Looking south west from Winterslow Road in Penhill, you could almost forget you were in the middle of a town. Stretching out towards the horizon, Seven Fields Nature reserve lies sleepily in the afternoon sunshine.

The area is rich in wildlife, with some of the best wildflower meadows in Wiltshire.Yet even local people admit they have never heard of it.

Consisting of over 100 acres, Seven Fields Nature Reserve lies in a valley to the west of Penhill, between Haydon Wick with Abbey Meads to the north.

Owned by Swindon Borough Council and looked after by Haydon Wick Parish Council, the reserve takes its name, unsurprisingly from the fact that it is made up of seven fields.

“That was its folk name, what people were calling it locally and we wanted to keep that,” said Marilyn Beale, founder and secretary of the Seven Fields Conservation Group.

When the conservation group was set up in 1989 to look after the reserve, the names of the individual fields were chosen because of their characteristics.

“We couldn’t find their original names. So we opted for Spring Field because there’s a spring in it, Long Meadow because it has a long shape, Lark Meadow because you could see larks rising from it, Cemetery Field because it is next to the cemetery, Furrows field because of its history and so on,” Marilyn added.

The final two fields are the Old Events Field and Half Moon Ground.

“That is the thing about Seven Fields,” said Marilyn. “Its absolute variety. You can go from one field to the next, and there’s something different in it.”

Two of the largest fields, Spring Field and Long Meadow are wildflower meadows containing over 200 species of flowers and grasses, including Ox Eye Daises, Lady’s Bedstraw, Yellow Rattle, and Bee Orchids. They are cut for hay each year in late summer to allow the flowers to bloom and reseed, and insects to lay eggs.

“We’re just so lucky to have it here, and more and more people are saying to me how lucky we are, given how built up the rest of Swindon is,” said Marilyn.

“It’s like the countryside you used to know, that people my age would have had access to when growing up. At the end of every street in Swindon was a field.”

Furrow Field is perhaps the most distinctive in the reserve. It displays a pattern of ridges and furrows in the ground left over from the use of non-reversible ploughs in the Middle Ages. Such well preserve examples of this ploughing are rare in England.

“The widths of the furrows indicate that the last time this field was ploughed was with an Ox-drawn Plough, not used in this country for over 200 years,” said Marilyn.

Cowslips and Cuckooflowers grow here, supporting the Silk Puss moth, Ringlet and Gatekeeper butterflies, as well as a rare Sawfly, which has attracted the interest of the British Ecological Society.

Historically the area was part of Stratton parish and local legend says that during the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell was discovered having a bath in Haydon brook. Later, in 1843 Arkells Brewery was established and used the water from Spring Field for brewing.

Grahame Lee, volunteer scheme co-ordinator for Step Out Swindon and chairman of the Wiltshire Ramblers, is a regular visitor to the area.

“It’s an excellent, ideal place to go walking because it’s a fairly safe area,” he said. “It’s a wonderful, natural, green, open space, accessible to everyone and which everyone can enjoy.

“There’s nothing else like it in north Swindon, so we’re very glad we have it.”

After vigorous campaigning the area received Local Nature Reserve Designation in 1995. Marilyn said: “We wanted to know that what we were doing would be a legacy for people. To protect it for future generations, because it is so important for the community.

“I know people who say they’ve been having a dreadful day, but they put their wellies on and go for a walk up there, and it just makes all the difference. For mental health and exercise you just can’t beat it.”

A Home For Rare Species

Furrow Field to the north west of the reserve is home to a wonderful example of a Wild Service Tree (Sorbus Torminalis).

It can be found in the hedgerow along the north west of Furrow Field, which is unusual as such trees more often grow within oak and ash woods and pockets of ancient woodland.

Thought to be roughly 120 years old, this deciduous broadleaf tree is the biggest and oldest specimen in the county.

The Wild Service tree is a rare species of tree, that arrived and spread throughout Britain when the climate was more continental, with hot summers and cold winters. However the UK’s climate is now too cold for the tree to self-seed.

Yet the species is persistent and produces vigorous root suckers, often quite far from the parent tree, as can also be found in Furrows Field. As a result the trees have been widely distributed, though in low numbers, across the south west and can be fund as far north as Cumbria.

Mature specimens can grow to 25 metres tall.

It’s brown bark grows in distinctive cracked square plate patterns, which apparently has led to the species’ nickname as the ‘Chequers tree’. The lobed leaves are similar to maple tree leaves, and turn a coppery red before falling in the autumn.

Once pollinated, the flowers develop into small, green-brown, oval fruits which look similar to nuts. These are said to taste like dates and can be made into an alcoholic drink. It is thought there is a connection between these fruits and the Chequers Inns with the same name.

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An Area of Ancient Woodland?

Penhill Copse found on the north east side of the reserve can be seen on maps dating back to 1796, and is thought to be an area of ancient woodland.

This is land that has been continuously wooded since 1600 in England.

The three and a half acres of community woodland however is not included on the British Ancient Woodlands List which was drawn up in the mid 1980s.

To qualify for inclusion on this list woodlands had to be five or more acres.

Marilyn said: “It has every indicator that it is ancient woodland, except one. This is that it was not included in the 1985 list of ancient woodland. But it wasn’t included simply because it was too small.”

Certain species of plants can be used as biological indicators that an area of woodland is ancient, being more common in ancient than new woodland.

Additional signs include it’s name ‘Copse’ and being located on the side of a steep hill on a parish boundary.

The areas consists of a mixture of different trees including Ash, Beech and Maple. The shrub layer includes species such as Hazel, Spindle, Elder, Currant, and Holly bushes, and the forest floor is home to Ivy, Dog Mercury, Celandine, Wood Anemone and three varieties of Violet.

It is home to an abundance of wildlife including Greater Spotted Woodpeckers, Long Tailed Tits and Gold Crests. Tawny and Small Eared Owls have also been heard in the wood, and there is a healthy population of Squirrels and Bats.