National Volunteer Week - Paul Chapman's story

By Steve Aylward

It’s National Volunteers’ Week and, over the course of the week, we will be celebrating the fantastic difference our volunteers make for wildlife in Suffolk. In 2019, over 1360 volunteers have contributed nearly 68,300 hours of time. THANK YOU for your time, knowledge, skills, experience, energy and enthusiasm. We couldn’t achieve a fraction of what we do without you.

I joined the Suffolk Wildlife Trust shortly after moving to Suffolk in the 1970’s but it wasn’t until the mid ‘80’s that I decided to take a more active part in conservation. 

I was studying a course on the Suffolk landscape and its conservation and one of the other students was the warden of Martins’ – Evangeline “Voline” Dickson. We visited the meadows as part of the course and I was impressed with the beauty of the place and the really peaceful atmosphere. I helped Voline carry out her flower count surveys of the orchids and snake’s-head fritillaries for that season, which in those days took about 8 hours to complete each one! At the end of the season Voline said that, as I had helped out so much, I should be deemed to be an assistant warden (flattery gets you everywhere)! At the end of the next season she told me that her art work commissions (she was an esteemed water colour artist and illustrator) were going to be taking up so much time that she thought it would be best if I took over as the actual warden! Fortunately Voline was a good teacher and also was very supportive as I took over the role. The flower counts had been started shortly after the Trust acquired the meadows and are continuing to this day. So we have records going back for 40 years now This year has been spectacular for the numbers of flowers that have appeared. We counted just under 6 000 green-winged orchids and the snake’s-head fritillaries have had their best show since 1995.

Green-winged orchid - Lianne de Mello

Green-winged orchid - Lianne de Mello

Soon after I took on the role of warden we were visited by the “Great Storm” which brought down a number of ageing fruit trees in the orchards. Since then we have been gradually restocking both orchards. We tried (with the help of the then head horticulturalist at Notcutts, Woodbridge) using grafts from the existing trees – not always a success as it was difficult to find vigorous material on so of the older trees. Since then we have used plants obtained from East of England Apples and Orchards project and also Suffolk Traditional Orchard Group and so have an interesting population of fruit trees mainly with East Anglian connections. We have also learned the secrets of grafting and knowledge of suitable root stocks for use in a wildlife habitat.

The volunteers who help me are invaluable. Apart from the many people that can turn up to lend a hand, I have a core team of people - Diana, John and Glyn (and, up until a few years ago Dave Munday, who died recently after a long illness and is sadly missed). Glyn is an old work colleague who, I was fortunate to discover, was also an excellent hedge layer and he has been responsible for the careful restoration of the existing hedges. Diana is a natural teacher (and is known for the guided tours she lays on for visitors) and also interested in bees and her husband, John is very knowledgeable about fruit trees – this invaluable lot have worked with me for about 30 years! When we started only about half of the present hedgerows existed and it is odd to look at the trunks of some of the trees, as thick as a man’s leg, and know that they were planted by us!

Suffolk Wildlife Trust

I suppose that when you spend over 35 years being associated with such an important place there are bound to be some highlights. There is the time when the barn owls decided to make use of the nest box provided by the Suffolk Barn Owl Project or when the records of great crested newt, zebra spider and the lichen, Lecanora pulicaris (sorry, no common name) were made (the lichen turned up on an old wooden gatepost - the first record in Suffolk for this). Perhaps the most significant highlight would probably be the occasion in 2013 when the conservation charity, Plantlife, decided that the meadows should be designated the “Coronation Meadows” of Suffolk. This was a scheme that HRH Prince Charles had set up in collaboration with the charity in order to commemorate the Queen’s 60 years on the throne. I was invited to Highgrove to meet Prince Charles and discuss all things meadow over Pimms and vol-au-vonts along with the other county custodians of meadows throughout the country! However, to my mind, a more rewarding highlight occurred when the daffodil recorders of Kew decided that one of varieties growing in the small orchard was unrecorded and we were able to register it as a new variety with the name “Monewden” – our very own daffodil!

The thing about Martins’ is that things keep turning up – in 2019 we received news that a very rare smut fungus, Urocystsi colchici, was growing on the colchicum leaves. Although not the most glamorous of plants, the people at Kew were very excited – it was a member of their Lost and Found Fungi Project!

Martins' Meadows nature reserve Suffolk Wildlife Trust

By Steve Aylward

So why have I been involved for so long? I really believe that there is a magical atmosphere about the place and feel that I have been gripped by its spell. It’s a spell composed of two strands of history – the local and the natural.

There is a magnificent old oak tree that stands guard over the first meadow. This stag-headed veteran has a girth of 7.1 metres and may have an age of around 700 years. Probably a mature tree before the farm house was built!

The farmhouse itself, once owned by the Martin family, dates from 1593 by was built by one of the new class of yeoman farmers of Elizabethan England, John Stebbings. Attached to the house is an old barn that once housed animal stalls, the planking boards of which have graffiti carved into them over the centuries by the knives of the generations of farm labourers who worked there. There are pictures of farm tools; a ploughman; animals (including an intricate cockerel); two men duelling with swords; along with various names and dates - many of them 19th century. The garden was probably the source of several plants that have become naturalised in the meadows – the very early variety of double daffodil, that grows abundantly in First Church Meadow (the Kew recorders say that this is the only place they know of it growing in a meadow situation); the snake’s-head fritillary which is not usually found in MG5 grassland but is present in thousands in the damper areas and the meadow saffrons, a plant once valued for its medicinal properties against gout. All probably garden escapes.

Martins' Meadows nature reserve Suffolk Wildlife Trust

By Steve Aylward

A few generations after John Stebbings built the house a map was drawn up in 1656 (the time of Cromwell’s Commonwealth) of the estate for George Stebbings. It shows the small orchard in exactly the same place as it is today and the ancient hazel coppices along the sides that are still there, many of these are possibly much the same age as the oak. The map also shows that many of the hedges that we can see today existed at the time and were not part of any enclosure movement. The meadow we now know as “First Church Meadow” is also shown as “the Church meddowe”, although it was much larger then. Later maps including the Tithe map, an auctioneer’s map and earlier O.S. maps show that the land has always been under grass – meadows or pasture – and so, in historical times, probably has never been ploughed.

A writer has described the site as being a landscape straight out of Shakespearean history and you could easily imaging bumping into Oberon, Titania and Puck as you walk, at dusk, through the primroses and violets of the small orchard. And, although I have not seen them, I know that there are beings that also feel the magic of the place. Frequently, around the time of the equinoxes and solstices, you can find smallish circles of vegetation trampled in one direction, where someone or some thing has trodden down the grass, perhaps in a dance? There are also small “gifts” of garlands and posies left at the base of the trees or hanging in the boughs. Some one is also celebrating the ancient beauty of this magical place – perhaps they are fairies?

Paul Chapman - Martin's Meadow volunteer

Paul Chapman - Martin's Meadow volunteer