It's not often you can walk from a high street into the heart of an ancient woodland. One minute I am in a bustling Yorkshire market town, takeaway cappuccino in hand, the next I am ducking down stone steps to Eller Beck, a strip of canal and river that runs through a steep-sided gorge fringed with ash, oak, sycamore and pine. The buzzing repartee of stall owners is soon replaced by the songs of robins and chaffinches, shop awnings for a weeping willow in bud.
A high, pale February sun enjoys a lofty perch in a cobalt sky. One half of the thin valley is etched into clarity by the brittle, bright golden-yellow light; the other is in deep, black shadow cast by the huge ramparts of Skipton's medieval castle. It is a Lord of the Rings landscape.
This wood was once a lifeline for the castle, providing its water, fuel and a ready supply of venison. Despite the proximity of the town centre today, roe deer still graze the slopes and the river remains a larder for sapphire-winged kingfishers. As I work my way up beside the beck, I find a series of little ponds, relics of Skipton's more recent history. The river was dammed in places in the 19th century to power mills downstream. The pools are mirror calm, surrounded by the catkins and budding shoots of goat willow, hazel and wild rose.
As I cross a small bridge, the wood rises, flattens, and widens into ranks of ash and beech, whose trunks gleam in the fleeting sun. Squirrels scuttle between the bare canopies like acrobats on high wires; a pair of song thrushes crowns a pine.
The loop back to town takes me briefly out of the wood and over Battery Hill – so called because Oliver Cromwell positioned his artillery here to lay siege to the royalist castle below. Many years ago, my grandfather brought me here to look for cannonballs. He also showed me how to tell the difference between trees in winter by their buds.
Woods are amazing places. They are repositories of history, yet look carefully enough at the sprouting trees and we can see the future, too.
Skipton Castle Woods (Skipton, North Yorkshire BD23 1AW) is open all year and located just north of the centre of the market town of Skipton, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. There is no entrance fee and you can park your car in town. For more information visit woodlandtrust.org.uk.
Stay overnight at the Angel Inn – a short drive away at nearby Hetton – a characterful country inn with an award-winning restaurant (01756 730263; angelhetton.co.uk). Double rooms cost from £140 per night, including breakfast.