Parts of Burton & Chingford Ponds Local Nature Reserve are a Site of Special Scientific Interest, owned and managed by several different landowners – including West Sussex County Council – to benefit the wide variety of habitats.
The edges of the pond are fringed with reeds where reed warblers chatter, and here and there lurks the rare cowbane – an extremely poisonous member of the carrot family not found anywhere else in Sussex. Behind the reeds there is a mature wet woodland of alder, or ‘carr’, and when the older trees fall, this allows light through to allow sedges and marsh marigolds to flourish and beetles to dine on the rotting wood. The more observant visitor may sometimes catch a glimpse of a lesser spotted woodpecker hunting for the innumerable insects that love this damp shady paradise.
The nature trail winds through Newpiece, an area of much drier woodland and heath to the right – oak, birch and rowan indicate the acidic nature of the sandy soils found here. There are also clumps of Scots pine, relics of the landscaping carried out years ago when this area was still part of Burton Park. At the top of the hill there are planted areas of hornbeam and sweet chestnut coppice. This type of woodland is more usually associated with East Sussex. At the bottom, towards Burton Pond, there is a small patch of wet heath, with Sphagnum mosses, cranberry, and the moisture-loving pale pink cross-leaved heath. This gradually leads into the alder carr adjacent to the pond.
Burton Park is a grade II listed park thought to have been landscaped by or at least under the supervision of Capability Brown. As you leave our land to enter the more formal part of the park, notice on the right some huge ancient sweet chestnuts, gradually falling into graceful decay, and providing homes for birds and bats into the bargain. The nature trail leads towards Burton Park, where a small development of houses has been blended in to the parkland landscape, passing by Snipe Bog. Here huge clumps of greater tussock-sedge nudge the willows, and the wet meadow is filled in early summer with the bright crimson blooms of southern marsh-orchids.
Further on the sound of running water signals the outfall of Chingford Pond, a shallower lake surrounded by trees – another remnant of earlier landscaping. A project to restore water level in the pond to its historic level has involved restoring the old Victorian cascades which, when the water levels have reached their maximum, will again allow water to flow through a series of water falls over stone work into Burton Pond. You may have noticed that many of the trees were cleared to allow the natural edge habitat of the pond to be restored too and a new concrete spillway. The old outflow still has extraordinarily large old swan mussels in it.
Continuing on past an outcrop of sandstone, you arrive at the Warren, open oak woodland where creamy-yellow climbing corydalis trails over the clearings in late summer. We plan to restore this area to a mix of heath and wood pasture in the future. The trail bears north to the edge of Burton Pond where the alder carr can be appreciated at its best. A boardwalk crosses the swampy depths of the Black Hole, an acid peat bog where we continually remove the invading alder, birch and willow, to allow plants such as bogbean, white sedge, yellow loosestrife and cranberry to thrive.
This is one of the best areas to watch dragonflies – golden-ringed dragonfly, scarce chaser, downy emerald, black-tailed skimmer and emperor are just a few of the many species that thrive in the intricate mix of pools and vegetation.
Welch’s Common, drier acid grassland lies above the bog, a good place to spot adders and common lizards warming themselves in spring sunshine. Look out too for the small round burrows of minotaur beetles in the bare sandy patches created by both mechanical scraping and rabbits. Many of the oak trees here and alongside the road, free of the gloom of the closed canopy forest, have their bark festooned with lichens. This leads into an area that has been restored to heathland where the rare field cricket has been re-introduced and is now spreading to our land to the south. This is a key area for this species and further work will link up habitat to help safeguard the future of the field cricket.
Crossing the road, the trail leaves the reserve proper to the north to take in some excellent oak and hazel woodland with a springtime ground flora of bluebells, wood anemones and primroses. It then runs back towards the mill alongside a woodland stream that feeds into the River Rother.