Thursday, December 28, 2006

"These are my woods. I love woods me..." (Vic Reeves)

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If you go down to the woods today...what d'you think you'll see? The Evil Dead? Bigfoot? Walruses feeding in a cloud of sediment (as in this photo by Goran Ehme, which won the 2006 Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year)?

Probably not.

Forget all the stuff in the song about being in for a Big Surprise, although perhaps if you came across teddy bears having a picnic, you'd have to revise that stance. You should never, under normal circumstances, be surprised by anything you see in the woods. Not here. Not in Yorkshire. Or at least, you'd think not. Wouldn't you?

Our house backs directly onto a strip of urban woodland called Carr Woods. The name Carr comes from the old Norse 'kjarr' (much Yorkshire dialect stems from Viking settlers) and means a low-lying, wet or marshy place. It formed part of the estate of the huge 15th Century Manor House, Lees Hall (demolished in 1956 whilst still habitable!), whose orchard I still plunder to make my cider. More in a future entry.

Carr Woods is the obvious woodland on this view (see note below), a long curving strip running North to South, just South of Sheffield city centre.
NOTE: follow link and click anywhere on the black box to see the pic; use the + or - symbols on the right of the screen to zoom in/out, and click 'back' to return here. OK?

Where I used to live, and lived for most of my 44 years, which was in the town of Pudsey, between Leeds and Bradford, there was an area of countryside and woods, just to the South, called the Tong-Cockersdale Country Park. It was also the remnant of the estate of a huge Manor House, Tong Hall, once the family seat of the Tempest family, landowners and members of the aristocracy. These were not the muddy, abused urban woods, like the ones we have here in Sheffield, but proper rural woodland, surrounded by working farms. The largest area of woods is called Black Carr Woods. Notice the similarity of the name to their Sheffield cousins, 40 miles to the South?

Black Carr Woods can be seen on the Google Earth satellite view here.

See how it's surrounded by fields still, even with the urban sprawls of Bradford and Pudsey encroaching to the South-West and North?

The two views look very much alike - very green, pleasant looking, rural. But they're very different, once you get down to ground level. Don't get me wrong, I love them both. They are both, to me, magical places, but their characters are very different.

It's hard to describe, unless you're a connoisseur of woods like me, but rural woods have a different feel to their urban counterparts, even though the plants and animals you may see are pretty much the same in both. In our local woods here in South Sheffield, there's a sense that almost every square foot is trodden daily; that the woods are tired and weary from the pressure of over-use. Every bush conceals windblown litter, and in winter, they look ugly and scarred.

The woods near Pudsey though, despite close proximity to two major cities and a large town, have a life to them that draws from the wellspring of their deeply rural past, just a few decades ago. They have none of the 'waste land' feel of these urban Sheffield woods, and instead have a timeless, ancient spirit, hanging like a miasma amongst the trees and seeping through the leafmould and the liverworts. If you can feel that, the spirit of ancient woods, if you're in tune with it, and not everyone is, then you'll know straight away what I mean. Incidentally, you'll probably also think, as I do, that 'The Blair Witch Project' was a fine film, as it uses the slightly eerie, silent, watchful spiritual life of the woods to generate a sense of terror, which isn't felt so keenly by anyone who has never stood or sat still, alone in the middle of a rural wood at night, or on a breathless day in the dead of winter, and listened to the things going on around them in the silence.

Not to say that these woods in Sheffield are ugly and useless. Far from it. They hold secrets. Their rural past is there too, only buried more deeply and largely hidden by an overlay of the region's industrial ravages, which affected every inch of the city, green or otherwise. But there are few hiding places. In Black Carr Woods, there are hiding places aplenty; there's a residual wildness about them that has been beaten into submission in Carr Woods.

It's like comparing one of those sad horses you see, tethered on roadside waste ground, grazing dispiritedly on weeds, with a tamed but lively and healthy mare, cantering about in a hillside field. The same thing but different.

Oaks mainly, with occasional silver birch, sycamores, beech, willow and ash, form the stalwart giants which populate Carr Woods. A supporting cast of smaller (though not lesser) trees and shrubs swarm around their bases and fill the spaces betwen them.

Up in Black Carr Woods, it's chiefly oaks and silver birch. Sycamores wander along the streams and settle in sheltered places, but you'll see few willows or ash, and no beech at all. The occasional conker tree crops up, but the 40 mile North-South divide seems to make a big difference to what can and can't live in these woods. In a neighbouring wood to Black Carr, Sykes' Wood, stand some majestic, pink-barked scots pine, a true Northern tree, and one you won't see round here in Sheffield.

The only wildlife I've seen in Carr Woods, other than foxes, which are everywhere these days, are birds. I guess they are the only animals which can escape the hordes of dogwalkers, roaring two-stroke motorbike engines and gangs of cider-drinking teenagers who throng through the woods. There'll be more things in there I think, but I'll need to be vigilant to see them. I'll keep you posted.

In Black Carr Woods, on the other hand, there is loads of ground-dwelling wildlife. I've seen rabbits, hares, weasels and stoats. Once, whilst taking a group of college students on a biology field trip in the woods, I'd just finished telling them that, if they were quiet (they weren't), they may be lucky and see a fox, when, with a crashing of undergrowth, a roe deer burst from a clump of scrub and brambles and vanished from sight with a couple of effortless bounds. The ensuing silence was broken by one of the lads, a cocky and likeable young Pakistani called Mumtaz (or 'Taz' to his mates, and whom is tragically now in prison for his part in an armed robbery), asking excitedly "Was that a fox?".

Once, with the same group of students, we found an octopus in a rock pool at Robin Hoods Bay, but that's another story.

The reason I'm telling you this, in my inaugual blog entry, is that these woods will be a backdrop and a linking thread through a lot of my subsequent entries. That, and the fact that my next entry will contain something that most of you don't know, and which might just be mind-blowing, depending on how easily your mind is to blow. Watch this space.

Coming soon to a blog near you:
The return of the native - what's in YOUR woods? More than you might think!
Nirvana at Leeds Polytechnic 1990
My Glastonbury
Cuddly Polar Bear vs The Wolf-Man
It came from Outer Space - The awe inspiring meteorite
Howard Phillips Lovecraft - Next up for the Lord of the Rings Hollywood makeover?
Home brewing - its importance in Western Civilization, and the hole at the centre of Islam
And lots more, soon as I think of them...