I stand on the long, straight track that cuts through the heart of St. Leonard’s Forest. I recently looked for it on a map from the 1870s. I thought it might have been a 20th Century addition to ease forestry operations. To my surprise, it was there cutting through what today remains a heavily wooded landscape.
Looking around, it’s probably even more wooded now. In the 1870s, the woodland was likely oak and beech with holly underneath. Where pines now stand abandoned to nature, heathland probably expanded over more open areas.
The name ‘forest’ actually denotes open land where laws once controlled gathering of natural resources and the hunting of animals, with brutal consequences for rule breakers. ”Aforestation’ was the implementation of Forest Law on more land, often at the expense of entire vilages of people.
At one point in history, a third of England was subject to Forest Law. It was a landscape of oppression, violently enforced by England’s Norman conquerers after 1066. The management and control of deer was a key part of the Norman forest landscape.
The track is endless in this crepuscular light. At the edges ditches are stuffed with bracken which has yellowed in the August heatwave. Sudden explosions of heather interrupt the vertebra-like leaves of the bracken.
Ahead I can see two people or animals. The light is fading, the sun has slipped beyond the pines. As I get closer I can see one is a roe deer. The other figure has gone. The deer are grazing the edges of the ditches, stopping to check on my progress. I’m moving slowly, but hurrying with my hands to change the lens on my little camera to one with more reach. I get closer but it doesn’t fear me. It turns and walks away into the dark woodland.
Walking further down the old track, a pathway, broad and green appears on my left. Two fallow deer are looking at me. They must have been grazing with the calm roe I have just passed, but they are less accepting. They scarper, one zig-zagging and leaping to distract what is a would-be predator.
Then, from the bushes, a roe deer has been startled and lurches across the path into the undergrowth that the fallow deer has disappeared into. Squashed into that small green lane, that burst of animal limbs felt almost like watching a stampede.
A recent walk along the the South Downs on a hazy day with hawthorns. They tough it out in some of the most intensively managed landscapes the UK has to offer.
A hawthorn stands alone, overlooking the folding Downs as they run deeper into West Sussex.
This hawthorn faces out over the Arun Valley towards Pulborough. The Low Weald is hidden by mist in the north.
Along the South Downs Way the trees show signs of pathway lopping, or an extreme politeness to the thousands of users of the National Trail.
A hawthorn obscuring a village built along spring-lines. The Arun snakes away in the background.
A tanker sits in an open field. I think that’s a hawthorn splodged against the South Downs Way towards Amberley.
A monoculture of wheat (I think) with a single oak on the horizon. Wheat has been grown in the South Downs for thousands of years. It has only become mechanised and intensified in the past 100 years. We may idealise the days of horse and plough in the South Downs but it was a harsh and unforgiving existence. Few people could cope with it today. There were also fewer people to feed.
There was a single break of light over the Downs. The hazy nature of the day makes the photo look like a painting. My friend said it was good that the simple things matter to me, which apparently wasn’t an insult. I agree.
In September 2017 I visited the Pálava Hills in south-eastern Czechia, close to the border with Austria. Beginning at the Archeopark Museum in Pavlov, where an exhibition of some of the most important Paleolithic finds ever were on show, and finishing in the town of Mikulov, I try to capture the world of our hunter gatherer ancestors, the Gravettians.
I take the road up towards Děvin, a hill where Děvičky, a ruined 13th century castle faces out towards Austria. From the surrounding vineyards sounds the booming of gas cannisters designed to deter flocking starlings from eating the grapes fruiting at this time of year. A church stands in the heart of Pavlov, and a small murmuration of starlings swoops and morphs in search of a perch. The faux-shotgun fire is working. I pause at a bench overlooking Dolní Věstonice, and north of this a village now flooded after the damming of the river Dyje. Long before the flooding, some 30,000 years ago, a tribe of people known as the Gravettians kept watch from the hills with small encampments and fires. When herds of reindeer and roaming mammoths entered the valley they lit fires to signal that the time to hunt had arrived.
Down in the village of Pavlov the Archeo Park Museum protrudes from the grass bank like fragments of chalk, perhaps an attempt to reflect what’s kept inside – some of the most revealing human artefacts ever to be found. In this area of the Czech Republic, now known as Czechia, evidence has been found to show that hunter gatherers, the Gravettians, lived in these hills approximately 30,000 years ago, disappearing when a climactic cooling took place 8,000 years later.
The items on show in the exhibition include a copy of the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. This sculpture is of a woman with large, elongated breasts and wide hips. Its meaning is unknown but it suggests some ritualistic celebration of the female form and fertility. There are many such small sculptures to have been found but more often broken into pieces, possibly smashed as part of a ritual. The Venus was found almost complete. Yet more intriguing is the presence of a fingerprint said to be that of a child between the age of 7 and 15. Was this a gift in mourning from a father or family member to a child after the death of their mother?
Whatever the explanation is, a ceramics culture appears well ingrained in the world of the Gravettians, something unknown until the discoveries were made here in Moravia. The exhibition, lodged deep at the foot of the Pálava Hills, brings to life the human history of this Carpathian outcrop. Here I learned about the megafauna that both predated and sustained the human tribes in what will have been a cold and unforgiving landscape, one that has much changed from that of the Paleolithic hunter gatherers. In Dolní Věstonice, flooded after the damming of the Dyje, only the village church remains above water on a small island, along with the skeletal remains of trees that drowned with the intentional flood. Red-footed falcons, ospreys and other birds of prey are said to perch on those dead branches. To look out from this point is to see an industrialised landscape of crops and vineyards.
The Gravettian hunter gatherers used wood for specific purposes, and they had the ability to prepare flints and stones for weapons. The use of wood suggests an understanding of woodland management, at least how trees will grow and which species is most useful for a specific task. The permanent settlements of the Gravettians were constructed from timber. Ash and hazel were surely the preferred material for a spear, if they did indeed grow in the area at that time, as they produce straight and flexible poles unlikely to snap upon impact, therefore able to be picked up and chucked again. Both can be split by the flints and other sharp tools they had with ease, similar to their use in making early wooden hay rakes. As for stones or flints, the Pálava Hills are part of the Carpathian massif, formed in the Mesozoic, no more than 250 million-years-ago, from the residue of the oceans that once washed here. Limestone is simple to quarry, as a sedimentary rock it is younger and subtler that igneous or metamorphic rocks. But the colder conditions of the time would have made that difficult, therefore the animals they hunted would have been crucial in all the resources they provided.
The river Dyje runs south of Pálava, joining with the Morava at the border of Czechia, Slovakia and Austria. These two great European rivers are tributaries of perhaps the greatest, the Danube. It is thought that the first Homo sapiens to enter Europe 42,000-years-ago did so by following the Danube and its floodplain. It was rich in resources: water, wood from floodplain forests, fish and meat, rocks and stone, and pelts from animals present in its riparian margins. This behaviour has resulted in the creation of many European cities along major rivers, my home city of London and the Thames being a fine example. The Dyje’s braided channels and meanders are where the Gravettians based in the Pálava Hills found their flints and stones for tools, weapons and crafts. Here they found fish and beavers for pelts. Thankfully beavers are still in the area, despite the attempts of local Moravian fishpond owners to eradicate them.
Into the woods
The first break from the town is into Děvin’s woods, where a steep track worn by feet and running water swerves through multi-trunked trees: small-leaved lime, elm, hornbeam, ash. These are old coppice stools, trees once cut down, their wood harvested for firewood or some other need. Now they are overgrown. These woods hold plants that are not found in many other places, including rare bellflowers, and birds such as black woodpecker, hawfinch and golden oriole. The woods will not have been the same 30,000-years-ago when the Gravettians lived here, so much colder was the climate and closer the northern European glaciers. At this time Middle England remained under ice.
Worse still for the vulnerable hunter gatherers, wolves and lions would all have hunted from the cover of woods and the caves held within. But wolves were a key prey for hunter gatherers in Pálava, with their bones commonly found near former settlements. The Gravettians lived in tepee-like tents made from wolf and other animal skins and pelts, meaning that hunting was a crucial part of their lifestyle. Mammoths would have been the key prey in housing a tribe because of their size and the rich bounty of materials that could come from them. Other megafauna included arctic fox, woolly rhinoceros – a species which beggars belief – elk, reindeer, horse, deer, ibex, chamois and maybe bison. Now only the red fox, chamois, ibex, deer and wolf remain from this array of wonderful animals. Wolves inhabit Czechia, Slovakia, Poland and are moving into Germany, Belgium and even the Netherlands.
Reaching the light beyond the woods I take the choice of a lower route with more cover. This rain is the thin, fast-falling, soak-you-through kind. The path is pale with the calcium of the chalk. The slopes from the hilltop are dotted with scraggy scrub, some are charming little oaks, a species once more common in Czechia, before a move to German forestry ethics of pine and spruce took hold. Ironically these are the trees that will have sprouted from this rocky outcrop some 30,000-years-ago.
The grasslands the scraggy oaks stand in are muted and yellowed, but in season they are some of the richest around, with uncommon plants, many tied to these limestone hills, and a rich abundance of moths and butterflies. They are a rare habitat known as steppe grassland, a remnant of the open landscape that the Gravettians entered into. It’s likely that these meadows hold more species of butterfly than all the British species combined. The Gravettians of Pálava had problems with less colourful insects. They were known to use red dye to deter the mosquitos that plagued them here in the Dyje floodplain. Even today mosquitos are considered a major problem in the area, exacerbated by attempts to dam the river near the Austrian border.
These grasslands tell a further story of the Gravettians, one which says much about the world we live in today. Work by Italian archaeologists has led to the discovery of microscopic plant matter on rocks used in the form of a pestle and mortar. The Gravettians may have been grinding down grain or other plants to create pastes or other foodstuffs. This technique has a domestic hint to it, suggesting that the farming or Neolithic revolution of 4,000 BC was not the explosion it is sometimes said to be. Perhaps the Gravettians took with them from the Middle East and Africa an understanding of how to do more than forage, also to use certain plants to produce pastes and even soups.
Evidence suggests the role of the already present Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, is not completely recognised in how our own species adapted to life in Europe. There is evidence of hazelnuts being ground down into a paste by ‘British’ hunter gatherers to use on the move, a source of energy that suited their lifestyles. Our Paleolithic ancestors were not dim cave people banging their heads against the wall; their lives were short, their strength and fitness great, their understanding of natural resources far keener than the average person today. Who out there could ever hunt a wolf with hand tools?
Walking on, the path dips in and out of more coppiced woods, the stools extending in length and thus in age. Chlorophyll has already begun to fade from the leaves, creating a faint glimmer of yellow in the woods. It’s a welcome shift from the grey, misty day. I pass down into more woods where flocks of marsh or willow, great, blue and long-tailed tits join with nuthatches to feed in a rain-drenched glade. The rain falls hard and I sit under a picnic watching it pour down, the birds still flocking, calling, feeding. It’s a time to regret not getting the bus and instead confining yourself to a march over open hills, with the mist stealing away views.
Memories of sunnier times
In 2013 I woke up in a tent on an old farm and walked from Mikulov at dawn over the Pálava Hills, ending up at Dolní Věstonice. It was July and vital to begin at first light to avoid the highs of a Moravian summer. Hence the images used here don’t quite correlate to the reverse I experience now: rain and cold. In 2013 the hills were being tramped by families from Czechia, Poland, Austria and Slovakia enjoying summer holidays, today I am unlikely to see anyone at all before the villages and eventually the major town of Mikulov. Back then golden orioles sang from trees and colourful bee eaters lined up on telephone wires. Now these African migrant birds have returned south to avoid the European winter. There is a heavy sense of absence in this place.
On that sunny day in July 2013 the vista of Austria was clear, the end of Czechia marked by the reversion to thin strips of farmland and crops, white wind turbines spinning on the horizon. Mikulov castle stood clear against an Austrian tapestry of fields and small woods. The castle (‘zamek’ in Czech) itself has relevance to the Gravettian treasures found in Pálava. During the Nazi invasion of Czechia (1938-45) the fascists wanted to continue the work of the Czech archaeologists. Many of the artefacts were kept in Mikulov castle. During a battle to remove the Nazis from Pálava, the castle burned down and many important items were lost. Thankfully the Venus was being kept in Brno and survived the devastation. Never forget that war is about more than an atrocious loss of human life, it so an attempt to erase certain histories and cultures, even if it was not the desire of the Nazis on this occasion.
I pass over Stolová hora where horses graze against the desolate horizon. Mountains of cut scrub are piled alongside the path, cleared to allow the wildflowers and their co-dependent butterflies and other insects to remain. In July I saw crested-cow wheat and sparkling shows of stellarias in these meadows. Down from the hills once more, I walk alongside the road with sweeping views of endless monocultural crops, a throwback to Soviet collectivisation that has led to huge environmental difficulties: biodiversity loss, soil erosion and aquatic pollution from pesticide run-off. The average field in Czechia is 500hectares. Many come here to photograph the undulating fields and valleys of Moravia, known as ‘Moravian Tuscany’ in places.
At Klentnice a bus sweeps by: wet and muddy I trundle on. Cyclists ride in the opposite direction towards Pavlov, the leader speaking English in guiding tones to two Australian friends who listen closely. In 2013 I noted viper’s bugloss, poppies, thistles, knapweeds, scabiouses tended by red tailed bumblebees and painted ladies. ‘The colours of the living strike against the black, crumbling tarmac edge’, said the notes. Not today.
Before turning up onto Turold, the final hill of this three peak challenge, I stop to photograph a small-leaved lime tree lodged between houses and parked cars. It is a natural monument, even located on the Czech map service I’m using on my phone. These trees are commonly planted across eastern and central Europe. They are the linden tree, one of the first to colonise after the most recent glacial period 14,000-years-ago. The small-leaved lime is the Czech national tree. The Gravettians would have had a use for this tree, perhaps eating its leaves and making tea from its flowers.
The path curves around Turold, with a view of the hills I have just walked, stretching away in the rain beyond vineyards. Turold is a series of limestone outcrops heavily wooded and cut internally by networks of caves. The rock faces are where the eagle owl nests, Europe’s largest, a beast that preys on birds as big as buzzards and ravens. The caves contain colonies of lesser-horseshoe bats, one of Europe’s most threatened species. Of course, all this is only clear because of information boards, for which a visitor should be grateful. Perhaps the best information of all comes from the edge of Turold and the beginning of Mikulov. Here stands a wooden shelter selling refreshments, it’s a bat bar. Faded laminated photographs are stapled to the wooden panels showing images of inside the caves and bats roosting. Sadly, the bat bar is hibernating.
Of castles and campfires
Arriving back in Mikulov the question comes to mind: could those Paleolithic Gravettians ever have dreamed that a building as grand as Mikulov castle might stand here looking south towards the great river Danube? Living in tents of animal skin, carving small sculptures of rhinos, mammoths and images of deceased mothers and sisters, what futures did they dream of? The castle is grand, indeed, but it is not dissimilar to the hunter gatherers keeping watch from the hilltop – you only have to note the structure on each of these hills to realise that we share the same desire for protection from threats appearing on the horizon.
Distant the Gravettians may have been in time but in practice and creativity we are the same, but for the fact that their strength, stamina and practical skills are likely to have far outweighed our own today. We still carry their fears of insect bites, of megafauna that might hunt us, though we are without that very same megafauna, projecting those fears onto the closest thing we have, imagining that our countrysides are the domain of great unknown beasts.
The thing that I take from the knowledge of our ancient ancestors is a need to remember our origins, not in nationalities or ethnicity, but our place in nature. The Gravettians faced everyday difficulties which we do not, but there can be no doubt that we share the same need to create, to move freely, to use the resources we have wisely. The Gravettians are thought to have left Moravia because of climate change, exacerbated by the micro-climate of the Carpathians. They moved south for a time out of necessity but then came new generations who went on to establish our great European cities and institutions. These ancient people we patronise and know so little about, we are indebted to them.
I follow the Mole gap trail into Norbury Park, ash woodland glowing in the spring sunshine, dog’s mercury abounding on the soil between the pale trunks. The railway line cuts across the eastern edge of the woods, a brick bridge taking trains straight over one of the major footpaths. Under the bridge a lady walks her dog down the hill, her shape appearing beneath the brick. She pauses as I pass under the bridge and takes a photo.
‘All I could see was your legs,’ she says. ‘And then the rest of you appeared.’
We both have cameras and she asks what I’m here to photograph, about butterflies and how many I’ve seen today. Orange tip, brimstone, peacock and my first small tortoiseshell of the year. Along the banks of the Mole butterflies have flitted in good number.
‘Oh I haven’t seen many,’ she says. She tells me more about Norbury Park, its managers Surrey Wildlife Trust and how angry she feels about the fact all the Trust’s rangers will be made redundant. ‘It’s always the people who are out there doing the actual work that suffer. When there’s a fire or something goes wrong there won’t be anyone there for us to contact.’
The ranger programme was being funded with money from Surrey County Council, and Jenny has been making efforts to register her discontent with local councillors. ‘It’s all about priorities, they’ve just resurfaced the A24 and when there was nothing wrong with it.’
‘I devote myself to the countryside,’ she says. ‘Apart from 3 years in London for university I have always lived in Surrey. I spend hours walking with the dog and never get round to everything I need to do in life. When I get home I just head back out again.’
I ask her how things have changed over the years.
‘There are definitely less birds than there used to be,’ she says.
As we stand talking next to the railway bridge the sun shines down through the leafless trees. Peacocks sun themselves on the ride’s edge, bright yellow brimstones pass across the slopes above us. We say farewell, Jenny heading off into the Park while I continue south towards Box Hill.
The Mole edges Norbury Park, where beech woods sprawl along the eastern slopes. On the other side of the river the smell and calling of livestock breaks through. In the woods the beeches gleam in the glory of the sun, ramsons begin to flower one by one. Leaving the Park, farmland opens out and the woodland is replaced by fields with single oaks, and a beanpole lime tree riddled with mistletoe. I learned recently that mistletoe grows only on smooth bark, its seed is sticky and is often left there by the mistle thrush, so named for this reason. The branches in the canopy of limes are always sleek and silver, perfect for the mistletoe to attach itself to. The oaks are grand specimens, one dying back from above. Many trees are leafing on the Downs but no oak or ash quite yet. Overhead buzzards soar and mew, and the rickety frame of a red kite tumbles towards Box Hill.
The green fields turn instead to brown where cattle graze. More oaks mark the old field boundaries, likely once connected by hedgerows now removed. The farmer has fenced them to protect their roots and bark from the jaws and hoofs of his or her livestock. The fields are protected by electric fencing audibly ticking, but several of these oaks are dying, possibly from the damage done by the cattle. Crossing the Mole again the train line returns, a neat arch allows the river to flower as it kinks round. The light shimmers and ripples on the underside of the brickwork built almost in a spiral. It’s dizzying to watch for too long. Across the old footbridge and into a field named Foxbury Shaw more veteran oaks stand ready to leaf again, a trio leaning into a dried up channel, perhaps a former braid in the river.
One oak has fallen and lies supine with that typical stag head of old roots. Passing close by I notice the swarming of insects at the root plate. It is surely too early for wasps and they appear too big. Edging closer, they are in fact hairy-footed flower bees whirring and zipping around the old roots. When the tree fell the roots lifted soil with them, now hardened like great chunks of biscuity dough. The sun has baked the soil and the wood of the fallen oak. Here is the very image of a life after death.
The oak is being mined by solitary bees, some, like the bronze furrow bee are minute. There are more animals besides them, with jumping spiders waiting for the chance to pinch their prey. One sits atop a root basking in the sun, camouflaged against the bleached timber. The soil has been drilled with holes, the habitat of the flower bees. A group of about five to eight males, blonde and super-fast in flight, zip around me as I photograph their homes. Truly it is the sound of racing cars or X-wings tearing around at several hundred miles an hour. Another species of bee basks on the upturned roots, it has long, black antennae and is disturbed when I look more closely. It’s a mourning bee, a parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of hairy footed flower bees. The eggs hatch, eat the young of the flower bee and then eat the food stash left for its prey. Despite our clichés, some bees are only in it for themselves.
Every week I volunteer at one of my local woodlands and I reap the rewards of working with the natural environment. The skills I’ve gained from toiling with wood and earth will never be lost, the longer I can spend outside the more useful they will become. How have I learned the art of coppicing, dead-hedging, hedge-laying, tree identification and management? By working with people who know, people who can pass these skills on. We have worked this way for centuries, wood is a vital part of human existence, it gave us shelter when used for structure, warmth when burned for the fire, and fruit when the time came to pick. We built fences, bows and arrows, walking sticks, ships, wooden spoons, food bowls, huts and houses. Now our trees line the streets and sit evenly in our parkland, the idea of cutting a tree means death to us and we have no idea of why trees are here and how they have been used. The wood used for our desks and chairs (if wooden anymore) isn’t from the local woodland, nor is it really English, instead shipped from Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and, most criminally, from the Amazon rainforest.
I see the potential in woodland. By investing in the natural environment our governments could satisfy the desire for ‘job creation’, and we’re talking real jobs, work where both the mind and the body are engaged. Woodland provides work for anyone and everyone – studying the ecosystem in detail for those of an intellectual or scientific mindset, surveying lichens, birdlife, insects and our declining woodland wildflowers. And for those who want physical work pure and simple, the wood offers that chance, felling trees, carrying timber, working with your hands and alleviating the weight of the mind. This is how our ancestors have survived and built communities, and it may be the answer to our loss of direction as individuals and as a society. Nature wants to work with us, the landscape is man-made, we haven’t stepped out from a wildwood in to pristine parkland. Many of the old species are gone, many are on their way out, much of what remains is being overrun by the shade of a closed canopy and the spread of invasive species, escaping from gardens and parks. All this goes without mentioning the importance of the wild, of the wild creatures which still live among us and treat our cities and towns, railway lines and airports, as wild places. The pigeon and the peregrine see our brick blocks as cliff faces, space to roost and raise young or to hunt from. We have not escaped the natural world, we are wildlife, too.
The woodsman (or woodsperson!) is a job, a role, a way of life which has existed in some capacity since men and women walked the earth, either felling the primeval woodland for farmland or making a home and life from the woodland at the edge of the communal clearing. Woodland is for people and wildlife and we should invest in this resource, not merely our money but our time. Trees will always be growing as long as the earth is healthy. Trees are used to us working with them: ash, hazel, small-leaved lime, field maple and alder are all trees which thrive from coppicing, a schedule of felling the tree at its base every 7-12 years depending on species. Some species, if cut regularly and at the right time, will live indefinitely. So don’t scoff at the idea of woodland being an empty bet for giving people work. It might just be the very thing we’ve been looking for. Working woodlands for local people means freedom from the uncertainty of the global energy market, and the chance to take a part of our lives into our own hands. Woodlands need not be seen as a carbon sink, the idea should be to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and engage with new technologies which will allow us to reduce our impact on biodiversity, air and water quality and soils. A wood-burning stove is a way of heating the home with local resources and our independence from wood fuel is new, it is not too late, by any means, to return to using wood again to fuel at least part of our lives.
But it’s not possible for everyone to grow willow or ash and fell it for themselves, not everyone has a garden, nor does everyone have a home. That’s why it’s important to make woodlands a publicly managed resource, the complete opposite to the notion of selling public woodland to the private sector. Instead we need to focus on three principles: protection, management and access. Protection for ancient woodland from short-term development and prestige infrastructure projects such as High Speed Rail 2, management of our closed-canopy woodland where the ground is shaded out and no new generation of trees able to grow, and reasonable access for the public, who depend on woodland to maintain a sense of well-being and a connection with the natural world, to forget about the industrial hubris of the age and revel in the tranquillity of the wild. Woodland is worth our time and money.