Lesnes Abbey Wood
Lesnes Abbey Woods is the second largest open space run by Bexley Council

Perched above Abbey Wood, Lesnes Abbey may be a 12th century landmark, but it has had to spend 2020 dealing with a modern-day pandemic. HUGO GREENHALGH found out how the staff and volunteers who run the site have coped.

Lesnes Abbey, which gives Abbey Wood its name, may have been built in the 1170s, but it continues to find new ways to adapt to life in the 21st century. Many local residents have been exploring it and the adjacent woods this year as the demand for outdoor activities has increased.

Ian Holt is the estate manager, responsible for the upkeep of the whole site. “We see part of our role as not only preserving this history but promoting it as well,” he says. “You will be amazed at how many people including some that have lived in the area all their lives haven’t made the simple connection between the Abbey ruins and Wood, and the name of the town it is situated in.”

The Abbey itself was founded in 1178, and is now a scheduled ancient monument and a Grade II-listed building. Ian believes firmly in the benefits of having a site with such historic value open to the public.

“Lesnes can tell you something about our prehistory, the Romans, the Normans, the power of the Church and tensions between the Church and Crown,” Ian explains. “This is demonstrated both in its foundation by Richard de Lucy as a penance for his involvement in the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Henry II, and in its dissolution under Henry VIII. Even today people visit the Abbey en route to Canterbury while walking the Pilgrims Way – you can have your Pilgrims Way book stamped at Chestnuts Kiosk while stopping for coffee.”

Lesnes Abbey
The abbey dates back to the 12th century

Lesnes Abbey is also a haven for nature. It is home to over 900 species of invertebrate, more than 40 birds, over 70 recorded species of fungi, nearly 300 species of plant and 12 species of mammal.

Given the size and diversity of the site, the challenges of maintaining it this year have been more difficult than normal. Ian explains how Covid-19 affected his usual conservation work. “The impact on maintenance has been two-fold. On the one hand we lost the invaluable work of our dedicated volunteers, and on the other we had an increase in visitor numbers, which increased pressure upon the park and woodland.”

Due to some of the wildlife found at Lesnes, there have also been specific areas to address. “Nature conservation projects, such as our ongoing efforts to roll back the woodland’s encroachment upon the heath, were temporarily stalled and some of the biological recording we do has also had to be put on hold, for example under current restrictions it is not possible for us to check our bat boxes for fear of introducing Covid-19 to other species,” Ian continues.

“We often work closely with other organisations, such as the London Wildlife Trust and Trees for Cities, who bring their own volunteers, but their activities were also suspended.”

Lesnes Abbey
Volunteer programmes had to be suspended because of the pandemic

Fortunately for Ian and his colleagues, the impact on personnel has been manageable. “Staff-wise we have been relatively lucky,” he says.

“Except for our sorely missed horticulture apprentice, the Lesnes team were able to maintain social distancing and still attend the site. Bexley Council’s parks and open spaces team have had to work extremely hard as the impact of increased visitors at Lesnes has been seen across all of the borough’s open spaces. As you can imagine there has been a focus on making sure the facilities within our parks are compliant with the evolving Covid-19 guidance and regulations.”

He is also pleased with the way the newly-opened Chestnuts Kiosk cafe has adapted to these circumstances.

“Chestnuts Kiosk closed at the beginning of the pandemic as a precautionary measure but soon reopened having put in place a number of safety measures to protect its staff and customers,” he says. “During the lockdown period the kiosk was extremely busy and it continues to flourish having built up a very loyal following amongst the park’s visitors. As a business they are always looking for new ways to support the community and the work we do across the site.”

“Currently they are kindly helping out with teas and coffees for our volunteers as they no longer have access to their mess room. They have come up with lots of suggestions on how to expand their offer going forward with one eye on what we hope will be the post-Covid future.”

Lesnes Abbey Woods
The nearby woods are a haven for wildlife

Next year will see the team work with Estuary 2021, a month-long arts festival celebrating the Thames Estuary, with two new permanent artworks coming in the spring. The commissions will be inspired by the ecology and history of Lesnes Abbey Woods and the themes of Estuary 2021, which are climate change and the 1381 Peasants Revolt.

Additionally, work continues to keep the local community involved at Lesnes, however possible.

“We have just launched a new volunteering programme based on how much time people have available, whether it is a few minutes each day, or a few hours per week or hopefully there will be something for everyone who wants to get involved,” he said. “Volunteers could become a walking tour guide, with free training, a nature spotter or a social media champion.”

To find out more about volunteering at Lesnes Abbey Woods – including from home – visit lesnesabbeywoods.volunteermakers.org.

This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people and communities in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

HUGO GREENHALGH is a freelance journalist who also presents the Dulwich Hamlet podcast, Forward The Hamlet.

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