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.