This afternoon I went for a walk at Weeleyhall wood, an eighty seven acre ancient woodland in north Essex, owned by Essex Wildlife Trust. It was quiet and peaceful, apart from the odd rumble from a car on the road about four hundred metres to the south. For a Sunday afternoon I met remarkably few other walkers. In fact a solitary dog walker was the only other person I came across in an hour and a half of walking. Although the woodland receives most of its visitors in the spring, who come to experience the carpets of bluebells and yellow archangel, it is a place of majesty throughout the year where the imagination can run wild and the subtleties of this special environment can be appreciated.
Most of the trees are Oaks but there are also areas of Hazel and Sweet Chestnut coppice, Alder glades and an area of Scots and Corsican Pine. Some Birch and Field Maple can also be found. Paths meander their way through the woodland, leading the walker gently on and tempting us to escape our own reality in to its woody throngs. Today I was able to achieve this and empty my mind of the day to day. Not even the birds interrupted my wanderings (to my disappointment). The essence of winter hung over me and both the woodland and I were transported to a moment where time itself didn’t seem to matter. Circa 4500BC this part of the world would have formed part of the great Lime wildwood, interjected by sections of Hazel, Oak and Elm. Even though the species may have changed, my mind was still able to retreat to the wildwood of my imagination.
I have recently been rereading Oliver Rackham’s History of the Countryside and in my efforts to understand past landscapes I am increasingly relying on clues within ancient landscapes to decipher past events. In a previous post I have suggested that historic landscapes are like a foreign country and in order to understand it so often one has to imagine oneself as being part of that landscape. Today was a lesson in Rackham’s practice.
For a few minutes I left the relative structural safety of the path to immerse myself in the wildwood and tried to imagine how this part of the world might look if in years to come the agricultural landscape were to revert to woodland. It is always enjoyable to experience what I call ‘minority’ landscapes within ‘landscapes of the status quo’. That is to say, in this case, experiencing small pockets of woodland, set within the common agricultural landscape that dominates this part of England. Thousands of years ago, when Neolithic men and women were establishing early agriculture the landscape of food production was a minority landscape within the wider woodland paradigm.
Within Weeleyhall Wood there is an area set aside following the significant storm in October 1987 which is now managed on the basis of non-intervention. In many ways this was an early experiment of rewilding and it is fascinating to see the results as they unfold.
It is the soil environment that fascinates me most as the multiple layers of leaf litter are clear to see and have formed a dense mat of organic matter on the surface. I dug down through this leaf matter to find a crumbly, fertile humus that is not often a common sight in arable, clayland Essex. This soil environment is home to millions of microscopic organisms which form the basis of the woodland ecosystem. My eyes were then drawn to the fallen trees themselves (and there are many) which play host to numerous invertebrates and will gradually be broken down themselves by detritivores and form part of the woodland floor. It was a strange feeling that this area is being managed by nature itself, devoid of human intention. Conservation today is dominated by a mentality of control and managing succession but here we see an environment where the managers are quite happy to let nature take its course.
The storm of 15th-16th October 1987 affected large areas of southern and eastern England and northern France and led to the deaths of 22 people. The strongest gust (of 122mph) was recorded at Gorleston in Norfolk. Critically, weather forecasters had not foreseen the severity of the storm or the scale of the area it would affect meaning that many people were unprepared. Many specimen and ancient trees were lost during the night, including at Weeleyhall Wood. It is estimated that 15 million trees were lost in total across the country. Nonetheless, without the storm the fascinating non-intervention experiment at Weeleyhall would not have been carried out.
Retreating in to our imaginations is not an easy task but environments such as ancient woodlands make it an easier task to achieve. In order to understand our own place in the historic landscape and to truly value our current landscapes it is vital that we learn how to access the wildwoods of our imagination.
Rackham, O., The History of the Countryside (London, 1986)