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Personal Story: A wood of one's own

What I learned when I bought a forest instead of a house.

Back in the 1980s a rather posh girlfriend asked me, not entirely seriously, “Do you have land?” Improbably, I was able to answer, yes I did – though not the sweeps of ancestral lawn she may have had in mind. Just a few months before, I’d blown a royalties windfall on 16 acres of unkempt woodland in the Chilterns.

It was a cavalier gesture, given that I didn’t even own a house at the time, and to this day I’m not entirely sure what my motivation was. It was partly nostalgic, I’m sure. I’d spent a good deal of my childhood running wild in an abandoned landscape park at the end of our garden, and the thought of going feral among the trees again was intoxicating. But it was also an intellectual longing. Over the years I’d learned a bit about ancient woods, how they were life-rafts out of the past, monuments to lost social relations between people and trees. They were being irreparably destroyed by industrial forestry and farming. The Robin Hood radical in me fantasised about rescuing a patch, and returning the Greenwood to the People.

And then, one May afternoon, there it was. A notice pinned to a beech tree in the lane: “WOOD FOR SALE”, like a poster advertising the circus was in town. Down the slope, through towering ash trees, the fading bluebells looked like dry ice. Inside, it proved more than I had dared dream of. Rare ferns garlanded the medieval wood-banks. There were badger setts of dynastic complexity. And it was in trouble, of a kind. Parts had been gutted of timber in the war, and the last owner had interplanted the remains with ghastly and inappropriate matchwood poplars. It was perfect for my mission, to establish a “community wood” and somehow restore both its aboriginal wildness and its parish meaning.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how this would involve all kinds of entanglement with issues of ownership and power. Ever since I was first turfed out of a wood at gunpoint, aged 11, I’ve had no time for the idea of “private” land. Yet to disown Hardings Wood, as it was called, I first had to own it, and play the property game. I rapidly discovered the different inflections of possessiveness felt about the place in the adjacent village. I was phoned up by a taxidermist, outraged that his clandestine trapping operations might be interrupted. The master of the local foxhounds believed a couple of whiskies might persuade me to let in the hunt. A few local cynics imagined that the tag “community” woodland presaged coach parties from Islington.

But gradually the village came onside. We all gathered there, plus a few wood-wise friends, one autumnal Sunday, and realised we hadn’t a clue what to do. There were, at that time, very few precedents for community action in woods. So we talked. People shared their individual visions for the place, their prejudices and arboreal loves.

We weren’t after the kind of domineering management plan beloved of conservation organisations, but gradually a kind of philosophy emerged, something loose, reciprocal, ecocentric. And over the months and years that followed, it worked itself out in the wood. A pond was discovered and cleared. Volunteers helped choose pockets of the wood that might benefit from more light, and set about thinning them. We sold the logs to local pubs (and sent a truckload to the Greenham Common Peace Camp). A network of footpaths appeared simply as a result of people treading out their desire lines along deer and badger tracks. Slowly the wood became a public space for the village again. Walkers returned – and the local kids. On Ascension Day the children from the local primary school marched across the fields to sing hymns under the newly opened beech leaves, then romped in the undergrowth like fox cubs.

I had my own time in the wood, separate from the community project. Mainly, I just wandered about, looking at things. I could spot when an individual ash seedling had put on an inch of growth, and where badgers had rootled the previous night. Occasionally I intervened in a fussy way, trimming brambles where they obscured a primrose clump, and lopping sycamores that were shading ashes and ashes shading oaklings, as if I had certain knowledge of the proper hierarchy of trees. I usually deplored this kind of tinkering, but ownership nourishes a corrosive sense of licence. EM Forster bought a wood in Surrey in the 1920s, and complained that possessing Piney Copse “makes me feel heavy. Property does have this effect…[It] makes its owner feel that he ought to do something to it.”

My hubris was underlined by the wood asserting that it too was an active member of the community, doing things for itself. Trees regenerated naturally in the gaps we created. Fallow deer moved in, from a nearby herd. I once saw a pure white stag resting up in the bluebells, as improbable a sight as a unicorn. In bad weather the wood became a dynamo of new possibilities. Heavy downpours sent flash floods rasping through the wood, moving whole clumps of plants to new locations. For a few hours I would have an upland stream on my patch.

I moved to Norfolk in 2002, and with no wish to become an absentee landlord, sold Hardings Wood at cost to a village trust – a sadness for me but a boon for the wood, which now has a written constitution and a guarantee of open access. It continues to prosper, as a parish amenity and a self-willed wild space. We all learned a lot from it, about the transactions of both human and natural communities. We weren’t managing (how I hate that term with its echoes of the biblical “dominion over nature”) but participating in the wood, hoping to gain a sense of being part of the place, and become modest forest creatures ourselves. 

“Turning the Boat for Home: A Life Writing About Nature” by Richard Mabey is published by Chatto & Windus

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special