The Lay of the Land

Welcome to the Green Matter blog, a collection of observations and investigations into nature by two people who are fascinated with the culture, history and ecology of the UK’s green spaces and forested sites. Our articles will mainly cover the different forests, parks and gardens we have visited, and will range from our sightings of special animals, plants and fungi (such as a swarm of terrifying hornets at Epping Forest), to discussions of cultural phenomena (such as the oft-seen statues portraying the Green Man of the Forest). Our relationship with nature is constantly shifting and these changes are reflected through the ways people have positioned themselves with or in opposition to it. We hope that this blog will help people engage more with the greenery in their daily surroundings and think more deeply about the environment, of which we are inherently a part.

Sharp Island, Hong Kong

Sai Kung in Hong Kong is a bustling district famous for its seafood and pier. North of Sai Kung lies the Ma On Shan Country Park, and toward the northeast Sai Kung Country Park. Boat trips to a number of small islands toward the east of Hong Kong leave from the pier. On a hot and sunny day in April we took advantage of one of these boat trips for a short hiking trip on Sharp Island, one of the larger of the islands located to the south east of Sai Kung pier.

Hap Mun Beach

From the pier black kites can be seen hovering and diving near the numerous tour boats moored nearby. Strolling along the promenade, we came across a number of tour companies providing trips to the surrounding islands and, spontaneously, we decided to take a trip to Sharp Island. Given our schedule and how hot it was, the ticket-seller assured us that it would be a short and easy trail, and that her 5-year old regularly made the hike. Excited, we boarded the tour boat and headed out.

On the boat to Sharp Island

The journey was a pleasant relief from the heat of the day. The cool wind off the waves, the spray and the rocking of the boat, the other tour boats that passed us by and the view of the rocky islands and caves made for a scenic and relaxing trip. We arrived after a short interval to Hap Mun Bay Public Pier on the south side of Sharp Island. Hap Mun Bay beach is a popular swimming destination away from the bustle of the city and it marked the beginning of our trail.

View of Hap Mun Bay

The trail cuts through the centre of the island, forming a spine from the south to the north. It rises quite steeply and is completely open, providing a fantastic panorama of the surrounding islands, boats and their wakes, sparkling in the sun. Towards the east lies Kau Sai Chau island, towards the west Hong Kong. Aside from a small pagoda somewhere along the way up, there is no shelter which means that on a hot day such as this, the sun beats down and a hat and water are necessary. The path rises approximately 100 meters in elevation before descending.  

View from Sharp Island

As you approach Kiu Tsui beach at the other end of the island the path becomes more wooded, providing some relief from the open sun. Cold drinks can be purchased at Kiu Tsui pier and public facilities are available for tourists and swimmers. At this end of the island you can also visit the Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark, a volcanic region of international geological significance. It is connected to Kiu Tsui beach by a tombolo which is accessible at low tide. We were due to catch our return boat three hours after landfall at Hap Mun beach, which gave us an hour to relax at the Geopark. It was a relief to feel the wind again on our way back, as by this point we were completely soaked: we needed to buy new clothes on the pier and to take advantage of the public showers at the swimming pool to freshen up for our evening. Given how difficult the hike was such a hot day, we were skeptical of our ticket-seller’s claim that her 5-year old daughter could easily handle that hike. Nonetheless, we were grateful for the spectacular views it afforded.

Rocks at the Geopark

Swansea Vale Nature Reserve

With the recent coronavirus lockdown in Wales and the rest of the UK, we have been limited in the distance we could travel to find new spaces to explore. Within the Swansea area there are one or two relatively large swathes of woods. However, most of the other green spaces are limited to small reserves or areas of scientific interest. After several months of staying as local as possible, we had exhausted many of the smaller areas that we could reach on foot and instead set our eyes further afield to the outer portions of Swansea city that may be accessible by train or bus.

A flower with a bee inside at Swansea Vale Nature Reserve

After a small amount of searching, we came across Swansea Vale Nature Reserve: a small, 6-hectare reserve that is one of the few remaining wetland habitats located in the Swansea County area. It is in the northeast of Swansea nearby Llansamlet and is noted for its diversity of habitats. This diversity means it is home to a wide range of plant and animal species, including otters and orchids. As a result, it has been designated as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, along with the nearby Llansamlet Marshes.

For our journey to Swansea Vale Nature Reserve, we hopped aboard one of the buses that run from Swansea city centre towards Morriston, disembarking at the Morriston Lidl. From there, it is approximately a 20-minute walk to the nature reserve. While there was not anything in the area around Lidl of note, disembarking at this bus stop means that it is very easy to grab a quick picnic lunch to take for the walk ahead.

View of the river Tawe

The walk to the reserve itself is an enjoyable experience due to the scenic vistas along the way. From Lidl, you cross a bridge which provides a fantastic view of the river Tawe underneath, along with the large area of open greenery that greets you on the other side. Immediately after crossing, there is the possibility of taking the riverside path on the right-hand side instead of continuing onwards. This riverside path will take you all the way back to the city centre towards Swansea Bay. While the area surrounding the path will become more industrial as you get closer to the city, this portion of the path near Morriston is open and surrounded by small brush and foliage. To reach our intended destination, we continued straight after the bridge on the footpath alongside the main road.

It should be noted that the area leading up to the nature reserve is a large business park, which means there are no amenities or shops nearby. Interestingly, in between the road and the business park are walking trails which pass by small man-made lakes/ponds with benches and trees dotted around. The ponds are home to a healthy population of ducks, geese, swans, coots and moorhens looking for a passerby to feed them. Slightly further on from these ponds is a small, innocuous gap in the brush alongside the bustling main road. Upon entering this gap, you are immediately surrounded by trees growing from a soft, rich earth. The gap itself is part of a walking path which seems to serve as a route between small clusters of residential areas. However, further along this route you are also greeted by a large, wooden sign announcing the proper entrance to the reserve.

Small ponds within the business park

It should be noted that although the reserve is 6 hectares in total, it is not entirely traversable. Most of the reserve is partially flooded, marshy land covered by reeds, grasses and sedges. The only way to enter the reserve is on a boardwalk that commences at the sign and snakes along the perimeter of the reserve, with the occasional branch that leads to small viewing platforms. Even though this boardwalk is the only path in and out of the reserve, it still provides numerous sights of beautiful plant life such as the wildflowers sprouting from the marsh grasses. The area is abuzz with life, with bees and dragonflies weaving through the marshy land. On our visit, the edges of the boardwalk were littered with small, bright lizards sunning themselves in the warm, clear weather. There were a handful of other visitors, including birdwatchers who were taking the opportunity to catch glimpses of its avian residents.

A lizard on the boardwalk

While Swansea Vale Nature Reserve itself is not extensive enough to occupy more than maybe an hour or two of your time at most, the surrounding ponds, paths and riverside walks means that a visit to this reserve can easily be linked in with the numerous green spaces within this entire area. We finished our time in the nature reserve by returning to the nearby ponds for a park lunch before continuing to the Tawe and following its banks for a short while, enjoying the sounds of the rushing river while remarking on the occasional cormorant around its banks. While the reserve may be not the easiest to find without a map, its location near Morriston and Llansamlet makes it incredibly accessible and a convenient place to visit on a sunny afternoon. Swansea Vale Nature Reserve is also less occupied due to its location away from main areas of the city, making it a nice, quiet local getaway.

Shrubs, grasses and reeds in the reserve

Bishop’s Wood Local Nature Reserve

Our foray into Bishop’s Wood started off in an unexpected place: on a narrow, unaccommodating road with no pedestrian sidewalks, immediately next to a golf course and a gated sewage pumping station. We had walked to the Gower, following Google Maps’ instructions, towards an entrance to the reserve located in the residential area of Newton. The only hint of the reserve you can see from this road is a narrow track leading into some trees directly across from the pumping station. It was only when we walked directly to the mouth of this trail that we saw a large wooden sign engraved with the name “Bishop’s Wood Local Nature Reserve”, hidden by the overgrowth.

Map of Bishop’s Wood

Bishop’s Wood is a small, 46-acre woodland located near Caswell Bay. It is a limestone woodland, which is particularly rare in Britain, a Site of Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation. Part of it is classified as ancient woodland, having been present since the 17th Century. This entrance into Bishop’s Wood leads through a small area of forest squeezed between the road and the large surrounding residential area. Although small, the trees are densely packed around the single file trail.

After a short walk, this trail leads out onto what looks to be a grassy hilltop. On the hilltop, the vegetation is limited mainly to gorse, thick shrubbery and a small handful of crooked trees due to the severity of the coastal winds. However, what immediately greets you is a breathtaking view of the cliffsides along the Gower shoreline and the swells in Caswell bay. There are a few small benches situated in this area which provide ample opportunity to admire the sea.

Hilltop view

Despite the awesome view, we were left somewhat disappointed, having expected a full-fledged wood instead of an area dominated by shrubbery. From this vantage point, we could only discern a single path behind the benches aside from the path we were currently on, which seemed to end shortly in bracken. Initially we followed the path directly behind the benches, which passed alongside a small farm before spilling out into another residential area. Doubling back, we then walked further along the open hilltop.

Bishop’s Wood trail marker

To our surprise, within the bracken there was a small, steep trail which led down a valley into another area of forest. Trekking further inwards, the ground became littered with the yellow-brown hues of fallen leaves as we inched our way down. Passing by a marker adorned with a red leaf, we landed in a small glade situated under the shade of large beech trees. In the middle of this glade was a very distinct wooden hut, which is one of the main landmarks of Bishop’s Wood. Upon investigating this hut, we learned it is fitted with HD video surveillance to monitor the woodland wildlife. The hut makes a wonderful stopping point, as there are also benches nearby for walkers to rest or admire the trees. A long, wide path led directly away from the hut, which was populated by several people walking in pairs or with their dogs.  

Wooden hut in the forest clearing

Following this final stretch of path away from the hut, we were greeted by a car park and a view of Caswell Beach in the distance. It was clear that this was the main entrance to the wood, and we had instead stumbled across a small side entrance that eventually joined onto one of the marked paths. This entrance was a welcome end to our foray into the woods, as there was a small beachside café which presented an opportunity to enjoy the seaside views.

Bishop’s Wood Local Nature Reserve makes for a pleasant afternoon which you can spend watching the numerous species of birds or enjoying the diversity of plants. If you are there just for a walk, the routes are relatively short and can be navigated in a few hours. While the main entrance lends itself more to a journey by car, its location means that you can enjoy both the seaside and the wood in a single afternoon. From the main entrance the Wales Coastal Path is immediately accessible, and you can continue your journey along the cliffs towards Langland Bay as we did, or venture further into the Gower.

Cloudy sunset at Caswell bay beach