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Stepping into Townclose Hills

Posted: Thursday 16th November 2017 by LowerAireValley

Townclose Steps - nearly complete!Townclose Steps - nearly complete!

The colder months usually beckon in a time of woodland thinning and scrub bashing, much beloved by our volunteers (and us too!), and I should add, performs an essential function in allowing light to reach the woodland floor – benefitting wood-dwelling plants, butterflies and more.

However before all this could commence we had a more technical task upon our hands come October, that of constructing a set of steps up a very slippery slope indeed. In fact we’ve mentioned this before; Townclose Hills (AKA Billy Woods) perches on an outcrop of magnesian limestone, leading to rather poor soils – great for wildflowers – not so great at sticking together. Hence we have some fairly substantial erosion in the steeper areas such as our slippery slope, and so putting in place steps goes some way to stopping this erosion, as well as making it harder for people to fall head over heels, as one of our volunteers happened to do here!

We often traipse up and down stairways (if you can call them that) in woods and similar places with little mind paid to when and how they arrived there. But I can tell you that once you’ve taken part in their creation, you won’t be skimming over them once as before. We gave ourselves 3 days to get them in and were very fortunate to have the help of 3 different volunteer groups! What follows is a very condensed version of events across those days…

On day 1 we arrived with our regular volunteers in tow and raring to go (well, there was perhaps some apprehension), our trigonometry complete and wooden planks cut into manageable pieces. We look down at the slope and momentarily contemplate whether surfing down on the boards would be safest before opting for the more sensible strategy of sliding them down first and then descending safely via clutching to whatever branches or roots were available. While more planning and preparation had gone in than one might realise (there’s even a sort of step building manual would you believe), there is quite an element of staring up at the slope and scratching your head.

We begin by placing the risers (the front bit of the step) in their appropriate positions, with much consulting of spirit levels and tape measures to ensure we get the correct dimensions to our steps. Funnily enough they aren’t dug in, they are ‘simply’ placed, with the sides (confusing referred to as ‘rails’) then slapped on – at this point looking like empty raised beds – before being packed with stone aggregate (in this case with crushed limestone, in keeping with the geology of the site). Our volunteers worked on placing the initial several steps, arguably the most difficult aspect of step building, as once the first few are in you can work off these as a reference point for the next step, and then the next…

And so it continued the next day, this time with a crew of volunteers from Leeds University, studying everything from media to biology (we were desperate for engineers, but they must’ve been hiding). As there was more than enough manpower to tackle to steps, we split the group and sent some off to help with Leeds Coppice Workers, who were on site to continue their work on a compartment or ‘coup’ of the woods, which works well for us as we get free woodland management while they take the cuttings to sell as beanpoles, fence posts and firewood galore. Enough progress is made to reach about midway up the envisaged staircase, where we encounter little niggles such as the poor soils seeping away at the sides leaving us with less and less material to secure the risers into, but nonetheless we prevailed and managed to clobber in sides to those steps we’d installed. At this stage it looks like we’re starting a rather precarious allotment as none of the steps have been filled yet.

Lunchtime provided much chance for respite, when particularly the international students there were introduced to our cultural delight of cake and cheese, (which at least seemed to interest the orange ladybirds that keep cropping up on the site), before swapping over. The time soon caught up with us and we said our goodbyes and thanks before beginning the long journey home to refresh ourselves for the final day ahead.


Day 3 starts with just the pair of us shovelling two and a bit tonnes of limestone aggregate into the trailer, and thus we arrive to meet the team from Network Rail a little out of breath, but determined to see the job through. This last day is also the safest day, as the array of raised beds make advancing up and down the slope much easier – almost like steps some might say! We set some to task with lugging the aggregate back and forth the woods from the trailer and the rest start hammering in the final steps. The soil has a few surprises for us at the top as it somehow manages to become a mixture of clay and limestone, but this is welcomed as it allows the stakes to be more easily bashed in to secure the risers. We really do have some engineers with us this time, although train tracks won’t be rolled out to link up with the nearby Lines Way (also a nature reserve) anytime soon. By lunch this time we can feel the end is near, and we even get a chance visit from a resident wood mouse (Apodemus sylvatica) who comes surprisingly close – and we get a good view as it feasts upon an apple core.

Post-lunch proceeds with lots of hammering to get the remaining sides secured and plenty of walloping with the tamp (a big metal pole with a square base) to pack in the stone, and which point we could hear a woodpecker drumming away - perhaps in response or competition, I’m not sure. Towards the end we installed a dead hedge with some of the coppice workers’ leftovers to barricade the steeper fork at the top of the slope, and to encourage people down the much steadier one linking up with our handiwork.


At last it is complete, all without a broken bone or a sprain in sight, but perhaps the odd swollen finger mistaken for a nail. The result is quite a

transformation, as you’ll see from the photos, but the best thing is to wander down and try them out for yourself, they look well settled in now with the autumn sea of leaves spilling over them, and there’s still the odd flower and dangling cluster of black bryony berries looking like shiny red beads lingering about the coppice stools.

You could also get chance to test-drive them on our free winter tree identification walk on the 25th November, but the best thing is to come along to our Lower Aire Valley volunteer task days on a Tuesday and you might be lucky enough to take part in some step building yourself one day! If not there’s always some woodland thinning to do…

Peter Gurney

Lower Aire Valley Trainee

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