Peter brings the Wild Wood to life

WRITER and environmentalist Peter Owen-Jones doesn’t need much encouragement to start singing the praises of the great British countryside.

That ensures the maverick Church of England vicar is in his element exploring the landscapes, history and wildlife of the New Forest, one of the UK’s most important ancient woodlands, for his latest documentary outing.

The Big Wave film follows a similar BBC4 walkabout last summer which saw the author donning his familiar hat to wander around his beloved South Downs, where he has his parish.

The New Forest: A Year In The Wild Wood, screened on January 9 on BBC4, provides a similarly personal portrait of a landscape shaped by man since Neolithic times.

Presented in collaboration with the Forestry Commission and the New Forest National Park Authority, the film follows a year in the life of the forest meeting many of the people who work to preserve and protect it.

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Although that gives the documentary a slightly promotional feel, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the reverend’s enthusiasm for the extraordinary landscape, with its gnarled ancient woodland, purple heathland and boggy mires, and his particular empathy towards the role of the “commoners” whose lives have been inextricably intertwined with the landscape for centuries.

Opinions about Owen-Jones are divided, with some finding the intensity of his presenting style a little irksome at times; others find his approach much more charismatic and endearing, with online threads on mumsnet divided over the relative merits of his unkempt ‘wonderfully ravaged’ appearance and resonant public-school enunciation.

Whatever your response to his asides to camera, there’s no doubting his total enjoyment in the majestic sights around him – from a goshawk jinking through the trees in search of prey to a stag bellowing amid the autumnal foliage.

A national park since 2005, this is a timeless place with few fences where ponies, cattle and pigs are allowed to roam free. It covers 566 square kilometres and stretches from the edge of Salisbury Plain through ancient forest, wild heathland and acid bog down to the open sea.

The heathland is home to dazzling lizards, our largest dragonfly and carnivorous plants. And some of the trees in these ancient woods were planted by man to build battleships for the British Empire.

As the backdrop changes with the seasons, the Sunday Times’ walking correspondent strives to find out more about the lives of the Commoners, a group of around 700 people who have retained grazing rights for their animals which date back to medieval times.

From the first foals born in spring to the release of the stallions and the annual herding of the ponies, he reveals a hardy people who, despite the urban development around them and the pressures on the landscape of 13 million visitors a year, retain a deep love of the land and a determination to see their way of life survive.

He discovers how the brutal Forest Laws imposed by William the Conqueror were used to crush the Commoners in order to preserve the forest as a royal hunting ground. Yet it was these same laws that inadvertently helped protect the New Forest that exists today.

The Commoners now face perhaps their greatest threat as the cost of property spirals and rents increase beyond the reach of a new generation wanting to continue the ancient traditions.

“This has been an incredible year. I’ve met people who, against all odds, have retained this ancient way of life and a deep connection to and love of the land. It’s what shapes and defines this extraordinary place,” says Owen-Jones.

A passionate author and environmentalist, he started working life as a farm labourer, became an advertising executive and gave up the London lifestyle to become a vicar, moving with his wife Jacs to Cambridgeshire, where the couple brought up their four children on a fraction of their earnings in London.

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Described in a Telegraph interview in 2001 as a “sort of Worzel Gummidge in cowboy boots”, Owen-Jones soon began to become a regular face on TV when he was commissioned to present a series on atheism.

Since then he has presented a number of BBC programmes, including Extreme Pilgrim and Around the World in 80 Faiths, as well as How to Live a Simple Life, a three-part 2010 series in which he turned his back on consumerism

Having served as a rector of three parishes just outside Cambridge, he is now a house-for-duty part-time vicar on the Sussex Downs.

Recent books include Pathlands: 21 Tranquil Walks Among the Villages of Britain and Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim: Reflections on Life, Love and the Soul.

Pathways is an anthology of walks, part travelogue, part celebration of the secret paths and bridleways that criss-cross rural Britain. It’s also a reminder of the importance of walking as part of the meditative process and very much part of Owen-Jones’ own spiritual journey – which includes a daily hike up Firle Beacon where he says his prayers and, he insists, where every morning is new and different.

Perhaps it’s that meditative power that makes Owen-Jones such a natural choice for this sort of documentary – and, along with his thoughtful appreciation of the natural world, which makes him a perfect companion to introduce us to such an unusual landscape and a unique way of life.

Originally screened on BBC4, The New Forest: A Year In The Wild Wood is available on BBC iPlayer for the next three weeks.

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