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It is late November, and Worth Forest is suspended in a liminal moment between autumn and winter. Balding oaks, birches and beech trees huddle like grandfathers, honeycomb leaves crunch underfoot and a hare scurries across my path. Out of sight, hedgehogs and dormice construct their homes for the winter. It might sound like the setting for a storybook, but it is anything but. Worth Forest is a war-zone.
Center Parcs is planning to build a £350 million holiday resort in the West Sussex site, a project which conservationists say will “tear the heart” out of the ancient woodland.
The holiday company, which already has five family-friendly parks across the UK, hopes to build up to 900 lodges, erect a “subtropical swimming paradise”, and build roads and car parks at Oldhouse Warren in Worth Forest, not far from Crawley. Gatwick Airport is a 10-minute drive away, and the M23 roars just a few hundred metres away, but in the depths of the forest you wouldn’t know it.
“The forest creates a natural sound buffer from the motorway,” says Michael Brown, member of the Sussex branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), as we take a stroll along a public right of way.
The path is marshy on this brisk November morning, and as we hopscotch over puddles we do not encounter another soul. We are not able to enter Oldhouse Warren itself, which is privately owned by the Cowdray Estate and fenced off, but within it lies an ecosystem that has existed here for centuries.
And this is why the Woodland Trust, along with the Sussex Wildlife Trust, CPRE Sussex, the RSPB and Sussex Ornithological Society, is protesting so vehemently against the proposal. Though some of the native deciduous trees in the forest have been felled for younger, fast-growing conifers, this is still a tract of ancient woodland, meaning it has had trees growing on it for at least 400 years (possibly a lot longer), the length of time it takes for the full ecology of a woodland to develop.
And of course a woodland is not just about the trees. These are merely the skyscrapers and tower blocks. The bark, roots, leaves, soil, fungi, flowers, moss and fur that lie in between are the infrastructure that holds everything together.
Center Parcs has certainly picked a battle here. Brown points out that the forest has all the “gold medals” of protections: it lies within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), it is ancient woodland, it is a designated Biodiversity Opportunity Area (BOA) and, to top it off, lies adjacent to a site of scientific interest.
The scientific intrigue is that Oldhouse Warren lies in a ghyll (a wooded ravine) and its upper slopes are rich with lichens and liverworts, and a rare Atlantic moss that is found in ancient British woodlands. It is also home to a catalogue of birds: marsh tit, goshawk, crossbill and firecrest, and the wood has ‘Schedule 1’ protection status as a breeding ground of threatened species like nightjar, redstart, and the lesser-spotted woodpecker.
“If the system can’t protect an area as prolifically designated as here, what’s the point? What’s left to protect?” asks Brown.
He does not see this as a battle against Center Parcs (indeed, he confides that he has family who will be visiting one of their holiday parks this winter) but he and the CPRE simply do not believe a new site should be built on this spot. Brown describes a more preferable “win-win” situation where Center Parcs work to develop a new forest somewhere, rather than build on an ancient existing one.
The protesting charities are arguing that Worth Forest shouldn’t be under threat at all. Just three years ago, while Michael Gove was Environment Secretary, the Government passed the National Planning Policy Framework. This meant any application for development which resulted in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats (such as, say, ancient woodland) should be refused unless for “wholly exceptional reasons”. A high-speed railway line, perhaps, or an airport.
Is there any ground for an “exceptional” circumstance, justifying the development of a holiday park at Worth Forest? Crawley has witnessed some of the highest levels of unemployment in recent times, due to the impact the pandemic has had on the area’s biggest employer: Gatwick Airport. No doubt a project on this scale would help to create jobs, although this would be several years down the line when, all going well, Gatwick will have returned to pre-pandemic operations and lost jobs will have been reinstated.
So where does Center Parcs stand on the matter? The company shared a statement with The Telegraph saying it is conducting detailed ecological surveys “which will inform our designs and construction environmental management plan”.
The surveys have not yet been completed but the holiday park franchise says: “Rest assured that we take our responsibility to the environment and forests extremely seriously. We have more than 30 years’ experience of sensitively managing the woodlands in which our villages are located, carefully nurturing and maintaining the forests to protect and enhance biodiversity.” It is expected a planning application could be made next spring or summer.
Center Parcs may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the institution is certainly doing its bit to get young ones on bicycles and doing activities while on holiday, in a quasi-natural environment. As a child, my family went on several Center Parcs holidays and I hold fond memories of roaming free with my cousins while our parents did whatever parents do. A fatalist might argue that compromising an ancient forest for a woodland holiday park is better than, say, for a theme park, a housing development or a shopping centre.
But when it comes to the protection of Britain’s ancient woods, there is no time for this kind of fatalism. After centuries of deforestation, just three per cent of the United Kingdom’s land cover is now ancient woodland, a fraction of what it once was. And once it is gone, it is gone. Yes, Worth Forest covers a fraction of the amount of forest being felled in, say, the Amazon, where 10,000 acres (approximately 20 times the size of Worth Forest) is destroyed every single day.
But if we let this one go, with all its various gold medals of protection, what about the other 1,225 ancient woodlands that are currently under threat? Their destiny, without human intervention, should be to march through the seasons for millennia to come. Slowly, meticulously, from spring to summer to autumn to winter, on repeat. If that’s not worth fighting for, I’m not sure what is.