VOICES TO THE CLOUDS

The real path, the path through the wood, lies lower down the road. It goes through the heart of the birches, a wide bracken-flanked track that switchbacks up and down and is cut by deep tracks of timber wagons that have been fetching out the sweet chestnut thinnings during the winter.

After about fifty yards the path splits – the timber track goes straight on whilst the public path veers left and goes downhill. It is at this pointng, standing on the crest of the hill that the wood is seen at its very best.

The wood is not very big, neither ancient nor primeval but it lies all around and as its boundaries are invisible it is an overpowering sense of the tree that envelops all.

The birches close in thickly behind, shutting out the lane except perhaps for a yard or two. Before the flat and down the slope the big oaks and sweet chestnuts and a few distant pines and wych-elms thicken just enough to curtail a view of the river and its meadows and, indeed so too the summer sky.

On the map a narrow lane, quite unfit for wheeled traffic, winds around one end of the ridge. There is nothing to suggest great antiquity or any special interest, scientific or otherwise but attention is drawn to it by the fact that it obviously serves no modern purpose. It is, in reality the north eastern boundary of a tenth century estate and runs like a rampart cut half way up the side of a steep high bank.

In the heart of Somerset another similar construction survives, undoubtedly a boundary bank of an estate long gone.

When we stray far away from the old pleasant village We love it the fonder further away The sweet pleasant songs of the ploughman o’er their tillage Are more pleasant sounds than the strange calls today That sweet little homestead with pollard ash and pond Leads back a hundred miles wherever I may roam.

When England was stilll thickly wooded it was generally with thick oak and ash especially on the clays, but on the chalk and limestone the beech woods extended for miles. The oak was so much more common in medieval England in tens of thousands rather than the few hundreds of today.

The now seemingly characteristic tree of the upland farmstead, the sycamore so familiar to William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy and latterly Matthew Arnold only made its appearance in the closing years of the sixteenth century. From rising ground England would have seemed as one arboreal sea.

The wood echoes with the sounds peculiar to itself with the furtive treading of pheasants among the big papery chestnut leaves, the staccato clap of wings of the rising woodpigeon, the pink-pink of blackbirds, the squerking rabbit and the harsh scolding of the jays.

Again a storm encroaches round Thick clouds are darkening deep behind And through the arches hoarsely sound The risings of the hollow wind Springs early hopes seem half resigned And silent for a while remain Till sunbeams broken clouds can find And brighten all to life again.

A winter’s thinning has opened out the whole wood for the first time in years, some great birches now stand visible and in May a bluebell carpet will be unfurled, a garland of pathless blue.

H E BATES 1936  JOHN CLARE 1812-1864  W G HOSKINS 1955