Paul Johnson

A wood is the one fixed point in a changing world

A wood is the one fixed point in a changing world

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‘Can’t see the wood for the trees’ is an old saying and a true one, not only metaphorically but literally. Nature students often look carefully at trees and know a lot about them. But they don’t notice the wood, and know nothing about its life and history. Since I began drawing trees with close attention I have tried not to fall into this error and have begun to study individual woods. In west Somerset, I have three particular favourites.

One, near the sea at West Quantoxhead, is creepily dark and spooky, ogreish, though you sometimes see a superb red deer peering at you through the gloom. This is a babes-in-the-wood place, fertile in fairytale material, and you can imagine bears and wolves living there (there are certainly plenty of foxes). My second prize wood is near the ancient hamlet of Asholt, where Coleridge almost certainly got his ‘cedarn cover’ detail for ‘Kubla Khan’. Not that there are cedars in the wood: it is mostly beech, oak, ash and lime. There is a special place I can go to look down on it from across the little valley where its stream flows: in spring with the new leaf and in autumn with the red and gold it is a magic place, and I paint it often. My third top wood is low-lying by a brook on the back road to Taunton. It is best seen in strong sunlight when the beams break through the massive canopy and produce a cathedral-aisle effect, with deer flitting through the rays. Coppicing takes place, which means that in due time it is a mass of bluebells. It must rival Norsey Wood, near Billericay in Essex, believed to have one of the greatest bluebell stretches on earth.

I am pretty sure that all three of my favourite woods are mentioned in Domesday book. They may have been bigger then, though not necessarily so. In a regime of traditional agriculture, even a small wood can be extremely profitable, yielding more per acre than arable and as much as meadow, if properly managed by a skilled woodman. Of the 518 woods treated as distinct in Domesday, half were less than 35 acres. I have learnt this and many other facts from Oliver Rackham’s History of the Countryside, the best book I have ever read on the subject, full of sagacity and deep knowledge, which often surprises you by going against the conventional wisdom. Dr Rackham, a Cambridge don, is not content with mastering the literary sources, which are abundant, and the archaeological findings, but believes in careful on-the-spot investigation. He brings to it a magnificently trained eye and vast experience — he must have visited nearly every wood in the country.

Reading this kind of book, crammed with authentic information obtained from direct on-the-spot research, makes me realise how ignorant I am, and how much I miss on my walks. For instance, on the upper slopes of the Quantocks, I have often noticed, and been puzzled by, stretches of walling on the edge of forested areas, buried deep in the earth, and obviously old. But how old? And what for? Can’t be the edge of a garden up here. Or a ha-ha. I learn from Rackham that this is the remains of a protective circuit, mediaeval or earlier, which always surrounded properly cared-for woods, to keep out sheep and deer and any other gnawers and nibblers who interfered with the woods’ perpetual process of self-renewal. These were formidable ditches and earthworks, sometimes reinforced by timber or even bricks and dry-stone walls.

Another puzzle, solved by Rackham, is the presence in the Somerset Levels, the low-lying area between the Mendips and the Quantocks, of a little cottage industry producing baskets and various items of wood and wattle-work from local materials. I foolishly supposed this was a recently introduced form of handicraft, perhaps a product of the great slump of the 1930s. In fact, it is an ancient industry, going back 6,000 years. Primitive man took to fenland for farming but in those times the Somerset Levels consisted of islands and peninsulas, and to get about humans laid down trackways consisting of wattles bound together in sections. They have been preserved by peat. Rackham says that one of these wooden roads, among the first highways ever built in England, and ‘the world’s earliest evidence of woodmanship’, is called the Sweet Track, and is quite elaborate. It is made of oak timber and the poles of various trees, ranging from ash and lime to hazel and holly, which he thinks were ‘undoubtedly grown for the purpose in a mixed coppice-wood’. He gives as an example of the supplier Cheddar Wood, nine miles away from the track, which still exists. I shall certainly visit this wood and the tracks at the earliest opportunity. How much fascinating history exists under our noses which we miss simply by not knowing about it! I blame myself for not taking the trouble to find out. (There is a specialist publication dealing with this unusual area called Somerset Levels Papers.)

Reading Rackham’s book confirms my view on two points. First is the importance of the huge continuities in our history, as opposed to the changes, abrupt or gradual, to which we devote more attention. I have often noticed, reading Domesday book on Somerset, how much of it still makes perfect sense today. Rackham says that half the woods which we know existed in the mid-13th century were still there in 1945. The real damage was done in the 1950s and 1960s, in the name of ‘scientific’ farming and forestry. This brings me to the second point. How often our forebears were more thorough and wiser than we on practical points dealing with the countryside, and how often they did things better! One in four of the woods mentioned in Anglo-Saxon charters, long before even Domesday book, still exist today, and were probably as well and profitably run a thousand years ago as now. Long before the Romans came there was some intelligent and well-thought-out management of woodland going on. The trees in the Quantocks were probably celebrated even in those days. Certainly, by ad 682, a charter from West Monkton in Somerset speaks of ‘that famous wood that is called Cantocwudu’. It was still an enormous wood in Victorian times. But now all has been changed by the Forestry Commission and sometimes by wrong-headed private forestry. According to Rackham, when it comes to dealing with woodlands, modern methods are often foolish. He is particularly critical of EU directives.

However, when I am in west Somerset, and enjoying its splendours, I don’t often think of economics. There is a little wood visible from my study window to which I am strongly attached and have painted countless times. I don’t actually know whether the number of trees in it qualifies for the term ‘wood’. Spinney, you say? But that is a technical term too. So are ‘hanger’, ‘coppice’ and ‘copse’. I have never seen anybody doing anything to this wood. It shrouds some old quarry-workings for the local sandstone, now covered in brambles. Once, a family of foxes lurked there, and I loved to study them when they came out into the sun to bask and play. But they were wiped out by mange, which wreaked a terrible devastation among West Country foxes some years ago. Now I just watch the wood, as it bears the ensigns and stigmata of the changing seasons, waves wildly in the south-west winds bustling in perpetually from the Bristol Channel, or flaunts its fine colours in the splendid sunsets we get here. A wood is a reassurance, the one fixed point in a changing world.