`I could have a hut in the wood, beneath the oaks, and in summer bring to life Yeats's dream of living in a bee-loud glade'
Saturday 12 August 1995
Just over 50 acres, lying on a sheltered slope at the foot of the Long Mynd: some mature larch and Douglas fir, but a good deal of oak and ash; two little streams running through it, and no public access; it sounded idyllic. No matter that the asking price of pounds 65,000 was way over my ceiling: the place it must be worth an investigation.
I asked Kevin - a professional forester who lives in that area - to sneak a preliminary look. He reported that the wood was attractive, and the quality of the Douglas was better than he had expected.
As soon as I could manage it, I was there. Together Kevin and I collected the key to the padlock on the gate, let ourselves through, parked the car and stood listening to a glorious silence. Tall oaks and ashes bordered the green track, which led gently downhill into the depths of the wood.
Immediately, I was hooked. The oaks were perhaps 80 years old and nicely spaced, with a high canopy and, at ground level, patches of moss between their trunks. The little streams ran clear as gin. Under the Douglas we came on a vast badger earth, with numerous well-worn entrances. At the far edge of the larch we found a buzzard's nest, and when we hesitated under the tree, the adult birds screamed out strident protests. A fox slipped across the track just ahead of us. Best of all, the whole wood was landlocked, with fields encircling it and no road in sight.
As we explored, Kevin's professional eye was sizing everything up. The larch were mature and should be felled; the Douglas needed a final thinning; the big oak and ash could carry on untouched for some years; the hazel should be coppiced, the rides swiped out. Contractors would be needed for felling, but a keen owner could carry out many of the lesser tasks himself. Certainly, one could cut all the firewood one needed from now until kingdom come.
I left with my mind in ferment. The place spoke to me powerfully - but what would I do if I bought it? Manage it, I supposed: enjoy seeing it improve. But live in it?
Well, I should love to imitate the American writer and mystic Henry David Thoreau, who in 1854 went to ground for two years in a cabin built by himself deep in the woods of Massachusetts.
I envy Thoreau his stamina and resourcefulness, and I treasure the picture of the simple life that he led in his classic Walden, hoeing his beans, quoting Virgil and Homer, curling up "snug as a meadow mouse" beneath the deep snows of winter, "no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean-leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a humble-bee".
Even if I did not live in the wood all the time, I could have a hut there, on the green swell beneath the oaks, and stay for a couple of nights as I went about my coppicing or thinning or clearing. In summer, I could bring to life Yeats's dream of living alone in a bee-loud glade. Working there among the trees, I would surely draw strength from nature, and from the earth.
It is vexatious to realise I will never do a Thoreau. I lack his moral courage. On the other hand - I tell myself - he knew nothing of electricity and all its comforts. By going to ground on the shore of Walden Pond, he did not deprive himself of radio, television, telephones or electric light, for none of these existed. Today the jolt of renouncing civilisation to become a true woodsman would be even greater.
In the middle my speculations there arrived a letter from Kevin, setting out the commercial considerations. On the credit side, sales of timber and woodland are now tax-free. Grants are available from the Government to help with management and replanting. In the long term, the financial return on capital would probably be much the same as if I left my money in stocks and shares.
Yet in my heart of hearts I suspect that if I do commit myself, it will not be for financial reasons. Rather, I will be simply buying myself an enormous present, a great, big, living toy.
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