Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Wistman's Wood

Wistman's Wood in winter, by Alex Jane
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

I don't often regret not running a car, but occasionally you see places that look fascinating, yet are fairly difficult to access by public transport. I saw a feature on one, Wistman's Wood, in yesterday's Western Morning News.

Wistman's Wood is a remarkable stunted oak copse on Dartmoor, one of  a handful of relicts of the moor's original high-level woodlands. As you can see the from image, the trees grow between moss-covered boulders, and the wood is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and National Conservation Review site. I fancy visiting in the summer, when it does look just about feasible to make a day trip by cross-Dartmoor bus (it's a short walk from Two Bridges). Check out Wistman's Wood ("A study of this ancient miniature oak woodland on Dartmoor, by Andrew Westcott") for a good overview.

It's deservedly much-photographed - see Google images - but has been a site of interest for centuries, in large part due to its unusual landscape attracting a deal of folklore about druids and fairies. The Wistman's Wood page at the Legendary Dartmoor site summarises, with a sampler of historical accounts and the literature it has inspired. It appears in hundreds of 19th century accounts; the one in a letter to Robert Southey in Anna Eliza Bray's 1838 Traditions, legends, superstitions, and sketches of Devonshire is probably the most comprehensive exposition of the 19th century view on its mythology.

There is a local connection here: Eden Phillpotts visited the wood, describing its autumn scenery in his 1903 My Devon Year:

Guarded by great hills that fold each upon the other and fade into distance; set in granite and briar, brake-fern and the nodding wood-rush, Wistman's Wood lies basking under September sunshine to the song of Dart. Upon a south-facing slope the hoary dwarfs that go to make this forest grow, and each parent oak of the ancient throng was old before the Conquest. Time and fire have slain, yet the little forest plays its part in the spring splendour of every year, in the leafy and musical hours of high Summer, and in autumnal pageants as the centuries roll. Here, under the Dartmoor hills to-day, sunshine kisses the granite to silver, brightens each withered and distorted trunk, makes the leaf shine, and sets rowan berries glowing through the ambient green. These aged oaks lack not virility, for I see their ancient crowns besprinkled with bright leaflets of the second Spring, with tufts of ruddy foliage, like smiles on the face of frosty age.

Fruit, too, is borne, and the acorns, flattened somewhat within their cups, are healthy and sweet enough; so the legend that Wistman's harvest is sterile may be easily disproved from the place itself; for quick eyes, peering here within the tangle of undergrowth, or amid the deep interstices of the stony avalanche from which this forest rises, shall find infant trees ascending to the sapling stage, in full vigour of promise. Others there are of larger growth, and one may discover oaks at all ages, from the tiny seedling sprung of last year's acorn to the patriarch that was a sapling when the she-wolf made her home here and killed the stone-man's cattle by night. Mice and birds convey the acorns to great distances from the wood, and upon adjacent heaths, a mile from their birthplace, I have found the husks of the fruit.

Granite and oak are clothed with lichens of a colour exactly similar, and to the imagination, seen thus jagged and grey together, one appears as enduring as the other. The old trees, whose average height is scarcely fifteen feet, are distorted, cramped, twisted, and knotted by time. Their mossy limbs, low spread, make a home for the bilberry, whose purple fruit ripens beside the acorns; for the polypody that fringes each gnarled limb with foliage; for the rabbits, who leap from the stones to the flat boughs spread upon them; and for the red fox, who, sunning himself in some hollow of moss and touchwood, wakes, as a wanderer assails his ear or nose, and vanishes, like a streak of cinnamon light, into the depths of the wood. Here, too, the adder rears her brood; the crow, with intermittent croak, flies heavily; a little hawk, poised in the sky, seeks the lizard below, or the young plover in the marsh upon the hills.

A great hush and peace brood over Wistman's Wood to-day. As yet, but one pinch of Autumn has transformed the leaf, reddened the briar, or powdered the fern with gold. In the hollows a diamond dew still sparkles though the hour is noon, and the sweet, sharp breath of September whispers along the wood. Still every ancient crown wears the deep green of Summer, and a stray honeysuckle blossoms, though its berries are turning scarlet; but the tender, white corydalis and other flowers of Summer have vanished; the wood-rush has its sharp leaves amber-pointed; the heather fades; and the wrinkled wood-sage likewise wanes away.

Below there races Dart, cherry-coloured after a freshet. Her foam flashes and twinkles, her glassy planes image the sun in stars and beams, and she signals to the old wood above and laughs, herself older than the oaks yet blessed with the eternal youth of flowing waters. Far away, beyond the granite mass of Crow Tor moorwards, a darkness lies upon the hill and moves not. There Western Dart is born, and bubbles and trickles through the sponges of peat from wells deep hidden beneath them. Very musical amid these echoing gorges she winds by granite stairways; and above her, on the huge hillbosoms of grey and sunlit green, acres of dead grassblades weave a veil over the living herbage—a veil that changes with every magic light from dawn or midday, from sunset, or the radiance of the moon. Here great cloud-shadows roll and spread, deepen and die, climb the steep, breast the stone, and adorn each undulation with flying garments, that vary in their texture from opacity of royal purple to the film and dream-colour of brief hazes drawn between earth and sun. Now the distance shines golden in a frame of shade; anon darkness spreads to the blue horizon, and the river and adjacent hills are all aglow; then light and shadow dislimn and interlimn upon the great heaths and hills. Detail, invisible in sunshine, wakes over the scattered stone, and sphagnum-clad bogs gleam under cloud-shadows, while elsewhere, as the veil is torn away and the light bathes all again, new visions of rounded elevations, wild places, and solitary stones start into sight upon each sunny plane. Detail of the spring gorse, now jade-green; flame of the autumnal furze; light of the ling; feast of tones and undertones; mosaic of all tawny and rufous colours are here; and the scene changes its hue beneath each shadow, even as the river's song changes its cadence at the pressure of the breeze, waxing and waning fitfully.

The wood of Wistman partakes of these many harmonies—adds its sudden green to the hillside— lies there a home of mystery, a cradle of legend, a thing of old time, unique and unexampled, save in Devon itself, all England over.

View Larger Map - the wood is about mile north of the map pin.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. One of my favourite places ... especially in winter, and especially on a foggy day :-)

    I originally disciovered it through John Fowles' wonderful The tree*, though I have never been able to see the elements of malign forboding which he finds there.
    *Cape, 1969 (currently 978-0099282839)