How the pandemic galvanised a town to fight to save its woodland
Kettering residents are against plans to replace a treasured woodland with over-sized warehouses
By Sarah Ward
Looking out from the kitchen window of her cottage tucked away in Weekley Hall Wood Sue Shaw noticed a lot of new faces over the spring and summer months of the first coronavirus lockdown.
Families from the nearby Brambleside estate, young couples and novice ramblers wandered past her hidden home at all hours of the day and evening as they used the forested space on the edge of Kettering to exercise and contemplate the new normal as the contagion tried to confine them to their four walls.
A retired primary school teacher, Sue moved to her Weldon stone cottage in the late 1970s and brought up her now fledged family there. Not many would have chosen such a remote location but it was the seclusion of the spot that attracted the Shaws. It’s a naturalist’s haven with deer, squirrels and badgers regular visitors to her garden and over the years the family’s trusty log sheet has recorded fifty different species of bird - among them the very rare turtle dove - and twenty different species of butterflies.
When Sue first arrived some of the area was farmed and was an asset then, as it is now, of the Duke of Buccleuch who has vast swathes of land across England and Scotland, and is the owner of the nearby palatial Boughton House. Years ago Sue would sometimes see the ninth Duke, who died in 2007, driving across the fields in his Land Rover and they’d pass pleasantries but she says she has never met his son Richard Scott, who lives for most of the time at Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland.
Over the years the Duke’s property business, has developed some of the surrounding area into Kettering Business Park with Northants police’s northern headquarters sited there, as well as a Holiday Inn, steakhouse and various industrial units.
But now this relatively small scale development could be going supersized as the latest plan is to build five oversized warehouses on four hectares of land.
Machinery will tear down trees in what is Kettering’s most popular woodland area, mowing over the wildflower meadow that delights walkers in the summer months and destroying the habitats of so many different species of animal and bird.
The speculative warehouses, which the developer says will create 700 jobs and boost the local economy, will take up three hectares of the site and no doubt lead to many extra lorry journeys each day into the business park.
Sue, who over the years has put in objections to most of the plans, says she would be devastated if the much visited woodland that surrounds her cottage were to become replaced with industry. And she’s not alone. More than 11,000 people have signed a petition against the development and the local planning authority has received more than 640 objections against the scheme.
It was a social media post in early April of a planning notice stuck to one of the woodland’s trees that first sparked the phenomenon that would become the Save Weekley Hall Wood campaign.
A friend of local Green Party activist Dez Dell shared the image on Facebook and having loved the woodland since a child, it got Dez’s attention. He shared it with his green party members and local academic Jamie Wildman was spurred into action.
“He is nocturnal and so by the time I had got up in the morning he had launched a petition and a post on Kettering Harriers running club’s Facebook group had 80 comments - so we thought ‘ok this has legs,’” says Dez.
Soon they realised just how many people appreciated the woods. A pedestrian survey on a Sunday in late May counted 1,003 people using the wood for leisure. Hundreds of people were signing the petition and so Dez and his Green Party friends (who had previously come together to fight the cancelled 2020 unitary elections) threw the campaigning kitchen sink at it.
A band of nine core volunteers quickly formed from across the political and non political spectrum and Save Weekley Hall Wood was founded. They put together videos, a facebook site, community litter picks in the woods, design a t-shirt competitions and formerly constituted as a community group.
By August the online petition had reached the 10,000 mark and today stands at more than 11,000.
“I don’t think the campaign would have been so successful and reached as many people without the pandemic” says Dez. “Two or three years ago this would not have been popular at all but because of the lockdown people are appreciating nature more.
“The lockdown has shown us how valuable green space is to people’s health and wellbeing and maybe we have now got to saturation point with empty warehouses in the area.”
Montessori and forest school owner Grace Siddington is a campaign member. She regularly uses the woodland to educate her pre-schoolers.
“To get to any real forest, Weekley Hall Wood is the place to be and if it wasn’t there there'd be no forest at all accessible to us. To Inspire children to connect with nature in a really visceral way that is hopefully going to connect with them throughout their lives, they need to see big trees and feel the shade.
“We take a hammock and tie it up and set ourselves up a little camp and go on bug hunts. It feels really secluded - they can find a corner of the forest and really feel like they are out on an adventure. You don’t have to be far from the path to feel off the beat and track. So it’s really special and unique in that way.”
Grace got together a group of local educators and this summer they wrote a heartfelt letter to the Duke stressing the importance of the woodland to local children. However the response Grace says was ‘corporate’, didn’t engage with what they had said and gave no promises to protect anything.
NN Journal has asked the Buccleuch group, which represents the business interests of the family, whether it will be changing the application due to the level of local opposition and has not received a response.
Some of Weekley Hall Wood is part of the former royal hunting ground of Rockingham Forest. In the early twentieth century part of the land was quarried for iron ore to supply the nearby Corby steelworks and in recent years the quarry pits have been used for landfill. Much of the warehouse development will be sited on the open area of grassland that becomes the summer wildflower meadow and campaigner John Padwick says the area is species rich.
He says: “Even now in the midst of winter you will see a lot of people using it. Some people have been walking there for fifty to sixty years.
“You view that open space of the grassland and you get a feel of the woodland behind.”
The ultimate aim is to prevent the warehouse development scheme and then safeguard it for generations to come by turning it into a county park or nature reserve.
There is a glimmer of hope after the Duke recently sold off a much bigger patch of land as part of a community buy out in Southern Scotland.
“There is a small possibility they could re-think it a little” says John Padwick. “The idea of a country park as a legacy for the Buccleuch family would be much more of a legacy than a great big batch of warehouses.”
The site has been earmarked for employment use in the town’s overall development masterplan for a number of years. This allocation will make it harder for Kettering Council’s planning committee - made up of locally elected councillors - to refuse the development, but it is within their power to do so.
There has been no date set as yet for when the warehouse application will go before the planning committee but with so much local opposition it would prove to be a hot political potato if it was up for a decision before this May’s planned unitary election.
Chair of the planning committee Conservative Cllr Ash Davies, who also represents the nearby Brambleside ward, has stood down in protest at the application, however the town’s Conservative MP Philip Hollobone (who is also a Kettering councillor) has told the Save Weekley Hall Wood team that he does not get involved in planning matters.
But aside from the politics of it, the campaigners are confident they can oppose the plans.
“We will defeat this.” says Grace. “It will be Kettering Country Park without a doubt.”
“We might even go with Buccleuch Country Park if that helps,” suggests Dez.
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