The best time to plant a tree, say the Woodland Trust, is 20 years ago. The next best time is now.
It's mid November and overcast, breezy but not yet wintry cold. As we wander up an elongated triangle of land adjacent to the B651 between the Hertfordshire villages of Sandridge and Wheathampstead, we're well off any footpath, but far from alone. The air is alive with sound - the clink of steel on stone, the sliding scatter of soil from shovel and the periodic 'whump' of a mattock ripping wedges of earth from the ground. In every direction, muttered conversions, shared laughter, words of encouragement, punctuated by the chime of younger voices speculating on how long 'their' tree might live or exclaiming over unearthed worms and the possibility of buried treasure. The closest we came was a very rusty old coach bolt, presumably from a piece of farm machinery, vintage anyone's guess.
The three generations of our extended family here today are part of an impressive army of 500 volunteers at Britain's largest new native wood, just north of St Albans. Some are here for the day, well wrapped up against the slight chill, and carrying picnic bags as well as garden tools and bundles of bare-rooted saplings. Others appear to be in Sunday best, carefully picking their way to a spot with a symbolic single tree. Every pair of willing hands is welcomed. It's a long time since I've seen a community nature project on this scale, and it's impressive.
Heartwood Forest, as it is rather stirringly named, will soon cover almost 350 hectares of former farmland. Some 300,000 trees have already been planted in five years - mostly by volunteer effort. And if today's turnout is anything to go by, it won't be long until the this ambitious first stage is complete. I overheard someone saying there are 10,000 saplings to go in today. The field is marked with blue dots of spray paint to help us spread the trees out evenly. We collected a bundle of tree-babies - a mixed bunch of hazel, spindle, black-and hawthorn and guelder rose - from a team of well drilled volunteers, and found a patch to populate. This part of the forest won't be a towering cathedral of trees - in fact I'll be surprised if you can get anywhere near 'our' trees in a few years time - they're all shrubby varieties, chosen for the areas close to roads where they will create fabulously productive zone of dense vegetation and a wonderfully secure place for nesting birds. Who knows - one day it night even suit dormice. What's for sure is that this breezy field will soon be forest - a forest made by men, women and children. And it will remain long after we're all gone.