All I want is a wood somewhere

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Why buy a wood? I posed that question in this column last year, when I described my attempt to purchase a 50-acre plantation in Shropshire. The attempt failed, largely because the wood was so attractive that several prospective buyers went after it, and the price rocketed out of my reach.

The same thing happened again soon afterwards with a property in the Cotswolds, much nearer home. This also had powerful attractions, not least the fact that it was well tucked away in the hinterland, and dropped into a lovely hidden valley.

Those two near-misses, disappointing though they were, concentrated my mind. They made me realise that even if one entertains romantic notions of communing with nature, and hopes that one may be making a sound long- term investment, the best reason for owning a wood is that it gives one a chance to work among the trees. By clearing, thinning, felling and planting, one can substantially improve a patch of land, and influence its appearance for perhaps the next hundred years.

Now I am glad to find a professional forester agreeing with this diagnosis. In real life Julian Evans is Chief Research Officer of the Forestry Commission, and a leading authority on broadleaved trees. Off duty, he is frequently to be found beavering away in the 22-acre wood on a slope of the Hampshire downs which he bought in partnership with his brother-in-law during 1985.

His book A Wood of Our Own - attractively produced, and written with infectious enthusiasm - describes the excitement of finding the place, the satisfaction of buying it "for the price of a good quality family car", and the immense enjoyment he has derived from managing it ever since.

Clearly, the wood has come to play a large part in his life, and much of the work that has gone into it has been done by members of his family. His own expertise enabled him to calculate that in 1987 his property was carrying more than 1,000 tons of timber, and that the amount was increasing by about 80 tons a year. He also found that he had inherited a considerable amount of coal, scattered about on the ground - a relic from the steam age of the main London-Southampton railway line, which bounds one side of the wood.

Although a gentle fellow at heart, Professor Evans was driven to declare war on the various pests which were attacking his trees, among them rabbits and grey squirrels. These last are by far the greatest menace, as they strip bark off young trees so voraciously as to maim or even kill them.

The author's practicality is nicely leavened by a relish for history. In writing of the hurricane of 1987 - which providentially did him little damage - he quotes Daniel Defoe on the great tempest of 26 November 1703; and his local heroine is Jane Austen, who was born and lived in the nearby village of Steventon. He acknowledges that his wood did not exist in the novelist's lifetime (1775-1817), but he is confident that, with her love of the open air, she used to walk or drive in a carriage along the lane which now forms his western boundary. He feels that she must have known a mighty yew, which did succumb to the gale of '87. Its shattered hulk still lies on the edge of the wood, and is reckoned to be at least 1,000 years old.

In describing how passers-by dump rubbish of every description, he points out how strongly "20th-century haste" contrasts with "unpolluted land, unhurried work, carefree and timeless, with real labour for real reward as season follows season".

To share his enthusiasm with others, Professor Evans recently held an Open Day, which attracted some 80 people. On a glorious, sunny morning the beech trees, just out, were at their brilliant best, and a path winding among them led visitors to a dozen points of particular interest, each one explained by an informative little notice. After an illuminating meander lasting perhaps an hour, many of the strollers settled down to picnics among the trees.

The proprietor had also devised a modest quiz, to be completed as one went round the circuit. How many native tree species does Britain have? (Answer: 30). How tall is the tree with the band round it? (76 feet). What is the weight of wood in this large oak? (Six tons). What is hoppus? (An ancient measure of volume, still used in the sale of hardwood timber).

According to the owner, his favourite tree is the big oak, which he reckons to be 220 years old. Mine was Jane Austen's yew, dead as mutton, but still a wonder.

Modest as it was, the Open Day was a model of its kind. It gave both pleasure and instruction, and it renewed my determination to find a wood that I can call my own.

A Wood of Our Own is published by Oxford University Press, pounds 17.99.

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