By tomwareham, Feb 28 2017 11:13AM
I have been neglecting the woods, and I have been neglecting this blog. In truth, we have been decorating and the weather has been unappealing. But bad weather is not an excuse for not going outdoors. It is a lame pretension, a weak self-justification for clinging to comfort and the artificiality of manufactured entertainment. To be outdoors is be alive. So why have I been neglecting it?
Perhaps I am being a trifle unfair to myself, I have been making the effort – some conservation work for the local Wildlife Trust, and one day when I managed to turn up for the monthly conservation day in the woods. But the problem is...well, it has been January, and it has been February. The two months of the year which offer the least joy.
So, this morning, decorating finally complete, and with a window in the overcast sky, I set off for an early morning walk in my local woods – Oxleas Woods in South East London. I am privileged to live so close to an area of ancient woodland, even if it is embedded in the suburban sprawl of south-east London. Oxleas Woods consists of about 72 hectares (180 acres) of ancient woodland. It’s designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and parts of it are considered to be 8,000 years old. That’s an idea that is hard to grasp, but not so the threat the woodland has faced in the past and continues to face in the future. Around 20 years ago the government were hell bent on driving a motorway through the eastern side of the woodland as part of the never ending effort to make life easier for car and lorry drivers. A campaign, fought fiercely and heroically by local people managed to deter the government from carrying out its threat, but as the London traffic is always growing, the danger to the woodland is always there. So appreciating and valuing the woods are important. Important to me and to the many others who walk there on a regular basis.
We call it Oxleas Woods, but in reality the area consist of several woods lying adjacent to one another. On the western side of Shooters Hill lies Castle Woods, named after Severndroog Castle, less a castle than a brick tower, a folly built in 1784 in commemoration of a naval battle fought off the Malabar Coast in 1755. Immediately to the north of this lies the misnamed Eltham Common, actually a fine stretch of woodland which is often overlooked by walkers. East of Castle Wood lies, Jack Wood, and then, on the far side of a broad sweep of open meadow, Oxleas Wood itself. To the south of this, across the busy Rochester Way, lies Shepherdleas Wood, another neglected area of woodland.
So, I am lucky. Five minutes from my front door and I am in the woods. Despite the bleakness of January, it is still a good time to be outdoors. If I don’t have time to get down to the Sevenoaks Weald or the Darent Valley, then the woods provide a good environment for walking, and for thinking. January is the month of mud and sticks, when there is a preponderance of grey blanket skies and cold winds. Snow can change all that, transforming the landscape and the local woods. But we have not had that yet this year. Instead a walk through the woods has been an exploration of rain-darkened trunks and claw-like branches scratching against the sky to the rhythm of the wind. The frost and rain fermenting last Autumn’s leaf-fall to a black slop churned, over the winter weeks, by walking boot and dog pad. You walk on it precariously, ever cautious for the sudden slip on the clay underneath, arms waving frantically, heart leaping. It is not such enjoyable walking.
But in February things start to change. The grey squirrels have paired up, and scamper about playing follow-my-leader, scratching their way in spirals up the oaks, and prancing from bough to branch-tip, springing across the void to trampoline, one after the other, to the next tree. This morning the sun had risen enough to slant brightly across the wooded hillside. It is a good moment. The sun strikes through the leafless wood, highlighting the ranks of trees, washing gold and yellow-green up the trunks of the oaks. Oaks predominate in these woods. They like the London Clay which crowns Shooters Hill. But there are service trees and birch, and in other, more low lying areas where the choked springs gather in more boggy ground, there are alders. In Oxleas Wood itself, there is evidence of former hazel coppicing, and in many places Rhododendrons have established themselves.
On such a day as this, as you walk through the woods, you become more aware of the shifting planes of the woodland moving with you; it is like a gigantic dance taking place all round you. The deep dimension of the woodland moves around you, the perspectives and vistas forever changing. The trees shift their position in relation to one another, the posture of the branches unwinds like the gesticulation of a dancer moving silently on a stage. In February, you become aware of the shape of the hillside itself, the little dells and undulations which are hidden in summer by the thickets of bramble and buckler fern. The slanting sun highlights these features, revealing momentarily the hidden places of the woodland.
Castle Wood and Jack Wood have noisy tenants, the ring-necked parakeets. It is almost impossible to avoid them now. Their screeching drowns out the delicate voices of many of the native woodland species. In February especially they become raucous, screeching in support of their aggressive seizure of nesting sites – holes in trees, many of which had previously been worked by woodpeckers. The green devils were welcomed at first as an attractive novelty. But some twenty years after their arrival in the woods, they have become an irritation. Their coarse voices competing with all other species. It even drowns out the crawking of our carrion crows – a flock of whom usually gather in the meadow towards evening. And when the one answers the other, the magpies and jays often join in, drowning out the more modest voices of the smaller woodland birds. But if you pay attention, you can hear the song thrushes, and robins, the tits and finches as they lay their own little claim to territory in the woodland. And as you walk there comes the thin chittering of the wren from the holly and blackthorn beside the footpaths – and the corner of your eye catches the furtive, darting flight as it watches warily as you pass.
In the meadow, crocus and snowdrops have pushed up through the grass like little flicks of colour from a careless artists palette, and from the café on the hill, the North Downs are a blue rim to the London basin. It is a good position from which to appreciate the sky. Londoners rarely look up. Living in the city, you are often too preoccupied with what is on the ground or in the road or in the nearest shop window. Sometimes the only sky you see is that river of blue or grey channelled between the office blocks. But here on the south side of Shooters Hill, you can feel the breeze on your face, see the weather sailing towards you on the south-west wind, see the cloud formations unrolling across the sky. And today they are small white puffs on the blue - fragments which have broken away from the larger, grey rain-filled bergs in the distance. In the early sunshine, the towers of Croydon glow like the vision of some form of celestial city in a religious painting. Ironically, Croydon often catches the sun like this. Conversely, it disappears spectacularly in advance warning of approaching squalls of rain. It is a vista which can lift the heart from the sludge of the City. A view which affirms freedom is out there
But as much as I could stand here all day and gaze out towards Kent, it is time to get back. Other writing tasks await.