Exploring ancient woodlands

Jim Crumley reveals why visiting ancient woodlands is good for you


Ancient woods make demands on us: walk slower, be quieter, be still, listen to the age-old wisdom of trees. Age matters in nature, fosters continuity. Continuity matters in nature, fosters stable ecosystems. Stable ecosystems matter in nature, maximise opportunities.
The most stable ecosystems are the oldest, the least disturbed, the most natural, the ancient. ‘Ancient’ woods are, by the definition of our own era, older than AD1600. Why 1600? Because after that date, woodland planting began and has become commonplace ever since, so before that date the chances are that woods evolved by nature’s hand and at nature’s pace, like the mountains and the oceans.
Let me introduce you to a colossus of the wildwood, a Scots pine 24m (80ft) from root to crown, wider than it is high; limbs like the cantilevers of the Forth Bridge, roots like elephant legs and swathed in bark like pachyderm hide. It is somewhere between 300 and 400 years old. Either way, it knew wolves.
In the fork where the trunk divides there is a natural bowl. Over the decades it slowly filled with the flotsam of the forest – blown scraps of trees, moss, lichens, bits of beetle, perhaps the remains of a crested tit that froze to death one grim winter, broken eggshells. Rain, sleet, snow, frost, sunlight and raw time rendered all that down into a small compost heap.


The ebb and flow of the woodland
A dozen years ago, or maybe 20 or 30, a rowan seed fell into the soup, dropped there by a passing waxwing as it tried
and ultimately failed to outpace a sparrowhawk. The rowan is now 3m (10ft) tall and dead straight, a memorial to the tenacity of its tribe, to the waxwing, and to the often surprising ingenuity of the ebb and flow of life in ancient woodland.
The word ‘pinewood’ is, like ‘oakwood’, ‘birchwood’ or ‘hazelwood’, an inadequate shorthand, for none of these species grows in isolation. A good pinewood commands birch, oak, rowan, holly and aspen to its cause, with alders along its riverbanks, willows in its bogs, and everywhere among the pines a thick, green, resinous, low-lying, web-glittering fleece of juniper. In this, the most heart-stirring of all woodland seasons, the pines warm themselves before autumn fires, and wherever the burning gold glories of aspens crop up, they steal every scene.
Aspens seem to have got under the skin of north Britons for a long time. In old Scots it is the quaking ash, in Gaelic critheann or critheach, from ‘crith’, meaning tremble, and its Latin classification is Populus tremula, the trembling poplar. Other local names include ‘old wives’ tongues’ and ‘trembling nose’. The implication is of some sinister aspect to the whispering restlessness of the leaves. An old Highland legend has it that it was because the cross on Calvary was made of aspen wood.
Alas for legend, the aspen likes cool, damp conditions and a fertile, mineral soil, which is why you tend to find it beside water, and why you don’t find it in the hot, dry Holy Land. Yet the Calvary tradition is stubborn.
“Clods and stones and other missiles, as well as curses, are hurled by the people of Uist because it was used to make the cross on which Christ was crucified,” says Alexander Carmichael in his 19th century Carmina Gadelica. “No crofter or fisherman would use aspen wood for any purpose.” Why Uist of all places was so militantly anti-aspen is not explained, but the tree grows well in the Western Isles.
Yet I have met many people who are uneasy in old woods, who think Scots pines are ‘cold’ trees, who shudder at yews, and reserve a special distaste for chaotic looking old hazel woods. This may explain why so many survive down the Atlantic seaboard, more or less undisturbed since the ice relented and the first seeds washed ashore from God knows where. If you want a glimpse of truly ancient wood, go west and stand where clusters of hazels wade down to the high tide line and otters dart among the roots.
But I have never met anyone anywhere who does not love an oakwood.


The mighty oakwood
The oak is the symbolic strength of our ancient woodland. From the West Highlands to the Lake District to the south coast, oaks muster in heroic gatherings. Their benevolence is limitless. Nothing else the length and breadth of
the land sustains so many species of nature as an oakwood. And such was the people’s affinity with it for thousands of years that something of that relationship survives to one extent or another in all of us. In the 21st century, an old oakwood can be like a bridge between ourselves and nature, a bridge by which understanding may still cross.
I like to write surrounded by my raw material. The best place to write down an oak wood is in an oak wood. So often, if you walk deep into a wild landscape, then sit and be still, the natives of that place treat you like a piece of the landscape. I was doing just that, and had been still with my back to an oak tree for over an hour when I realised that something in the immediate surroundings had just changed. Stillness teaches you that kind of thing. The only obvious movement was an orange tip butterfly crossing a patch of sunlight, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. As I watched it suddenly change course a yard off the ground, there was a new movement dark and low down, something the shade of dark wood and mushrooms. Then the dark wood lifted a few inches, the mushrooms materialised into ears and I was contemplating the black-eyed stare of a pine marten at 20 paces.
Then the orange tip was back, flew down to within a few inches of the marten’s nose, and the animal’s eyes followed that instead, but it danced upwards and away and vanished among trees, and the pine marten gave me one more unconcerned glance and ambled quietly away in the direction of the butterfly. I was party to one of the oldest encounters in the wildwood. Man and marten have been meeting each other in circumstances like these for thousands of years. It was like being tapped lightly on the shoulder by the history of our land.
‘Tis autumn, find yourself an ancient wood, sit still in it, and listen to the wisdom of trees.

Jim’s favourite woods
This extraordinary 10,000-acre reserve of diverse species climbs to 2,000ft.
Derwentwater Great Wood, near Keswick, Cumbria
This National Trust-owned oakwood is set among sublime scenery.
Sunart Oakwoods, Argyll coast
Conservation and local woodland industry work in ground-breaking harmony at this community-owned wood.
Rockingham Forest, Peterborough
This Forestry Commission wood has been a National Nature Reserve since 2000 for the richness of tree species and associated vigorous plant and insect life.
Brede High Woods, East Sussex
This large Woodland Trust reserve features 10 separate ancient woods.