It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear a woodpecker in a wood. It depends on the circumstances I suppose. In the last week of January, I was in a small wood on the edge of a housing estate in Lewisham – Hillcrest Wood. The sound of a great spotted woodpecker drumming isn’t yet uncommon, even in London, but here, as you will see, it felt unexpected, though enormously welcome.
Here were ancient trees, darkling trees, summer and winter trees, ancient oaks, looming pines, explosive cherries, laugh out loud at the wonder of it all trees. In one case a massive old volume was open on a page showing a 19th century photograph of Beech tree. Especially fascinating was the tree’s position on the side of a sunken lane, which meant that its multiple tangled roots were exposed to the world, in a glorious, twisting, serpentine display.
For the most part Holdstock carefully builds, then maintains, a creeping sense of edgy unease rather than venturing into full on horror, but there’s one point late on, where he creates an almost Lovecraftian vision of weirdness, to provide a genuine moment of skin-crawling alarm. This occurs when Stephen and Keeton reach an internal border within the wood, between one zone and another, a threshold marked by a peculiarly grotesque tree:
‘In the middle of the glade stood an imposing tree, its swell of foliage broad and dense, reaching close to the ground. On the far side, however…it was blighted and grotesquely parasitized. Its foliage was brown and rotting, and great ropes of creeper and sucking plant parasites like a net of tendrils…at times the tree quivered and great ripples of writing activity coursed down the sucker net, back to the tree line…The very ground itself was a mess of roots and bindweed, and strange sticky protusions that reached inches into the air and waved, as if searching for prey…’
Nationally, many, if not quite all, orchards have vanished; having been abandoned or grubbed up because there’s no longer any money in them.
Yet, in Lambeth one inspired and dedicated group of people have set out to plant a series of new orchards, filling South London with saplings of hope.
Is it possible to be haunted by a place? I think that I may be. In this case it is Ashley Vale in Bristol – an exceptional urban oasis caught between the tracks, containing allotments, woods, hilltops and a pub next door to a farm.
Brandon Hill aside, other hills in Bristol have their own distinctively languid charm and grace, such as Park Street, while a few are simply brutes.
One of these is the short and abrupt St Michael’s Hill, stretching from Upper Maudlin Street to Cotham. The lower slopes are dotted with attractive iron street furniture, step-work and historic buildings – including the pretty Colston Alms Houses – but don’t let these architectural gewgaws deceive you – it’s a bastard.
It gives me hope a place like this. A small brown sign outside the Queen’s Hotel, Church Road the only local clue. Stambourne Woods this way, down that gravel drive and through the gate. On the house next door another sign gives red framed warning of a moose who isn’t there. This sliver of…