Explore Weston Big Wood

(c) Chris Davies

Autumn is here. Time to wander in the wild and wonder at the changes. A wood is alive with seasonal transformation with leaves turning different colours and mysterious fungi emerging in autumnal mists. What better place to explore than the 100 or so acres of Weston Big Wood, about half-an-hour’s drive from Bristol or an hour on the bus?

When you enter the wood from Valley Road near Portishead recycling centre, there are steps ascending the main path at top of the ridge. As well as the steps, Avon Wildlife Trust also created the wide ride through the heart of the woodland, built on an old track. These widened paths both give access so people can explore and are vital features for wildlife. The ride is a navigation route for bats, while scalloped-out areas provide sunlit homes for insects. The clearings also allow light to reach the woodland floor, encouraging plants such as wood spurge and wood anemone to grow. These in turn attract butterflies, particularly the silver-washed fritillary, speckled wood and marbled white butterfly.

The reserve is nationally important for its fungi. You can spot many different kinds as you walk round the circling path. Their names are dramatic and also descriptive: candle-snuff, earth star, dead-man’s fingers, lilac bonnet and turkey tails. Take King Alfred’s cakes. An inedible fungus growing on fallen beech and ash trees, it looks like smooth lumps of charcoal – and is a fire-starter. Once a spark is lit, it can smoulder within the fungus for a long time.

A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Weston Big Wood is on an almost continuous band of woodland cloaking the ridge between Portishead and Clevedon. Its steeply-sloping flanks have well-drained soils of calcareous to mildly acidic clay loams, beneath which is a layer of limestone. This has made them attractive as limestone quarries in the last few centuries. In fact Avon Wildlife Trust's purchase of the wood in 1997 was partly to safeguard it from future quarrying. The disused quarry on our reserve is an interesting habitat in its own right with nesting peregrines, while vegetation is slowly recolonising the rock, including with the succulent plant, stonecrop.

As well as bringing biology and geology to life, walking around Weston Big Wood is like opening a history book. This ancient woodland dates from pre-Roman times when small-leaved lime trees used to cover southern Britain. Reputed to be the tallest native tree, small-leaved lime trees tower up to the wood’s canopy. Through the ages, they were regularly coppiced (cut to allow shoots to sprout) for firewood and pole-making. Look for fibres beneath the bark, once used to make rope.

Rich in life-giving material, woods have been places of human activity throughout history: for hunting wild animals, foraging for nuts, fungi and berries, and timber for firewood, fencing and buildings. Look for banks and ditches which suggest medieval boundaries. When City of Bristol purchased North Weston manor in 1637, stones marked with the initials CB (City of Bristol) marked its boundary and can still be seen today.

As well as the lime trees, look out, too, for English oak, wild cherry and wych elm. Particularly interesting are wild service trees, with their lobed leaves, similar to maple leaves and with brown, patterned bark on the trunk, and the rare whitebeams, whose leaves resemble magnolia flowers when they first unfold in spring. 

Look for animal tracks and listen out for calls of badgers, roe deer and foxes. At dusk you may still see bats along the woodland edge before the icy winds of winter drive them to hibernate in the nooks and crannies of Weston Big Wood’s trees or the rocky crevices of its disused quarry.

Plan your visit to Weston Big Wood