Chopwell Wood, or Irony is in the Axe of the (be)Holder

A book that changed how I perceive forests.

A couple of weeks ago I visited a nearby area of ancient woodland. Ancient woodland is a rare habitat in the UK, covering only about 2% of the land area (according to the Woodland Trust), so I considered myself lucky to have a decent-sized patch closeby. I must admit, however, that I was also drawn in by the name of the forest: Chopwell Wood. I mean, an ancient woodland called “Chopwell”? That sounds less like an idyllic home to thousand-year-old oaks, rare orchids and rarer bees and more like the name of a Charles Dickens forestry manual for Victorian industrialists. So, having starved myself of all rhetorical devices for a week in preparation for binging on the environmental equivalent of irony, I set off for Chopwell Wood.

Chopwell Wood–Oak leaves foreground, larch trunk middleground, beech canopy background.

Barely ten metres from the carpark, I stepped in under a mixed canopy of beech, larch and oak. The trees weren’t of specatular size but, still, they clearly had been around for a good few decades. A little further on, the neatly ordered rows of a plantation of scots pine, perhaps 30 years old, darkened the left side of the path, while off to my right, a small clearing amongst the beeches was dotted with recently-planted hornbeam (I think) saplings that still had plastic guard-tubes around them.

A not-so-ancient part of Chopwell Wood.

A few minutes later, after passing through a grove of properly impressive pines, I came across the ruins of settling ponds used to clarify water for the 19th-century paper mill that had worked in the valley below. While I admit there was a certain Romantic charm to the crumbling walls, finding a chunk of stone-and-mortar construction in the middle of “ancient forest” did strike me as a little incongruous. And as for that hoped-for sense of irony which had first set me on this path, well, it had long since evaporated in a puff of post-industrial pollution.

The remains of 19th-century settling tanks used to clarify water for paper mill in the valley below Chopwell Wood.

Okay, that’s a lie. I hadn’t really been anticipating any irony. Before I even set foot in Chopwell Wood, I knew it was not “untouched” or “virgin” forest. I knew that, in England, “ancient woodland” is defined as any area of woodland that has existed since 1600AD. There is no requirement for the forest to be “old growth” or wilderness, just that it has been around for a good while. In fact, ancient woodlands are distinguished as either “Ancient Semi-Natural Woods”–woods that have developed naturally but may have been managed for timber or other products–or “Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites”–ancient woods that were felled and replanted with non-native trees.

The idea that supposedly ancient forests might be nothing more than plantations may sound sad to many of you, particularly if you live in a region which is fortunate to have large regions of seemingly pristine wilderness. The butterflies, however, disagree with you.

Hundreds of peacock butterflies couldn’t have cared less about the crumbling ruins of the first Industrial Revolution. Red admirals, fritillaries, painted ladies, cabbage whites and speckled wood butterflies were all enjoying the sunshine and knapweed on the day I visited.

Let me be clear: I strongly support the idea that we need to set aside large tracts of land and sea to preserve as much wildlife as possible. But let’s be honest, there are no woodlands in England–nor anywhere else in the world–that haven’t been shaped by human activity. (Before you shout “Amazon Rain Forest!”, recent studies show that indigenous tribes long ago turned the Amazon into a vast orchard and nuttery, fundamentally altering the bio-geography of the entire Amazon basin. Charles Mann gives a good introduction to this in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. In Woodlands, Oliver Rackham makes a good, if somewhat cursory, argument that no woodland has escaped human management.)

But despite my love of truly wild places, during my walk through Chopwell Wood I took comfort from the fact that, on an island which has been sculpted by humans for a good 6-7,000 years, Chopwell Wood remains an ancient woodland. In this spot, humanity has learned how to work with the wood in a way that maintains a wide range of habitats and species.

At this point, I should say that, over the past year, I have been slowly working my way through Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands. In the simplest sense, this is a history of woodlands and forestry in Britain (mostly southern England). The book is an academic introduction to the subject, packed with massive amounts of information and full of insights into everything from the physiology of trees to the “green guilds” that make up an ancient forest ecosystem to the sometimes freakish relationship between humanity and woodlands.

It is this last aspect of the book that really changed how I view the landscape around me. As I wandered through Chopwell Well, I saw a history of human relationships with nature playing out in the trees. There were groves of truly ancient pine and oak which had been untouched for centuries, preserved from logging because the paper mill in the valley valued the clean water from the forest more than any timber. There were pine plantations that had once served as pulp for the same paper mill. There were overgrown coppices of beech, lime and sycamore which had likely last been harvested in the mid-20th century to provide staves and firewood for local farms. There were recent coppices of birch growing alongside the footpaths that had been carved through the wood so that people like me could get out and enjoy nature for a day.

Lime (I think) coppice created by clearing wood to make room for a footpath.

These traces of humanity are what Oliver Rackham brought to my attention. Every century or so, we find new uses for the forest and, in response, the forest finds new forms and structures to feed our wants. This sense of history, of archaeology, even anthropology was on full display in Chopwell Wood. As I walked, the shifting patterns of species, ages and growth in the trees told stories about the past, present and future (trees do sci-fi!). Around every bend, a new tale was being told.

It is a strange thing, to look at the forest and find something so human looking back. It is like meeting a stranger for the first time and, in one word, discovering that you have everything in common.

As a small reward for reading this post, here are a few more butterflies:

Speckled Brown
Small White
The most dangerous predator in the woods.

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