There's a robin singing at me from the hedge as I pass under Swifts Hill, and in fact there's quite a bit of birdsong around today, unlike last week when I could hear nothing but the odd rook or jackdaw and the swish of falling snow. The birds sound as if they are hoping it's about to be spring.
Trantershill plantation is the bit of woodland that runs between Swifts Hill and Elcombe and borders on the Elcombe road. My immediate problem is that there are currently no paths in this wood, and no official way in. It's not fenced by the road, but the bank is steep and the hill the wood is on is steeper. So I've decided to walk up the track which runs between the wood and the Swifts Hill quarry and see if I can get in at the top of the wood, then work my way back down the hill.
Pausing to record the birdsong in the wood, my attention is caught by a flash of movement. A little bird is flipping in and out of the small trees. After a brief struggle with the binoculars I discover to my delight that it's a goldcrest, a stunning little bird whose like I've only seen once before. That time it was a feisty little mite sitting in a fir tree in my garden objecting loudly to my presence so close to his or her nest.
The wood is fenced off from the track with both barbed wire and chicken wire and it takes some ingenuity to get in. The boundary at the top of the hill is marked by the remains of an old Cotswold stone wall; at a point where there is more wall and less wire, I'm able to scramble over its tumbled stones. The ground beneath my feet is soft and bronzed with long accumulation of leaf litter and punctuated by new shoots, turned a startling fluorescent green by low sunshine. The stones of the old wall are covered in moss, which with the sun shining through it, gives each stone a bright green furry halo. The wood itself is all shadow torn into sharp strips by bars of sunlight and heavily draped in ivy. There is a clutch of small birds darting from tree to tree, but so reduced to silhouettes by the high-contrast light that I can only make a guess at them being long-tailed tits.
The slope is very steep here and I make my way somewhat crabwise along the contour, hugging the top edge of the wood, then cautiously begin to descend into its heart. This feels very much like an expedition of discovery, off all the beaten tracks. I have to pick my way, avoiding contour-hugging tree roots and ducking under grasping branches, sliding in the leaf litter.
There are signs of other inhabitants - squashy grenades of droppings suggest deer; large and industriously excavated holes between tree roots suggest badger or fox or both. In a perfectly round basin-shaped hollow I find a series of empty snail shells and one live but hibernating snail. Above me on a beech tree are a pair of nuthatches, which stay in view long enough to be identified but vanish as soon as I produce the camera. I really think there's something in this theory that as soon as you turn a direct gaze on a bird, even at a distance, it becomes aware of your interest and gets uncomfortable.
By a tree stump covered in vivid emerald moss I discover a cluster of Jelly-Ear fungus on a fallen branch. I know that's what is is because it was (satisfyingly) featured as Something to Look Out For in this month's BBC Wildlife magazine. On the underside of the branch are more of them, a larger one looking quite worryingly like a human ear and two tiny ones looking like cute baby ears. (Which shows how this project as changed me - two years ago, the idea of finding fungi in any way cute would have seemed bizarre.) On one of the larger ash trees, I find a colony of another curious fungus which looks a little like a chunk of someone's brain and seems to be pinky-brown when it's new, turning shiny black as it grows older and larger.
'This place is basically a fascinating mess' I tell the sound recorder. Fallen wood tangles with swathes of ivy and trails of creeper, some of them as thick as my wrist. Many of the trees appear to be wearing skirts of thick holly or flounces of bramble. The further into the wood I go, the more intrepid this adventure becomes. The hillside seems to be growing steeper and at every step I'm in danger of starting an inexorable slide downhill in a welter of leaves. In places, I have to crouch down in order to move around safely. Tree roots become more obvious, taking up more of the ground, spreading wider; even the trees are having to hold on more tightly. Under a spreading beech I find the first sign of human activity - a heap of multi-coloured plastic, so weathered as to be unidentifiable. My first thought is that it's the remains of an airbed, but anyone trying to sleep here would (a) need a seatbelt and (b) would suffer an acute rush of blood to the feet.
The animal path leads to a human path, which zigzags up the hill, and this leads to a stream, which seems to be running from the apex of the Elcombe side valley. It may not be here all the time, since it isn't running in a bed but spread out over the ground. Ferns and other damp-loving plants are growing in and round it. I think I may be trespassing now, but I can't resist going a little higher to see where the stream comes from. It appears to be coming down right from the ridge above, but beyond here the hillside is just too steep to think of following it up. There is a little waterfall where the stream leaps from the hill onto the path. And there is a long view down between walls of trees, the stream a silvery arrowhead pointing to a distant glimpse of the sunny valley.
The stream has distracted me for too long. I am about to be late for a 50th birthday lunch. Time to go back. I make my way rather excitingly as straight down the hill as obstacles and safety allow and the hillside ejects me smartly over the bank and onto the Elcombe road with rather more speed and less elegance than I was hoping for. As the noise of my exit dies away, I can hear a woodpecker somewhere in the distance. Woodland drums, seeing me off the premises.
Now I'm walking back along the road, scanning the lower edge of the wood. Here too, there is a single row of really large beeches marking the boundary, and counterparts on the other side of the road, along the edge of the fields. They give the road a grandeur beyond its aspirations. This road is also an edge, with tree-windows giving views across green fields to Slad and the woods on the other side of the valley.
I have heard Trantershill Plantation described as 'ancient woodland' - I'm not sure how true that really is now, since it looks to me as if all but the few large trees are relatively new growth. But in another sense, it does feel old, abandoned, a place which humans have ignored long enough for it to forget them. A wild place, dark and untidy. I could see the contrast with the far end of the wood which people are still managing, where undergrowth and fallen wood have been removed and gaps opened between the trees, letting in light. Pleasanter to walk in, but less mysterious, less 'other'. It will be interesting to see what Trantershill becomes in its new incarnation as a Wildlife Trust reserve. I will come back in a few months, I think, to see.
Afterword: Trantershill Plantation was officially opened to the public as Laurie Lee Wood, the newest Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust nature reserve, on 26 June 2013.
Google map of this walk