Coronavirus crisis; Crowds flock to Heartwood Forest in Sandridge despite social distancing warnings

Crowds at Heartwood Forest in Sandridge.

Crowds at Heartwood Forest in Sandridge. - Credit: Archant

The spring sunshine drew hundreds of people to Sandridge’s Heartwood Forest today.

Crowds at Heartwood Forest in Sandridge.

Crowds at Heartwood Forest in Sandridge. - Credit: Archant

Families flocked to the popular tourist destination, forcing the use of an overflow car park to cope with the onslaught of visitors.

On first glance it appeared to be a perfect setting for a Mother’s Day walk, if not for the dark clouds of coronavirus casting shadows over the gathered crowds.

Because this was in direct breach of the Prime Minister urging people not to visit their families and to follow social distancing guidelines.

The virus is spreading rapidly, we have been warned, with 244 people having died in the UK so far, and more than 5,000 cases recorded.

Crowds at Heartwood Forest in Sandridge.

Crowds at Heartwood Forest in Sandridge. - Credit: Archant

In his daily media conference, Boris Johnson issued a stark message for Mother’s Day: “This time, the best thing is to ring her, video call her, Skype her, but to avoid any unnecessary physical contact or proximity.

“And why? Because if your mother is elderly or vulnerable, then I am afraid all the statistics show that she is much more likely to die from coronavirus, or Covid-19. We cannot disguise or sugar-coat the threat.”

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The National Trust has already closed its parks and gardens. A statement today read: “From Sunday 22 March, we’ve sadly taken the decision to close our parks and gardens, in addition to our houses, shops and cafés, to help restrict the spread of coronavirus.

“Many of our car parks for countryside and coastal locations will also have to close due to high demand. We urge people to stay local and observe social distancing. Please do not travel.”

Crowds at Heartwood Forest in Sandridge.

Crowds at Heartwood Forest in Sandridge. - Credit: Archant

But the Woodland Trust, which runs Heartwood Forest, has yet to take action, and arguably encouraged further visitors by opening the extra car parking facilities.

In a statement on its website released on March 18, the trust’s chief executive Darren Moorcroft said: “We are living in difficult and uncertain times. As our country faces up to the unprecedented impact of the Coronavirus global pandemic, I wanted to send a personal message to you all to thank you for your ongoing support.

The coming weeks and months are going to be challenging for everyone, but I want you to know we are doing everything we can to keep our staff, volunteers and woodland visitors safe.

I have asked all Woodland Trust staff to work from home for the time being, so we may take longer than usual to respond to your enquiries and deal with your orders. Please be patient – we are working as fast as we can, and we’ll keep you updated on our services and activities.

“Everyone should take note of the Government’s latest health advice and stay home if required. But we know that spending time outside can be hugely beneficial for your wellbeing - especially through these worrying weeks and months.

“Our beautiful woods remain open to everyone, every day. Although we have had to cancel our organised events until at least 31 May, we want you all to continue to enjoy the breathing spaces that woodland brings.

“Government advice recommends fresh air and exercise where possible and what better place to be than out in woodland at bluebell time? If you are not self-isolating I really recommend finding a wood near you to recharge your batteries and lift your spirits while taking note of social distancing advice. There’s room for everyone out in our woods!

“Even though a global pandemic is testing us, woodland conservation never stops. We’ll carry on doing everything we can to plant trees and protect woods to fight climate change and create havens for wildlife.”

No statements have been released since this time, and the Herts Advertiser has contacted the trust for a comment on whether Heartwood will remain open.

NB. This reporter did not join the crowds at the forest, and all photographs were taken from the safety of a closed vehicle.