The Wonders of Ancient Woodland - Ecclesall Woods

by Keith Slater

3 wonders of ancient woodland - Majesty, Mystery and Magic

The majesty of the trees soaring above your head. The mystery of the ageless secrets held.  The magic of a hidden world surrounded by city traffic.

Sheffield still has the reputation of a dirty industrial city. There is still industry, but no longer as prevalent, and nowhere near as dirty. The City of Sheffield contains more than 2 million trees, as well as around 135 parks and open public spaces.

Within the city boundary, and less than a mile from where I live, lies the ancient woodland known as Ecclesall Woods. These cover an area of around 350 acres and form the largest semi-natural woodland in South Yorkshire, with a walk around the boundary of about 3 miles. The woods still contain many monuments to the industrial past of Sheffield - Q pits, charcoal hearths, the remains of a lead smelting mill, and the grave of a charcoal maker, George Yardley, who was burned to death while asleep in his hut in 1786, and found by a group of locals including, according to his gravestone which is preserved within the woods, a salesman, a gamekeeper, a besom maker and an innkeeper. There is also, apparently, a cup and ring marked stone dating from the late Neolithic or Bronze Age period and only discovered in 1981 – still well-hidden and not publicised.

Also within the woods is a large bird sanctuary, protected only by a low wire and post fence. Despite the ease of access into this sanctuary, I have never seen anyone violating its boundaries.

I spend many hours in these woods strolling, sitting, and meditating both with and without notebook or camera. Despite their position and popularity with local dog-walkers, it is relatively easy to find a secluded spot where even the noise of surrounding traffic is not audible and I can cease to exist as far as the modern world is concerned. The dog-walkers mentioned above nearly always offer an example of the magic of the woods – everyone speaks to you, something rarely found on the average Sheffield street!

But what is the most important thing that Ecclesall Woods shares with me? – the most obvious thing of all – TREES. Where better to carry out my work with trees than when surrounded by them. The woods contain many species of native trees – some of which I can even recognise! I have my favourites which I feel have accepted me – a 200 year old oak is one which I feel a strong connection with, and I am also attracted to the many trees which have been severely cut back or cut to the ground – these always seem to be crying out for some attention as I pass. All of them present examples of the Ovate work linking trees to the Past, Present and Future.  While I can accept the Ovate view of the roots of the tree representing the Past, the trunk representing the Present and the leaves representing the Future, I personally feel there is a slightly different linkage.

To me, the entire living tree exists only in the Present – all that we see, or know to be there as in the case of the roots, began in the past, currently exist in the present, and may develop in the future.  My preferred correspondences are:-
Past – Fallen, decaying trees
Present – The living tree as it is now
Future – Seeds, acorns, new growth
Whilst all of these can be considered as living in the present, I feel that these various stages correspond more closely to the eras of time.

The Seasons 
Another magical aspect of the Woods is the way in which they change with the seasons, whilst still remaining basically the same.

In winter, they are in the middle of a dormant period; the trees have discarded all of their leaves and stand there with just their skeleton outlined against a backdrop of others. The ground underfoot shows the remains of their leaves, and other plants which have grown in the earlier part of the year. If it is possible to visit when there has been a heavy snowfall, then the entire wood takes on a completely different aspect. Familiar paths are hidden and it is possible to imagine that you are visiting an entirely new area. All sounds are muffled, and even the distant buzz of traffic is gone. It is now easy to become disoriented and consider yourself as lost in the woods with civilisation (!) an alien idea. At this time, it is easier to see the birds in their search for food, no longer hidden by the leaves and plant growth.

In spring the woods are becoming alive and green once more. The trees are budding and sending out their leaves to greet the sun. The birds are more active, searching for nesting material as well as food. This is one of the noisiest times to be in the woods. The near and not-so-near farm machinery is in action, and it is almost possible to hear the plants growing. This is probably the hardest time of all to sit and be still as everything around seems to be busy and rushing around doing things.
Summer is an altogether more restful period. The trees and plants have completed their external growth and are now busy internally sending down nourishment to their roots to sustain them for the remainder of the year. The birds continue their never-ending search for food, but with an apparently more relaxed air, preparing their young for their first flights and then encouraging them to leave the nest. This is an ideal time for meditation, sitting near one of the many streams with the background hum of insects driving you into a relaxed and meditative state.

Autumn is another busy period. The trees are discarding their leaves and the undergrowth dying off. Both of these actions are enriching the ground underfoot preparing for another growing season. The animals, squirrels being the most obvious ones, are scurrying around collecting the acorns and beech nuts and, hopefully, hiding them somewhere where they will remember.  This is another season for noise, swishing through piles of leaves – only with the aim of re-distributing them to empty patches of course!

...And once again we are back to winter, the woods continuing their measuring of time by the passing of seasons. I find it impossible to choose a favourite season to be in the woods – each has its myriad charms, all of them unique and important to me.

Weather effects
Strangely, perhaps, I find that the varied weather that we have does not seem to have that much of an effect on the woods and my appreciation of them. With the obvious exception of heavy snow, when the woods take on a totally different aspect, the other changes in weather seem to have little result. The leafy canopy in summer protects me at ground level from the heat of the sun and the sheer multitude of trees provides shelter from the wind. Heavy rain finds its way through, and adds an entirely new element to sharing space with the trees. The rain dripping from the higher branches adds new sights and sounds to the treescape, softening the more distant views, an effect also achieved by mists.

Whilst all of these different forms of the weather are vital to the continuing life cycle of the trees, the woods themselves seem to offer protection from the elements to all creatures who share the space with them.

I recently took my 18 month old granddaughter for her first visit to the woods, and introduced her to some of the many trees there. Perhaps, if I can initiate, develop and encourage an interest in the trees, she may be writing a companion piece to this in the years to come!