The English Woodlands

by frankbeswick

Woods are integral to England's heritage, and they are enjoyed by many English folk.

There is a special magic to a woodland,for it seems to strike a chord in human hearts. Note that woodland is not jungle, for we humans fare badly in jungle, with its density, tangle and permanent menace, but we enjoy walks in small woodlands. We have few large stretches of woodland in England, and these include Sherwood Forest and the New Forest and some others. Most English woodlands are manageable by walkers, well stocked with paths and signposts, so when we enter woodlands we are not entering wilderness, but sipping it lightly and pleasurably.

The photograph above shows lords-and-ladies [Arum maculatum.] This is a plant good to look at, but poisonous. Image courtesy of iredding01

Robin Hood's Forest.

Some years ago I was driving home late from working in Cambridge, when I passed Sherwood Forest, the haunt of the semi-legendary Robin Hood. What struck me was the sheer mass of the woodland, a powerful darkness to my left. In the country night lit only by the moon  the forest was quite daunting, even though it had shrunk from its original size, when it stretched from Nottingham to Wakefield in South Yorkshire, to a mere 450 acres. I could see why it was known as a haunt of outlaws, several of whom are named in the history books, and only one of whom, Robin himself, had anything good to say about him. But those days are gone now, thankfully, and the forest is a  pleasure ground for walkers,some of whom stop to admire The Major Oak, in whose hollow trunk Robin Hood  and his men were said to have hidden from the Sheriff. 

Did Robin exist? Well, the Robin Hood story that we have is a legend written down in the sixteenth century, but the writer drew on the stories of  several outlaws and on the Robin Hood ballad tradition,  a number of ballads dating from the time ranging between King John and Edward the Second. But what we do know is that some years ago a historian searching the court records of Wakefield for the year 1225, then the northern edge of the Forest, found an entry saying that one Robhod had been summoned to appear before the sheriff, but had absconded. In 1226 he turns up again, to time as Hobdehod,being equally unwilling to attend his next trial. Is this Robin? Who knows?

But the image of Robin living in a forest near empty of people is erroneous, for in the Middle Ages England was a land of forest industry. The woods contained charcoal burners, who often dwelt in wattle huts near their fires. Wood was a major resource in that period, and there were many woodland craftsmen: sawyers, who cut wood, turners, who operated lathes, foresters, who guarded the forest, swine herds, whose pigs grew fat on the acorns in England's woodlands in Autumn/ Fall. The names Turner, Sawyer and Forester are still common English surnames.Many of these swineherds were teenagers sent into the woods to tend the family pigs, young males and females, and many a liaison between lonely and cold teenagers took place took place in the woodland nights.  

Yet forest was not simply woodland, and not all wood was forest. Forest was a legal term denoting land designated as royal hunting territory, and as such it need not be exclusively tree covered. Some areas of forest were open moorland. There were farms in the forest and people had grazing rights, though they were banned from taking the deer, which were to feed the royal court. Draconian punishments were enacted for poaching the royal deer, but they were rarely enforced and most culprits escaped with a fine, which provided the money that the king always needed. At other times a poacher might be offered a choice of a year or so in the dungeons or  a stint in the army, for the king also needed fit lads handy with weapons.

The Major Oak

The Major Oak
The Major Oak
Steven Bramall

Woodland Experiences

I have had some good walks in the woods over the years. I recall sitting on the banks of a small earthwork in Epping Forest near London, where in the quiet and peace  I enjoyed a can of beer; and I walked, as I said in a previous article, through a wood prolific in bluebells in the North Downs,the low, soft chalk hills that range across southern England south of London. There is a great joy in happening on a woodland flower, as we saw with Wordsworth, who in one chilly Cumbrian Spring day came upon a host of golden daffodils. I felt an exuberance when I came upon the bluebells. Maybe like Wordsworth did, but he was a poet several magnitudes greater  than I am.  

There have been other times. Aged eighteen I got lost on  a walk in the beech woods of the Chilterns, the range north of London,  and came back to college along a woodland path in moonlight [and a train ride.]  If you have ever read The Wind in the Willows where Mole wanders lost through the Wild Wood  and hears the rustlings in the dark, you will know what I experienced. You become alert to rustlings and whisperings, to the slightest sound, and bats flit about you,swerving at the last moment so that you are never struck. Sounds seem threatening. But I got back to college late, but not so late that anyone worried. Navigation lessons learned! 

But now to flowers!

Below you see Foxglove, the beautiful but poisonous companion along the sides of woodland paths, which loves disturbed ground. Underneath it you espy Lords-and-ladies, which like Foxglove is poisonous, but beautiful. Foxglove's affection for paths is that it loves disturbed ground, which you get when people walk on the land.Lords-and-ladies is a plant of new woods,like ivy, and it is also fond of road side verges, where I saw it in Cornwall.  

Then we turn to Woodruff [below.] This plant is the opposite of Lords-and-ladies, as it is an indicator of an ancient woodland, for it is a sensitive soul that does not colonize well and likes familiar ground. When you espy it you know that you walk an ancient wood.Yet there is a wide range of shade-loving woodland flowers:wood sorrel [see below] belongs to the daisy family and occurs in several species. You will see its striped white leaves in Spring in the clumps that spring up between the trees in the woodland.I have seen these growing in the woods at Alderley Edge in Cheshire.

In Fall/Autumn the fungi emerge, their strange shapes appearing as if from nowhere. I can recall finding a rare panther cap [poisonous] in a North Wales woodland besides a path. Beware the  spotted fungi such as this, their poisonous powers range from serious to fatal. But you can also see oyster fungus emerging from dead wood, such as stumps, and the yellows of sulfur tuft brighten the woodland. In Delamere Forest in Cheshire I came upon a stinkhorn, a fungus that is supposed to be quite smelly, but I did not get near enough to find out. 





Wood Anemone

Wood Anemone
Wood Anemone
Logga Wiggler

Wood Sorrel

Wood sorrel
Wood sorrel

English woodland

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Reflections on the Wood

"Oh let them be left, wildness and wet"

Thus said Gerald Manley Hopkins, the priest-poet, in his poem in praise of the moorland around Inversnaid. He lauded the "beadbonny" ash that stood over the burn [a Scottish word for stream also used in parts of Northern England.] This coined word captures the multitude of water beads dripping from the ash in which the sun's light scatters into a jewels as beautiful as any diamond. His principles apply as much to woodland as to moorland, for Hopkins loved all of nature. 

The woods have their moods. There is a youthful enthusiasm in Spring, but in Autumn/Fall when the mists wraith in strands among the trees they acquire an eldritch aura and we can see why Tolkien set his elves therein. In deciduous forests the leaves rustle and crinkle underfoot in early Autumn,until they die into mush ere their rebirth. Nature goes in cycles.

We must not forget the animals, but you rarely meet them in the wood. At Styal in Cheshire I have seen nuthatches, the bird that can walk down trees, and the chirping in the canopy reveals a world concealed from humans. 

Deer are woodland species, but we rarely see them among the trees, though in the wooded deer park at Dunham Massey, in Cheshire, we meet them in numbers. This week we were kept from a certain area of the Dunham woodland as the hinds were having their fauns.A strange thing about female deer is that when giving birth they return to the place where they were born. They are well hefted to favoured places. If you disturb that place you traumatize them. But nowadays the English woodlands have muntjac deer, dog sized escapees from parks, which make  barking sound.I  have yet to see one, but they are spreading northwards and so soon I may.The deer link us to the ancient wood, and to the ancestors for whom they were integral to the land. 

Humans seem to thrive when they are within trees, for we were originally woodland [not jungle] dwellers and our arboreal roots run deep into our souls. A walk in the woods is therefore psychologically refreshing.We need to protect our woodlands for ourselves,our children and our grandchildren.     

Updated: 06/23/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 20 days ago

No. We have no need for such a drink.

DerdriuMarriner 20 days ago

The second paragraph to your introduction acquaints us with poisonous Arum maculatum.

English Wikipedia associates its root with the saloop drink attracting British Isles-ers in pre-coffee and pre-tea times.

The aforementioned article avows saloop as non-problematic with well-roasted roots.

Might you and your wife and your family or Veronica and her husband and her family ever have attempted saloop-drinking?

Guest on 09/18/2017

Frank loved your post, enjoyed all the beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing the English Woodlands!

frankbeswick on 07/15/2017

Wiliiam II died in the New Forest,but Sherwood is an eery place in the dark, a mass of dark tree as you drive past. There are to my knowledge n famous tales other than Robin Hood, but there are tales of more than one outlaw in the forest, but these are merely robbers with no redeeming mythos

DerdriuMarriner on 07/15/2017

frankbeswick, Does Sherwood Forest have any other famous stories in addition to the Robin Hood tales? Is it just as eery to go past the New Forest late in the evening? In a way, it seems eerier to me what with the deaths there of the brothers Richard and William II.

katiem2 on 06/26/2017

Now I know a good indicator of an ancient forest. I love the woods, forest, and remote areas for retreats, getaways and a good hike. Next time I will be looking to identify the plants you shared above.

frankbeswick on 06/26/2017

Where I am there is the deer park at Dunham Massey,mentioned in articles by me and Veronica. This is a wooded place with deer a-plenty. There are deer in the New Forest in the south of England and in our many [wooded] deer parks. But in the local forests, such as Delamere Forest, there are none. The Scottish hills are full of deer. But the deer are not in their natural habitat, as the hills are not as tree clad as deer like, though there is a large tree planting programme.

Locally I think that muntjac deer might move into our area. One was found dead only a few miles away from where I live. These little deer are adept in concealing themselves in our small woodlands.

I have seen moose [elk] in Norway, but it was fleeting sighting as it dashed off through the trees. But the best way to see wildlife is to be still, for the wild creatures hear us coming and flee. Only today I saw the robin who frequents my allotment.She flies down, but if I move to get near her [I can tell that it is female] she flies off. If I make much of a move, even if it is not to approach her, she flies away

You are right to stick to tracks, for woodland can be dangerous. Forests as large as you have in America are places where everyone must be careful. But even over here there are places where sticking to tracks is vital, such as Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor in the South-West, as there are hidden pitfalls in those areas, such as dangerous bogs and forgotten mine shafts.

dustytoes on 06/26/2017

So you don't see many deer in your forest? I used to see so many around my house in winter in New Hampshire. Lots of wilderness there, but it's best for someone like me to stay on the trails if I'm going far. I love the woodland areas. I used to take many photos of old trees, mushrooms, flowers, plants and rock walls in the woods near my house. Though I've never been good at photographing wildlife, I always wanted to see a moose. I saw tracks, but no moose.

frankbeswick on 06/24/2017

Having stumbled ineptly across an Irish bog, which was tussocky, but not too wet, and also having stumbled in small swamp, I have no desire to even attempt walking in a swamp.

frankbeswick on 06/24/2017

Good point. We do not have any significant equivalent to swamps in Britain, as the fens were drained two hundred years ago. That is why I overlooked this fact.

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