For The Trees

Nature writer Dominick Tyler traces the roots of our enduring passion for trees on a journey through Dartmoor’s wild and wonderful Fingle Woods
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Think of Dartmoor and you’ll probably conjure images of open spaces, wind-scoured tors and mist-shrouded mires; a hard land of granite and roiling skies. But this landscape has a softer side hidden in its edges and folds where ancient woodlands fill steep valleys. Here the rivers that rise on the peat run in amber lines to the lowlands, flanked by oaks, willows and beeches that trace their lineage back to the last Ice Age.

It’s the company of these old trees I’m seeking as I drive westwards from Exeter. The road skirts fields of ruddy soil ablaze with morning sun. Narrowing, it channels me between hedgerows before dropping me down a green tunnel. Branches arch overhead, the hill steepens and the air through my open window suddenly smells of mushrooms, bark and mulch. I’m descending into the Teign valley on the northeast edge of Dartmoor, one of the largest areas of semi-ancient forest in Devon.

On the map this stretch of the valley is a long green swathe. From Castle Drogo in the west to Steps Bridge 10km to the east, the wood is continuous and varied. In some places the trees are just as they’ve always been; in others, where plantations were once worked, native species have given way to conifers. A dozen different names annotate the wood, and the histories of its parts have diverged over the centuries. But this is set to change. In 2014 The National Trust and The Woodland Trust bought 825 acres of the woods and work has begun to protect and restore them. Already, 45km of new walking trails have been opened, and conifers are being thinned to encourage the return of native broadleaf species. As this work continues, the separate histories will once again pleach together under a new,
collective name – Fingle Woods.

My exploration begins at Fingle Bridge near Drewsteignton, which boasts two of the most necessary facilities for any country walk: a good pub (The Fingle Bridge Inn) and a car park. I set off along the path but my attention is elsewhere. There are adjustments to be made – to bag, boots and camera. I fiddle and fidget, mind busy with the drive here, what I might photograph, what I may have for lunch. My preoccupation lasts a hundred steps into the woods before I begin to look at the trees themselves. Tall coppiced oaks have the slope on my right while elephant-skinned beeches take positions further down by the path. There are alder and willow by the riverbank. I take a few more steps, my mind eases into place, and finally I’m here, in the moment and in the woods.

What a joy it is to be among trees. I have been drawn to them since my childhood in rural Cornwall when the narrow woodlands of the Lynher valley stood in for the forests of my imagination. I was lucky to have a wealth of outdoor spaces to choose from. When I needed the cobwebs blown away I headed to the moors, but I looked to the woods for contemplation and reflection. I still do. And in Fingle Woods I’m in good company for this place has a long history of recreation as well as industry. In the nineteenth-century visitors by the hundreds walked the 12 miles from Exeter to fish, hunt and sightsee. One account from 1864 describes the juxtaposition of woodland picnickers being accompanied by a brass band in a setting “that almost partakes of the tropical”. 

These days it’s only birdsong that serenades visitors. The sound of woodpeckers, chaffinches and whitethroats ring in the trees, while wagtails and dippers reign beside the Teign, patrolling its banks and weirs. In the shallows dippers plough through the water tracking fish like fat little torpedoes. Darting away from my approach they fly to the mossy rocks by the shore or perch above the rapids. I want to train my lens on them but they are too wary,  so I sit with my back to a beech stump on the riverbank and wait, camera ready. Above me the canopy is constantly changing its shape and shade. I lean back and watch. Its motion, at first random, seems to take on the movement of breaking waves as the wind flexes the boughs back and forth.

The rhythm of the seasons is marked by bigger changes in the woods; each has its own beauty and wonder. Summer beneath the trees is fragrant and lavish, the canopy fizzing with oxygen and the complication of a million greens on a million leaves outstretched for sunlight. Autumn re-clothes the wood in the colours of fruition and ripeness. It is the season of mushroom hunts, scuffled leaves and smoking bonfires. The woods in winter are more austere in their beauty, unroofed and open like a sleeping ruin. But not everything is dormant; tawny owls call in courtship, foxes, badgers and otters leave their tracks in the snow. Life endures. It will still be cold when the first buds swell, before the sun bears down undisputed from dawn ‘til dusk, warming the ground and waking the bulbs of snowdrops, bluebells and wild daffodils. In spring, everything seems to happen at once. Plants and animals speculate to accumulate, spending saved energy in a race to generate more.

The rhythm of the seasons is marked by bigger changes in the woods; each has its own beauty and wonder. Likewise, the dippers’ energy seems relentless. But, thanks to my stillness, they begin to move closer. Through the lens I can see their clean white bibs and rusty bellies. Behind me something swishes and I turn to catch a nuthatch swinging upside-down like a trapeze artist, picking at catkins on an alder branch. Then a pair of happy spaniels bound into the river and the birds are gone. I decide to move on too, shouldering my camera and heading upstream.

As the morning progresses I meet more amblers, dog-walkers and serious trail hikers. The birdwatchers take an interest in my camouflage-shrouded camera and lens. More often than not we exchange the twitchers’ greeting – Seen anything good?” – before wishing each other luck. I feel a bit of a fraud though. Despite the gear, I’m no true birder. What I love is the attention that birdwatching demands; the excuse to spend time quietly observing. And I recommend it to everyone. It’s amazing how much more you see when you’re motionless and quiet in a wood, the reward so often being a sight (or an insight) that would otherwise escape you. It is meditation in all but name.
Some thoughts, and some truths, are as impossible to stalk as small birds. Approach them and they will fly away. The only way to see them up close is to sit, with your back against a tree and wait for them to come to you.

Midday sunlight paints the trunks of the tall oaks and beeches as I walk up the path. Reaching the western edge of the woods, I follow signs up the hill towards Castle Drogo. This National Trust property stands in a commanding position above the valley and I’m expecting great views back to the woods and hopefully some lunch. At the information desk I ask about the best vantage points and I’m given dire xtions towards Sharp Tor, which is on the path to the bridleway that will take me back to my van.  You’ll pass the Tor as you go down,” says the guide. That’s your best bet. It projects out on the cliff like a lovers’ leap.” To emphasise this he mimes a dive with praying hands, then makes me promise to resist the temptation to jump. Instructed, I head for the café where the chocolate cake (harder to resist and far less lethal) fortifies me for the onward journey. 

Inside the wood I had no real sense of its scale but from up here I begin to appreciate its size. Trees stretch as far as I can see eastwards making it only too easy to imagine the woods are endless. And in 7,000 BC, when the English Channel was still a wooded saltmarsh, they practically were. Back then, a vast, primeval wildwood extended across the whole of the south of Britain and over a connecting land bridge, Doggerland, into Europe. This land bridge was responsible for our native species of flora and fauna first arriving here; seeds and spores spread across it from the continent before the almighty flood that created the English Channel cut off this island for good.

Around the same time as the flood, Mesolithic tribes began to clear the first swathes of British forest, a process that has steadily continued ever since, leaving us with precious few surviving remnants of the great forest that once dominated Europe. But those few survivors are not all that remains: ghosts of those felled trees still haunt our landscape and our language. We continue to live among the trees, at least nominally. 82,000 British postal addresses are “groves”, another 50,000 feature “oak”. You might say that, despite root and branch change, we’re not out of the woods yet. Place-names, turns of phrase and fables, these are our memorials to the woodlands of the past.

Although largely  deforested as a population, our connection to woods still runs deep. It is historical, cultural and personal, ingrained from millennia of habitation, dependency and usage. Trees have warmed, sheltered, nurtured and armed us. Who could forget Robin Hood and Sherwood; the proud, stout oak hearts of the Royal Navy and the yew bows that won the day at Agincourt? Given the depth of these roots it’s little wonder that government plans to sell off Forestry Commission land in 2012 were met with such outrage. The debate stirred in people a profound sense of still belonging to woodland with many feeling that the nation’s forests should be a birthright – open to all and priceless.

Leaving Sharp Tor I walk to join the bridleway that cuts back towards Fingle Bridge. At the edge of the oaks, amongst the brambles, something catches my eye: a cone of twigs and leaf litter gently scintillating in a shaft of light, almost as though it was on fire. It’s only when I’m close enough to touch the meter-wide-mound that I can make out the source of the movement and glimmer: tens of thousands of mahogany-red wood ants working to build their nest. Their movement is mesmerising. It is a constant dance of busyness that might seem like utter chaos were it not for the sense of purpose each ant conveys as part of a harmonious whole. I lean my ear close to the pile. The sound I hear is like the faint click-click of a vast and unimaginably complex machine, tirelessly calculating an endless algorithm.

At the end of the bridleway The Fingle Bridge Inn has a different kind of buzz. Pints and cream teas are being enjoyed on a terrace beside the river while dogs and children roam freely. One Labrador is being reunited with her owner after tagging along with the wrong set of kids: Is this one yours?” Someone asks.She jumped into our boot!”  It’s mid-afternoon and I get the feeling that everyone is drifting home after long walks, pub-lunches and hide-and-seek in the trees.

My hiding and seeking is done too. I’m back where I began, but I’m also somewhere different. I set off where all of us set off far too often: preoccupied by the complications of life, but I’ve finished somewhere else. Time with trees does that to you, moving you into a calmer headspace. The beneficial effect of nature immersion on mental health has been well documented. It forms the basis of Shinrin Yoku – which translates as forest bathing – a therapeutic practice that grew in Japan in the 1980’s and is now practiced worldwide. As more and more studies conclude that trees can be healers, it may not be long before a walk in the woods is available on prescription to be
taken whenever required.

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