Winter is the time in the Ranger’s calendar for clearing and cutting back – giving space for new growth and less competitive plants to flourish. Sandy Banks, part of the National Trust-owned Godolphin Estate, was once a dumping ground for mining waste from the Great Work Mine. The powerful dynasty that once resided here, built their wealth on mining the rich lodes of tin and copper. The mine, one of a cluster surrounding Godolphin Hill, employed hundreds of men, women and children. The air would have been full of the noise and smoke of the mine engines, and the stamping and blowing houses where the tin ore was crushed and then smelted. Mined from the late Middle Ages, Great Work last operated in 1938.
Now, on a still day in January, Sandy Banks is almost silent, save for the crackle of the bonfire, the distant bleating and lowing of sheep and cattle on the hill, and the occasional song of the robin that watches us work, following in our footsteps to forage the ground we have disturbed. Under a steely grey sky, we cut and burn gorse. Although it’s bright yellow flowers are a welcome dash of colour at this time of year, left unchecked, it will, like the russet bracken also abundant here, dominate to the exclusion of other less competitive plants and the area will gradually revert to monotonous scrub. The Trust’s vision is to foster and maintain a mosaic of habitats and a diversity of species, including native heathers, and rare lichens that flourish on the heavy metal laden soils. The carpet of silvery white lichen lends this site an ethereal beauty.
It is satisfying work, cutting the gorse, dragging the branches to the edge of the fire. I crawl inside the deepest thickets to cut the trunks near their root, the coconutty smell and sense of enclosure reminding me of the gorse-covered mound where I once built dens as a boy, on a farm not far from here. Beyond this stirring of childhood nostalgia, there is something else; the sense of tapping into something much older and innate –a distant, muscle memory perhaps, of human beings disturbing and shaping the land, through cutting tool and fire, originating far back in human prehistory.