Picture of the week: 19/10/20

THIS week’s picture takes us deep into Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire and a print with a distinctly autumnal feel by Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley, who with colleague Robin Wilson has a permanent base among these trees.

The pair are artists-in-residence at the University of Oxford, which has owned and maintained this ancient semi-natural woodland since 1942.

MYTHIC PAST: Red Woods, a reduction linocut by Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley

Says Rosie: “Wytham Woods is a singular place, not because there is anything exceptional about the woods themselves but because of the intensity of the attention they receive as Oxford University’s research woodland.”

Pioneers of ecology envisioned the woods as a living laboratory and the data collected here, running back to the 1950s, is invaluable to environmental disciplines that depend on long-term study.

Its 1,000 acres are a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and rich in flora and fauna, with over 500 species of plants, a wealth of woodland habitats, and 800 species of butterflies and moths.

“Ornithologists, zoologists and plant scientists – so many of them have passed through Wytham or are familiar with its research and I’ve met people in all kinds of places, from Welsh hillsides to the Isles of Scilly, who have fond memories of these woods,” Rosie reveals.

“And yet it is an amazing piece of woodland because all woods are, and this one is a small realm of wildness in the very tame landscape of Oxfordshire.

“We have been working at Wytham now since 2012 and our studio is right in the middle of the woods. In the winter we get the sun setting through the bare trees, sliding between the icy banks of clouds, and in the summer late-night printing will mean disturbing hare, badger and deer on the journey home.

“There is a great stability, if you open up your idea of time, to landscape: the land just is and will continue, in whatever form, round and over the trinketry lives of man. It’s got infinitely more time than us. But landscape without man doesn’t have any thought – or at least, not one I can access – and I find it difficult to have interest without thought.

“It’s history and myth and legend that puts a whole load of mental life back into the landscape. Among other places, I’ve worked in Romania where landed peasants have a very active and practical relationship with the land, and undertake fieldwork in Lycia, Turkey, where time is kaleidoscoped up into nothing by the fallen amphitheatres and tombs that litter the mountainsides and all of this has helped develop my ideas about landscape. Then I print-make, write and draw, and my ideas come out in one of other of these mediums.

Red Woods is taken from a drawing I made through the trees on the main track up into the Woods, about ten minutes walk from our studio. During WW1 the woods were taken over as a training ground for the front, and in the print you can see the undulation of old trenches.

“It’s an autumn print, hence the colours, and the dry stems of the dead bluebells litter the ground. The little row of mushrooms along the front is for Tolkien, who has a similar line of mushrooms along the front of one of his pen and ink drawings of Milkwood.

“The mythic past that Tolkien invented has seeped its way into the landscape of Britain and Europe for me in the same way the classical world still inhabits the mountains of Lycia, or WW1 still dominates the landscape of the Somme. The past hasn’t gone anywhere and the landscape gives it back all the time.”

Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley runs The Wytham Studio with Dr Robin Wilson at Oxford University’s Wytham Woods. Among other things, they run printmaking workshops. Rosie can be contacted at rosie.fairfax-cholmeley@admin.ox.ac.uk. Follow the studio on Instagram.

Trees remain in tune with the past

IT’S a  perfect day for a walk in the woods…not totally airless, not too hot, but warm in the sunshine and even the darker glades are dappled with light.

But here at Burnham Beeches we are in a place where one can feel pretty insignificant, especially when wandering round a tree with a startling past like the Druid’s Oak.

The old-timer may not look so majestic these days, but this tree is around 800 years old, dating back through the reigns of some 35 kings and queens to the era of King John, when the Magna Carta was being drawn up.

This is a time of the crusades and Marco Polo’s travels. It’s hard to believe the same oak will be standing here in later centuries to witness the Spanish Armada, Gunpowder Plot or Great Fire of London.

But time stands still in Burnham Beeches, where ancient sentinels silently recall generations of Victorian schoolchildren coming here for Sunday outings or the war years when the woods were awash with service personnel, with some 65 huts and other buildings hidden among the trees.

Wander down this path and you’re at the site of an Iron Age hillfort. Take that route through the trees and you find a small plaque commemorating the poet Thomas Gray, who wandered the woods in the 18th century and completed his famous poem ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ in 1750 amid the peaceful graves surrounding St Giles’ church in nearby Stoke Poges.

The past is all around you here – and at no time is that more obvious than on an August afternoon when the dragonflies are flitting around, the wood ants are on the march and the cattle are lazily munching their way through the undergrowth.

Helpful Wildlife Trust contacts are able to suggest my fuzzy picture is a male ruddy darter, and a magnificent video from Roger Havercroft on the Wild Cookham facebook page soon confirms this.

At the other end of the size spectrum are the British white cattle casually sun-bathing on the grass. They, along with other traditional breeds such as Exmoore ponies and Berkshire pigs, have been used to bring grazing back to the reserve – a practice which helped to create this ancient woodland.

Back in the woods, the rowan berries are out, the first leaves have fallen and the ancient beeches rustle a little as the evening breeze begins to pick up.

It really is an extraordinary landscape: beautiful, haunting, ever-changing and intimately in tune with the past.

Time to lose yourself in the woods

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THERE aren’t too many country parks where it’s easy to get lost.

But with 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space, Black Park Country Park near Slough is one of those places where it really does feel possible to lose your bearings – for a short while, at least.

And with that amount of room to explore, it really does have something to suit everyone.

It’s the perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.

The surfacing is subtle and non-intrusive, so it still feels as if you are at one with nature, but it does make the park a little less muddy in winter than most footpaths.

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And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.

Although the 14-acre lake area tends to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.

While the lake is a haven for waterfowl – ranging from grebes, coots and moorhens to the pretty mandarin ducks or even Indian runner ducks – under the water bream, pike, roach and perch swim. The other habitats provide a home for an intriguing cross-section of wildlife, from grass snakes to lizards, although you may have to be sharp-eyed to spot them.

A number of information boards provide a “habitat trail” with information about some of the less familiar flora and fauna which visitors can look out for.

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A year-round attraction with accessible toilets and baby-changing facilities, in normal circumstances the park hosts a range of special events and activities from night walks to Easter Egg hunts.

There’s seasonal fishing on the lake, off-road cycling and Go Ape adventures for more ambitious souls wanting to take to the treetops. The park is also home to the Black Park Model Boat Club, whose lifelike models can often be seen bobbing around on the water.

This is a perfect place for children to let off steam, and you only have to go down to the lake entrance to find a new generation of children playing Pooh sticks over the small wooden bridge there or snatch a glimpse through the trees of youngsters building a small den of the sort that Eeyore might well call home.

One-off events are publicised on the park’s website and Facebook page. Picnics are encouraged but fires and barbecues are not permitted.

The park is open daily from 8am and closing times are seasonal and displayed in the car parks and on the main website.

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For more information use the links above or call 01753 511060.

Happy hunting ground at Langley

WANDERING around Langley Park, it’s not hard to imagine a medieval monarch mustering a royal hunting party here.

But then there was a deer park  at Langley Marish as long ago as 1202, continuing in use throughout the Middle Ages.

Today, Langley is part of the Colne Valley Regional Park, managed by Buckinghamshire County Council and offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.

Once Crown Property, the park and manor were granted to Sir John Kederminster in 1626 and sold in 1738 to Charles Spencer, third Duke of Marlborough, who used it as a hunting lodge.

In 1756, he commissioned Stiff Leadbetter to build the present house, finished in 1760. His son George commissioned Lancelot Brown (1716-83) to landscape Langley Park during his time working at Blenheim.  In 1788 Robert Bateson-Harvey bought the estate which remained in the family until 1945 when it was sold to Buckinghamshire County Council.

It’s only a stone’s through from Slough – 3km from the town centre, in fact – but you wouldn’t know it from the rural setting, with the heath and woodland of Black Park to the north and agricultural land to the south and east.

Between March and June the masses of rhododendrons in Temple Gardens burst into bloom and in summer many species of butterfly chase around the heather and gorse on the open land leading down to Langley Lake, where a variety of wildfowl congregate.

Sir Robert Grenville Harvey planted the gardens in the early 20th century, apparently transporting 1600 tonnes of peat from Scotland by train to Langley Station for mulching the plants and employing local men to move the mulch by horse and cart to the garden.

The lake was originally rectangular, thought to have been created by the extraction of brick clay from the ground to build  Sir John Kederminster’s ‘Chief Lodge’ in 1710. One of the main landscape features influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s was the creation of a longer, serpentine-shaped lake.

The Arboretum is a fine collection of specimen trees and gardens running around the outside of the walled garden, which originally was a kitchen garden for the residents of Langley Mansion where they grew their own fruit and vegetables.

The western stretch of the arboretum is known as ‘Queen’s Walk’ because Queen Victoria used to pass through the arboretum when visiting Sir Robert Bateson-Harvey.

Nowadays the former royal hunting ground provides the perfect base for family days out, with trail guides, an orienteering course and conservation volunteer days, as well as a varied events programme.

Parkland trees range from English oaks to Wellingtonia and Cedar of Lebanon – and there’s a history trail produced by the Heritage Lottery Funded Friends of Langley Park, an organisation which also boasts a wonderful gallery of pictures.

The park is open daily from 8.15am. Accessible toilets and baby changing facilities are located in the cafe. More information from the website or call 01753 511060.