Friday, 15 February 2013

Walk 35: A Wild Wood - Trantershill Plantation

A day to remember, and not just because it's my husband's 50th birthday.  For one thing, it's a beautiful sunny morning with brilliantly blue skies - entirely different weather from last week when I was walking through Worgan's Wood in driving snow.  I'm walking up the lane past Swifts Hill towards Elcombe in order to visit a rather special piece of woodland.  Trantershill Plantation, as it's named on the map, belonged to our local famous author Laurie Lee, and I've been given permission to walk in it by his widow and daughter.  As well as exploring on my own account, I'm also documenting the present state of things in the wood for future comparison, because things are about to change for Trantershill Plantation. The Lee family have offered it to Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust as a way of preserving it for the future, and we recently heard that the money to buy it has been raised, very largely by public subscription, though the sale hasn't gone through yet.  GWT will join it up with the Elliot Nature Reserve on Swifts Hill and open it to the public, which is great.  They will also be managing it, which as it hasn't been actively managed for a long time, means it will start to look different.  So this is a good time for me to explore it and take photos of how it is now.

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.

Beech-roofed track
Unlike Worgan's Wood, I've been aware of this bit of woodland for a long time because I walk up this track at least once a week, often peering into the wood to see if that rustling noise I heard was a squirrel or something more interesting, and I've occasionally spotted deer in there. Like so many areas in the valley, what you can mainly see as you look into the heart of the wood is a lot of smallish, slim, presumably young trees.  But there is a single row of beautiful old beeches along the boundary here which lean out over the track, roofing it with arches of branches. Only last week, I was photographing them outlined in snow.

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.

Ivy arch
The trees are the biggest source of interest.  They seem to be growing in clumps of different species, including some that I've not seen much of elsewhere in the valley.  Here a clump of multi-stemmed hazels, there a clump of young beech trees, over there a clutch of ash.  In the middle of the wood is a trio of what I'm pretty sure are yews, growing every which way and forming a veritable cats-cradle of branches.  And here's a type of sapling or shrub I remember seeing in Detcombe Wood, whose bark half peels off in thin, translucent wings which glow a fiery orange in the sunshine, almost like stained glass.  Ivy grows everywhere in shaggy masses or in intricate weaves.  One sapling catches my attention - its largest and lowest branch has broken off, but its jacket of woven ivy has not broken but only bent over, creating a perfect arch, with trailing ivy stems brushing the ground, so that the whole thing looks like a woman bending over to wash her hair.

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.

Jelly-Ear fungus
I'm doing my usual thing of looking for the detail, getting caught up in the intricacies of fungi and deer poo.  Let's pull back for a moment, to the wider scale.  This is not only a wood, it's also an edge - from here, through the network of trees, I can also just see the other side of the valley, a distant, parallel skyline of woods and fields, and catch glimpses of the village of Slad.  All this won't be visible later in the year, of course, when the trees are in leaf.

'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.

I'm trying to move diagonally across the wood from one corner to the other, but it's pretty hit or miss.  About halfway down the slope, running along the contour, I find the first path I've seen - an animal path, this, since it ducks under branches and bushes that are definitely well below human height, but it offers some hope of easier walking.  As I approach the Elcombe end of the wood, it lightens up, and it's clear that some of the underbrush and trees have been removed.  So I may be on the boundary with the wood next door, which belongs to someone else, though there's no fence to indicate this.  Through the breaks in the trees, there are tantalising glimpses of the hamlet of Elcombe, round the corner of the hill.  Turning to scan the hillside above me, I catch sight of a deer, a young stag by the look of him, with small, unbranched antlers still covered in velvet, watching me from the shelter of the trees .  He hangs around long enough to be photographed before deciding I might be dangerous and dashing away up the hillside.  It's so much easier when you have four 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

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