GREEN SPACE: Covid memorial woodland takes shape
Designers say that a key aim was to ensure that the new additions fitted into the existing natural landscape, Image: David Irwin
Work is well underway to create a memorial woodland for the victims of Covid-19 on a sprawling piece of green space in Shirley.
The next phase of activity at Hope Coppice started earlier this month, with the creation of boardwalks, new pathways and a natural play area.
Originally earmarked for hundreds of home by the council, the area was struck from a list of development sites following a spirited campaign by the local community.
It had been announced even before the pandemic that the tract of green belt would instead see extra planting.
And later it was decided this enhanced habitat would be dedicated to the memory of those who had lost their lives during the coronavirus crisis; more than 650 borough residents have died according to the latest figures.
Earlier this week the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) met council officers and contractors on-site for a tour of the open space and to see the progress to date.
“We wanted to keep it as natural as possible,” said a spokesman for the council’s Planting Our Future team.
“But at the same time we wanted to make it a bit easier for people, it does get a bit boggy here so putting the boardwalks down helps people find their way through this section.”
The so-called “hard works” started a few weeks ago; aside from the boardwalks, 40 cubic metres of woodchip paths are starting to take shape, while the likes of balance logs and stepping beams are being added for children.
Other features visitors can expect to find include a tree with a “fairy door” and seats in the form of mushrooms carved from wood.
Timber is the material of choice here and as the team suggested the materials are intended to blend in with the existing habitat.
While those living nearby were excited when the project was first announced, many nonetheless wanted assurances that it wasn’t the intention to turn the land into a formal park.
Iron railings or masses of gravel would stick out like a sore thumb here.
When we visited on a typically autumnal day, Jim Morris-Ridout, from Hereford-based landscaping company Copper Beech, was busy at work.
He said that the local response had been very positive since he and the team arrived to start laying the ground.
“A lot of people stop by and chat and ask what we’re doing, it’s been very nice,” he said.
This particular area of Hope Coppice is accessed through a gap in the trees where another new feature is set to be added.
A carved archway will span the path, with the children of nearby Dickens Heath Community Primary helping with the design.
The first activity at Hope Coppice actually started last year and a total of almost 1,200 trees have already been planted as part of the initial phase of works.
Over the years to come these will mature into a community orchard and woodland.
Back in February, while the country and borough were still coming to terms with a brutal second wave, 19 especially symbolic specimens were planted in the soil.
The cluster of cherries is intended to be a symbol of the pandemic and invokes a project last year, where local families were asked to draw “trees of hope” to adorn the walls of the NEC’s hastily-assembled Nightingale Hospital.
Councils around the country have committed to a Covid memorial of one form or other.
In Loughborough, home of Britain’s last bell foundry, a clock chime memorial is taking shape. While Barnsley is planning to install a bronze sculpture of key workers.
But it’s perhaps no surprise that many like Solihull have gone for some type of garden or open space.
During the fearful first weeks of the crisis, when a daily exercise was one of the few reasons for leaving home, many found solace in the parks and public spaces on their doorstep.
“During the first lockdown many people came to the green spaces,” said a council spokeswoman. “Many may not have had gardens.”
Although it’s fair to say that even before the pandemic this particular spot was well-loved by locals.
There was a reason why so many mobilised and spoke with such passion when they feared it was under threat from development, forcing the council’s eventual u-turn.
In 2018, Sylvia Gardiner, from the South Solihull Community Group, had described the land as “a lifesaver.”
“People are always over here, even in the rain and the snow, and it’s fantastic. I’m over here every day and I’m not the only one.”
Getting people outdoors has obvious health benefits and they’re mental as well as physical; numerous studies have shown that encounters with wildlife can help ease the likes of anxiety and depression.
In fact the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week earlier this year was announced as nature for this very reason.
Project managers say that work to improve biodiversity is another key part of the plans.
The area is already a vibrant habitat – as we entered via Woodloes Road a brightly-coloured Jay flashed by – but the local authority hopes to make further improvements.
Speaking earlier this month, council leader Ian Courts said: “The creation of Hope Coppice will provide a new space for peace and contemplation and also further boost our support for nature and biodiversity in the borough.”
The likes of “bug hotels” will be incorporated across the site, wildflowers are being sown and, once flourishing, the new canopy of trees will help enhance an important green corridor.
Although of course it will be decades before the full effect of the new woodland can be felt, with the fragile saplings of today set to look rather different in generations to come.
Words: David Irwin, Local Democracy Reporter
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