A walk in the woods,

but first I passed the eventful hoarding at the end of the street. I was pleased to see that someone had torn a strip off one of the posters so that it read THE EAR INDEX. (I think it’s a film.) Later, on the Central line near Leytonstone the Index was set at Extreme as the torture of steel set even the dog on edge. This noise, with its hysterical aggression, surpassed even the Bakerloo between Piccadilly Circus and the Embankment, which has an awful sadness to it.

We got the tube to Grange Hill and walked to Hainault Forest. Most of the forest was felled and uprooted in 1851 to make way for arable land which gave poor yields and in its turn soon gave way to housing, but enough remains, mostly oak and hornbeam, so that you can leave the beaten track and feel far from the city; you can imagine the trees going on and on for miles. But they don’t. There are not much more than a hundred acres. which as we know from Winnie the Pooh is only one big field. So Essex keeps breaking through.

wood rots, plastic doesn’t

For what follows I am greatly indebted to Oliver Rackham. See also skylarks As with the better known enclosures of agricultural common land, it needed Acts of Parliament to do away with forests where local people had rights, for grazing, charcoal burning, fuel and timber. The Act of 1851 led to an instant ‘disafforestation’. This was economic and moral progress: one Victorian writer described forests as the ‘nest and conservatory of sloth, idleness and misery’. There’s a wheel that’s turned. Nothing more virtuous than a forest these days. But the destruction of 90% of Hainault can be seen as a turning point: it became a scandal and inspired the successful campaign to save Epping.

Oliver Rackham was still angry about the destruction of Hainault when he wrote The History of the Countryside in 1986. Where most of us just see trees, he sees or as a historian remembers a great complexity of relationships between people and forest. Hornbeam for example means hard wood: horn because horn is hard and beam from the German/Anglo-Saxon word for tree. Its wood is too hard to work to be used in general carpentry, but was used for parquet flooring, piano keys, gear pegs, coach wheels, chess pieces, tool handles; and it was often pollarded to provide hardwood poles. Here are some old hornbeam pollards in Hainault:

The contempt for forests felt by one hard-working, respectable Victorian writer is of course only one of the myths. Its opposite is Robin Hood and Sherwood forest. This gives us a fantasy of freedom, a democratic freedom in which the virtuous aristocrat unites with the common people to fight against the an oppressive state and its corrupt functionaries. (And all will be well when good King Richard returns from the crusades to take back the throne from wicked King John.) And it’s true that the common people had rights in the royal forests. The king didn’t even own the royal forests. He had rights to deer and timber, the local nobility usually owned the land, and the affairs of the forest were administered by Forest courts. These were not as cruel as they are often described. They imposed fines for poaching or the theft of timber usually in line with the defendant’s means. The notorious mantraps and savage punishments for trespassers and poachers belong to a much later period, from the Black Act of 1723, from a time when feudal rights had decayed and, as Rackham puts it, ‘multiple land uses were despised; land ownership was was coming to be regarded as conferring an absolute right to do what one pleases with one’s property’. Agricultural improvement was the fashion and the improvers cared neither for the king’s hart or the widow’s geese. Rackham has this nice phrase to express the feudal pact and I thought it must be a quotation, but if it is, Google doesn’t recognise it. It’s hard for us now to realise that there was a time when commoners had rights which land owners couldn’t touch (hence of course the need for hundreds of Acts of Parliament to legalise enclosures,) but it gives a little bit of reality to myths of Merrie England and Robin Hood. I’m reminded of how in Poland and Russia, Yugoslavia, Greece and France, partisans fought the Nazis from secret bases in the forests.

I went for a walk in Shorne country park near Gravesend recently. In those woods there are big sweet chestnut coppices; in some woods in Kent the poles are still split to make fencing but there the coppices seemed all overgrown. In the cafe there’s a shop, and seeing a sign that said Products of Our Kentish Woods or similar I went to have a look. No piano keys or gear cogs, not even any nicely turned bowls. All they had was big bags of firewood. Still not quite illegal.

Those entertaining lists of redundant uses for various kinds of timber can make one nostalgic for an imagined richness of life centred on the woods. Now the chestnuts of Shorne are just pretty. Until the 1960’s clay to make bricks was dug out in one area of the woods making a landscape of unexpected hollows and gulleys, some now ponds, also pretty. Information boards inform you about this history.

old chestnut coppice at Shorne now managed for firewood

But they did have one local product for sale in the cafe: honey. There are also wild areas of Greece where now the only agricultural workers are bees.

And there is one revival of ancient practice in the woods at Hainault. They’re not there in the winter months, but a sign said that cattle have been re-introduced. When the grazing is carefully managed their presence benefits the woods by keeping down brambles, preventing dense thickets of tree seedlings, trampling bracken etc.

On my way home I was pleased to see that progress had been made with the poster at the end of my road. A day or two later and the hooligan wind had joined in:

Manor road, N16, a quiet residential area.

The roar of the gale has destroyed the Ear Factor!

This entry was posted in and the city, mountains, flowers, landscapes, walks. Bookmark the permalink.

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