The path slopes up between ranks of birch, beech and oak. On the banks bracken is encrusted with frost and the addition of oak and beech leaves. I love the sight of a silver-lined oak leaf and December is the month to find them.
It’s about 9am. Mist lingers up ahead like the faint hang of smoke from a campfire. All around I can hear the falling of droplets of water. Looking at my sleeves there is no sign of rain. Then I realise it’s the frost melting in the tops of the trees. Water only falls from their crowns.
In among the trees small birds flock and feed. These mixed groups of species have been building since September. A trio of bullfinch slip away from me in birch branches and bracken. Their fluty calls are faint and sweet. A white bib on their backs marks them out as they escape deeper into the dripping woods.
St. Leonard’s Forest was once more open than this. You can find huge beech trees dotted around from when they had the freedom to grow uninhibited. Now many more trees compete with them for light in the sky, good and water in the ground. One of the beeches has been damaged in a storm. A third of its trunk has fallen, splitting in two directions. Its summer leaves are still held by the fallen branches, shielding the scene of its collapse.
This is not a catastrophe. It could result in the tree living centuries longer. Looking more closely the trunk glows green with moss and algae. It raises one limb still high into the air. This is its lifeline. Its heartwood is now exposed and soon more insects and fungi will move in. This is not a symptom of human error or mistreatment. Its is the true wildness of a tree stepping into the realm of the ancient.
After so much recent rain, the water flows fast through the s-shaped streambed of Sheepwash Gill. Clouds have consumed a sunny morning, Wealden clay clogs under foot. I’m trying to cross the gill by treading across the buffed sandstone which is usually above water. This is no ‘Robert Macfarlane climbing a mountain up a stream in his pants’ kind of effort. The water runs ankle-high against my boots. On the other side a dog bounds down off the leaf-littered slope and barks at me, stopping my crossing. It’s big. It jumps around at the water’s edge in that ‘I’m trying to pretend I’m going to eat you’ kind of way. Its owner calls it back and I find another way to cross.
A girl watches me as I find a short gap to hop over. The dog is her family’s. They’re gathered around dens made from branches and logs on the banks of the gill. The eldest man is grappling with a thirty-foot long birch tree that’s hung up in another tree. He’s getting advice from his young son on how to get it down. The man is wearing brown leather safety boots, a sure sign of a construction worker enjoying a Sunday with his family in the woods.
The birch won’t move much and he gives up. St. Leonard’s Forest is covered in birch. It’s the most westerly point of the High Weald’s heaths, much of which is covered by wild birch and gorse, or otherwise planted up with conifers for forestry. Birch is seen as an enemy or nuisance but it is a special tree that has benefited our species in our evolution. Its wood makes excellent spoons, its bark can be used as fire lighter, its sap tapped for syrup, its branches make brooms. Its Latin name ‘betula’ means ‘to beat’. Getting walloped by birch branches was once a recognised punishment, sometimes in public.
The birches are all yellowing and dropping now, turning to their deep, purple and leafless phase. The small yellow leaves catch by the petioles in mosses and on the splintered fibres of broken heartwood. In the dark pine plantations of St. Leonard’s Forest they fizz and spark.
A slender pathway cuts through the ground layer of ivy, more likely to have been forged by a train of foxes. A large ash has been pulled down by the wind, the underside of the ivy leaves are a fresh colour, like the flesh of a lime. To the side a den has been made, with string tied to the rotting logs which rest against a tree in a tepee form. It can be the case that the people spend a night in the wood to qualify for a homeless shelter and so the sign of a tent or den surrounded by food packaging and drinks bottles is not unusual. There isn’t much litter to be found, other than things the ivy has subsumed, bottles or cans missed previously and taken in by the soil, or blown over from the road. Spiders make a home for themselves in empty bottles and the woodlouse is a common inhabitant of an old shoe.
We toe the path which leads around the ridge. It’s just ivy, above and below, masking the trees and the woodland floor. On the ground the leaves of premature bluebells peek through the earth and we take care not to trample. The coming of spring is a time of year to be cherished, the very thought leavens the darkness of long winter nights.
The ivy ends and a clearing opens up around a large yew tree, the soil cleared of life by the acidity and shading of the tree’s needles. The trunk is rippled and worn like an old doll’s limb, its circumference suggests it could be a few hundred years old. A line of tall yews appear as we move on, what must have been a hedge in a garden, turning into a right-angle. The ground dips to reveal the whitish bricks of a wall and a trail of broken glass. Behind us is a tall group of silver birch trees, quarantined amidst layers of ivy and the yew. These birch look like they’re waiting for something.
The other side of the wall shows a support structure for the terrace of an old Victorian villa, where people would have taken tea and listened for the hammering of woodpeckers in January, the repertoire of the song thrush in spring, and the call of the woodlark. A century ago they would have sat listening to the voices leading Britain to war. Now we look out from over the wall at wildness regenerated. Trees collapsed and left to rot down as fodder for bugs and beetles. The slow life of the woodland has been allowed to resume. A blackbird calls in the canopy and a great tit sings its winter song down in the woodland glade. The sun is setting low through the slope of trees. It’s time to go home.