Judging the Green Flag Awards - by TurfPro Editor, Laurence Gale MSC, MBPR

In recent weeks I and 500 plus other Green Flag judges, have been busy judging over 2000 parks, open spaces and heritage sites in the UK and abroad. I personally find it very rewarding and satisfying to know, we the judges are an integral cog in the Green Flag Awards programme.

This remarkable awards scheme has now been running for twenty-two years and in that time has helped preserve, protect and enhance many hundreds of parks and public open spaces.

In 1997, when the first Green Flags were awarded, the green space sector in the United Kingdom was in a parlous state. Decades of underfunding had left many once proud and beautiful historic city centre parks derelict, dangerous no-go areas and many other green spaces were neglected or barely maintained. Experts with a shared interest in promoting natural spaces from a range of backgrounds came together in response to this decline.

Their intention was to establish agreed standards of good management, to help justify and evaluate funding and to bring people back into the parks. And it worked. As the standard became established, other green spaces began to apply for the Award, and now Green Flags fly over parks, cemeteries and crematoria, recreation grounds, canals, reservoirs, educational campuses, hospital grounds, housing estates, nature reserves and allotments. There is no limit on the size of the site; they currently range from less than one hectare to thousands of hectares.

This year I was tasked with a fellow judge to go and judge Castle Ring, a large multivallate Iron Age Hill Fort around 2,500 years old. It is one of seven large Multivallate Hill Forts in Staffordshire and is also the most complete, situated at the south eastern edge of Cannock Chase, in the West Midlands.

Castle Ring occupies the summit of a small hill which forms the highest point on Cannock Chase. The hillfort is an irregular pentagon in plan and its multiple defences enclose an area of c.3.6ha. For most of their circuit these defences included a sequence of banks and ditches.

Castle Ring is a popular walk, for locals who enjoy the amazing views they have over Cannock Chase and surrounding areas. These paths, one running across the hillfort interior and the other skirting the northern defences, are believed to be contemporary with this walk and were laid out as carriage rides from the lodge of Beaudesert Hall, the 16th century home of the Paget family, which is situated approximately 1km to the north east of Castle Ring.

The management of the site is the responsibility of Cannock Chase Council and managed by the Councils Parks and Open Spaces department under the supervision of Tom Walsh, parks and open spaces manager and Steven Barnes landscape ecologist from their Countryside Services.

Cannock Urban District Council, now Cannock Council, purchased Castle Ring for the sum of £200 following a public sale at the Swan Hotel, Lichfield on 13 October 1932 of “Extensive Residential and Sporting Beau Desert Estate Land” comprising 2,010 Acres belonging to the 6th Marquis of Anglesey. The actual land purchased covered 18 Acres, 3 Rods and 16 Perches. This was the beginning of the Council’s ownership, management and improvement of Castle Ring.

The partnerships involved in Castle Ring are the Beaudesert Trust and Parks & Countryside Services. Issues have been debated between these key partners resulting in the development and production of a comprehensive management plan that will guide the development, management and maintenance of the site over the next ten years.

There are a number of policies and legal constraints to managing Castle Ring such as its designation as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, its legal status as common land, its management under the Department of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Environmental Stewardship (ES) scheme and its designation as a Site of Biological Importance.

Castle Ring is a Green Flag Award site having been successful in being awarded a Green Flag since 2009/10. Officers in both Countryside Services and the Parks and Open Spaces Division are members of professional institutes and associations, including two Green Flag Judges with the key agenda of driving continuous improvement, sustainability and excellence in all green spaces throughout the district.

On a fine May sunny day, I and my fellow judge Adrian Spray, met up with Tom and Steven to judge this precious public open space. We met in the car park and introduced ourselves and then were given a two-hour conducted tour of the site. During our walk around, both Tom and Steven explained their maintenance and management practises being undertaken and some of the constraints of the site.

Controlling wear from foot traffic at key entrances and exposed areas of the ditches, has been a priority with the council developing a tactic of reinforcing the ground with plastic netting and overseeding / turfing to re-establish some vegetation cover.

The centre of Castle Ring is almost entirely of a single habitat type, namely acidic grassland and smaller areas of associated habitats, which can be managed in similar ways. Steven said, “Most of the area is managed to improve the ecological quality of the acid grassland habitat as well as encouraging an increase in reptile populations.”

The council also have a policy of felling any young tree saplings that encroach the acid grassland every two or three years, thus keeping the centre of the ring clear.

Castle Ring is an important landscape feature for its archaeological and historical interest. It provides a sense of ancientness and an air of mystery and tranquillity for the visitor.

The Hill Fort topography and rural seclusion of the site are largely responsible for its character and popularity, culminating with more than 100,000 people a year visiting Castle Ring.

I would like to thank both Tom and Steven for showing us around this very special site and their keenness to maintain Green Flag status. It is very pleasing to see sites of this importance being maintained to a national standard, that in turn safeguards the integrity and importance of this site for future generations to come.

Finally on a personal note, I find the role of being a Green Flag judge very rewarding. It offers me insight into the management of these priceless public land assets.

You can find out more on how to become a Green Flag judge on their website 

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