A Walk in the Woods

Monotonous or Inspiring?

Posted by Mark Armstrong 26th September 2015

Why not take a walk in the woods this weekend. In his book The Natural Explorer, Tristan Gooley describes forests as having a reputation for darkness. He remarks that "Woodlands have another reputation, one that is less deserved and that is for monotony." Plantations indeed can be homogenous, but ancient, natural woodland is rich in diversity. Certainly walking through stretches of different types of woodland can be an opportunity to observe nature and get close to those giants and ancients of nature, the trees.

During the Second World War John Stewart Collis wrote accounts of his experience in agriculture when he worked on the land and wrote a series of meditations on such things as the plough and the worm. These can be found in the book "The Worm Forgives the Plough" which combines his works "While Following the Plough" and "Down to Earth." Down to Earth contains a section called The Wood, which tells of his time clearing and thinning an Ash wood in the Cranborne Chase. On our Wonders of Wessex walking holiday, you walk up the edge of this wood between Ashmore and Compton Abbas Airfield.

Collis says that it was "not surprising that there was an ancient atmosphere about this place, for I was working in the middle of the Cranborne Chase. At one time it had a perimeter of over 80 miles, from Shaftesbury to Salisbury on the North, and encircled by the Stour and Avon at the other sides. Now it is shrunk to a small oasis of wild country." But little has changed to these pockets of ancient woodland. Thomas Hardy called it "a venerable track of forest land, one of the few remaining woodlands in England of undoubted primeval date, wherein Druidical mistletoe is still found on aged oaks, and where enormous yew trees, not planted by the hand of man, grow as they had grown when they were pollarded for bow." Some of the deforestation can be put down to the fact that the Chase had become popular as a smugglers haunt; a good place to hide as a fugitive from the law.

Collis describes wonderfully the different moods that can be felt in a wood. The weather would influence his mood more inside the wood than in the open. "The change from sunlight to a drizzle in the wood is a very definite thing, and makes its full effect....Sometimes I have felt my heart contract at the sudden coming on of a cold darkness, and expand at the smiling beams swiftly pervading the weary, dripping scene around." All of us that have taken a stroll through the woods can recognise that feeling of warmth that the beams of sunshine breaking through the branches and leaves can have on the spirit and the way the light is shaped by the trees themselves.

A walk in the woods can be a great opportunity to observe the effect of the seasonal changes in nature. From March to May the 'sleeping trees' awake and at their feet the flowers emerge to the bird songs of spring. The forest floor forever changes with newcomers, later to be filled by wild garlic and foxgloves. Collis describes the silence that falls on a wood in July and describes the pine forest with its soft needle carpeted floor as having a 'deadly silence.' "No bird sang, nor wing flapped, nor rabbit scuttled, nor stick cracked...submerged in a silence like a substance...It was broken occasionally by a squall of wind heard above in the branches of the pines, that wild, watery, bare-beached, oceanic sound that even at the height of summer has no summer in it." I've not even mentioned the tactile nature of the autumn walk through a leaf strewn forest floor or the spectacular colours of the autumn leaves before they flutter to the floor in an aerial dance.

Sometimes we might not see the trees for the forest, but each individual tree is just that, a being in its own right. We have all the variety of their trunks with their knots, ridges, lichen and moss. In his book Walden or Life in the Woods, his reflections upon simple living in natural surroundings, Henry David Thoreau writes that "no weather interfered fatally with my walks, or rather my going abroad, for I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines."

On our walking holiday Wonders of Wessex, you will walk through the beautiful Grovely wood, one of the largest woodlands in southern Wiltshire. A short distance from the Roman road running through the wood are 4 giant gnarled beech trees that stand out amongst the pines. A local outbreak of smallpox in the 18th century was blamed on 4 Danish sisters that had recently arrived and they were accused of witchcraft and bludgeoned to death. Legend has it that the trees grew on the unmarked graves. The trees eerily stand out in this part of the wood, although one of them is now no longer standing.

So, are you going to take that woodland walk? It's certainly not monotonous and can often be an uplifting experience. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: "I took a walk in the woods and came out taller that the trees "

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