William Cook

The joy of ancient woodland

The joy of ancient woodland
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What’s the thing that’s kept you going during these interminable lockdowns? For me, it’s been walking in my local forest, Ruislip Woods. Ruislip may be the acme of suburbia, a maze of bungalows and crazy paving - but Ruislip Woods is only a short walk away, and it’s vast.

As I’m sure you’ve discovered yourself these last few months, there’s nothing quite like a walk in the woods to alleviate the lockdown blues. It feels great to go somewhere entirely unaffected by Coronavirus, a place where this pesky pandemic seems utterly inconsequential.

A forest is a precious place in any part of the country, but to me Ruislip Woods feels particularly special because it’s managed to survive despite being entirely within London. Wandering around this wooded wilderness you’d never guess you were only a few miles away from bustling London suburbs like Northwood, Eastcote and Pinner.

At 305 hectares, Ruislip Woods is the biggest forest in London (Epping Forest is larger, but much of it is in Essex). It’s the last remnant of a huge forest which once stretched all the way from London to Nottingham and, incredibly, it’s virtually unchanged since medieval times.

Ruislip Woods owes its survival to its Norman owner, Ernulf de Hesdin, who was granted Ruislip Manor and the valuable woodland around it by William the Conqueror, in return for supporting his invasion of England. In 1096, Ernulf was implicated in a plot against William’s successor (his son, William Rufus) whereupon he wisely left the country, to join the First Crusade. He died in 1097, in the Holy Land, and left all his lands to the monastery of Bec, in his native Normandy. In 1451, Henry VI seized this estate from these Norman monks, and gave it to King’s College Cambridge. In 1931, King’s College sold the woods to the local council, on the condition that they would not be used for building. And so Ruislip Woods survived.

Ruislip Woods was originally a hunting ground (you can still see remnants of the trench which was dug around it, to keep in the deer and boar). After the Norman Conquest it was increasingly used for forestry. Oaks from this forest were used to build the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Westminster. Hornbeams were planted among the oaks, to make them suitable for timber - because hornbeams grow more quickly, they prompt the oaks to grow straight and tall, in order to reach the light (the supple branches of the hornbeam were used for making fences).

Oak and hornbeam are still the main species in the woods today. The council maintains the medieval character of the forest by coppicing, on a 20-year cycle, and removing interloping species. The result is a forest that looks much the same as it would have done in Norman times.

As well as oak and hornbeam, there are lots of other native species – aspen, rowan, willow, hazel, holly and silver birch. This variety of flora supports a wide array of fauna, far more than you’d find in a modern planted forest. There are no boar or deer here nowadays, but there are badgers, foxes, stoats and weasels, loads of bats and even a few muntjac deer. These woods are also a paradise for birds (and birdwatchers): look out for sparrowhawks, tawny owls, woodcocks and several species of woodpecker.

And yet this oasis amid the Big Smoke could so easily have been swept away. In 1914, the local government began to clear the woods to make way for 7,600 houses. Thankfully the bulldozers had only just arrived when the First World War began, so this hideous plan was postponed. In the end, only a few rows of houses were put up, along the southern edge of Ruislip Woods. Many of these houses have enormous oaks in their gardens, far older than the houses – magnificent, mute relics of the forest that was here before.

Will Ruislip Woods last another 1000 years? I’d like to think so. In 1997, it became a National Nature Reserve (the first one in an urban area), giving it an additional layer of protection. And since Covid came along, walking in these woods has become a lot more popular - it’s one of the few things we’ve been allowed to do. I’ve been walking in these woods for ten years, since I moved to Ruislip, and I’ve never seen so many people as I have done in the last year. Maybe one benefit of the pandemic is that it’s prompted us to appreciate the nature on our doorstep, rather than planning foreign holidays in far flung places and ignoring the natural attractions right next door.

In the meantime, Ruislip Woods has been my salvation. Going there kept me sane during the first and second lockdowns, and in the third lockdown, when I caught Covid (God knows how) I was gutted not to be able to go there. I was housebound for three weeks (not nice at all, but I was lucky - it could have been a lot worse) and when I was finally well enough to leave the house, I headed straight for Ruislip Woods. It felt fantastic to be back in a place that had barely changed in a millennium. It put all my problems into perspective. These woods were here long before we were here. They’ll be here long after we’re all gone. Meantime, let’s enjoy them, and others like them. They’re such a unique resource. We’d really miss them if they weren’t there.

Other woods and forests to explore

Naturally, there are loads of other splendid woods and forests all over Britain. There’s bound to be one not far from where you live. Here are a few of my other favourites. Which ones would you recommend?

Burnham Beeches

Three hundred and seventy-five hectares of woodland and heathland (mainly beech and oak), owned and managed by the City of London. You’d never guess that Slough is just a few miles away.

Savernake Forest, Wiltshire

This 2,750 acre wood near the market town of Marlborough is privately owned but open to the public and managed by the Forestry Commission. It boasts one of Britain's oldest oaks, aptly named Big Belly Oak.

The New Forest

Not new at all, at least not nowadays, it was created by William the Conqueror as a hunting ground (two of his sons died here, in mysterious circumstances). A hundred and fifty square miles of forest and heathland, renowned for its wild horses.

Hatfield Forest, Essex

424 hectares of medieval woodland await you in Essex. It is one of Britain's oldest hunting forests. The forest's lake and surrounding marshes is a hub for all sorts of wildlife. 

Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire

Famous for its historic associations with Robin Hood, Sherwood Forest is still a wild and romantic place today - 424 hectares of oak, rowan, holly, hawthorn and silver birch

Grizedale, Cumbria

Spot red deer, barn owls and buzzards in this sprawling woodland in the heart of the Lake District between Windermere and Coniston. Keep an eye out as you walk for the various sculptures hidden amid the trees.

Epping Forest, Essex

A stone's throw from London and yet you'll feel a world away from the capital in no time. Its 6,000 acres were once a royal hunting ground. But now commoners have the right to graze livestock there. So be sure to bring your cow along for the ride.

Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire

Home to Puzzlewood - an other-worldly entanglement of oak, ash, beech and lime straight of Lord of the Rings, it's no surprise the Forest of Dean has been a popular fantasy filming location over the years. Truly a place to go and get lost.

Kielder Forest, Northumberland

This forest is a dark sky reserve and boasts some of the clearest skies in the country for star gazers. The Northumberland countryside is an undiscovered northern delight - perfect for a summer where the staycation rules.