COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
EVER SINCE Bernhard Langer chipped a ball from halfway up an oak tree in probably the most extraordinary shot in modern golf, I've been surprised that golfers haven't taken to the woods in droves. "Wild golf" would provide every kind of challenge tired executives enjoy: prodigious hazards, aerobic exercise, unprecedented opportunities for making pin-point killings with the niblick.

But even in my most cynical moments I never imagined that provisional planning approval would be given for the carving of a golf course out of one of the Chilterns' largest remaining ancient woods, just a few miles south of my own small patch. Up to 20 per cent of Penn Wood - 90 acres - is scheduled for permanent clearance. Yet the Forestry Commission, who shifted their policy decisively in favour of the protection of old deciduous woodland a decade ago, have approved a grant for the scheme. Most of the local authorities have been persuaded that nature conservation trade-offs (encouragement of more heather, new ponds etc) give the development `planning gain'. The people of Penn Street, for whom the wood was once common land, and part of the local landscape since long before Domesday, understandably disagree, and will challenge the development at a public inquiry in early April.

Penn Wood is, admittedly, in need of some loving care. It has been grossly mistreated in the recent past - patchily overplanted with conifers, sprayed with slurry, felled in places with Amazonian haste. But destroying a substantial chunk of it is no answer, especially when we continue to wag self-righteous fingers at developing nations because of their forest destruction. Least of all should it be permitted in what are known as "ancient" woodlands, where there has been continuous woodland cover since trees returned to Britain after the last Ice Age. These are unique and special places, with undisturbed soils and water systems, and lineages of insects and plants (often surviving as long-dormant seeds) that may go back 8,000 years.

As a culture, sadly, we have almost lost touch with woods. We still believe that they can't grow unless planted by humans (spontaneous treelands are derided as "scrub"), and that a place can't be both a wood and a common. And at a deeper level, perhaps, lulled by the notion of "ancient monuments", we find it hard to grasp the idea that something can be both profoundly ancient and very much alive. As John Fowles wrote in The Tree, "Nature is ... an external object with a history, and so belonging to a past; but also creating in the present, as we experience it."

Golfers, above all, should appreciate this fusing of past and present: all those traditions built into the grain of the game, all those long- practised skills; then suddenly it is all instinct and immediacy, and your ball ends up in an oak tree whose ancestors grew when there were still bears in England's woods. !

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