Invasive Rhododendron in Woodlands – a Permaculture Approach

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Introduced to Britain by the Victorians, Rhododendron has become a very popular garden plant. Unfortunately however, one particular strain, rhododendron ponticum, has become invasive in British woodlands.

The plant tends to crowd out all other species, diminishing biodiversity and destroying the ecosystems which normally thrive in woodlands. They prevent light from reaching the woodland floor and can grow as tall as trees, the weight of their entangled branches even pulling trees down.

Many different approaches to controlling rhododendron have been tried throughout the UK. One approach is herbicide, in particular glyphosate weedkiller, which is injected into the rhododendron stems after drilling or sprayed onto young foliage. This approach is extremely expensive and leaves glyphosate residues in the soil. It also leaves a forest of dead rhododendron plants which in itself doesn’t necessarily result in the restoration of woodland ecosystems.

There is the ‘lever and mulch’ method, which aims to kill rhododendron without the use of herbicide. This method can be effective but is very labour-intensive and again does not let light in to the woodland floor for ecosystems to regenerate. Using machinery to shred and crush rhododendron has a similar result, and is very energy-intensive.

Valley Wood has just such an invasive rhododendron problem. But the more time I spend there, and the more I work with the landscape and the existing ecosystem, the less satisfied I have become with these traditional approaches to rhododendron control. I started wondering what a Permaculture approach to the rhododendron problem might look like.

The basic premise of traditional control methods is that rhododendron is an invasive alien and must be killed, uprooted, cleared completely from the site and surrounding areas in order to allow the indigenous woodland ecosystem to regenerate. Although some of the neighbouring woodland plots have had this treatment, the rhododendron has come back again, and it very soon became obvious to me that this kind of approach just could not work at Valley Wood.

So I started to do some research to learn more about rhododendron. Since it was so plentiful and tenacious, I wondered if a Permaculture approach would allow me to turn a problem into a benefit and begin to view it as a crop of some kind.

Rhododendron was originally introduced into some woodlands because it is a very dense, evergreen shrub, which meant that it provided excellent cover for game birds. Now, this property of course has not gone away, so I immediately realised that one good thing about my woodland is that there is ample cover for birds all year round. Many insects can be found on the rhododendron too – every time I work at clearing some of it, there is always a Robin following me around picking insects off the cut stems. It’s actually quite enjoyable to have some company while I work – I feel like the Robin is working with me, and getting his dinner at the same time. Some of the rhododendron plants are so huge and dense that it can feel quite magical walking around underneath them, like being in some kind of weird twisted fairytale forest.

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So, the birds like it. And as it happens, so do the bees! Around May to June, when the rhododendron is in flower, there is an amazing display of huge purple flowers which provide large quantities of food for bees and other pollinating insects. This isn’t necessarily good for humans – honey made from bees which have been feeding on rhododendron flowers is actually poisonous and can make you quite ill! But for a couple of months at least, bees will be glad of the display. With the changing climate, I have even seen some rhododendron plants flowering in the autum, winter and spring.

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Another property of rhododendron is that it makes excellent firewood – even when it is green. It is a fast-growing hardwood with a very high calorific content, and the stems of larger plants are so thick that they can easily be sawn up into logs which are perfect for either an open fire or a wood burning stove. I have taken rhododendron logs home to burn in my woodburner during the winter, but a particularly good use for the rhododendron firewood is on-site, where I need to keep warm during the winter when I am there working. Burning rhododendron means that I can generate firewood as I am clearing the rhododendron from the woodland, meaning that I don’t have to have a big stack of it seasoning and I don’t have to cut down broadleafed trees and season them for use as firewood on-site, I can leave them standing and growing. So rhododendron has become my staple firewood, leaving the trees for better purposes.

Here are some rhododendron stems ready to be cut into lengths for firewood:-

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The smaller twigs and branches I tie into bundles with string, and one bundle makes a perfect firelighter. The dry twigs catch light incredibly easily, and the rush of heat is plenty to get bigger logs and branches burning. So butchering and using the different parts of the plant gives me everything I need to keep warm when I am working at the woodland. One of the principles of Permaculture is that everything has its place in the system – and the system at Valley Wood includes me, the woodland manager, and rhododendron to provide firewood to keep me warm. The rhododendron has gone from being an alien species which requires total eradication (impossible and a huge ongoing effort) to being a fast-growing hardwood wood fuel which keeps me warm even as I clear it to let light through to the woodland floor. A Permaculture approach where nothing is wasted, and everything has a function.

Even having found a place for rhododendron in the Valley Wood Permaculture system, there is far too much of it, and large areas need to be cleared to allow the woodland to regenerate. Once I’ve started cutting into an area of rhododendron, what is left looks very barren and bleak, as can be seen from these photos:-

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In the photo above, you can see the normal woodland floor ecosystem in the foreground which has regenerated after rhododendron clearance – lush with moss, ferns, foxgloves and all manner of other plants and fungi. The newly cleared area in the background is barren, although there are seeds lying dormant in the ground. I sometimes assist the regeneration by sowing a mix of woodland flower seeds onto cleared areas.

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In the area above, one effect of the huge rhododendron plants was that there were many trees which had grown very tall and spindly instead of bushing out, as they grew towards the light competing with the rhododendron. When I cut the rhododendron down, the weight of the branches pulled down many of these trees. But I found that what I had ended up with was a lovely collection of long, straight poles, perfect for shelter building! So I cut the fallen trees off at the base and used them. With sunlight now coming through to the woodland floor, the cut stumps will start to grow again, giving an area of hardwood coppice. In the photo above, you can see some of the tall, pole-like trees still standing in the background.

Whilst cutting rhododendron stems for firewood, occasionally I would come across one which was nice and straight, or curved in quite an interesting way. I started to wonder whether they would make good walking sticks. A few years back I bought a set of whittling knives, so I thought I would have a go at making a few rhododendron staffs.

I found the wood very pleasant to work with, the bark has an almost reddish tinge and the wood underneath it is lovely and white. There is a lot of quartz in the rock at Valley Wood, so I easily found small quartz crystals with which to adorn the new staffs. I found that I really enjoy making them. Apparently rhododendron wood has the property of protecting the staff owner from enemies! I have already sold one of these staffs and hope to sell more as my staff-making improves. And rhododendron wood seems to be an excellent, strong wood for walking sticks!

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One of the ways which rhododendron spreads is when heavy branches bend down and touch the soil, and the branch puts out new roots at the point of contact. Like other hardwoods, rhododendron can be propagated from cuttings, but rhododendron is particularly easy to get to root.

There are a few places in the woodland where I have wanted some kind of screen to obscure the view of the campsite and shelter, or the forest garden. I did wonder about buying a couple of hundred hawthorn whips and planting them to make hedges. This seemed like quite a laborious and expensive option, the hedge would not really be tall enough for a couple of years at least and in the winter it would not serve as a screen as all of the leaves would fall.

Whilst cutting rhododendron, I noticed that after I had separated out the main stems for firewood, I was left with a big pile of branches of three or four nodes, which were very bushy and green – perfect hedging material, in fact. So I decided to take advantage of rhododendron’s easy rooting property, and simply took all of the cut branches and pushed the ends into the ground along the track above the campsite, forming a very dense, very instant and completely free-of-charge hedge!

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Again, using the discarded parts of the harvested rhododendron plant in this way means that nothing is wasted and everything has a use – Permaculture in action.

There are even more uses for rhododendron – the leafy stems can be harvested and sold to companies providing foliage for florists. There are a couple of reports which make very interesting reading regarding generating an income from rhododendron:- Profit from Rhododendron and Rhododendron Foliage Harvesting.

My aim with Valley Wood is to eventually clear most of the rhododendron from the woodland, allowing the woodland ecosystem to regenerate. But in the process I will benefit from firewood logs, kindling, poles for building, free hedging and the rhododendron plants I leave in place will provide cover for birds and screens. I think that the Permaculture approach to rhododendron control says that although the plant has come to Britain as an invasive alien species, it is here to stay and must find its place in a balanced system. Left to its own devices in the wild, it will upset the ecosystem balance, but as part of a managed Permaculture system with humans included, it has a place as a productive plant which is kept under control by regular harvesting for its products, with no need for the damaging use of herbicides or energy-intensive industrial clearing efforts.

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Valley Wood: One Year On

Well, incredible as it seems, it’s now one year since I took on Valley Wood, and a huge amount of weekend work has gone into it over the past 12 months.

It’s been an amazing journey so far . . . when I was last down there I found myself reflecting on progress so far whilst dozing in the shelter on a warm afternoon. In some ways I have achieved a huge amount  . . . but in other ways I have barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done there.

I found myself in quite an odd frame of mind, and thoughts came to me that in future the woodland would be maintained by other people after I am gone, but by then it would be a case of maintaining and looking after it, managing it and making it productive rather than all of the initial sorting out work which I am having to do. It occurred to me that I might be remembered as the person who took it on and sorted it out in the first place. That was quite a striking thought.

I suppose that there are really two notable achievements from the past year: the creation of an edible forest garden and a camping area so that friends and family can come down and help me with the work.

The forest garden is taking shape in the lower part of the wood – as with the rest of the wood, it was overgrown with rhododendron and I’ve had to put in a lot of work cutting those down to make room for new plants and trees. But now there are open areas with navigable paths there, and as well as some coppiced hazel which I discovered buried amongst the rhodies, I have added in a heavy-cropping blackberry, raspberry, blackcurrant, seven apple trees, a sweet berry rowan cultivar, gooseberry, blackthorn and ramsons. All except the ramsons seem to have taken and are doing OK – it will be great to see them grow over the next few years! There is plenty more rhododendron left to clear though to be planted up with more trees and shrubs.

The camping area has 4 level areas for tent pitching, plus there is room for a large tent on the top track but that is technically shared space with my neighbours. I have also made a temporary shelter out of some poles and a tarpaulin, as it often rains at Valley Wood – a good thing with the generally drier prospects which climate change is bringing. And when it rains, it pours! It’s beautiful when it rains, but it’s handy to be able to keep dry whilst it’s going on! There is also space to sit around a camp fire in the evening, and I have made a small pond as a final touch.

A good start I think – having established a base there, I will be able to enlist the help of friends to accelerate the rhododendron clearing. I’m hoping to begin planting up some of the cleared areas in the main woodland with new trees this autumn!

Local Adventure 8: A Tale of Two Hills

Some more photos from walks around Lancashire . . . this time from Winter Hill near Bolton and Pendle Hill (of witches’ fame). They were taken a couple of months back hence the winter light, sorry I’ve only just got around to posting them!

Valley Wood – The Plan

Well, I took on Valley Wood in May, and I confess that when I bought it I didn’t really have any idea of how I was actually going to manage and improve it. But after a few months of hard-working weekends down there, I think I have a basic plan for it, which is turning out to be surprisingly sustainable, both financially and environmentally.

Valley Wood is a mixed woodland of conifers (mainly Noble Fir and Scots Pine) and all manner of deciduous broadleaved trees.

As it is long neglected, there is a fair quantity of dead trees in the wood – some lying on the forest floor, some hung up in other trees, and some still standing. A fair proportion of the standing dead trees are conifers.

The dead trees lying on the forest floor tend to be rotten, but this is good as they provide habitats for all kinds of life. They can happily be left to decay where they are.

Hung up trees and standing dead trees are potentially a hazard as they can fall over or down, and removing them frees up empty space in the woodland where new broadleaved trees can be encouraged. Dead standing trees are fortunately also ready-seasoned firewood with a very low water content, so can be harvested and burned almost immediately after only a short period of air drying. This is a massive benefit in financial terms, especially with the winter not too far away, as it removes the need for a firewood ‘production line’ where normally logs must be seasoned for at least one year before they can be transported and burned. Driving a van full of water-ridden logs which would burn poorly at the end of the journey would make no sense at all – but with this plan, there is a huge quantity of ready-seasoned firewood and harvesting it will open up the woodland to recolonisation by broadleaves.

It costs me about half a tank of diesel to visit the woodland, but I reckon the financial cost is only what I would have spent at home on a normal weekend, going out for a meal and some drinks on a Friday or Saturday. And as my living costs at the wood are negligible, I count it as cost neutral really. Similarly with the cost of the woodland itself – although I’m paying interest on the money borrowed, land tends to appreciate in value so I’m not making a loss on the land.

I reckon I can fit about a cubic metre of firewood in my van, which at home I normally pay about £80 for during the winter months – during summer my solar hot water system provides all of my hot water for bathing and washing up.

So as long as I come back with a van load of logs every time I visit, I’m £80 in profit – or another way of looking at it is that the sun is also heating my home for free in the winter as well as the summer, in the form of stored sunlight (firewood). This means that my only overhead as far as fuel goes is electricity, which I’m estimating at maybe £250 a year at current prices.

Not bad for a Victorian terrace.

The woodland has other harvestable products – ferns which can be sold for gardens, living Christmas trees, and maybe in time mushrooms if I get around to setting up some mushroom logs.

But quite apart from all of this, there is the sheer recreational value of the woodland, and as a destination for Transition camping expeditions and the like. But there is a lot of work to be done first – camping and communal areas to be hacked out of the mountainside, shelters to be built and the like.

A few weeks back, I received the documents from the Land Registry showing the ownership of Valley Wood going back to just after the Second World War. They show a long history of the woodland being bought from local or national government, and then being sold back again some time later.

As it doesn’t seem as though any kind of harvesting or management of the trees has taken place, my thought is that private owners have repeatedly tried to find a way of commercially exploiting the woodland, but have not succeeded due to the difficult terrain. The woodland is on a steeply sloping hillside, which makes mechanised timber extraction difficult and expensive, and extraction by horses and hand is not normally used for commercial operations. So the woodland has remained as it is, wild and neglected.

I am hoping that what Valley Wood actually needs is a different approach to management – a Permaculture approach which will maximise the efficient production of usable resources from the wood, whilst simultaneously meeting regeneration and biodiversity objectives.

The huge quantities of invasive rhododendron on site could potentially provide a firewood source for those staying in the woodland, to avoid the need to use the “good” firewood being extracted for domestic use. This would meet the goal of rhododendron control and a return of the forest ecosystem whilst providing warmth for those staying on-site.

The many apparent problems of the woodland can increasingly be seen as unique features, even beneficial in some respects. Instead of spending thousands of pounds (which I don’t have) on track improvement and tree clearance for artificial campsite creation, my expenditure on tools is as follows:-

Chainsaw (the only mechanised tool in use in Valley Wood)
Billhook (for clearing tracks and trimming trees)
Log tongs (for manipulating large logs)
Folding pruning saw
Mattock
Spade
Log trolley
Forestry winch (for hauling the log trolley up steep inclines, bringing down hung-up trees and moving large rocks)

All of which total I reckon about £500. So at £80 profit per trip in firewood, that’s about 6 trips before the equipment has paid for itself. Pretty good economics, sustainably speaking! Plus of course, this very light touch approach to woodland management is infinitely better in terms of resources used and environmental impact.

Very interesting, the way Valley Wood is developing. And the taste of my first woodland blackberries and raspberries on my last trip was a whole other world of experience in itself! 🙂

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No-Man’s Land

If this patch of my garden looks a mess, that’s because it is.

It’s a small bed situated next to a couple of small ponds, round the edge of the garden next to the wall, which I originally designated ‘for wildlife’ and have pretty much left to do its thing. There are frogs and other stuff in there – it’s so overgrown that it isn’t really possible to see what’s going on in there. What you can see though is that there are plenty of different species in a small area.

For the past couple of years I’ve made the effort to clear this small bed of weeds and seed it or plant it up with various things, mostly things like spinach beet or kale. But because the bed is so near the wildlife border, there are plenty of slugs and snails which soon devour anything remotely tasty. I’m not going to use any kind of slug pellets there as it is in the domain of the frogs and other wildlife. So the snails have free rein.

This year I think I’ve decided to give up trying to produce food from this part of the garden. But in leaving it to nature, I may actually end up with something which is far more diverse than what I had planned, and may even end up producing food nonetheless.

The spinach beet actually seems to have remained despite the slug assault, and is currently going to seed. The seeds will come up next year and give me spinach. But as well as the veg, a whole range of wild flowers have self-seeded there, including some stunning pink poppies, as well as Welsh poppies and a load of other stuff whose names I don’t know.

So by ceasing my energy input, I seemed to have actually ended up with an optimal solution for this patch of garden – nature has selected what should be there, and it’s a huge variety with a good balance of pollinator-friendly flowers and edible leaves for me.

Permaculture is in so many ways the path of least resistance. And nature has the best design just waiting for the opportunity.

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Permaculture – Resistance is Futile

When I bought Valley Wood, one of my first thoughts was that as well as bringing it into production of wood fuel, the woodland could be a destination for camping parties of friends and family.

One of my initial concerns was that the woodland is on a hillside, and the slope is quite steep in places, which doesn’t suit it well to camping. The representative of the company I bought the woodland from explained that level areas can be made with a digger quite easily, so this would be a way to do it.

The first night I spent at the woodland, I camped on the track which bisects the wood, and whilst I could see the stars, it felt very open and I was dying to camp up inside the wood itself. So the following day, I found a place up in the wood where the slope was not so steep, and with a mattock I made a tent-sized level area and pitched my tent.

This was exactly what I wanted, surrounded by trees and deep in the woodland itself.

The next couple of visits I planned where my excavated camping area was going to be, but each visit I found myself becoming more and more fond of the particular trees, rocks, plants and landscape features around my campsite. Paths through the forest seemed to suggest themselves, and became more established the more I trod them. At night I could hear creatures around me, and fell to thinking that a lot of them probably lived underneath a lot of these stones.

I realised that if I was going to get a digger in, I would first have to fell a load of these trees and then the machine would have to rip the landscape up wholesale, including everything living there. Instead of ‘camping in the woods’, I would be right back to ‘camping out in the open’ again.

The more I thought about it, the less the idea appealed to me. But what about a place for people to camp? I realised that the only other way I could do it was the way I had already started on – using my mattock, through sheer manual labour, I would have to painstakingly make camping areas tent by tent anywhere where the landscape looked suitable.

In my first few visits another thing I discovered was that for cutting down large rhododendron plants, the chainsaw I had used to begin with was far heavier and much harder work than a little folding pruning saw my dad had lent me.

What seemed to be emerging was a certain theme – that using hand tools was not only a much gentler, more careful and refined approach to shaping the woodland, but in many ways it was actually easier, or in the case of the digger, cheaper.

Then I realised that this is precisely what Permaculture teaches. In a nutshell. Less reliance on the brute force of powerful mechanisation gives an overall much better, more natural and harmonious result.

So on my last visit, I ‘set to’ and spent a day making a second campsite for another tent near the first, high up in the woods. It was hard work, excellent exercise and as someone who has not historically been particularly physically active or fit, I was impressed at how much I actually managed to achieve working on my own.

It’s going to be a long haul – but I’m much happier now with the method I’ve decided on. It’s almost as if the woodland knows what it wants to be, and I am there to do its bidding, and my reward is that I am a part of its plan.

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Valley Wood

Well, like buses, Green Cottage updates sometimes come in threes!

Last but not least this time, a new addition to the Green Cottage “estate” is four acres of mixed woodland in North Wales.

I bought the woodland from woodlands.co.uk, it’s an unmanaged wild woodland which I aim to improve for wildlife (including family and friends ;)) and bring into production of wood fuel and possibly even charcoal and timber.

Achievements so far have been hewing a tent-sized camping area out of the hillside using a grubbing mattock, cutting down a few trees on the upper track to make room for a digger in the autumn, cutting down some rhododendron and making a couple of paths through the upper part of the wood to enable me to get around the wood which at the moment is pretty much impenetrable.

Incredibly hard work, but incredibly good exercise and therapy for the soul. Best thing I’ve ever done!! 🙂

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Are Children Suffering from a Nature Deficit?

A good article on the woodlands.co.uk blog:-

http://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-activities/are-children-suffering-from-a-nature-deficit/

This is the central question in Richard Louv’s book, “Last child in the woods,” and this concern is shared by the broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. As Attenborough says, “all children start off being interested in the natural world, it’s deep in our instincts…”. Children may have theoretical knowledge but not touchy-feely experience. As Louv explains, ” children today are aware of global threats to the environment but their physical contact, their intimacy, with nature is fading.”

Nature-deficit surveys

Natural England did a survey recently in which they examined changing relationships with nature across generations and they found that fewer then 10% of children now play in natural places (such as woodlands and heathlands) compared with 40% of today’s adults who did so when they were young. The BBC Wildlife Magazine carried out another survey which found that many children now cannot identify common species such as bluebells and frogs. Other surveys show that this is not just a British problem: the American Journal of Play, surveying thousands of mothers across the world, discovered that the number of those reporting their children “exploring nature” were lowest in China, Brazil and Indonesia. Playing in wild areas has been shown to have a positive psychological impact – a National Trust survey of 3,000 adults revealed that their most prominent happy memories were of being outdoors in the natural world and a large number cited building dens as a particularly happy memory.

Causes of children being “stuck inside”
Computer games and TV are often blamed for children staying indoors but there are other factors – for example being driven to school rather than walking keeps children from the outdoors and the almost obsessive fear of abduction, which many parents have, often stops children being allowed outside. It may also be that pressure to do more and more with school and outside means that there is less genuinely free time for children when they have to make their own entertainment. At a recent woodlands.co.uk conference of owners of small woodlands it was suggested that owners should think of things for their children to do in woods, but one of the participants pointed out that once in a wood children will find their own activities and this process of discovering what’s interesting and what there is to do is itself important. Let them discover nature rather than spoon feed it to them was the message of that discussion.

What are the consequences of a “nature deficit”?

“Keeping an eye on children” is all very well but it has left a whole generation more ignorant of what goes on in the natural world and out of the habit of exploring and discovering. This has consequences for them personally including much higher rates of obesity, suffering form attention disorders and more likely to experience depression. In a bigger-picture way, though, it will surely have enormous consequences for their attitude towards nature when they grow up – if they haven’t experienced the miracles of the world around them they will be less likely to make sacrifices to preserve woodlands and wild spaces.

But all this assumes that the nature deficit is limited to children – adults surely suffer from it too. Many, many or our buyers of small woodlands give as driving motivation that they want to “get away from the screen” and get “back to nature”.

What can be done about it?
It’s hard to know how to persuade the nation as a whole to move towards more outdoor play, but individually families can choose more activities in woodlands and wild areas. There are many structured activities which get people into woodlands such as Centre Parcs holidays and “Go Ape” walkway adventures. Recent excitement about the Forestry Commission woodlands shows how much people value public spaces, even those who don’t visit very often. The threat of wholesale sell-offs has made everyone focus on how important woodlands are for our wellbeing, so hopefully the recent publicity will make people spend more time in open woodlands – whoever owns them!

Garden Update 24th January 2011

Spent my first day this year out in the garden yesterday, pruning back the grape vine and digging up the remaining carrots and parsnips which had stayed in the raised beds through the coldest British winter in 100 years.

I was really surprised how many came out of just a couple of square metres of garden!

Of course there were far too many to cook anything with so I opted to freeze them. But even if you freeze them, the bacteria in them degrade them slowly, so what you have to do before freezing is ‘blanch’ them.

What this basically amounts to is par-boiling them for a short time to kill the bacteria in them, then dunk them in cold water to stop the cooking process, then dry them to stop them sticking together and finally freeze them.

I used a pan of boiling water and a plastic pasta strainer, and some kitchen towel to dry them off. I did the carrots for 3 minutes and the parsnips for 2 minutes.

I must have a year’s supply in the freezer now. No need to grow them this year!!

Came across some rather attractive orange fungi in the garden too.

Local Adventure 4

I finally made it all the way to Bolton along the canal, and discovered Moses Gate Park, coming back along Bury Bolton Road. A 17-miler!!

It’s a good circuit with some nice surroundings, I might do it a few times before figuring out what my next challenge will be.

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