and the Dunwich team spent a lot of time helping presenter Martin Hughes-Games and the producers select stories about the heath and beach.
Martin Hughes-Games really liked the sand martins, which could be seen darting in and out of their nesting burrows in the sandy cliffs, as well as the ant lions, the larvae of which look particularly scary on camera, but are absolutely tiny in real life. Both ended up featuring on the live show.
“It has been great having Springwatch based next-door at RSPB Minsmere,” says Alison. “The BBC wanted to feature lots of stories from the surrounding area, so it has really helped put Dunwich on the map. I think most of Suffolk knows all about us but it is great to get that national publicity.”
Another high-profile visitor was Crufts presenter Peter Purves, who judged Dunwich’s fun dog show and entertained the crowds with a running commentary.
Despite the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere people have come to enjoy when they pop over to Dunwich for a visit, behind the scenes there is a hard-working team who spend long hours looking after the nature reserve and welcoming visitors to the popular Coastguard Cottages tea rooms, with its famous fresh scones.
Senior ranger Richard Gilbert has been looking after Dunwich for seven years. He first worked for the trust in 1997 at Blakeney Point and also worked at Orford Ness for five years.
“I joined the National Trust because I wanted to work for an organisation committed to protecting the landscapes that I love and in particular the coastal habitats that so interest me,” says Richard.
“I know a lot of people hate the alarm clock going off in the morning, but for me coming to work is a real pleasure.”
Richard’s days are spent on the heath, monitoring the flora and fauna, identifying where conservation work needs implementing and ensuring the environ-ment is not only protected but can flourish.
“Surveying the wildlife is incredibly important,” says Richard. “It is the main way we can assess the health of the heath and identify any changes for good or worse that may be happening.”
This also means taking action where necessary. Occasionally some tree felling must be carried out or the heathland would be compromised and the wildlife that thrives on it would disappear.
“Lowland heathland is a rare and special habitat that needs careful management to retain its openness. We can’t allow every type of tree or plant to take hold but we do have a mixture of heather, gorse and trees including birch, pine and oak which are beneficial for the variety of scarce wildlife that we find living on the heath,” says Richard.
Heather makes up nearly 90% of the heath and there are three species at Dunwich – Common, Bell and Cross-Leaved. Heather lives for about 30 years and benefits a variety of wildlife. When it gets old (from 20 years), it starts to die back, creating lots of gaps. Theses spaces can be colonised by less welcome plants, such as sprawling bracken.
“Each winter small areas of older heather are cut in strips and the top few centimetres of the soil scraped back. This encourages the growth cycle to start again, with young heather growing back from seed already in the soil,” says Richard.
Looking after the landscape is certainly a lot of hard work but for Alison, Richard and the rest of the team there couldn’t be a better reason for getting up in the morning – and there’s never any need to escape.
To find out more about Dunwich Heath and Beach visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dunwich-heath-and-beach or call 01728 648501