Woodlands in April

I am sure that all the residents of Ewhurst are very glad in this time of lock-down to live in a village which has easy access to beautiful countryside. Walking in the area one is struck by the number of people who are out enjoying it: families with young children, young couples, students and school children who would normally be in stuffy classrooms, dog walkers (and even the occasional cat, as one neighbour told me, joins in the daily ritual of exercise), retired folk, cyclists, birdwatchers, pond dippers; they are all out there.

It has struck me, though, that there are many who are not able to share this enjoyment; isolation is very hard for the elderly, for those who are vulnerable or ill. They cannot walk the footpaths and can only look out of their windows and dream of what they are missing. The written word can never be a substitute for them but I thought it would be nice if I could bring them some observations of an amateur naturalist over the next few weeks and perhaps even encourage those who are visiting the countryside to take a closer look at what is there to see. I think the best definition of a naturalist is a person who keeps their eyes and ears open.

Visiting a bluebell wood in mid April is like crossing the threshold into a dreamscape. It always catches me by surprise and never fails to amaze. The flowers literally transform the woods, filling them with heavy scent and creating wave upon wave of sparkling blue, which, this week, has mirrored cornflower blue skies. As the breeze moves the bell heads it is as if the earth is stirring, awakening deep forces.

Ewhurst is blessed with lots of woodland and all the walks I have followed take in woods, whether it be copses, strips of trees bounding fields or larger areas given over to trees. This is not surprising as Surrey is still reckoned to be the most heavily wooded county in the country: perhaps trees are matched to density of human population; it is a happy counterpart in any case. The main part of the village sits on Wealden clay, the heavy clay that William Cobbet grumbled about in his ‘Rural Rides.’ Conceding that Ewhurst is ‘a very pretty village’, he goes on to complain of, ‘ the deepest clay that I ever saw….this is the real weald, where the clay is bottomless.’ In 1821 riding through our village was no joke.

It is also this clay that influences the area’s topography; heavy clay is no good for arable crops and never has been, so we are spared the depredations made by agronomic farmers who have grubbed out all hedgerows, trees and coppices, creating vast desert-like landscapes of cash crops. These hi-tech farms have a massive impact on wildlife, with declines in wild-flower species, insects, birds and other animals being largely due to changing agricultural methods. Ewhurst’s soil has saved us from this and most of our farmland is pasture, with hedges planted during enclosure being preserved and the woodlands left alone. We are doubly lucky as the village brinks two geological stratas; the clay borders the sandstone of Pitch Hill and Holmbury Hill, both of which lie to the north and overlook the main part of the village. This leads to the varied countryside, all within walking distance.

Woodlands are quiet places, offering shade and repose, places of mystery where it is easy to imagine dark forces rising. Yet, in the spring, all that changes and one feels the wood teeming with vigour, the sap rising everywhere, with colour carpeting the usually sombre ground layer. And not just bluebells: in the mixed woodland named Upper and Lower Canfold, lying on either side of the road leading to Cranleigh, I saw a wonderful display of the delicate wood anemones, flowers on thin stems with white petals, yellow anthers and lacey, ground covering leaves. A fairy plant if ever there was one. Yellow Celandine are now past their best but again covered the wood’s floor with a brightness it will not see again for another year. In clearings Jack-by-the-Hedge, Stitchwort, early Red Campions, Lady’s Smock and Yellow Archangel add to the palette of colours and on the banks Dog Violets, flowers which Shakespeare celebrates in Orsino’s opening speech of ‘Twelfth Night’ wonderfully evoking both love and spring-time, the melancholy Duke talking of the sweet south wind, ‘That breathes upon a bank of violets,/ Stealing and giving odour.’ That is before he finds it all too much and petulantly shouts, ‘Enough, no more!’

How does one describe what happens to the trees? It is because of the brief interlude between the time when the daylight extends, the soil warms up and the trees become fully clad in leaves that these magical woodland plants have a chance to flower before it becomes too dark: it is a brief moment each year in the wood’s life and is soon over. In a matter of days the buds burst into leaf, and the translucent greens, through which sunlight filters dappling the earth and giving the spiritual feeling that you get when light shines into a cathedral’s stained glass. There is a particular freshness to vernal light, youthful and full of joy. A strange contradiction exists: many of the trees are ancient, oaks can live for hundreds of years and many in our woods will be one hundred and fifty to two hundred years old. Their roots go deep into history. We are probably observing trees that started life when Queen Victoria was on the throne and I am always reminded of the brevity of human life when standing beneath them. The paradox is that each year they are rejuvenated, they discover the elixir of youth, past and present go hand in hand. Sadly, even trees are not immune and walking along the path from Sayers Croft Nature Reserve the torsos of many Ash trees lie felled, riddled with Ash Die Back, which is decimating the population of these graceful trees. We are not the only ones susceptible to viral invasions!

Two of my favourite medieval poets capture the sense of bursting life in a spring wood. The first is the anonymous writer of the mythical poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. It is a quest fable and Sir Gawain has one year and a day to complete his task and he has to journey across the north English shires. It starts in the bleak heart of an icy winter but as time passes spring arrives and the poet notes that, ‘Bryddes busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen’ (Birds are eagerly building their nests and singing joyfully). To my ears the bounce in the rhythm in that short line says all there is to say about the wonder of bird song and the beauty of the melody of courting birds: this poet had a happy intimacy with the gods of fertility. The other poet expressing the fecundity of spring is Chaucer. He begins his poem, ‘The Canterbury Tales’ with this invocation of the season:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the root,
And bathed every vein in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Chaucer

(When the gentle April showers, following droughts in March and refreshing the roots, bathe every plant with sap, bringing flowers into bloom.)

It is a powerful image of growth and makes a fitting introduction to poem of pilgrimage. Walking in the woods today it is still possible to recapture a sense of the countryside these poets loved during their lives in the middle ages, to understand where their creative imaginations got inspiration.

I have not had to get in a car to do any of these walks and since the lock-down I have found new footpaths and new delights on a daily basis. Each walk throws up a surprise: today we were walking past a large pond to a house in North Breache Lane just as a grass snake swam in a flowing motion across the water; no doubt a predator on a mission. There is always something to see if you keep your eyes open.

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