The quiet and peaceful Holyford Woods are tucked away in a deep valley below Seaton Down, north of the A3052. The north side consists of oak and ash, under-grown with holly, hazel and hawthorn and some birch. The Holyford Brook runs along the valley, first through a rocky goyle, then a marsh filled with willow and alder. It flows to the Axe, on its way becoming Stafford Brook. The South side of the valley (known as The Hangings, meaning steep hillside) was mostly covered with furze, but in 1961 South West Water, the owners at that time, cleared the hillside and conifers were planted there. It was feared there was a threat to the rest of the woods so local people leapt to the defence of the woods, and Brigadier Nott-Bower campaigned to preserve them, with a petition signed by a large number of people being successful in saving them, only to have them threatened by future plans to flood the valley. Most of the conifers were felled in 2005 and this area is left to regenerate in its own time.
This magical place has not always been so peaceful. At times it must have echoed to saws and axes and many voices. In 1005, King Ethelred granted the boundaries of Flete (Seaton) and Colyton, still the Parish Boundary, along which a pathway, ‘Coombeway to Horregan’, ran up from the Axe valley to Holyford Farm, and into the woods. In Saxon times the valley was subdivided by banks, which are still evident, into wood pasture, and the names Bridewell Copse and Holyford Coppice still survive. Between 1647 and 1677 the tenant of Borcombe Farm, Southleigh had the right to take ‘hedgebote, stakebote, ploughbote and firebote’, and dig marl. Other local farmers must have held similar leases. There was regular coppicing, alder wood was taken out for clog making, firewood was collected, and animals grazed. Between the mid 19th Century and 1930 the area was owned by the Pole Estate of Shute. Charcoal was burned, and in 1889 lime from pits in the wood was burnt at Gatcombe Farm, south of the A3052.
By 1930 Seaton needed an increased water supply and a reservoir was built to the eastern end of the Woods, fed by the stream. The water was pumped up to the Water Tower at the top of Seaton Down Hill. In 1954 East Devon Water Board took over and the height of the dam was increased to fulfil the demands from a rapidly growing Seaton. In 1974 South West Water took over the waterworks, and in 1980 investigated the possibility of flooding the whole valley with a new dam built alongside the Pump House. With yet another threat to the Woods, The Holyford Woodland Preservation Society was formed, and a well-publicised petition was handed to the Authority, pointing out that the Woods were the only ancient woodlands with public access left in East Devon. Luckily a geological survey showed the valley was not suitable for water storage; the pumping station was closed and the reservoirs left to nature.
In 2001 the Authority put the whole valley on the market, with the 56 acres of woodland as a separate lot. East Devon District Council Rural Affairs Officer Geoff Jones contacted local councils and societies, asking that letters should be sent to the Authority requesting the woods be saved as a valuable local public amenity. The Holyford Woodland Preservation Society sprang into action. The local press were involved. Yet another petition was started, and letters written to all and sundry. A fund was set up to buy the woods. An open day was held on Tree Seed Gathering Day. The response was amazing. The Axe Vale & District Conservation Society joined local councils and organisations offering support. By mid-November £22,500 had been pledged. Geoff Jones gave a strong recommendation to East Devon Planning Committee that led to a grant of £30,000 being set aside for the purchase. November 28th 2001 was a great day. The submitted sealed bid was accepted by South West Water, and East Devon Policy Committee confirmed the £30,000 grant.
The resultant publicity led to more money being donated until the total exceeded £35,000. East Devon District Council took on the freehold of Holyford Woods with a 125-year Lease with the Woodland Preservation Society. The Society voted to form the legally constituted Holyford Woodland Trust, with nine trustees. The Trust took on the lease, together with the preservation and protection of the ancient woods and the water sources within them. The Trust meets four times a year; anyone is welcome to attend.
The East Devon District Council Countryside Team produces a management plan, and cares for the woods day-to-day. Regular volunteer work parties organised by EDDCC and AV&DCS carry out occasional glade clearance and other necessary maintenance work. Members of the Trust keep an eye on everything.There are regulars walks and talks held in the woods throughout the year, and a Bluebell Day organised by the Trust, usually on the first May Bank Holiday weekend.
The woods have received two awards. In 2004, English Nature awarded Holyford Woods Local Nature Reserve status, the 1000th in the country, and in 2007 they received a Green Flag Award, normally given to parks and open places The woods are only the second nature reserve to receive this.