Although I am writing this feature on New Year’s Day 2021, I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. In 1976, forty-five years ago, I’d just left Oxford University Press in Walton Street, where I was working as an Editor, on my way to collect Sam from Magdalen College School.
A senior member of OUP’s staff waved and stopped me in my tracks.
“This is for you,” he beamed. “It’s very special. Obey the rules and guard it with your life.”
I held out my hand, gasping with surprise and delight. I’d been told by several other OUP staff that I didn’t stand a snowflake’s chance in hell of my request being honoured.
But to my astonishment it had been. It was a small, dark green card with my name on it. The University had given me a permit to walk in Wytham Woods.
Totally owned and managed by the University of Oxford, Wytham Woods is their magical space for private walking and top-secret research that lies in a quiet corner between the edge of Oxford and the beginnings of the big wide dirty noisy world. Almost half a century later, looked after leaf by special leaf and tree by special tree by their long-standing Conservator, Nigel Fisher, and his dedicated team, we are very lucky indeed that the Woods today look and sound much the same. They are still a superb place to walk, still conducting research – and still harbouring with enormous pride their special spirit of sanctuary and regeneration.
Of course there have been changes in the last half-century. In 1976 I could walk in the Woods early on a Sunday morning and never see another human soul. Today the Woods have become so popular – partly because the outbreak of Covid-19 has encouraged out-of-doors activity – that visitors may be asked to book their arrival in advance, as if they are planning to attend the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party where there will only be a limited quantity of lemon drizzle cake.
The dark green cards are now plastic and heavily branded. They arrive accompanied by a map, a brochure, and an extensive programme of Woods-related activities. Its areas of research have been described; the Woods have been painted and photographed in all weathers. But there are still the no-go areas too sensitive to mention and certainly never ever to be explored.
For me Wytham Woods are more than just a place to walk. They lie at the centre of a very special village which staunchly maintains its identity in the face of the tidal wave of visitors who flock towards it like moths to a flame in fair weather and high summer. The villagers have become skilled in avoidance strategies. Their Harvest Festivals, for example, are held in the early morning, before the sun has fully risen and the intrusive cars, like burnished dragons, have thundered in.
In my time, I have explored every corner of Wytham, caught its daily bus into Oxford, cycled around its fields, taken tea at Overford Farm, worshipped in its Church, sung its Christmas carols by flickering candlelight, lived for a short while in its Abbey, bought provisions in its wonderfully stocked Shop, waded through its autumn floods, eaten delicious meals in The White Hart – and one particularly magical day caught sight of the smiling Wytham scarecrow, spreading its arms in the middle of a field by the river like Worzel Gummidge on a particularly excellent day.
That glimpse of him as I drove past became the inspiration for my first published picture book, Tomasina’s First Dance, superbly illustrated by the artist Heather Calder. She took photographs of the gently sloping fields, the towering darkness of Wytham Woods, and the stretches of Oxfordshire sky, capturing in her illustrations the essential heart and soul of this magical place.
Here, written thirty-two years ago, is my poem in homage:
I walk as woodlander in Spring
Gingerbread leaf beneath me bring
Tone to exquisite fern and ring
Colour at colour. Listen! Sing
Yesterday’s naked tune, its sting
Healed as woodlander I spring.
I walk as woodlander to hear
Crab-appled squirrel, plashing weir,
Scruffle on bark, the plaint of near
Moss dove in flight. See! Fallow deer
Suddenly flow, eyes right, then steer
Singular fleeting course, their tier
Swiftly apart from Wytham’s ear.
I walk as woodlander to see
Utterly silent bole, that Tree
Pointed and raising, curled and free,
Watching and waiting. Come with me!
Tracking fresh path I’ll coin three
Wishes. In health for thine and thee
Grace upon Grace, prosperity,
Joy with her counterpoints may He
Beckon and orchestrate.
So be walking as woodlander. I find
Twig-snapping way whose branches twined
Comfort the shoulders, light the blind
Foliaged omens. Call! I’ve timed
Midday to midnight sky on rind
Tasting of wood smoke sent to bind,
Scented, our New Year’s open mind.