Tales of the Wild Wood

Day out: Cookham Dean, Berkshire

Roly Smith follows in the pawprints of Mole, Ratty and Badger to explore the ‘Wild Wood’ described in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows

 

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What lies over there?” asked the Mole, waving a paw towards a background of woodland that darkly framed the water-meadows on one side of the river.  “That? O, that’s just the Wild Wood,” said the Rat shortly. “We don’t go there very much, we river-bankers.

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The woods between Bisham Abbey and Cookham Dean are widely accepted to be the originals for the sinister Wild Wood in Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows.

Originally part of the ancient Royal Forest of Windsor, Bisham and Quarry Woods are now managed by the Woodland Trust. The mainly broadleafed trees include many stately, 400-year-old beeches. The rich flora, including rare woodland orchids, primrose, lady’s bedstraw and the misty blue drifts of bluebells carpeting the floor in spring, make them one of the UK’s most colourful ancient woodlands. 

The billowing wild woods lie on the southern scarp above the flood plain of the Thames and offer spectacular views north to the rolling Chiltern Hills.

Magical Hillside
“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,” said the Rat. “And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.”

Unfortunately, the Wide World now intrudes on the peace of the Wild Wood – as the traffic on the A404 thunders alongside the trees. But there’s still something magical about this wild hillside of beech and bluebells, where ancient sunken lanes and a network of paths and bridleways provide enticing trails. With just the tiniest stretch of the imagination, those unseen scuffles among the fallen leaves could be those vicious weasels and stoats that so terrified the innocent Mole.  

Grahame grew up in the pleasant Thameside village of Cookham Dean, returning to live there as an adult. Inspired by the nearby woods and the willow-studded, lazy middle reaches of the Thames, he originally penned his classic tale of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad – and those fearsome Wild Wood creatures – as bedtime reading for his troubled son, whom he nicknamed Mouse. 

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Stanley Spencer, one of the greatest British painters of the 20th century, also lived in Cookham, calling it “a village in heaven”. He set many of his paintings among the people and buildings of the village.