Country Matter: Tracks in a Cotswolds jungle

Click to follow
THE APPROACH - I kid you not - takes you close past the inner curve of Nanny Farmer's Bottom. From the grass lane which skirts the lip of the hill, you look down into a narrow valley that cuts deep into the escarpment; and whether its name refers to a particular incumbent of days gone by, or to goat husbandry in general, the idea of it raises my spirits every time I pass that way.

My destination is always, on those occasions, a wood that crowns a spur of the Cotswolds. Part of the magic of this forest is that it lies so far out: on the map its position looks unremarkable, but the track leading to it seems to go on for ever - an illusion heightened by the fact that, to your right, you can see for miles out over the Severn and the surrounding plain.

The wood belongs to a farmer, who bought it 20-odd years ago. Not long before he acquired it, the previous owner had clear-felled and replanted, mainly with larch and spruce. For a while my friend battled to keep the young trees weeded and the undergrowth suppressed. Then he gave up the struggle and let nature run riot.

The result was that the

220-acre wood turned to jungle, and when I first knew it, the thicket had become so dense that it could be penetrated only on hands and knees. One footpath alone was negotiable; other tracks, of which the beginnings were visible, had been closed by the upsurge of saplings and undergrowth.

In some places the young softwood trees had done fairly well, but in others they had become stunted - as usually happens in these hills - by the underlying limestone, which does not suit them. Self-sown ash, on the other hand, had sprouted in astonishing profusion, often at the rate of 20 or more slender poles to a square metre. Competing with it, hazel and hawthorn bushes had risen to dizzy heights, drawing thick streamers of bramble up with them.

The greatest menace, though, was the clematis - often known in these parts as 'beddywine' - which had climbed the trees and shrubs, threaded its way through the thicket, and reached a height of 20 or 30ft Tendrils as thick as your wrist snaked up into the canopy, as if in the tropics, and in some places the creeper had grown so furiously that it had more or less stifled the trees.

Lesser men would have quailed before the task of tackling such a concatenation; but my neighbour, deciding that remedial action could wait no longer, waded in with his power-saw about five years ago, thinning, pruning and knocking down. I myself contribute a mite by putting in the odd hour of work, in return for firewood.

Under his sustained onslaught, the wood has begun slowly yielding secrets buried these 20 years. Its interest and diversity are anyway enhanced by the fact that it spills over the top of the hill and down into various hidden valleys or bottoms, so that it includes far more ground than is at first apparent; and across the steep slopes - it is now apparent - beautifully graded tracks wind down to the outer edges of the forest, where the trees meet farmland. The rediscovery and clearance of these tracks is hard graft, but as much fun as any treasure hunt.

At many points in the forest one comes across traces of past endeavour. Along the edge of a stand of spruce run the remains of a dry-stone wall. Today the area to the east of this wall is solid with young trees, mainly ash; but on old maps it is shown as open fields dotted with occasional pine trees. Here, then, were upland pastures in the middle of the wood.

Was there a house here, too? No sign of one remains; yet several springs emerge from a bank to the north, so that there is plenty of water to hand; and a row of yews, continuing the line of the wall, suggests some former attempt at ornamentation. At the bottom corner of the field-area stand two gnarled and battered oaks, the oldest trees in the forest. Whenever I pass them, I sense the ghost of a habitation.

Down one of the winding tracks, I am now working at what amounts to the coal-face. Every session takes me a few yards farther forward into the jungle and lays bare another short stretch of path.

It would be agreeable to work with hand-tools alone, because then I would hear all the sounds of the forest: alas, the fact is that a lightweight power-saw, raucous though it may be, makes by far the best progress, since it whips straight through anything from a 6in ash trunk to a single trailing liana of clematis. Yet every burst of sawing leaves a mountain of debris to be dragged off and tidied away, and this can only be done by hand.

The removal of clematis is itself a major task. Tendrils severed but dangling from high branches are the very devil to pull down. Yanking at them merely illustrates the principle of a fishing rod: slender branches, bending gracefully, absorb an incredible weight without breaking, and your amateur woodsman can often hoist himself clear of the ground, swinging about like Tarzan.

About a hundred yards ahead of the present work- face lies another minor mystery: the wreck of a garden hut, now in the final stages of disintegration. Who put it there, in the bowels of the wood, at a point with no outlook, none can say - but I feel that when we reach it, we should cremate the remains, as they are an eyesore, relatively modern and of no historical interest.

The one disappointment of the wood is that it contains so little wildlife. A few pigeons roost there in winter, and the odd pheasant strays across the boundary from an estate next door; but in the understorey there seem to be few songbirds. It may be that the site, some 700ft above sea level, is too cold for birds, or perhaps the very density of the cover has proved inimical to them; now that the jungle is being opened up, and light is being let in, the habitat may become more attractive.

On the ground, slots in the mud betray the presence of roe deer and muntjak. Within the wood I have never yet laid eyes on either species, but I have twice seen barking deer on fields round the perimeter

I find it pure pleasure to help restore such a place to useful life; and as I drive out along the lane, coming home in the evening, I marvel at the power of the retreating glaciers, which carved out these spurs and bottoms - Nanny Farmer's among them - when the last ice age ended 8,000 years ago. As the sun sets over the Welsh mountains away to the west, and the pillars of the Severn Bridge show up in the distance with the dimensions of a child's toy, I get the feeling that I am returning from another world.