Hackfall, a canopy over the turbulent Ure / WTPL/Ian Gilkison


It's easy to imagine woods in winter as desolate places, but within seconds of entering Hackfall in North Yorkshire, movement and colour surround me. With no greenery to block it, light blooms and burns. Down the length of this wooded gorge, glowing trees fringe the turbulent River Ure. Trunks washed by a low sun seem smelted from bronze; their branches reach into a sky the hue of glacial ice.

I am crunching over the frosted ground in pursuit of 15 or 20 long-tailed tits as they roll in aerobatic bursts through bare sycamore, oak and ash. Their plumage is the same beautiful mix of pinkish-white and shadow-black as sunset brings to snowy woods, and they are endearingly sociable creatures too, gathering in family flocks for winter foraging trips and huddling for warmth on branches. Tracking my feathered guides through the lattices of leafless canopies, I spy a rocky crag crowned with a crumbling castle. One of the greatest things about British woods is the secrets to uncover in the trees. Hackfall, on the edge of the village of Grewelthorpe in North Yorkshire, is no exception. Its roots stretch back to wild wood on monastic land before periods of deforestation, industry and, eventually, wealthy patronage had it transformed into a picturesque icon.

Gilpin and Wordsworth praised it on paper; Turner painted here. Extravagant castellated follies, grottos and fountains were built in strategically considered spots to create a "Romantick wilderness" for Europe's aesthetes. But that was all long ago; the trees have reclaimed much ground.

Long-tailed tits are no strangers to feats of woodland engineering themselves. Their nests are ingenious affairs of moss, lichen, thousands of feathers and, for a flash of architectural genius, spiders' webs. Gossamer gives the nest walls elasticity: they stretch to fit the growing chicks cocooned inside.

Without my noticing, the birds have slipped noiselessly into the ether. Shadows are starting to stretch across the crisp undergrowth and I follow their long fingers up to the trees' edge again in a state of quiet calm. Woods are like portals; I am coming back from a world of time-slipped magic.

Hackfall (nearest postcode HG4 4DY) at Grewelthorpe, North Yorkshire, is two miles from the town of Masham, famed for its outstanding breweries and delightful array of shops and cafés. Stay at Millgate B&B (millgate- masham.co.uk) with its sweet rooms and home-made scones and jam on arrival. Rooms from £60 per night. There are various walks that take in Hackfall Woods. Free maps are available in its car park. More information and downloadable guides can also be found at woodlandtrust.org.uk.